American Transcendentalism

Amos Bronson Alcott's actions, beliefs, and life were tightly aligned with American Transcendentalism.  "Transcendentalism" is a much misunderstood term.  It is not connected with any form of meditation.  Simply defined, it is a form of idealism.  Among other things, it is a belief that the world and everything in it has a spiritual basis, and that God speaks directly to human beings through intuition as well as through nature.
As a philosophical term, transcendentalism is highly difficult to define, as this word has been used in many different contexts and applied in all sorts of ways from very general to very strict.  When the word is used in a very general sense, transcendentalism can well be seen to include all philosophers from Plato to Bradley.  On the other hand, when the word is used in a very strict sense, it is possible to exclude from the transcendental movement many of the avowed Transcendentalists themselves.
The New England Transcendentalists derived their initial vision largely under the influence of Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (1780 - 1842).  Although no satisfactory complete list can be given, the principal representatives of these Transcendentalists are Amos Bronson Alcott (1799 - 1888), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882), Margaret Fuller (1810 - 1850), Frederic Henry Hedge (1805 - 1890), Sylvester Judd (1813 - 1853), W. Ellery Channing (1817 - 1901), W. Henry Channing (1810 - 1884), Cyrus A. Bartol (1813 - 1900), Samuel Osgood (1812 - 1880), Theodore Parker (1810 - 1860), George Ripley (1802 - 1880), Caleb Stetson (1793 - 1870), Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), Jones Very (1813 - 1880), and Charles Stearns Wheeler (1816 - 1843).  American Transcendentalism had its beginnings in the circumstances leading up to the establishment of the "Transcendental Club" in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1836, by Hedge, Emerson, Ripley, and George Putnam.  The chief influences discernible in its literary output are German philosophy and theology, French sociology as exemplified by Victor Cousin, Idealism as exemplified by George Berkeley, and a reaction against the formalism of the nineteenth-century Unitarian church.  Some of its socio-economic theories were tested in the famous Brook Farm experiment in 1841.
It should be noted that Brook Farm found its greatest success as an educational enterprise.  It could be argued, in fact, that ideas about learning and growing intellectually and spiritually--education, in a word--are the heart of American Transcendentalism.  Even the Transcendentalists' most literary works are explorations, open-ended and suggestive, both conducted by the author and, as they always hoped, by the reader.  All the major Transcendentalists--Alcott, Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau, Very, Brownson, and others--spent years in the classroom as teachers, and all had found traditional education to be inadequate and stultifying.  As students, even, they had been rebels, as they eschewed the official channels of learning for their own--learning philosophy not from Dugald Stewart but from Immanuel Kant, theology not from William Paley but from Benedict de Spinoza, poetry not from Alexander Pope but from George Herbert, and rhetoric not from Hugh Blair but from Sir Walter Scott--and this ceaseless exploration led to their innovations as teachers.  Though their ideas were often too idealistic and revolutionary to be activated in the classrooms of their time, and though their methods were often more related to self-education than to the education of a group, the New England Transcendentalists set directions for creative thinking, theorizing, and reform in education for all ages and levels which are still invigorating and influencing us today.
The Transcendentalists expressed themselves very well in their own words.  For critical estimates of the movement from the Transcendentalists themselves, see "Transcendentalism," by Theodore Parker, and Transcendentalism in New England, by Caroline H. Dall.