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What is Transcendentalism? 
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Post What is Transcendentalism?
"Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society at the time, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendentalism

Not at all. Contrary to notions promulgated in numerous, authorative webpages, the Transcendentalism practiced by Thoreau had nothing to do with Kant, Unitarianism, or Harvard Divinity School.

Thoreau was part of the Romantic Movement -- the philosophy going back to Montaigne and Thomas Browne, both of whom he read, that focused on the uniqueness and importance of the individual. In the wilderness of mass man -- mass movements, mass culture, and political and economic collectivism -- how could an individual exist? How could individual genius find freedom in an unfree world? Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe reached the same conclusion at about the same time: The self could be both protected and affirmed by concealed disclosure. For the use of concealed disclosure in Hawthorne and Melville, see

http://www.geocities.com/seekingthephoenix/h/aeneid.htm
Hawthorne and Melville by Thomas St. John

Thoreau was the optimist in the lot, and for him I'll give three examples of concealed disclosure.

An individual is created, or at least modified, by life experiences which give an emotional charge to future experience. Subtle objective features of things that suggest the original charging experience evoke a subjective, charged emotional atmosphere and unite subjective and objective.

1.

Consider this sentence from the second paragraph of Walden: "Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students." Thoreau was a charity case at Harvard, an outsider and a loner. The Thoreaus were so poor that a women's charity offered to make shirts for him. Harvard's dress code required a black coat. Unlike every other student at Harvard (so far as I know) because of Thoreau's poverty -- the family could not afford to buy him a black coat -- Thoreau was given an exemption and wore a green coat.

2.

1.9 "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats."

1.89 "The muskrat will gnaw his third leg off to be free."

The muskrat was Thoreau's totem animal, the creature with whom he most closely identified. As the muskrat (Thoreau perferred the Indian name 'mushquash') built his house of sticks of his own gathering, so Thoreau built his house at Walden. In reading 1.89 the reader needs to know this bit of charging, biographical information: At the age of 4 Thoreau accidently chopped off his right big toe.

3.

1.33 ". . .often the richest freight will be discharged upon a Jersey shore. . . ."

The reader needs to know the charging event to which this apparently objective observation alludes: In July, 1850, Emerson sent Thoreau to Fire Island (parallels Long Island) to recover the remains (shark-bitten body parts, manuscripts, . . . ) of their friend Margaret Fuller.

Tom



Fri Jul 04, 2008 1:22 pm
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Post Reader's Digest Version
Tom makes some excellent points about the Transcendentalists. They can be seen as a complex force: not quite a religion, a philosophy, or a literary style, yet embodying aspects seen in all three. Falling under the umbrella of Romanticism, they have many tenants, but for those new to the Transcendentalists (who were also part of the Transcendental Club that met at Emerson's house) it might be nice to look at some of the big categories that their ideals fall under. As I said, the Transcendentalists are not as simplistic as I am making them, but this is a user-friendly starting point. When we teach the Transcendentalists, we have the students start with these four ideals:

* Intuition
* Individualism
* Nature
* The Over-Soul

Since there was a prevalent feeling in Transcendentalism that man was created good, it made sense that they would say that Intuition was key. You should follow they individual voice inside of you, that was put in you at creation to lead you down the path to be the perfect "you". This of course goes hand-in-hand with individuality, which is not just being different as some students think, but in essence being yourself, defined by your intuition instead of defined by conforming to or opposing some other standard. Through our reliance (...think Emerson's idea of Self-reliance) and belief in our intuition we can achieve our individual successes. As Thoreau tells us in his conclusion:

Quote:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.



Fri Jul 04, 2008 3:53 pm
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Post Re: Reader's Digest Version
BabyBlues wrote:
. . . the Transcendentalists (who were also part of the Transcendental Club that met at Emerson's house). . .


Tracey, thanks for an informed response.

The Hedge Club: Hedge, Ripley, Brownson, Very, Fuller, Peabody. Alcott, Parker, Cranch, Dwight, Thoreau, Emerson.

Quote:
When we teach the Transcendentalists, we have the students start with these four ideals:

* Intuition
* Individualism
* Nature
* The Over-Soul

Since there was a prevalent feeling in Transcendentalism that man was created good, it made sense that they would say that Intuition was key. You should follow they individual voice inside of you, that was put in you at creation to lead you down the path to be the perfect "you". This of course goes hand-in-hand with individuality, which is not just being different as some students think, but in essence being yourself, defined by your intuition instead of defined by conforming to or opposing some other standard. Through our reliance (...think Emerson's idea of Self-reliance) and belief in our intuition we can achieve our individual successes. As Thoreau tells us in his conclusion:


Yes, this is very good, but it doesn't indicate the special technique that Thoreau employed in Walden to resolve the enigma of inner and outer, how it is possible for the inner self to get out into the real world. My opinion is that none of them understood what Thoreau was doing, and failure to understand was the reason for the falling out between Emerson and Thoreau -- a friend is supposed to understand you, and Emerson didn't.

Thoreau was not trapped in mentalism, as the Transcendentalists generally were. His Transcendental features of experience were hard objective features that anyone could see if they paid attention in the right way -- the bloody leg of a muskrat, the waterlogged spoils of a shipwreck.

Also, I don't teach. If I did I'd be sure my students knew the conventional scholarly line.

Tom



Fri Jul 04, 2008 6:32 pm
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Post Walking the Walk
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Thoreau was not trapped in mentalism, as the Transcendentalists generally were. His Transcendental features of experience were hard objective features that anyone could see if they paid attention in the right way -- the bloody leg of a muskrat, the waterlogged spoils of a shipwreck.


Tom,
That is a great way to word it. I often express to high schoolers that Emerson, who most consider te Father of Transcendentalism, pioneered much of the thought while Thoreau tried to live the life. Very similar to your point...



Fri Jul 04, 2008 7:29 pm
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Tom, BB
You seem to imply that Thoreau presents an objective transcendentalism. And yet he is deeply subjective in his perspective. This objective-subjective tension comes through in his attitude to commerce, where he seems to argue commerce is objectively bad, even though for all to live as he does is simply not possible. Thoreau presents a romantic back to nature ideal that is highly alluring for the desperate sadness of industrial life.

To pun on the comment that T was not trapped in mentalism, we could ask if this ideal he presents is 'mental' or 'dental'? If he is indeed 'trapped in mentalism', this leaves open the problem of what a transcendental philosophy might be. In this regard it is not so simple to separate Thoreau from the philosophical context, eg Kant. It is magnificent that the wild frontier was close enough to permit Thoreau to give free rein to his transcendental imagination, but I still feel in reading him that he is capturing a vanishing possibility, the potential harmony of American civilisation with nature. This romantic poetic idea is something that I think has to reconcile with commerce, not just oppose it.

Robert

PS - From reading Your Inner Fish I can't help thinking of ostracoderms in the pun on transcendental - their toothy skulls from half a billion years ago are objectively transcendental.



Fri Jul 04, 2008 11:28 pm
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Post Re: What is Transcendentalism?
Thomas Hood wrote:
Not at all. Contrary to notions promulgated in numerous, authorative webpages, the Transcendentalism practiced by Thoreau had nothing to do with Kant, Unitarianism, or Harvard Divinity School.

Tom


Copied from the VCU site:

Quote:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, its leading exponent, described both this shift and the derivation of the movement's name thus: "It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant (my bold), of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms." [from "The Transcendentalist"] Transcendentalism, then, is not as much concerned with a metaphysics that transcends our daily lives but rather with a new view of the mind that replaces Locke's empiricist, materialistic, and passive model with one emphasizing the role of the mind itself in actively shaping experience.


It seems to me that Kant must have had something to do with Thoreau's Transcendentalism.


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Sat Jul 05, 2008 7:17 am
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Robert Tulip wrote:
. . . You seem to imply that Thoreau presents an objective transcendentalism.


Yes, Robert, as objective as Pavlov.

The young son of a psychologist dangerously insisted on playing with scissors. The psychologist connected the scissors to an electrical source. The child touched and was shocked (a charging event :) ). The child became scissor phobic. However, he also became phobic to everything bright and shiny, including silverware, which he refused to use. More work for papa. The silverware had acquired Transcendental features. That is, through stimulus generalization a slight resemblance united the subjective (phobic response) and the objective (bright, shiny).

An inattentive man steps into the street and is almost hit by a delivery truck. Later, he takes the subway to work and feels overwhelmed by fear. Next day when he approaches the subway the fear is overpowering and he is unable to go to work. The sound of the braking subway cars resembles the sound of the delivery truck slamming on brakes.

For baby and adult like us, such subtle Transcendental features of experience control how we evaluated the world. Kant didn't have a clue. Such interpretation is annoying to mentalists who insists that the subway is a sex symbol and that the man really wants to kill his father and have sex with his mother :)

Quote:
To pun on the comment that T was not trapped in mentalism, we could ask if this ideal he presents is 'mental' or 'dental'?


Robert, have you spent some time at Walden? Here it is: "What mean ye by saying that the poor ye have always with you, or that the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? [Ezekiel 18:2]" (1.46). Tran-sin-dentalism, moral evolution. Puns are important as an effort to return to original experience.


Quote:
It is magnificent that the wild frontier was close enough to permit Thoreau to give free rein to his transcendental imagination, . . . .


Please, Robert, Walden was no more wild frontier than the woods in back of my house. Free rein to his transcendental imagination my foot. Walden may be the most heavily and consciously edited book every written -- seven versions, I'm told. Give the guy some credit.

Tom



Sat Jul 05, 2008 10:16 am
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Post Re: What is Transcendentalism?
Saffron wrote:
It seems to me that Kant must have had something to do with Thoreau's Transcendentalism.


It seems so to many scholars. They wouldn't think so IMO if they stopped talking to each other and paid attention to Walden.

"If Thoreau is "the American heir to Kant's critical philosophy," as he has been called (Oelschlaeger 1991, 136), it is because his investigation of "the relation between the subject of knowledge and its object" builds upon a Kantian insight . . . ."
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thoreau/


I know of no evidence that either Emerson or Thoreau read German philosophy. Frederick Henry Hedge was the German philosophy expert in the group, and from the little I have read of him, he is neither inspiring nor clear.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Henry_Hedge

In my opinion the imaginary Kant connection is a red herring. My evidence is that Hawthorne and Melville had themes and techniques similar to Thoreau's, and nobody suggests that their achievements depended on Kant.

Tom



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:offtopic:
Why is Melville's name brought up so much? I really thought Moby Dick was torturous. Was he really a good author? It seems like many people think so.



Sat Jul 05, 2008 7:23 pm
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Thomas Hood wrote:
Quote:
I know of no evidence that either Emerson or Thoreau read German philosophy. Frederick Henry Hedge was the German philosophy expert in the group, and from the little I have read of him, he is neither inspiring nor clear.


Have a look at the following article. It includes the notes with sitations from Emerson's journals as to dates he read essays about Kant. You can find it at:

http://www.jstor.org/pss/361129



* Emerson and German Philosophy
* Rene Wellek
* The New England Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Mar., 1943), pp. 41-62 (article consists of 22 pages)
* Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc.


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President Camacho wrote:
Why is Melville's name brought up so much? I really thought Moby Dick was torturous. Was he really a good author? It seems like many people think so.


I imagine myself to be defending Walden against the academic myth that Thoreau was influenced by Kant.

Tom



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Saffron, reading essays about Kant isn't reading Kant. Using some of Kant's terminology isn't understanding Kant. To quote myself:

Quote:
I know of no evidence that either Emerson or Thoreau read German philosophy. Frederick Henry Hedge was the German philosophy expert in the group, and from the little I have read of him, he is neither inspiring nor clear.


I do not have access to jstor, but here are some publically accessible links:

Emerson and Immanuel Kant
http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendenta ... -kant.html

Quote:
"Though his knowledge of Kant, Fichte and Schelling was primarily second-hand, this does not minimize its importance. It was, true, translated through a medium, and thus diluted, and altered subtly from its original form. Emerson did, true, alter it somewhat to coincide with his own primal urges and native influences. Yet without the seed that traveled across the water from Germany, the germination of American Transcendentalism would not have been."


This is untrue as the work of Hawthorne and Melville shows. The Scarlet Letter deals extensively with the relation of subjective and objective without any debt to Kant. Kant IMO is a status symbol of no practical importance for the study of Walden. Maybe Robert has read the Critique of Pure Reason, but I doubt any Thoreau scholar has.

http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendenta ... ridge.html
"Coleridge"
Frederic Henry Hedge
The Christian Examiner, March 1833

Coleridge, according to Hedge, failed to explain German metaphysics. I found Hedge's description of the transcendental effect hilarious:

Quote:
"As in astronomy the motions of the heavenly bodies seem confused to the geocentric observer, and are intelligible only when referred to their heliocentric place, so there is only one point from which we can clearly understand and decide upon the speculations of Kant and his followers; that point is the interior consciousness, distinguished from the common consciousness, by its being an active and not a passive state. In the language of the school, it is a free intuition, and can only be attained by a vigorous effort of the will. It is from an ignorance of this primary condition, that the writings of these men have been denounced as vague and mystical. Viewing them from the distance [as] we do, their discussion seem to us like objects half enveloped in mist; the little we can distinguish seems most portentously magnified and distorted by the unnatural refraction through which we behold it, and the point where they touch the earth is altogether lost. The effect of such writing upon the uninitiated, is like being in the company of one who has inhaled an exhilarating [laughing] gas. We witness the inspiration, and are astounded at the effects, but we can form no conception of the feeling until we ourselves have experienced it. To those who are without the veil, then, any expose of transcendental views must needs be unsatisfactory."


Tom



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Thomas Hood wrote:
Saffron, reading essays about Kant isn't reading Kant. Using some of Kant's terminology isn't understanding Kant. ...Maybe Robert has read the Critique of Pure Reason, but I doubt any Thoreau scholar has.
Tom
Yes I have read the Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. In my Bachelor of Arts degree at Macquarie University I took a second year philosophy course in 1983 in which I wrote an essay on it. I have always found Kant hard to understand, and have found Heidegger's characterization of his main ideas in terms of the elan of transcendental imagination a useful interpretation. Kant distinguished between phenomena



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Robert and Tom,
I am not sure what evidence you each are going on in arguing that Transcendentalism was not influenced by Kant. Please enlighten me. Here is what I have found to support that Emerson at least had some understanding of and was influenced by Kant. I am not trying to say he read Kant directly. I am only saying appears to be obvious that to some degree, at least one of Kant's ideas shaped the formation of Transcendentalism. Emerson himself gives Kant credit.

The following is a direct quote from a lecture Emerson delivered in January 1842 at the Masonic Temple, Boston:

"It is well known to most of my audience, that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms."


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Saffron wrote:
. . .I am not sure what evidence you each are going on in arguing that Transcendentalism was not influenced by Kant. Please enlighten me.


Saffron, my understanding is that Kant had no influence on Thoreau, and, as Robert points out, their philosophies are antithetical:

Quote:
Kant's theory of knowledge gave priority to mathematical reason, and here I think is a point of difference with Thoreau. Kant assigned more reality to a triangle than to a tree, while Thoreau saw the living thing as more real than the shape.


Thoreau was responsible, accountable, and significant below the enigmatic surface. He should not be painted with the same Transcendental brush as Emerson, Alcott , or Very:

Quote:
"To the practical mind of that day the transcendentalists
seemed a set of visionaries, with their heads in the clouds and
their thoughts up among the moonbeams. Their talk was
more or less incomprehensible, their theories "transcendental
moonshine," and their radiant air-castles "pinnacled dim in the
intense inane." Of their ideal communities Lowell remarked
that "everything was to be common but common sense."
Dickens, on his first visit to America in 1842, was told when in
Boston that "whatever was unintelligible would certainly be
transcendental."' Among these New England idealists there
were, indeed, some apostles of the "new views" who made
themselves ridiculous by their eccentric dress and manners,
and by their "Orphic utterances," which even the initiated
could scarcely understand. Numerous "isms" sprang up,
special "revelations" were reported, fantastic schemes of social
reform were advocated, and the return to nature and the simple
life was enthusiastically urged upon the faithful"(p.151).
American Literature By John Calvin Metcalf
Google Book


Tom



Sun Jul 06, 2008 8:17 am
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King Henry IV, Part 1 - by William ShakespeareAtheist Mind, Humanist Heart - by Lex Bayer and John FigdorSense and Goodness Without God - by Richard CarrierFrankenstein - by Mary ShelleyThe Big Questions - by Simon BlackburnScience Was Born of Christianity - by Stacy TrasancosThe Happiness Hypothesis - by Jonathan HaidtA Game of Thrones - by George R. R. MartinTempesta's Dream - by Vincent LoCocoWhy Nations Fail - by Daron Acemoglu and James RobinsonThe Drowning Girl - Caitlin R. KiernanThe Consolations of the Forest - by Sylvain TessonThe Complete Heretic's Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons - by David FitzgeraldA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - by James JoyceThe Divine Comedy - by Dante AlighieriThe Magic of Reality - by Richard DawkinsDubliners - by James JoyceMy Name Is Red - by Orhan PamukThe World Until Yesterday - by Jared DiamondThe Man Who Was Thursday - by by G. K. ChestertonThe Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerLord Jim by Joseph ConradThe Hobbit by J. R. R. TolkienThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas AdamsAtlas Shrugged by Ayn RandThinking, Fast and Slow - by Daniel KahnemanThe Righteous Mind - by Jonathan HaidtWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max BrooksMoby Dick: or, the Whale by Herman MelvilleA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganLost Memory of Skin: A Novel by Russell BanksThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. KuhnHobbes: Leviathan by Thomas HobbesThe House of the Spirits - by Isabel AllendeArguably: Essays by Christopher HitchensThe Falls: A Novel (P.S.) by Joyce Carol OatesChrist in Egypt by D.M. MurdockThe Glass Bead Game: A Novel by Hermann HesseA Devil's Chaplain by Richard DawkinsThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph CampbellThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor DostoyevskyThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Moral Landscape by Sam HarrisThe Decameron by Giovanni BoccaccioThe Road by Cormac McCarthyThe Grand Design by Stephen HawkingThe Evolution of God by Robert WrightThe Tin Drum by Gunter GrassGood Omens by Neil GaimanPredictably Irrational by Dan ArielyThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki MurakamiALONE: Orphaned on the Ocean by Richard Logan & Tere Duperrault FassbenderDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesMusicophilia by Oliver SacksDiary of a Madman and Other Stories by Nikolai GogolThe Passion of the Western Mind by Richard TarnasThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinThe Genius of the Beast by Howard BloomAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Empire of Illusion by Chris HedgesThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner The Extended Phenotype by Richard DawkinsSmoke and Mirrors by Neil GaimanThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsWhen Good Thinking Goes Bad by Todd C. RinioloHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiAmerican Gods: A Novel by Neil GaimanPrimates and Philosophers by Frans de WaalThe Enormous Room by E.E. CummingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher HitchensThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama Paradise Lost by John Milton Bad Money by Kevin PhillipsThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan BarkerThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Limits of Power by Andrew BacevichLolita by Vladimir NabokovOrlando by Virginia Woolf On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. HarrisonWalden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David ThoreauExile and the Kingdom by Albert CamusOur Inner Ape by Frans de WaalYour Inner Fish by Neil ShubinNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThe Age of American Unreason by Susan JacobyTen Theories of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson & David HabermanHeart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe Stuff of Thought by Stephen PinkerA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoResponsibility and Judgment by Hannah ArendtInterventions by Noam ChomskyGodless in America by George A. RickerReligious Expression and the American Constitution by Franklyn S. HaimanDeep Economy by Phil McKibbenThe God Delusion by Richard DawkinsThe Third Chimpanzee by Jared DiamondThe Woman in the Dunes by Abe KoboEvolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie C. ScottThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanI, Claudius by Robert GravesBreaking The Spell by Daniel C. DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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