Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy

Transcendentalism describes a very simple idea—all people have knowledge about themselves and the world around that goes beyond what they can see, hear, feel, touch and taste. This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination and not through the senses. A transcendentalist is a person that accepts these ideas not as religion but as a way of understanding life relationships.

Individuals with this kind of thinking were connected through a group known as The Transcendental Club which met in the Boston home of George Ripley. The club had many extraordinary thinkers, but the leader was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson urged Americans to stop looking to Europe for inspiration and imitation and be themselves, in his famous essay, “The American Scholar.” He believed everyone was good and with limitless potential. Through his contributions to the philosophy of transcendentalism, he inspired a uniquely American idealism and spirit of reform.

Henry David Thoreau put transcendentalism into practice. He moved to Walden Pond, built a hut to live on his own. He wrote about the simplicity and unity of all things in nature, his faith in humanity, and his sturdy individualism. He reminded everyone that life is wasted pursuing wealth and following social customs. Nature can show that “all good things are wild and free.”

The transcendentalists led the celebration of the American experiment as one of individualism and self-reliance. They stood for women’s rights, abolition, reform and education. They criticized government, organized religion, laws, social institutions, and creeping industrialization. They created an American “state of mind” where imagination was better than reason, creativity was better than theory, and action was better than contemplation. And they had faith that all would be well because humans could transcend limits and reach great heights.

Source: Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy
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