[ tran-sen-den-tl-iz-uhm, -suhn- ]
/ ˌtræn sɛnˈdɛn tlˌɪz əm, -sən- /
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transcendental character, thought, or language.
Also called transcendental philosophy. any philosophy based upon the doctrine that the principles of reality are to be discovered by the study of the processes of thought, or a philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical: in the U.S., associated with Emerson.
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Origin of transcendentalism

From the German word Transcendentalismus, dating back to 1795–1805. See transcendental, -ism

OTHER WORDS FROM transcendentalism

tran·scen·den·tal·ist, noun, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is transcendentalism?

Transcendentalism was a philosophical and literary movement that arose in the United States in the 1800s. Transcendentalism emphasizes a person’s individual spirituality and the importance of nature and encourages a frugal lifestyle.

Some of the major authors that were part of the transcendentalist movement include Ralph Walo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. The movement began in Concord, Massachusetts, during the 1830s. It became an official group after Emerson and three other Harvard University graduates formed the Transcendental Club in September 1836.

The importance of individuality is a major belief of transcendentalism. The transcendentalists believed that human beings were born good, but society and institutions corrupted their souls. They argued that humans needed to return to nature and would become spiritually enlightened through an independent, frugal life lived in nature. This is argued in both Emerson’s Nature (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854).

The transcendentalists also held strong beliefs about many social causes. Emerson was unhappy with the treatment of Native Americans, Fuller was an outspoken feminist who anlayzed women’s role in society her 1845 book Woman in the Ninteenth Century, and Thoreau was vehemently opposed to slavery and strongly argued for peacefully protesting the government.

Transcendentalism would slowly begin to fade in the 1850s after Fuller’s death in a shipwreck.

Why is transcendentalism important?

The first records of the term transcendentalism come from around 1795. It ultimately comes from the Latin verb trānscendere, meaning “to surmount.” The English verb transcend also comes from this word, and the transcendentalists believed in a divine insight that “transcended” the five human senses.

Many of the works of transcendentalism are critical essays and spiritual poetry rather than narrative stories. The transcendentalists often tried to organize communities in nature to practice transcendentalism but were ultimately unsuccessful.

The most famous of these attempts was Henry David Thoreau’s living in a log cabin for over two years at Walden Pond. Thoreau lived off the land and spent most of his time writing, observing nature, and meditating. The journal that Thoreau kept during his time in the cabin became Walden, a collection of essays detailing Thoreau’s experiences.

Did you know … ?

One of the more well-known critics of transcendentalism was author Edgar Allen Poe. He mockingly referred to them as “Frogpondians” (a term he also used to mock the people of Boston) in his 1841 short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.”

What are real-life examples of transcendentalism?

Today, transcendentalism is most remembered for the literature written by its believers.


Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Transcendentalism places a high importance on nature and your own self-reflection.

How to use transcendentalism in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for transcendentalism

/ (ˌtrænsɛnˈdɛntəˌlɪzəm) /

  1. any system of philosophy, esp that of Kant, holding that the key to knowledge of the nature of reality lies in the critical examination of the processes of reason on which depends the nature of experience
  2. any system of philosophy, esp that of Emerson, that emphasizes intuition as a means to knowledge or the importance of the search for the divine
vague philosophical speculation
the state of being transcendental
something, such as thought or language, that is transcendental

Derived forms of transcendentalism

transcendentalist, noun, adjective
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for transcendentalism


A movement in nineteenth-century American literature and thought. It called on people to view the objects in the world as small versions of the whole universe and to trust their individual intuitions. The two most noted American transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.