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What is Transcendentalism?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Transcendentalism is a literary, philosophical, and cultural movement that began in New England in the mid 19th century. Its theories were espoused and encouraged by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The ministers Frederick Henry Hedge and Theodore Parker were important transcendentalists, as was Sophia Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife.

The concept is based in theories preceding it. Most influential were the writings of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who theorized that the only true knowledge was that which could be known instinctively instead of proved empirically. A vastly important additional influence was the work of the Romantic poets, particularly William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Some people refer to transcendentalism as American Romanticism.

Instead of embracing traditional Christian theory, Wordsworth and Coleridge believed that people had an innate sense of the spiritual, a spiritual knowledge that transcended what could be known empirically, or what could be corrupted by the senses. Transcendentalists were also reacting against the spiritual tradition of the Unitarian church, a non-trinitarian form of Christianity. Sometimes, they were also specifically opposed to the theories espoused during the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

Unitarians at that time embraced the idea that reason, science, and philosophy helped people to discover the purpose of life and the spiritual world. Those who adopted transcendentalism felt that scholarship directly interfered with innate knowing, and clouded the senses rather than clearing them for personal perception of the divine. The divine was there to be felt rather than something one had to be convinced of. Some straddled the fence on this issue; Emerson was both naturalist and transcendentalist. Many Unitarian ministers became transcendentalists at this time.

The poets and writers associated with this movement especially expressed the sense of awareness that could be had from being “in nature.” This was certainly a direct reflection of the English Romantic movement in poetry. Wordsworth and others specifically celebrated nature as the source of the divine, not just the outdoors and the natural manifestations of earth, but also the essence or nature of the human.

From Emerson’s work Nature the concepts of transcendentalism are well expressed:

"Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

The sense in Emerson and writers like him is that the natural world allows people to shed the perceptual rational part of themselves, to instead engage actively with the divine.

Another extremely important work related to this movement is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The poetry of Walt Whitman, particularly Leaves of Grass, is a vital explanation of the movement. William Cullen Bryant and his master poem “Thanatopsis” are also important.

Another key feature of the movement was its growing respect and value for the position of women. It was out of transcendentalism that women in the United States would begin to campaign for the vote. This movement also embraced a transcendent love of all races, and took up the cause of unjust treatment of Native Americans and slaves. Not every transcendentalist was concerned about these reforms, but many of them used their instincts to listen to the human nature of essential equality, since humans are all, as Emerson said, “part or particle of God.”

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a CulturalWorld.org contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By WaterHopper — On Nov 11, 2010

@PurpleSpark: Brook Farm was a utopian experiment in communal living in the 1840’s. A Unitarian minister George Ripley and wife Sophia Ripley was inspired by the ideals of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism beliefs are an ideal spiritual state that transcends the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual’s intuition rather than through the doctrines of established religions.

People living at Brook Farm shared the workload, which left plenty of time for leisure activities and intellectual purists. You were allowed to choose your work and receive equal pay.

Transcendentalists have strong beliefs in the power of the individual and divine messages. Many of our famous writers believed strongly in this idea. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott were major figures in this movement.

By PurpleSpark — On Nov 11, 2010

What is Brook Farm?

By vogueknit17 — On Nov 06, 2010

@accordion, Emersonian transcendentalism certainly influenced independent thinking, as did Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Thoreau's Walden. In general, the transcendentalism literary movement changed the way many thought about self, even those who did not accept the movement's ideas.

By accordion — On Nov 06, 2010

The ideas of transcendentalism also relied on independence in general. Emerson in particular wrote about the need to be different from those around you, especially concerning finding that spiritual truth that could be found by spending time in nature.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a CulturalWorld.org contributor, Tricia...
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