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Definition: transcendentalism from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Philosophy inaugurated in the 18th century by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. As opposed to metaphysics in the traditional sense, transcendental philosophy is concerned with the conditions of possibility of experience, rather than the nature of being. It seeks to show the necessary structure of our ‘point of view’ on the world.

Introduced to Britain, transcendentalism influenced the writers Samuel Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo: From Nature

Summary Article: Transcendentalism
From Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

TRANSCENDENTALISM WAS A series of new ideas that flourished among writers and philosophers in New England during the 19th century. The concept of transcendentalism was a state of being that was beyond the reach or comprehension of experience. These ideas centered on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, an innate goodness of man, and the supremacy of insight over logic.

The original concepts of transcendentalism came from Europe, but were also influenced by old Indian texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, Chinese ideas of Confucius, the teachings of Buddha, and work by the Muslim Sufis. Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) paid much tribute to the ideas that came from Vedic thought.

These traditions were merged with Platonism and Neoplatonism by British writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), as well as the Swedish thinker and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) and the German philosophical mystic Jakob Böhme (1575–1624). Some of the ideas came from Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) who coined the phrase in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) when he wrote, “I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori.” Other ideas were synthesized from a number of German philosophers.

Although transcendentalism in Europe had been an abstract philosophical concept, in New England, especially in Concord, Massachusetts, it was a liberating philosophy which drew from the Romantic movement. It encouraged the adaptation of ideas from Europe and elsewhere to form what became from about 1830 until 1855 as a battle between the younger and older generations in the United States over the emergence of a national cultural identity based around intrinsic American concepts.

The main people represented in the idea of transcendentalism were Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–76), James Freeman Clarke (1810–88), Margaret Fuller (1810–50), Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–94) and Henry David Thoreau. Others connected with the movement included Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), the younger W. E. Channing (1780–1842), W. H. Channing (1810–84), Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813–92), Theodore Parker (1810–60) and George Ripley (1802–80). Julia Ward was on the fringes of the group as were others like Jones Very (1813–80).

Although the ideas of the transcendentalists were being formed in the early 1830s, it was the publication of the essay “Nature,” by Emerson that proved to be the catalyst for the movement. The Transcendentalist Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, opened on September 8, 1836, with Emerson, George Putnam, and Frederick Henry Hedge as members. The height of transcendentalism saw Emerson and Fuller establish The Dial in 1840. It was a “little magazine” that was published until 1844 and contained many of the best writings by minor transcendentalists.

In 1841, Brook Farm was established as a cooperative community near West Roxbury, Massachusetts, nine miles from Boston. There George Ripley and others from the Transcendentalist Club tried to apply their social, religious, and political theories to a farm of 200 acres called the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture. It came under the influence of Albert Brisbane, a prominent Fourierist, and was renamed the Brook Farm Phalanx. However, the idea finally collapsed in October 1847, and the group was dissolved.

Another cooperative experiment of the transcendentalists was Fruitlands, which was established by Alcott from 1842 until 1843 at Harvard, Massachusetts. It was planned as a place where members would labor on the land and conduct themselves in a simple manner, eating vegetarian meals and living in harmony with nature. It was even less successful than Brook Farm. It is best remembered through Louisa May Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats, a fictional account of Fruitlands.

On the religious front, members of the transcendentalist movement were reacting against the 18th-century thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. They were also reacting against New England Calvinism and the rationalist views of John Locke (1632–1704). They repudiated Unitarianism and the idea of an established order and argued in favor of major changes in school curriculum and teaching methods, the right for women to vote, better conditions for the working man, universal temperance, freedom of religious thought, and a change in fashion. These views, at their most extreme, drew many critics who saw the transcendentalists as supporters of anarchy, socialism, and even communism. Although they were certainly against slavery, their focus on New England meant that abolitionism, one of the major religious and social causes of the time, was not a central focus of the transcendentalist movement.

The transcendentalists were also the inspiration for many other writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, leading to the flowering of the American literary scene that critics believe to be the American Renaissance in literature. It has to be said, however, that Nathaniel Hawthorne did later parody the movement in his novel The Blithedale Romance, which was based on his time at Brook Farm. Still, it was also from the transcendentalists that ideas about environmental planning and architecture emerged. The environmental designs of Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford owe a huge debt to the transcendentalists, as do the architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. Others transcendentalist ideas can be seen in the works and thought of William James, John Dewey, and Alfred Stieglitz.

  • Communism; Locke, John; Religion; Socialism; Thoreau, Henry David; Vegetarianism; Wright, Frank Lloyd.

  • Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Cornell University Press, 1973).
  • Rosalie Sandra Perry, Charles Ives and the American Mind (Kent State University Press, 1974).
  • Joel Porte, Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalists in Conflict (Wesleyan University Press, 1966).
  • Arthur Versluis, The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • Justin Corfield
    Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, inc.

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