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In the 1830s, the philosophy of Transcendentalism arose in New England. Some of its most famous adherents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, are still regarded as leading American thinkers today. 


  • The philosophy of transcendentalism arose in the 1830s in the eastern United States as a reaction to intellectualism. Its adherents yearned for intense spiritual experiences and sought to transcend the purely material world of reason and rationality.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most famous and influential transcendentalists.
  • Some influential transcendentalists, such as Margaret Fuller, were early pioneers of feminism.

The philosophy of transcendentalism

The philosophy of transcendentalism originated in Unitarianism, the predominant religious movement in Boston in the early 19th century. Unitarianism was a liberal Christian sect that emphasized rationality, reason, and intellectualism; it was especially popular at Harvard.
The transcendentalists who established the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836—mostly Unitarian clergy and Boston-area intellectuals—did not reject Unitarianism but yearned for a more spiritual experience to balance out the emphasis on pure reason. The very word transcendentalism refers to a spirituality that transcends the realm of rationality and the material world. Transcendentalists believed that humans were fundamentally good but corrupted by society and that they should therefore strive for independence and self-reliance.1
Photos of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
Left, Henry David Thoreau; right, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Image credits: left, Wikimedia Commons; right, Wikimedia Commons
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most famous transcendentalists. In 1845, Thoreau moved to a cabin that he built on Walden Pond in Massachusetts and lived there for two years, two months, and two days. He chronicled the experience in his book Walden, published in 1854, which explored the themes of nature, spirituality, self-reliance, and the simple life. Thoreau acknowledged the debt transcendentalism owed to Indian religious beliefs by paying homage to the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit epic that is one of the foundational texts of Hinduism: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”2
Black and white photograph of Walden Pond
Thoreau's view of Walden Pond. Image credit: Library of Congress
Emerson gained fame as an essayist and public lecturer; his 1836 essay “Nature” laid out many of the tenets of the transcendentalist philosophy. He suggested that God could be found in nature and that spending time in nature was the closest man could come to the divine. Another of Emerson’s most famous works was the 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” a defense of individualism, which emphasized nonconformity and personal responsibility. One of Emerson’s most famous quotes, a denunciation of mindless conformity, comes from this essay: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."3

Women and transcendentalism

Other influential transcendentalists were feminist pioneers. Margaret Fuller, a journalist and women’s rights advocate, edited The Dial, which was first published in 1840 and served as the primary journal of the transcendentalists until 1844. She was a frequent contributor to the journal and in 1845 published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, an early feminist manifesto that may have inspired the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention—the first conference in America devoted to the issue of women’s rights.4
Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller
Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller, 1846. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Other prominent female transcendentalists include Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who served as the business manager of The Dial and in 1860 established the first English-language kindergarten in the United States, and Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic novel Little Women.5

Transcendentalism and reform

By the 1850s, many transcendentalists had become subsumed in the struggle to abolish slavery. As the incorporation of new territories into the Union exacerbated sectional tensions, the slavery issue dominated New England intellectual circles. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in keeping with his reverence for individual freedom, became a vocal abolitionist and spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law—which provided for the return of runaway slaves—and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—which held that settlers in Kansas and Nebraska would be the ones to decide whether those states would become slave states or free.6
Because the leading transcendentalists began to focus their efforts on eliminating chattel slavery, transcendentalism faded from the scene by the 1850s. The ideas and writings of the transcendentalists, however, continued to inspire later reform movements, including the movement for women's suffrage, and the labor movement.

What do you think?

In your opinion, what were the most important components of the transcendentalist philosophy and worldview?
Why was the philosophy of transcendentalism influential in later reform movements, particularly the movement to abolish slavery?
Why do you think transcendentalism and feminism were linked?

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky seedling style avatar for user cherireynolds.net
    It feels to me as though there is an eternal battle between those who would champion emanate philosophies and those who would champion strict rationalism, in the same way that there is a battle between the dreamer and the skeptic. What I love about transcendentalism, is it has place for both. There is room to accept what is not known or provable, or for divinity and inspiration, but there is also sensibility and rationality. It seems to follow the principle of Occam's razor, in that it encourages us return to the simplest and purest things and hold to them as foundation. And it recognizes the intangible beauties of hope, faith, beauty, art and love.

    So, what is the downside? The best I can figure, is it allows for too much individualism without accountability to the society (or anarchism). Is this the prime critique? Or are there more negatives I don't see?
    (14 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      I would say that the individualism of transcendentalism is its greatest downside. If there were people who weren't "naturally good", or people who believe in mistaken ideologies like racism, they would never be able to realize that they are indeed incorrect, instead only trusting themselves. The fact that people would become individuals would also likely lead to a breakdown of law and authority, which is necessary for progress.

      Another downside would be the lack of scientific empiricism. If everything was opinion-driven without careful analysis, the clash between people with different opinions and even the conflict between people with a certain opinion and the truths of nature could potentially halt scientific progress.

      Transcendentalism is pretty nice, but there should really be a common base of reason-based, logic-based standards or morals to which everyone agrees to as "right", upon which the creativity and progressivism can flourish.

      Again, this is all just opinion. Let me know if this helps.
      (20 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user iprema07
    When did Margaret Fuller die? Where was she from? When was she born?
    (11 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
    Because the leading transcendentalists began to focus their efforts on eliminating chattel slavery, transcendentalism faded from the scene by the 1850s.

    Can anyone elaborate regarding this line at the end of the article?
    (8 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      Perhaps because part of their beliefs focused on "independence from society," yet as they became active in societal issues (abolition), they were, as a group, absorbed into the wider faction of abolitionists?

      Other transcendentalists, as they said, later developed into women's suffrage and the labor movement (and therefore came to be defined by something other than their transcendentalism).
      (7 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Hey What's up?
    What is the difference between Transcendentalism and Rationalism? What exactly was it that the Transcendentalists were rejecting from mainstream society at the time?
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Great question! Rationalism was popular in the Enlightenment era in the eighteenth century (the time of the American Revolution!) and emphasized the scientific method - that a person should make decisions based on what they can observe around them. Logic and reason were key tenets of rationalism.

      Transcendentalism was part of the "romantic" reaction against rationalism. The Romantics rejected the idea that logic and reason were better than emotion and imagination. Instead of believing that everything in the world could be observed through the scientific method, the Transcendentalists said that the human soul and spirit "transcended" physical reality.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 21207
    how old is margarat fuller
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user OllieJN
    In the sixth paragraph, it mentions the "first English-language kindergarten in the United States". So does that mean there were other kindergartens not taught in English before then? What languages were they taught in?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      Kindergarten is a preschool educational approach based on playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition from home to school. Such institutions were originally made in the late 18th century in Germany, Bavaria and Alsace to serve children whose parents both worked outside home. The term was coined by German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel, whose approach globally influenced early-years education. Today, the term is used in many countries to describe a variety of educational institutions and learning spaces for children ranging from 2 to 6 years of age, based on a variety of teaching methods.

      (2 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user EllaAndAustin
    Did Where's Waldo originate from Ralph Waldo Emerson? I just recognized the name and I am curious.
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Waldo is a name with a noble history. Ralph Waldo Emerson received that name from his parents. The "Where's Waldo" books, an invention of the 1990s, chose to use that name for it's alliterative quality when paired with "Where". If the books exist in Spanish, (and I don't know that they do), the name chosen might likely be "Dondi" as in "Donde esta Dondi?"
      (7 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Ilura McVey
    What were some things that Transcendalists hated?
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Leah R.
      As a group, the transcendentalists led the celebration of the American experiment as one of individualism and self-reliance. They took progressive stands on women's rights, abolition, reform, and education. They criticized government, organized religion, laws, social institutions, and creeping industrialization
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user derick-benitez
    When did Margaret Fuller die? Where was she born?
    (2 votes)
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  • boggle blue style avatar for user x.asper
    What were the religious movements in the Middle East at the time? This area seems to have been dominated by Islam, Muslim, and Jewish faiths (Please let me know if I missed any).
    (2 votes)
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