Dictionary Definition

transcendentalist n : advocate of Transcendentalism

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transcendentalist (singular); plural transcendentalists
  1. One who believes in transcendentalism.
  2. A group of philosophers who assert that true knowledge is obtained by faculties of the mind that transcend sensory experience; those who exalt intuition above empirical knowledge and ordinary mentation. Used in modern times of some post-Kantian German philosophers, and of the school of Emerson.

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Extensive Definition

Transcendentalism was a group of new ideas in literature, religion, culture, and philosophy that emerged in New England in the early to middle 19th century. It is sometimes called American Transcendentalism to distinguish it from other uses of the word transcendental.
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. Among Transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.
Prominent Transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, as well as Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson,William Ellery Channing, Frederick Henry Hedge, Theodore Parker, George Putnam, Elizabeth Peabody, and Sophia Peabody, the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For a time, Peabody and Hawthorne lived at the Brook Farm Transcendentalist utopian commune.


The publication of Emerson's 1836 essay Nature is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote in his essay "The American Scholar": "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds ... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men." Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from the new idealist philosophy:
In the same year, Transcendentalism became a coherent movement with the founding of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836, by prominent New England intellectuals including George Putnam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Henry Hedge. From 1840, the group published frequently in their journal The Dial, along with other venues. The movement was originally termed "Transcendentalists" as a pejorative term, suggesting their position was beyond sanity and reason.
The practical aims of the Transcendentalists were varied; some among the group linked it with utopian social change (and, in the case of Brownson, it joined explicitly with early socialism), while others found it an exclusively individual and idealist project. Emerson believed the latter. In his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist", Emerson suggested that the goal of a purely Transcendental outlook on life was impossible to attain in practice:
Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual and divine messages. Their beliefs are closely linked with those of the Romantics. The movement directly influenced the growing movement of Mental Sciences of the mid 1800s which would later become known as the New Thought movement. New Thought draws directly from the Transcendentalist particularly Emerson. New Thought considers Emerson its intellectual father. Ernest Holmes founder of Religious Science church was greatly influenced by Transcendentalism.


Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally), which the New England intellectuals of the early 19th century embraced as an alternative to the Lockean "sensualism" of their fathers and of the Unitarian church, finding this alternative in Vedic thought, German idealism, and English Romanticism.
The Transcendentalists desired to ground their religion and philosophy in transcendental principles: principles not based on, or falsifiable by, sensuous experience, but deriving from the inner, spiritual or mental essence of the human. Immanuel Kant had called "all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects." The Transcendentalists were largely unacquainted with German philosophy in the original, and relied primarily on the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Victor Cousin, Germaine de Staël, and other English and French commentators for their knowledge of it. In contrast, they were intimately familiar with the English Romantics, and the Transcendental movement may be partially described as a slightly later, American outgrowth of Romanticism. Another major influence was the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg.
Thoreau in Walden spoke of the debt to the Vedic thought directly, as did other members of the movement:


Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), satirizing the movement, and based it on his experiences at Brook Farm, a short-lived utopian community founded on Transcendental principles. Edgar Allan Poe had a deep dislike for Transcendentalism, calling its followers "Frogpondians" after the pond on Boston Common. He ridiculed their writings in particular by calling them "metaphor-run," lapsing into "obscurity for obscurity's sake" or "mysticism for mysticism's sake." One of his short stories, "Never Bet the Devil Your Head", is a clear attack on Transcendentalism, which the narrator calls a "disease". The story specifically mentions the movement and its flagship journal The Dial, though Poe denied that he had any specific targets.

Other meanings of transcendentalism

Transcendental idealism

The term transcendentalism sometimes serves as shorthand for "transcendental idealism," which is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and later Kantian and German Idealist philosophers.

Transcendental theology

Another alternative meaning for transcendentalism is the classical philosophy that God transcends the manifest world. As John Scotus Erigena put it to Frankish king Charles the Bald in the year 840 A.D., "We do not know what God is. God himself doesn't know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being."
transcendentalist in Azerbaijani: Transsendentalizm
transcendentalist in Min Nan: Chhiau-oa̍t-chú-gī
transcendentalist in Bulgarian: Трансцендентализъм
transcendentalist in German: Transzendentalismus
transcendentalist in Spanish: Trascendentalismo
transcendentalist in French: Transcendantalisme (États-Unis)
transcendentalist in Italian: Trascendentalismo
transcendentalist in Hebrew: טרנסצנדנטיות
transcendentalist in Polish: Transcendentalizm
transcendentalist in Portuguese: Transcendentalismo
transcendentalist in Romanian: Transcendentalism american
transcendentalist in Russian: Трансцендентализм
transcendentalist in Slovak: Transcendentalizmus
transcendentalist in Swedish: Transcendentalism
transcendentalist in Turkish: Transandantalizm
transcendentalist in Chinese: 超验主义

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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