What are the Transcendentals? If you recognize the word “transcendental” at all, you probably link it to  Romantic Era authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t incorrect as these authors were connected to a movement called transcendentalism. “The Transcendentals,” however, were being discussed far before the Romantic Era.


The word transcendental means “to be above” or “to exceed.” Going back to Plato and Aristotle, the transcendentals were often taken to be substances that ultimately gave value to everything else. These “ultimate values” were identified as “truth,” “goodness,” and “beauty.” Thus, in other words, the early philosophers suggested that these three (truth, goodness, beauty) were really the things humans care about in the world. Anything else of value could be traced back to these three transcendentals.

Another important aspect of the transcendentals is that they were not viewed as being purely individual things.  If something had one transcendental, it had, in some measure, all three. Anything that was good was, necessarily, also true. Anything that was beautiful was also good, etc. The Transcendental values are all linked.

In other words, when we talk about the Transcendentals, we are talking about what we all most deeply long for in the world. If we take the view of the earliest thinkers on this subject, (which we should) then the things we most long for are Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The hard part, then, is figuring out how to understand where these values are located.


The Grounding Problem


Now, it should be fairly evident that these three values really are the things everyone wants. We’d all rather be told truth than told abject lies. We’d all rather experience that which we think is good instead of that which we think is evil.  Beautiful things are preferred to those things which are ugly. Taken like this, anything you could think of wanting in your life could trace back to these values in some way.


As I mentioned above, the problem is where to “locate” and how to “define” those values. What are truth, goodness, and beauty? Where do we find them?


The early philosophers often posited them as sorts of brute facts. These values simply were. They existed objectively…somewhere. While this is at least logically possible, this explanation is not all that strong. The argument simply assumes what it is wanting to prove.


Another option is to ground them in personal experience. Whatever I think is true is true, etc. This also faces a problem: How is it that you know something is actually true? If each individual decides what the transcendental values are for them how are they able to define these values at all? If these values are all strictly personal, there’s no way to define them in a meaningful sense. This renders the values meaningless.


If you think what I’m saying sounds silly, consider this: Let’s say we both agree that we define our own truth. Now…how do I know what you mean by the word “truth?” How could I? And how could you know what I mean? In the Personal Experience view, the entire framework for truth is personal to us. While we might share the word “truth” neither of us knows how the other defines the word. Thus, the word has no meaning between us.


A Solution


Medieval Christian philosophy gave a solution to these two problems: What the transcendentals were rooted in was not “out there…somewhere” like brute facts nor were they in “personal experience.” Instead, the Medieval Thinkers placed these values in an objective, unchanging source: the character and mind of the Christian God.


The Medieval Thinkers defined the Christian God to be the greatest possible being. As such, this definitionally meant that God was truth, that God was goodness, and that God was the most beautiful possible thing. The Transcendentals, then, were not merely things on their own; they were really different reflections of the One God.


This Medieval solution gave the transcendentals their “target.” If you wanted truth, goodness, and beauty, (which we all do!) that meant that what you really wanted was God.

Additional Material

The True, Good and Beuatiful- Roger Scruton

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder