Emerson's fundamental thesis in his speech is the need for the American academic institutions to have enough gumption and internal strength to "discover" a new intellectual path. Emerson seeks to develop the path in the academy to embrace a new, "American" voice to scholarship. For so long, Emerson had seen the academy pattern itself solely after the European intellectual theatre. In his speech, Emerson makes clear the basic idea that American intellectualism does exist. Emerson identifies the development of Transcendentalist philosophy as a part of this process. In embracing this set of ideas, Emerson believes that American intellectualism can take root apart from Europe, embracing the passion and uniqueness that is located in American. For Emerson, this becomes one of the most important elements in his speech. American intellectual thought has to branch off from its dependency on European thought and formulate something that represents the character and distinction of America.
Emerson is trying to define a uniquely American intellectualism, which he thinks of as consisting of three parts: nature, history, and praxis (or active engagement in the world). Nature, for Emerson, is both external and internal—a field for scientific inquiry as well as a way to understand the inherent spirituality of all things. The study of nature enables the scholar to understand his own soul, and it makes creative thought possible. History, as recorded in books, is important for Emerson to the extent that such study enables, rather than inhibits, creative thought. Praxis, or acting in the world, for Emerson is a natural outgrowth of creative thought, and a vital means to self-knowledge. Taken together, these three principles combine to form what Emerson calls "man thinking," or the American intellectual, a self-reliant individual who engages in creative intellectual work.