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Transcendentalism, an elevated form of American Romanticism, is a philosophy, which gained a large following in New England during the 1830s and 1840s. It was the combining of Romantic ideas with existing elements of American beliefs. Taken apart, the word “transcendentalism” is not too difficult, the verb “to transcend” means “to go beyond” something. For the Transcendentalists, the term meant simply that there are truths that go beyond, or transcend, proof. These are the truths known to the heart rather than to the mind, the truths that are felt emotionally even though they cannot be proven logically. For example, a doctor can tell scientifically whether a man is alive or not, but he cannot tell scientifically whether it is good to be alive or not. The Transcendentalists held that most of what we call “values” lie outside the limits of reason and belong rather to the realm of instinct or intuition. They are matters of private experience, faith, and conviction.

The term “transcendentalism” is not itself an invention of the New England Transcendentalists; the German philosopher Immanuel Kant used it in his writing. To its New England advocates, the term came to embody the central idea of their philosophy: that there is some knowledge of reality or truth, that man grasps not through logic or the laws of science but through the intuition of his divine intellect. Because of this inherent, extra-intellectual ability, the Transcendentalist believes that each person should follow the sway of his own beliefs and ideas, however divergent from the social norm they might be. They believed that the individual’s intuitive response to any given situation would be the right thing for him to do. Closely related to this idea is that of the integrity of the individual, the belief that each person is inherently good, capable of making his own decisions, and worthy of the respect of every other human being.

Mixed in with the elements of Transcendentalism was a revived interest in the Greek philosopher Plato, and in Asian philosophies, especially as found in Confucius and Buddha. All this was rich and strange to conservative, one-time Puritan Boston.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who was responsible for bringing the movement to New England and nurturing its growth in this country. Even though he was responsible for bringing Transcendentalism to New England and was recognized throughout his life as the leader of the movement, he never applied the term “Transcendentalist” to himself or to his beliefs and ideas. He never had an elaborate, formal system of thought, and he never attempted to create one.

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Among the interesting by-products of the transcendental movement were two cooperative farm colonies devoted to an ideal of communal living. All work, privileges, and pay were to be shared alike, with leisure time spent on educational and cultural activities. The first of these communities was Brook Farm, which lasted for six years. Later Bronson Alcott founded a similar venture called Fruitlands, which survived for less than a year. (The Alcott name is perhaps best known through Bronson’s daughter Louisa whose novel Little Women is beloved by generations of readers.)

A philosophy, which holds that basic truths can be reached through intuition rather than through reason. To arrive at such truths, according to transcendentalist philosophy, people must go beyond what their reason and their senses tell them.

An intellectual movement that directly or indirectly affected most of the writers of the New England Renaissance, with the basic assumption that the intuitive faculty, instead of the rational or sensory, was the means for a conscious union of the individual with the universe.

Oversoul: a transcendentalist concept of a universal soul. All life is part of one universal soul (trees and animals and humans and God); humans, therefore, have a divine nature

Many transcendentalists were early abolitionists and feminists.

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