Parini: James Marsh

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The arrival of a new president at UVM has educator, writer and
commentator Jay Parini thinking back to one of its greatest presidents,
James Marsh, an important philosopher in his time and a Founding Father
of American Transcendentalism.
(Parini) With the installation of
a new president at the University of Vermont this year, I began
thinking about the illustrious history of that position – and one of my
favorite figures in Vermont intellectual life. James Marsh was president
of UVM from 1826 until 1833. After resigning from the presidency, he
taught philosophy there until he retired in 1842. It was during these
years that he pioneered a school of philosophy known as the Burlington
Philosophy ­ a fairly little-known school nowadays, but an influential
one. In fact, Marsh was a founder of Transcendalism, which is probably
the most important school of American thought in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the finest moment for Marsh was in 1829, when he
published an edition of Aids to Reflection , a book by Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, the English poet. Marsh wrote an introduction to this book
that defined the Transcendentalist impulse, seeing quite rightly that
Coleridge had taken his main ideas about the relationship between spirit
and nature from a number of recent German philosophers, including Kant
and Schelling. It’s a complicated argument, but in a nutshell Marsh was
introducing the concept of individual participation in spiritual

What one "transcends" in the philosophy of
Transcendentalism is the objective world, the world of hard realities
such as stones and trees, fences and tabletops. In the epistemological
thinking of the time ,in other words, how we know and what we know ­ the
most important figure of the day was John Locke, who argued for
acquiring knowledge through the senses. But Marsh, following Coleridge
and Kant, looked beyond the physical world, trying to get a handle on
subjective knowledge. Each Transcendentalist, in fact ­

or Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, or Frederic Henry Hedge, to name a few
obvious ones ­ each had a different take on what it meant to "transcend
objective reality, and to discover a world beyond, or perhaps within,
the physical world: the realm of the spirit.

But each of these
major thinkers depended heavily on James Marsh.  Marsh almost
single-handedly transformed the University of Vermont into a major site
for philosophical thinking that drew on the vast resources of German
philosophy and English Romanticism. In particular, he emphasized poetry
as a way to inform ­ if not shape ­ the individual spirit, and he
created a university that would become a model of its kind, an
institution with an interdisciplinary focus. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson,
who followed his lead, Marsh believed that religion itself had become
divorced from the impulse toward divinity that is, in his view, the true
measure of a human being. He created a curriculum at UVM that stressed
the union of reason and understanding, ­ ideas formulated by Coleridge
himself. His emphasis on a unified education, one that addressed the
whole intellect, bringing together mind and spirit in a complex whole,
had a profound effect on American education generally. It’s worth
remembering James Marsh ­ and the way his ideas continue to ripple
through the American intellectual landscape.

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