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Mending the World

We can comprehend only a world that we ourselves have made.

Nietzsche [1904] 1967, p. 272

Thoreau, I have argued, moved from an idealist Transcendental tradition of mind contemplating nature to one embracing an empiricistbased self-consciousness of mindinnature. From this latter perspective, he offers extraordinary insights into the dilemmas and paradoxes of selfhood. His efforts to bridge nature and culture, to savor the wild and to translate that primary encounter with acute sensitivity, remain his abiding legacy. Not content to describe or create a mythic way of seeing nature, he enacted it. For us to “read” that myth demands that we appreciate that his “seeing” possessed a unique moral character. Indeed, Thoreau created a particular kind of vision of, and for, himself. This creation became an ethical venture, the imperative of seeing the natural world and his place in it, ever conscious of himself observing himself observing nature. In constructing Thoreau's metaphysics of the self, I have detailed how his epistemology was governed by this composite vision of the world and himself.

The centrality of his personal perspective was both the strength of his character and at the same time its weakness. In order to pursue his private goals, Thoreau often forfeited social intercourse, and even in his political activities he remained steadfastly centered on his own person. Ironically, Thoreau, like Nietzsche after him, attempted to serve as a physician to his culture, but in his famous isolation he remained a solitary figure, glorious in the celebration of his individuality and artistic accomplishment, yet sadly removed from the social world of other human beings. In short, Thoreau's vision, for all its power to articulate himself and celebrate the natural environment he inhabited, remained communally myopic and thereby restricted to a world of his own making. Others were simply not particularly germane for him.


The most poignant testimony to this aspect of Thoreau's character occurs around the enigmatic break with Emerson. Whatever the reasons for the schism, Thoreau's Journal reveals the deep disappointment in his own carriage.[1] He can adopt an ironic, humorous tone[2] or, more honestly, a laconic bent. Thoreau cut a sorry figure. At the same time he was complaining about Emerson, Emerson confided to his own journal in the fall of 1851:

H. T. will not stick he is not practically renovator. He is a boy, & will be an old boy. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding Empires, but not, if at the end of years, it is only beans.

I fancy it an inexcusable fault in him that he is insignificant here in the town. He speaks at Lyceum or other meeting but somebody else speaks & his speech falls dead & is forgotten. He rails at the town doings & ought to correct & inspire them[.] (1975, p. 404).

And this was not solely the assessment of an antagonist but seems to have been a general opinion, one Thoreau himself recognized as widely held.[3] Thoreau did not cultivate social graces, nor did he attempt to be “one of the boys.”[4] And Thoreau reciprocated the quiet hostility of his neighbors:

Since I perambulated the bounds of the town I find that I have in some degree confined myself– –my vision and my walks—on whatever side I look off I am reminded of the mean & narrowminded men whom I have met lately there–What can be uglier than a country occupied by grovelling coarse & lowlived men—no scenery will redeem it—what can be more beautiful than any scenery inhabited by heroes!

… It is a charmed circle which I have drawn around my abode–having walked not with God but with the Devil. I am too well aware when I have crossed this line. (Thoreau, September 27, 1851,Journal 4, 1992, pp. 100–101)

The following Journal entry is striking as we witness Thoreau building a fortress about himself, an elaborate rationalization of a man misplaced. Writing a week after his birthday, he contemplates his existential standing at what becomes a major crossroads:

Here I am 34 years old, and yet my life is almost wholly unexpanded. How much is in the germ! There is such an interval between my ideal and the actual in many instances that I may say I am unborn. There is the instinct for society—but no society. Life is not long enough for one success. Within another 34 years that miracle can hardly take place…. The society which I was made for is not here, shall I then substitute for the anticipation of that this poor reality. I would have the unmixed expectation of that than this reality.


If life is waiting—so be it. I will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. (July 19, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 313)

Thoreau found his truer being in other realms—in nature, in the spirit, in himself.[5] His splendid solitude and the perspectivism he cultivated focused his intense vision. This would suffice.

For Thoreau, the world truly was there only to the extent that he saw it. To appreciate nature is one way to experience it; to experience it more acutely is to be aware of the responsibility of the observer to see to the degree that he has the capacity. In this sense, the character of the individual determines what is “out there.”

Objects are concealed from our view not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because there is no intention of the mind and eye toward them. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of nature are for this reason concealed to us all our lives. (November 4, 1858,Journal, [1906] 1962, 11:285; also published in “Autumnal Tints,” 1980d, p. 173)

Each has his own perspective; each sees somewhat differently; each sees something different. Thus what objects “one person will see … are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different” (ibid.). Nature's reality is not at stake, but the individual's ability to know the world depends solely on his ability to observe and comprehend it. “Who can say what is? He can only say how he sees” (Thoreau, December 2, 1846, Journal 2, 1984, p. 355).

Thoreau's preoccupation with his own perspective drew on two sources: his personality, the selfcentered, asocial inclinations of an eccentric bachelor; and from his deep intellectual interest in perception. When Thoreau observed during the Walden period, “As for the reality no man sees it—but some see more and some less” (Thoreau, December 2, 1846,Journal 2, 1984, p. 355), he not only was making a passing note of the Kantian noumena/phenomena distinction but also was writing the preamble to a significant portion of his later agenda. By the mid-nineteenth century, new insights into the psychology and physiology of vision raised novel questions about how fragmented sensory and psychological experience might cohere, and how objectivity might be attained. These issues became defining questions of personal identity, considering how closely “our sense of seeing connects with our sense of ourselves as unities” (Pick 1997, p. 199). Joining company with Müller, Constable, Turner, and Ruskin, Thoreau appreciated the mysteries of perception and made them central to his scientific and artistic

inquiries. For him, scientific questions drifted into epistemological ones and, ultimately, metaphysical deliberations of how the transparency of the subject asobserver was “clouded.” And thus we might appreciate that Thoreau's concerns were in step with a broad contemporary reassessment about cognition, which entailed a new self-consciousness about the world's presentation—the beguiling puzzle of how the mind, in its interactions with nature (“reality”), creates a world of its own design and character.[6]

It is difficult, if not unfair, to name a single philosophical issue that captures Thoreau's epistemological project most adequately, but a general configuration of problems in the mainstream of philosophical discourse does compose his context. If we regard him in a broader tradition, Thoreau becomes both a protopragmatist and a protophenomenologist. Both philosophies later substituted for the positivist perspective, the ultimate expression of the distanced observer, a knower incontrovertibly in the world and part of it. Phenomenologists, beginning with Brentano, were preoccupied with the ways in which we “constitute” the world by personally signifying objects. Interaction in the world thereby confers knowledge of it, and thus “the world as we know it is always a world which is ‘to hand,’ and a world with which we deal” (Toulmin 1984, p. xii). American pragmatists from Pierce to James to Dewey arrived at a similar orientation, arguing that philosophy must turn to examining life in action, humans in their fully lived experience. Only in this “pragmatic” context would knowledge assume its appropriate role, in what Dewey would call its “naturalized” or “instrumental” function (Dewey 1984, p. 238). And from this perspective, Dewey concluded in his Gifford Lectures of 1929:

Mind is no longer a spectator beholding the world from without and finding its highest satisfaction in the joy of selfsufficing contemplation. The mind is within the world as a part of the latter's own ongoing process. It is marked off as mind by the fact that wherever it is found, changes take place in a directed way, so that a movement in a definite oneway sense … takes place. (Dewey 1984, p. 232)

So, on these views, mind moves from a beholder of the world (Descartes and Locke) to an active participant in it, one distinguished in this orientation by intention. Imagination and Will have thus undergone metamorphosis, but these basic Romantic notions remain in the “infrastructure” of these later phenomenological and pragmatic philosophies.[7]

While the pragmatists were centering their interests on human action, the phenomenologists invoked the “gaze” as the pivotal focus of the subject's relation to the world, in the sense that consciousness and meaning

depended quite literally on how things are seen (Husserl [1935] 1970; Kohàk 1978). For phenomenologists, “the objects that surround us function less ‘as they are’ than ‘as they mean,’ and objects only mean for someone…. To see implies seeing meaningfully” (Morrissey 1988, p. xx). This was simply a more neutral, perhaps more flexible, position, which afforded escape from the subjectivism that so tainted Romantic epistemology. But in the end, the nineteenth-century Romantics and the twentieth-century phenomenologists come close to the same conclusion: the inextricability of subject and object that Goethe pronounced and modern phenomenology reaffirmed, clashed with the ideal of the scientist as independent from the world—an austere observer, a collector of data uncontaminated by a projected personal vision. In short, the aspiration of positivist objectivity— devoid of value judgment, leaving the facts to stand alone—is, from this phenomenological perspective, an odd conceit.[8]

The phenomenologists addressed the same question that Thoreau the Romantic had struggled with: How could subject and object be seamlessly connected? How could one mend the world? As science increasingly idealized a distanced observer, objectivity subordinated knowledge based on personal experience. But Thoreau, by moving across epistemological boundaries, resisted science's hegemony and firmly grasped for other modes of experience cut off by these new positivist standards. Coupled to this epistemological isolation of the subject, a metaphysics unifying man and nature had been lost. By the mid-nineteenth century, the older “vitalistic” monism had been replaced by a “materialistic” monism, and in that shift the Romantics and their heirs lost a unified reality, where humans—as distinctly “other”—are at one with nature and the cosmos (Jonas 1982).

At the heart, then, of Thoreau's quest for the elusive synthesis of “personal” and “objective” is the search for their common metaphysical foundation (Whitehead 1925). Husserl posed this problem dramatically in our own century in The Crisis of European Sciences. For him, scientism had recast Kantian rationalities (theoretical and practical) into a deep metaphysical schism in a twostep process. First, it fragmented knowledge: scientific reason was assigned to study, if not govern, nature, while a different kind of reason was applied to matters of value and ethics. This division was unstable and ultimately fractured experience. Second, the scientific ethos went on to dominate these other forms of knowledge and experience, subordinating them to its own standards and ways of knowing:

Merely factminded sciences make merely factminded people…. Scientific, objective truth is exclusively a matter of establishing what the world, the physical as well as the spiritual world, is in fact. But can the

world and human existence in it, truthfully have a meaning if the sciences recognize as true only what is objectively established in this fashion …? (Husserl [1935] 1970, pp. 6–7)

Husserl saw in this division the collapse of any attempt to define a unifying metaphysics (ibid., p. 13). Modern man would now be torn between a naive faith in reason and a skepticism that admits only knowledge based on positivist criteria. The “crisis” was the deeply divisive nature of objective knowledge pitted against personal experience, aesthetic value, and spiritual intuition. In place of this fragmentation, Husserl sought a unifying “Reason,”[9] recognizing the need to synthesize all experience.[10]

Albeit in a different format, this had been Thoreau's mission, one inherited from Goethe, who clearly articulated the problem in the early period of the Romantic era. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the schism was widening. Nietzsche proclaimed a fundamental impasse, an irredeemable gulf between the possibility of objective knowledge and personal meaning (Tauber 1996a). Nietzsche's position, although the obverse of the positivists' celebration of the scientific attitude, also rejected a composite or holistic ideal that might attempt to incorporate personal passion and objective science.[11] In separating personal experience from what he viewed as a despotic rationality, Nietzsche advocated the rejection of an ascetic science and sided with the primacy of personal, selfcreative experience. In this sense, he articulated the twoculture impasse but placed the disjunction within the individual (Tauber 1992, 1994). Thoreau, still embedded in a Romantic optimism, sided with Goethe.

As I have endeavored to show, the scientific and the personal may be complementary to each other and, indeed, may serve to strengthen their respective forms of knowledge. The issue is one of balance, not of combat. In this regard, the pluralistic universe of William James, where multiple forms of knowing are not only tolerated but legitimated and encouraged, not only is better tempered but moves toward the unification of reason Husserl advocated.[12] And one way of creating that synthesis, again a theme explored here, is that objectified knowledge must be made meaningful. This was the program enunciated by Michael Polanyi, and, I have argued, this was also Thoreau's own project. After all, there is no return to Romantic ideals in the form of an imposition of the subjective into scientific methodology; yet to displace the personal from scientific experience is to deny a large measure of the human dimension of the venture. With the truncation of the knowing subject, the scope of the entire scientific enterprise is reduced and impoverished as a personally meaningful activity. The issue then becomes how to achieve integration of scientific knowledge and personal meaning.


This enterprise may well be regarded as a peculiarly contemporary project, one that addresses the current need to find integration in our fragmented postmodern condition. This is not to advocate a choice between rationality and emotion, an either/or predicament, but rather to admit selfconsciously the need to acknowledge personal experience in a world increasingly objectified. To see science as possessing an aesthetic dimension is a means of making such knowledge “personally meaningful.” What might otherwise escape as sterilized “objectivity” is thereby reintegrated within a fractured psyche and, universally, within culture at large. It is here that Thoreau's own example must account for much of his contemporary appeal.

And this question of coherence brings us back to the “fact.” For Thoreau, facts truly exist as poetic elements, refashioned by the imagination and aesthetic appreciation into the most intimate experience. Consider the following Journal entry from February 18, 1852:

I have a common place book for facts and another for poetry—but I find it difficult always to preserve the vague distinction which I had in my mind—for the most interesting & beautiful facts are so much the more poetry and that is their success. They are translated from earth to heaven–I see that if my facts were sufficiently vital & significant–perhaps transmuted more into the substance of the human mind—I should need but one book of poetry to contain them all. (February 18, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 356)

Here we hear echoes of Goethe's own view that poetry and science stem from a common root, human imagination. Thoreau certainly gives primacy to the poet (e.g., ibid.), but the point is not that science is subordinated but that all experience can be integrated into a meaningful whole. For Thoreau, a fragmented world is a failure of Imagination, for the world—all within it—was of one piece. Thus he sought cohesion at several levels of experience: he might fall into a rapturous mystical union with divine nature as he watched Walden Pond at sunset; he would carefully follow the flight of a hawk or regard a landscape to contemplate nature's order and beauty; he scrupulously studied the distribution of acorns and sandpine seedlings to pursue facts about plant propagation. Each of these activities was unified in his experience, and Thoreau's “work” was to assure that they remained cohesively together. Indeed, his self-consciousness was the key modality of his attempts to repair the rift separating the self and its world.

The centrality of creating and preserving his individuality not only drove Thoreau's quest to know, and thereby find meaning, but also fulfilled his original selfproclaimed charge to forge his personhood in experience. More

than any particular political or social agenda, Thoreau's way of viewing the world and himself within it established his example for posterity. He did not succumb to the anxiety of the self separating from its world in some final and irretrievable way. In the passage quoted above, we see him (happily) anticipating the writing of “one book of poetry to contain them [facts] all,” and indeed that was his overriding mission. In recognizing the legitimacy of his project, we might well ask, And what ordered that book? What was its theme? How, indeed, was it to be written? Finally,who will write the next volume? Thoreau's response: Each of us in his or her own way.

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