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4. Thoreau at the Crossroads

Bought a telescope today for eight dollars. Best military spyglass with six slides, which shuts up to about the same size, fifteen dollars and very powerful.

Thoreau, March 13, 1854, Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:166

Counted over forty robins with my glass in the meadow north of Sleepy Hollow, in the grass and on the snow.

Thoreau, March 14, 1854, Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:167–68

Thoreau's movements into and out of science are delicately balanced. While we cannot simply dismiss him altogether from the ranks of mid-nineteenth-century scientists, neither can we place him within that community. Scholars have debated the scientific character of his work in great detail. Contemporary discussion is in large measure framed by, and often in reaction to, Nina Baym's assessment (1965) that Thoreau grew increasingly alienated both from science and from the scientific character of his own work the more he recognized that Transcendentalism, and by extension his own project, were out of line with the science of his period (Rossi 1993). So too earlier critics who, in placing Thoreau among the Transcendentalists—an admission he himself readily made (March 5, 1853,Journal 5, 1997, pp. 469–70; discussed in chapter 3)—thereby excluded him from “science.” However, subsequent commentators (Howarth 1982; Angelo 1983; Hildebidle 1983; Richardson 1986; Sattelmeyer 1988; Rossi 1993; Walls 1995; McGregor 1997) have countered that this conclusion does not adequately address Thoreau's complex epistemological persona. On this latter view, Thoreau was well aware of the scientific advances of his day and employed scientific method in his own way. Indeed, some would endeavor to place him more firmly within the boundaries of science proper and have construed him as a hybrid figure in whom “scientist” figures prominently.

Some of Thoreau's nature study was indeed respectably scientific, characterized by scrupulous objective datagathering guided, to varying degrees, by theory. His specimen collecting and classifying certainly qualified as “scientific,” and as he matured, his projects became more ambitious and comprehensive.

For example, his study of the dispersion of seeds he undertook as an attempt to show that the generation of plants was dependent on seeds alone, and that the variety of mechanisms available for propagation required scrupulous examination of plant patterns, weather conditions, topographical opportunities, and potential animal and insect carriers, to name just some of the factors he considered (Thoreau 1993). Indeed, it has been asserted that this project was different in character from his other efforts inasmuch as it was informed and directed by an underlying hypothesis (Richardson 1993). But as William Rossi notes (1993), Thoreau's allegiance to Transcendentalism, albeit in his own formulation, remained a steadfast commitment even after this socalled mature scientific project had focused much of his interest.[1]

At the very least, Thoreau regarded science throughout his life with strong ambivalence, and his various studies of nature were highly varied and only loosely structured. More to the point, Thoreau selfconsciously pursued a course that he readily appreciated was different from the science of his time. Indeed, he expressly sought a different mode of knowing, one which recast an older scientific tradition into a new personalized form, the genre of nature writing. To get there, Thoreau had to find his place relative to the science of his era, maintaining a safe distance from its objectification of nature, yet at the same time employing “facts” to create an aestheticized vision of nature that confirmed his vision of her splendorous reality. In short, Thoreau, characteristically out of step with his peers, eyed with mistrust the rising tide of positivism which began to sweep the scientific community of the 1840s and 1850s, because it would obstruct his own vision of what a description of nature must and should achieve. What was he reacting to?


There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting,i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. The sum of what the writer of whatever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science.

Thoreau, May 5, 1854, Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:236–37

Objectivity cannot be understood in isolation from the notions of subjectivity with which it is aligned. Lorraine Daston has made this coupling her seminal trope when tracing the historical development of the idea of “objectivity.” She has persuasively argued that


[o]bjectivity is a fundamentally negative notion: it is defined by what it is not, by the subjectivity it opposes, as impress is defined by seal. And as shades of subjectivity differ, so do the shades of objectivity they stamp. (2000)

In her schema, originally coauthored with Peter Galison (Daston and Galison 1992), two forms of objectivity address different challenges of subjective experience. Socalled “mechanical objectivity” counters the subjectivity of projection onto nature, which includes such elements as scientific judgment and aesthetic idealization. Mechanical objectivity relies on selfregistering instruments and photographs to replace human observers as much as possible. “Communitarian objectivity” seeks to minimize idiosyncratic observation with standardized methods and instruments organized into large observational systems. Each of these forms of objectivity was formulated to address different epistemological concerns: the mechanical, to minimize individual human distortion of phenomena; the communitarian, to capture phenomena that individual observers might miss. The salient point for our discussion is that both forms of objectivity, despite their genesis in the early modern period, fully emerged as mature philosophical attitudes in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Paying scant attention to this pre-nineteenth-century history and disregarding the revolutionary practical and theoretical results of this recast scientific philosophy, we will focus upon how Thoreau responded to the revised agenda of a scientific objectivity that “sought not to erase the self but rather cultivate self-consciousness” (Daston 2000).

The Romantics interested in science fell on a complex subjective continuum. Some were highly contemplative and idealist in orientation, like Coleridge and Emerson; others, like Goethe and Humboldt, were committed to the careful empirical investigation of nature. For our purposes here, the striking character of both of these Romantic genres of speculation is their assertion of the self-consciousness of the observer in his study of nature, and the active role they assign to imagination and aesthetic sensitivity toward the goal of discovering (or, perhaps, reaffirming) a cosmic unity. Whatever separates Thoreau, Goethe, Humboldt, Coleridge, and Emerson in the particulars of their scientific practice and philosophical outlooks, their shared notions of creative intuition pervade their respective epistemologies. By the 1840s, however, this active faculty of the investigator became increasingly eclipsed by an altogether different, “positivist” standard of observation.

“Positivism” carries several meanings and has been notoriously difficult to define. A philosophical position articulated by August Comte shortly

before the deaths of Goethe (1832) and Coleridge (1834), it may be summarized as building on two precepts: 1) human thought and social life are continuous with the natural world and therefore susceptible to the same modes of investigation, and 2) knowledge may be regarded as falling into three grand stages where progression from a theological to a metaphysical stage culminates finally in a “positive” stage in which the world is explained in terms of scientific truth (Simon 1963, p. 4). This particular philosophy had limited success and applicability (ibid.), but if we regard Comte as only contributing another chapter to positivism's history, then a more broadly applicable concept emerges. Positivism sought a collection of rules and evaluative criteria by which to distinguish true knowledge from what Wittgenstein famously called “nonsense.” Thus positivism is a normative attitude which would regulate how we use such terms as “knowledge,” “science,” “cognition,” and “information” (Kolakowski 1968). As developed in the 1850s, positivism came to be understood as a normative philosophical belief which held that the methods of natural science offer the only viable way of thinking correctly about human affairs. Accordingly, empirical experience served as the basis of all knowledge. Facts, the products of sensory experience, were first ascertained and then classified. “Hypothesis” was defined as the expectation of observing facts of a certain kind under certain conditions; and a scientific “law” could be defined as the proposition that under conditions of a certain kind, facts of a certain kind were uniformly observable. Any “hypothesis” or “law” that could not be defined in terms like these would be written off as “pseudohypothesis” or “pseudolaw” (Collingwood 1940, p. 144)—the ultimate fate of, by these lights, theology and metaphysics (“pseudoknowledge”).[2]

While we may date the birth of modern social sciences to Comte's program, positivism has a complex history that may be traced from the Greeks to Francis Bacon and most directly to the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and the British empiricists, especially David Hume (Kolakowski 1968; Simon 1963, 1973). It contrasted sharply with the Romantic view of the world, by denying any cognitive value to value judgments. Experience, positivism maintained, contains no such qualities of men or events as “noble,” “good,” “evil,” or “beautiful.” In radical reaction against Romanticism's pursuit of aesthetic totalization, positivists sought instead to objectify nature, banishing human prejudice from scientific judgment. The total separation of observer from the object of observation—an epistemological ideal—reinforced the positivist disallowance of “value” as part of the process of observation. One might interpret, but such evaluative judgments had no scientific (i.e., objective) standing. Simply put, where the Romantics

privileged human interpretation (exemplified by the artistic imagination), the positivists championed mechanical objectivity (e.g., thermometer, voltmeter, chemical analysis). This polarization, however, must be balanced with those elements of scientific investigation shared by both approaches. Specifically, we must distinguish the aims of science in contrast to its methods.

While positivism argued for a radical shift in investigative methods, its basic goals remained similar to those of its Romantic forebears. The deepest commitment of science has always been its search for “understanding” (the discernment of a rational pattern in natural events), its attempt to define “reality,” and its pursuit of predictive power. These aims—and we might list others—have a distinctive scientific character because of the objective methods emerging in the nineteenth century. Despite how its methods contrast with Romantic subjectivity, positivism also pursued these metaphysical aims; indeed, its champions argued that their objectifying methods would lead to deeper understanding of reality than would a science compromised by subjectivity. Post-Romantic science did not necessarily repudiate aesthetic concerns, and indeed, key scientists and philosophers of science throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century explicitly attempted to integrate a Romantic sense of imagination and beauty as important factors in the appreciation of the scientific worldview. In other words, they saw no inconsistency in gleaning objective facts by a radical separation of subject and object, and then synthesizing and interpreting those data with the required human sensibility.[3] Therefore, while I am building on the common notions of opposition between Romanticism and positivism, an important caveat to this discussion is that implicit in the positivists' own program are two abiding concerns: 1) a search for a totalizing theory of nature and knowledge, and 2) a realization that the aesthetic had some role, albeit poorly understood or acknowledged, in that agenda. Thus the most obvious contrast between Romanticism and positivism lies in their respective notions of method, not in these fundamental goals, albeit the terms of characterization were strikingly different.

The radical separation of the observing/knowing subject and his object of scrutiny is the single most important characteristic of positivist epistemology. Because of this understanding, positivists claimed that science should rest on a foundation of neutral and dispassionate observation. The more careful the design of the experimental conditions, the more precise the characterization of phenomena, the more likely the diminution of subjective contaminants. Thus the strict positivist confined himself to phenomena and their ascertainable relationships through a vigorous mechanical objectivity. In the life sciences, for example, positivism exercised new

standards in the study of physiology that applied the objective methodologies of chemistry and physics to organic processes. This approach allowed newly adopted laboratory techniques to establish physiology as a new discipline and gave birth to biochemistry, whose central tenets held that organic and inorganic chemistries shared the same fundamental principles, differing only insofar as the molecular constituents of living organisms were governed by complex constraints of metabolism. Demonstrating the oxidation of glucose, its synthesis in the liver, and the heat production of contracting muscle confirmed by mid-century the applicability of biochemical methods to the study of organic function and the unity of a science based on such methods of investigation (Fruton 1999, pp. 234 ff., 333 ff.). The powerful results obtained in physiology soon inspired new standards of study in natural history by documenting animal and plant life histories at a new level of detail and sophistication (Nyhart 1996).

Positivism's methodology was intimately linked to the assumption that all of nature was of one piece and that the study of life was potentially not different in kind from the study of chemical reactions, the movement of heavenly bodies, or the evolution of mountains. Thus, if all of nature was unified—constituted of the same elements and governed by the same fundamental laws—then the organic world was simply on a continuum with the inorganic. So, according to this set of beliefs, there was no essential difference between animate and inanimate physics and chemistry, and the organic world was therefore subject to the same kinds of study so successfully applied in physics. The new problem was both to reduce the organic to the inorganic, that is, to exhibit the continuity of substance and operation, and concomitantly to understand the distinct character of life processes. To accomplish this twofold agenda, positivism was soon coupled to another philosophy, reductionism. The reductionists did not argue that certain organic phenomena were not unique, only that all causes must have certain elements in common. They connected physics and biology by equating the ultimate basis of their respective explanations (Galaty 1974). Interestingly, the reductionists, like their Romantic opponents, were following Kant—not Kant of the Third Critique, who argued that the physical and organic worlds were fundamentally different in character, but the Kant they saw in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786) (ibid.).[4]

Reductionism, specifically physical reductionism, was a scientific program enunciated by German physiologists (led by Hermann Helmholtz) to eradicate vitalism from biology. The ostensible issue was the uniqueness of life and the basis of that distinctiveness, vitality. The notion that life possessed a special “life force” served as the focus of scientific debate, in both

medicine and physiology, where it would play its key role, and also in the understanding of the history of organic life. Vitalism was at the nexus of debate because it belied the unity of nature offered by various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mechanistic philosophies by imposing a duality to explain life. Vitalism assumed its modern garb as an escape from mechanistic speculation with George Stahl's True Theory of Medicine (1708), which argued for the complete separation of living beings from inorganic matter on the basis of an inbred “anima sensitiva” undetectable by physical means. Thus the early-eighteenth-century solution to Western mindbody dualism, namely that soul infused matter, revived the Greek concept of pneuma, which the ancient Stoics thought endowed all organic matter with life. It was also similar to the later Enlightenment solution which named activity and change (force and motion) rather than structure and permanence as nature's essential characteristics (Hankins 1985).

By 1740 the antimechanistic sentiment was at full tide, reaching its highest mark in 1802 when William Heberden declared, “[T]o living bodies belong many additional powers, the operations of which can never be accounted for by the laws of lifeless matter” (quoted by Schofield 1970, p. 191). Newton's atomism had been replaced by a nebulous dynamism: corpuscularity succumbed to vital force, vital energy, or simply “Life.” However, in the process of imbuing the organic with a special and mysterious property, the holistic construct so crucial to Romantic science now became unnecessarily entangled with the confounding metaphysics of the vitalistic perspective. Indeed, Coleridge, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, urged chemists and biologists to consider the continuity between the animate and the inanimate in terms of shared forces, a complex and poorly articulated philosophy that implicitly invoked the unity of a vitalistic nature (Levere 1981).

These issues were largely resolved by three key developments: Helmholtz's demonstration (1847) that heat generated by contracting muscle could be accounted for by chemical metabolism (i.e., no special vitalistic force was necessary); Louis Pasteur's demonstration about a decade later that bacteria could not arise through spontaneous (i.e., vitalistic) generation; and finally Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), which presented the case for a blind materialism to explain the evolution of species. The appeal of vitalism was not totally extinguished by mid-century, but certainly a new scientific ethos had taken over the life sciences by then. This battle over vitalism, and the character of the organic world more generally, may be regarded as an aspect of the quest for a single unity of nature. Thus in at least one sense, the Romantic notion of vitalistic nature was overturned,

but on the other hand, the more important precept of nature's unity was reconfirmed, and adamantly so.[5] No wonder Thoreau could embrace Darwinism with such enthusiasm and regard the unity of nature as the paramount character of this new theory. Indeed, as Laura Walls has argued (1995), this overriding preoccupation with finding the integrated wholeness of nature profoundly guided Thoreau's nature studies, stretching from his careful “scientific” observations to his more contemplative reflections built on those studies. But it would be artificial to separate this concern from a third metaphysical component of the Romantic view of nature that undergirds the others, namely idealism.

Idealism takes several forms in this context: To look at nature as a source of beauty is an aesthetic idealism, which for Thoreau served as a “tonic” (Walden, 1971, p. 317) and spiritual delight. On this view, nature has its own divinity, and Thoreau would seek its expression in the beauty of animal and plant life, in the expanse of the landscape, and in the endless variety of the climate and the heavens. There was no end to the aesthetic rapture he found in his various sojourns, where he sought direct intercourse with nature and sympathy with it. This matter we consider in the next section. A second form of idealism is moral in character, the Romantic projection of human value onto nature initiated by Rousseau, who celebrated the primitive as the most “natural” and thus most virtuous man. Thoreau too made a central tenet the correspondence of spiritual order and unity as the natural paragon for human virtue. In many places this correspondence is explicitly articulated—for instance, “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions” (Walden, 1971, p. 97) or “What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics” (ibid., p. 291). We will return to this idea in later chapters. Here I wish to focus on a third kind of idealism, one most germane to this discussion, namely, the idealist epistemology of the Romantics.

Thoreau might well have taken heed of Goethe's response to Schiller's penetrating remark regarding the Urpflanze (the Primal Plant): “This is not an experience: it is an idea” (Goethe [1794] 1988). As such, it was poor science. Indeed, the center of positivism's assault on Romantic science was idealism. Goethe had understood the persistent conflict inherent in his own scientific efforts:

In the idea, then, simultaneous elements are closely bound up with sequential ones, but our experience always shows them to be separate: we are seemingly plunged into madness by a natural process which must be conceived of in idea as both simultaneous and sequential. Our intellect cannot think of something as united when the senses present

it as separate, and thus the conflict between what is grasped as experience and what is formed as idea remains forever unresolved. (Goethe [1818] 1988)

The archetype (“formed as idea”) was not an empirical object. While the universal, the essence, the idea is particularized by a given object and thus perceived through the senses, the organizing idea defines and establishes that object's cognitive standing. Despite his strong empirical tendencies, Goethe clearly understood this idealist epistemology:

my thinking is not separate from objects; … the elements of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it; … my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception. (Goethe [1823] 1988, p. 39)

Thus Goethe accepted the intermingling of perceiving subject, the scientific agent, and the object perceived, which could not stand alone. Only by allowing the subject's full integration into nature, which in turn depended on a correspondence between man and nature, could such an epistemological perspective be supported. Mastery of the whole is precisely that: a whole must include subject and object.[6] Goethe embraced that fusion.

But this orientation was soon replaced by a new objectivism, one that spawned positivism's attempt to radically separate the observing subject from the object of scrutiny. By the mid-nineteenth century, under the sway of positivism, the ideal of objectivity had rendered the ideal scientist, too, invisible, absorbed by his instrument or machine (Keller 1996, 1997). In the most simplified version of this scientific romance, the scientist had become a simple reporter of universalized data, erased as a subjective factor. The ostensible goal of a completely detached observer, one independent of subjective foibles and prejudices, whose conclusions come from “somewhere else,” in principle offered a “view from nowhere” (Nagel 1986).[7] Complementary to this mechanical objectivity, communitarian objectivity set criteria for standardized observation: ultimately it subsumes the individual observer in a larger scientific community. This communal scientific ideal may also be traced back to the late seventeenth century when, focusing on experimental procedures, Robert Boyle successfully promoted a shared research program which generated a “multiplication of the witnessing experience” through public demonstrations and the adoption of a rhetoric that emphasized the public character of observed phenomena (Shapin and Schaffer 1985, p. 488). For objectivity to assume its current meaning of being “aperspectival,” extensive rhetorical and methodological refinements were developed by the positivists, who finally merged the mechanical and communitarian

precepts so that a singular subjective observation was effectively cowitnessed and translated into a shared public objectivity through a machine's results. Biology lagged well behind the physical sciences in this regard, but as Thoreau sat at Walden Pond, positivist ideals were already well established for the life sciences, placing his natural history pursuits outside the professional practices of the day.


Facts collected by a poet are set down at last as winged seeds of truth—samarae—tinged with his expectation. O may my words be verdurous & sempiternal as the hills. Facts fall from the poetic observer as ripe seeds.

Thoreau, June 19, 1852, Journal 5, 1997, p. 112

To see Thoreau either as aspiring to some “objective” epistemology or as wishing to dissolve his self in nature is to put him at the extreme poles of mid-nineteenth-century nature study. This misconstrues him. To be sure, he was both a mystic and a careful observer of nature, practicing one mode and then the other, but there is a weighted center to his project that combines these elements, as well as others. I suggest rather that Thoreau practiced an array of approaches to studying nature, Romantic in inception, but moving toward some synthesis with the ascendant scientism of the age. Thoreau's notions of “facts” served a complex epistemological role as he fashioned them in order to construct his personalized view of nature. The significance, and meaning, of this personal vision directs my inquiry, for it is finally this juncture between self and world that underlies Thoreau's thought. In this respect, the questions he posed regarding the nature of facts, their construction and function, truly are fundamental to our understanding his study of nature.

Thoreau understood the epistemological challenges he faced from a rapidly changing scientific culture. Nevertheless his recorded insights into the issues positivism raised were hardly sophisticated; and, indeed, he embraced the Romantic position without apology or philosophical justification. For example, in a 1858 Journal entry, he laments the illusionary character of human relationships and concludes that only an ideal image of a friend is sustaining. Then he turns to the epistemological standing of nature, presumably, at least in a conventional sense, amenable to a more objective and stable relationship:

I am not so ready to perceive the illusion that is in Nature. I certainly come nearer, to say the least, to an actual and joyful intercourse with

her. Every day I have more or less communion with her,as I think. At least, I do not feel as if I must withdraw out of nature [as with society]. I feel like a welcome guest. Yet, strictly speaking, the same must be true of nature and of man; our ideal is the only real. It is not the finite and temporal that satisfies or concerns us in either case. (November 3, 1858, Journal, [1906] 1962, 11:282; emphasis in original)

Two cardinal points should be emphasized in this passage. The first refers back to our discussion of Cameron's version of Thoreau's writing of nature, where the subjectobject dichotomy is blurred. Here, late in his maturity, Thoreau explicitly accepts that he communes with nature as he thinks it, as he thinks of nature. In this sense he distances himself from Goethe's selfconscious mingling of the observer and the observed. This distancing is not to be confused with the product of that observation—the communion with nature. These are two distinct categories of experience: one is epistemological (the relation of subject and object), and the other is metaphysical (the spiritual or mystical union of man with divine nature). The second point rests on the key theme of the passage: “our ideal is the only real.” “Ideal” may be understood as “rarefied” or “exemplary,” but I think it safe to expand Thoreau's meaning to “idea.” The concrete now of the finite is not the only object of his inquiry. While immediate experience is the vehicle of his project, this would not gratify him, for he is always contemplating, pondering, seeking a metaphysical reality literally “beyond” the physical. This effort was integral to his moral life, one enacted deliberately and selfconsciously.

Here we face squarely the solipsistic element of Thoreau's entire project. He knows the world ultimately in relationship to himself. He constantly inquires about the world, which he understands not solely by some “objective” standard or shared public knowledge, but to varying degrees in his own terms. Thoreau, the knowing subject, perceives in many modes, but ultimately he affirms that it is only what he as a selfgenerating, selfreferential knower knows that “satisfies” him. To reiterate: Thoreau's epistemology was in full service to his ethical metaphysics,[8] wherein he as subject, the knowing self, was guided by the moral project of seeking meaning. But here we come to another key question: What then is Thoreau's epistemological currency? What is the status of “facts”?

Here, we again return to Goethe, who also wrestled with understanding experience, with the discovery and construction of facts, and with their relation to more comprehensive structures of knowledge. The first lesson Thoreau might have learned from Goethe was that “facts” do not reside independent of a theory or hypothesis which must “support” them, a point well developed in twentieth-century philosophy of science (e.g., Hanson 1958;

Suppe 1977). Goethe's precept that “everything factual is already theory” (Goethe,Maximen und Reflexionen, no. 575) was offered as a warning about the epistemological complexity of supposedly objective knowledge:

We can never be too careful in our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory. For here at this pass, the transition from empirical evidence to judgment, cognition to application, all the inner enemies of man lie in wait: imagination, which sweeps him away on its wings before he knows his feet have left the ground; impatience; haste; selfsatisfaction; rigidity; formalistic thought; prejudice; ease; frivolity; fickleness—this whole throng and its retinue. Here they lie in ambush and surprise not only the active observer but also the contemplative one who appears safe from all passion. (Goethe [1792] 1988)

It is fascinating to see Goethe, the poet, rein in the Imagination, but he understood the potential danger of subjective contamination of scientific observation and, more to the point, the tenuous grounds of any objective “fact” that relied in any way on interpretation. Interpretation stretches from inference to direct observation, for any perception must ultimately be processed to fit into a larger picture of nature and must cohere with previous experience.

The synthetic project of building a worldview thus begins by placing “facts” within their supporting theory, and continues with integrating that scientific picture with the broader and less obvious intellectual and cultural forces in which science itself is situated. Thus “facts” as independent products of sensory experience are always processed—interpreted, placed into some overarching hypothesis or theory; and, indeed, natural facts are historical, that is, they are recorded, stored, interpreted, and used in a fashion analogous to the way that historians use historical facts (Collingwood 1940, p. 145). In short, observations assume their meanings within a particular context, for facts are not just products of sensation or measurement, as the positivists averred, but rather they reside within a conceptual framework which “places” the fact into an intelligible picture of the world. To varying degrees, this constructivist interpretation was denied by the positivists. A world built from their principles would appear essentially the same to all viewers, for “facts” for them have independent standing and universal accessibility, so that irrespective of individual knowers, facts constitute shared knowledge. The Romantics placed important caveats on that approach to nature, on both epistemological and metaphysical grounds. From their perspective, each inviolate observer held a privileged vantage, and the vision so obtained was jealously protected.


Goethe's chastised view of objectivity built from epistemological apprehensions, and while Thoreau generally shared Goethe's skepticism, the Transcendentalist rejected positivism more because of the metaphysical limitations imposed by that doctrine. Simply stated, Thoreau gathered facts in the employ of his personal agenda. But in the end, Goethe and Thoreau, regardless of how we mix their respective epistemological and metaphysical concerns, seem to intimate postmodern science, because they understood that knowledge in all of its guises—facts, perceptions, conclusions—is caught in irreconcilable tensions between varying “degrees” of objectivity which must be finally posed in contrast to the irreducible subjectivity of the knower. Neither argued philosophically about these matters, but each was sensitive to the perspectival ways in which facts were produced and used.[9]

But this was an old problem. The conflict between the objectified world of scientific facts and the private domain of personalized experience of those facts dates from the very origins of science, which aspired to discover facts “out there” divorced from a subjective projection of the mind upon nature. Descartes initiated and Locke completed the philosophical stance of a newly defined science which, in separating mind and body, split the “I” and the “world.” In this view, humans are subject to an irreducible duality: the mind, res cogitans, surveys the world,res extensa. This division, irreparable and absolute, framed epistemology for the next four centuries, and in the context of a positivistinclined science, to study natural phenomena demanded a dissociated self: to see “objectively,” disallowed projection of the self, a contamination of attaining neutral knowledge. But this dualism bequeathed the dilemma of rendering whole what was broken in the division between self and world. The Cartesian reductive method imparts an irresolvable anxiety: after dissecting the world into parts, how are those elements to be reintegrated? Cartesianism itself offers no solution. Further, the epistemological standing of the observer is ambiguous: how indeed does the observer know? The rationalists and the empiricists thrashed out this question for almost two centuries preceding Thoreau's birth, and while Kant offered the grandest synthesis in his transcendental formulation, the question was never put to rest.

The positivist movement was a response to this problem. If facts could be universalizable, the “private” mind could be “opened” to public discourse. Objectivity at its most basic calling is the attempt to solve the imbroglio of unifying minds which are not only separated from the world but also dangerously isolated from each other. So the Cartesian mind/world split resurfaces in the public and private scientific experience of “fact,” specifically: Who “knows” facts? How are facts used? What do they mean? in a community

of distinct knowers. Although the discovery—or, more precisely, the construction—of a fact is intimately linked to the observer, the dynamics of the fact can hardly be limited to the private domain of the observer's experience. Others have a claim to a fact, which is often shared in the narrow proprietary sense, but always as the expected outcome of the scientific process. A scientific fact is fundamentally public, for it must be universalized by the scientific community at large. A hidden fact is useless to that community; discourse demands scrutiny. Scientific objectivity focuses upon the discovery or creation of facts and the public debates surrounding them. Scientific facts acquire the status of public entities as they become objectified, circulated, and finally identified increasingly less with the subjective, private report of the scientist. Critical to the development of modern science was precisely this process by which shared experience was universalized among scientific practitioners. Within this domain, “objectivity” is attained.

Yet there remains a second, private sphere of the fact, which arises from the scientist's identity as an autonomous epistemological agent. The integrity of the scientist as a private, knowing agent remains an implicit and critical characteristic of scientific activity. To know the world remains a fundamental individual aspiration in the age of the self (Tauber 1994, pp. 141 ff.), and while we emphasize the social aspects of science as a cultural activity, the scientist remains that Cartesian agent who experiences the world independently.

Scientific knowledge thus has strong commitments to Cartesian dualism, especially to its concept of a universalized corpus of fact and theory, which arises as the product of individual experience. We are left with a complex dialectic between the observer's “personal” relations to those facts as the product of his autonomous personhood and the need for entering that experience into the public sector. It is on this point that the epistemological, political, and moral ideals of Thoreau's own views on science converge. He was less a modern Prometheus, intent on conquering nature in all of its richness, than a selfconscious Janus, who sought to resolve the split caused by peering into the public and private domains, simultaneously.

I have used “fact” as a discursive vehicle, because at first glance, a fact seems to represent something “out there.” From the positivist orientation, this independence of the known “fact” rests on its correspondence to a reality which any objective observer might know. This assumes both 1) a universal perspective, “a view from nowhere,”[10]and 2) a correspondence theory of reality. But the subjective components cannot be entirely eliminated, and as stubborn as the positivists might have been in attempting to stamp

out subjective influences, they only succeeded in making them seem disreputable (Daston 2000). There is no escape from the constraints of an observer fixed by his individual perspective, contextualized in some observational setting, and committed to processing information through some interpretative (i.e., subjective) schema. Such an observer cannot adhere to a rigid identification of “facts” based on an idealized separation of the knower and the known. This seemingly postmodernist point was appreciated by Goethe, who recognized the complex tension between the detached observer, supposedly divorced from theory, and the creative scientist. From his point of view, the ideal or theoretical distillation of nature ultimately required personal and aesthetic faculties. Thoreau followed Goethe in seeking to encompass the widest scope of experience and to integrate it,personally. This brings us squarely back to the subject/object divide imposed by positivism. If “scientist” increasingly came to be defined as one who adhered to a distanced, dispassionate regard of nature, then we see how out of step Thoreau found himself. He resisted the label of “scientist” or any variant of that designation, and for us to make him into a hybrid, a “poetscientist,” is to impose upon him our own divided sensibility of a twoculture world. Whereas Goethe and Thoreau regarded a unified nature with a unified mind and sensibility, our current fragmented world sees the poet and the scientist as necessarily viewing the same object in differently refracted experiences. But to the Romantic, experience is ultimately integrated by an arbitrating, aesthetically sensitive observer who is intimately connected to nature through all his faculties. Again and again we see Thoreau resisting an imperialistic vision of the world that would constrict his unique appreciation and understanding of nature. He did not so much reject science's contributions to knowing the world as its insidious power to stigmatize his own subjective processing of that world.[11]


Thoreau was at least vaguely aware of the outlines of this philosophical discussion, and during the 1840s and 1850s the Anglo-American intellectual community fully debated scientific method as well as the logical process of scientific discovery. Fundamental questions were posed most famously by three English critics: William Whewell (1794–1866), John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), and John Heschel (1792–1871). Whewell's philosophy of science is most relevant to Thoreau's own project inasmuch as each man sought to balance empiricism with Imagination. In The Philosophy of the Inductive

Sciences (1840), Whewell sought a middle ground between the strong English “sensationalist” school (having grown from the British empiricist tradition) and science based on the a priori of German idealists (Fisch 1991). Whewell appreciated that even the most commonplace perception must go beyond mere sensation and be ordered by the mind, and from this position he argued that science, and all true knowledge, was intellectually governed by what he termed “antitheticals”—composites of sensation/conception, things/ideas, fact/theory. These “mutually irreducible … [and] inseparable empirical and conceptual components” (Fisch 1998) left Kant's notion of the noumena intact, yet served a useful function in dissecting the process of scientific discovery. For Whewell, Baconian inductionism was naive, and in its place he saw the Imagination, very close to the Lake Poets' vision, as reading meaning, structure, regularity, and law into the facts, rather than gleaning such information from the empirical data alone. Facts were thus “colligated” by a superimposition of the mental concept over the empirical data (ibid.). Creative genius was required to bring the confusion of disparate inductive results into some sort of structural unity and significance. Moreover, science, according to Whewell, was closely aligned to natural theology, for scientific imagination in league with a cosmic Imagination would be able to reveal God's mind and purposes.

This was hardly inductionism in the traditional sense, and Whewell's proposals initiated vigorous debate over the nature of scientific discovery and verification (Yeo 1985; 1993; Smith 1994). As we will see, later postpositivist interpretations of science's mode of discovery and theory formation also have focused upon the intuitive, tacit, and aesthetic character of insight required for synthesis and the role of deductive reasoning at play with investigative induction—insights not so alien from Whewell's position. But in the mid-nineteenth century, Whewell's idealist philosophy strongly clashed with the growing positivist ethos concerning the objective status of scientific laws. Critics were dismayed at the prospects of a renewal of a speculative neo-Naturphilosophie. The argument was decided not in philosophical debate but in the laboratory. The practices and methodologies of the laboratory scientists were best described by other philosophies of science, both more strictly inductive in character and pragmatic in approach, and because of the congruence with actual practice these anti-Whewellian philosophies became more influential.[12] Thoreau might have been not only aware of these discussions but sympathetically drawn to Whewell's position (Rossi 1993). To be sure, Whewell's efforts to place a Romantic orientation within an increasingly objectified science resonate with Thoreau's own parallel attempts to personalize his experience of nature, but their

respective projects at best were analogous, never identical. They were more like two trains heading for the same destination from different directions, at times traveling on parallel tracks and at other points diverging. Furthermore, each carried very different freight.

Thoreau, struggling with the same issues as Whewell, was driven into the active debate in other quarters of the intellectual establishment stimulated by the crisis of Romanticism's ebb and positivism's flow. The Romantic response to positivism assumed various forms, but all asserted the premier place of Imagination in the inquiry into nature. Thoreau pursued an agenda largely outside formal scientific and philosophical enterprises. His was the work of “poets,” and philosophical debate, irrespective of the merits of its analytical sophistication and intellectual tradition, was not Thoreau's forum. Only by the most exercised inference might we place him more firmly within those formal discussions. Plainly stated, the issues pertinent to the analytical understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge did not concern him. Interested though he might have been in a general way, he formulated his own unique response to the contending issues quite apart from that discourse. So, while Thoreau was well acquainted with the controversy concerning the relationship of facts and theory, and although he read Sir David Brewster's attack on Baconian induction philosophy of science (Life of Newton [1831]) in 1856 (Thoreau, June 2, 1856,Journal, [1906] 1962, 8:362])— a critique aligned with Whewell's—it is not clear that Thoreau had intimate acquaintance with any of the arguments as formally presented. We might appreciate Thoreau and Whewell in alliance, even congruent from our perspective, but Thoreau himself is not readily placed in any philosophical orbit.

The segregation of discourses—scientific, philosophical, and literary— was just beginning in this period, so there still was a free exchange of ideas across disciplines during the 1840s and 1850s. (This same point will be amplified in my discussion of Thoreau's relationship to professional science below and in the next chapter.) The subject/object relationship, the nature of facts and their relationship to theory, and the metaphysical unity of the world were prominent issues “in the air,” so to speak, and Thoreau's original and provocative contributions are selfevident (Peck 1990; Rossi 1993). But he never sustained a clear argument or exposition of a philosophical position, epistemological or otherwise, and offered, instead, scattered observations, aphorisms, asides of one kind or another. We have a sense of where he is going philosophically, and his message has philosophical import, but his discussion itself is not philosophical. We might analyze him philosophically, but that does not mean that he worked as a philosopher. And analogously, as we will see in the next chapter, while we might attempt to place

Thoreau's nature study in the context of science, that does not mean that he regarded his project as falling within a scientific agenda. He was too keenly aware of the restrictions of that worldview and too dedicated to his own, as he repeatedly asserted.

Committed to the aestheticization of experience, subordinating the objective study of nature to poetic enterprise, Thoreau regarded the relationship of the observer to the observed as a problem of poesis. The issue was not subjectivity in a prejudicial or solipsistic sense, but rather the transposition of experience from the objective parlance of science to a language of meaning:

There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting,i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. The sum of what the writer of whatever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science. (May 5, 1854,Journal, [1906], 1962, 6:236–37)

And this was to be a celebration of life in its fullest deployment, a moral mandate:

The man most of science is the man most alive, whose life is the greatest event. Senses that take cognizance of outward things merely are of no avail. It matters not how far you travel … but how much alive you are. (Ibid.)

Thoreau could not abide any categorization of himself as “scientist,” which was, from his point of view, too restrictive. After all, he was pursuing a theory of life, not a theory of biology. As already noted, when invited to join the [American] Association for the Advancement of Science, Thoreau confided to his Journal a selfappraisal which put him in league with the Transcendentalists. Nine months later, when writing the Association's secretary, he declined membership by evoking his affinity with earlier naturalists, who belonged to a Romantic tradition that he undoubtedly felt was out of step with the current standards of scientific endeavor.[13] To this matter in particular, and the general standing of science in his day, we next turn.


According to Linnaeus's classification, I come under the head of the Miscellaneous Botanophilists.

Thoreau, February 17, 1852, Journal, [1906] 1962, 4:309

Even by his contemporary standards, Thoreau cannot be counted among those who were becoming an increasingly professionalized group. Thoreau

himself carefully eschewed formally affiliating with the scientific community, and to the extent that he had any interaction, it was in the role of amateur naturalist—in his day, to be sure, a serious commitment. In that capacity, he lectured, wrote various natural history essays, was enrolled by Louis Agassiz, the newly Harvardappointed Swiss biologist, to collect specimens (beginning with turtles and fishes in the spring and summer of 1847), and was elected a corresponding member of the Boston Society of Natural History in December 1850. He joined that society largely for the same reason he had petitioned Harvard College in September 1849, namely, to have library privileges. (Thoreau declined to join the Association for the Advancement of Science at least partly because there was no such ostensible reason to justify his affiliation.) Founded in 1830, the Boston Society published both a Proceedings and a Journal, both of which were highly valued in European and American libraries.

For Thoreau, the most important appeal of these societies was not this venue for publication so much as the access to the libraries of Boston and Cambridge they provided. By 1850 these libraries were premier in scholarly resources (Bruce 1987, p. 39). Boston in particular, and Massachusetts in general, led the nation in total volumes; more significantly in this context, they excelled in the categories of collegiate and learnedsociety libraries. This statistic indicates the character of the Boston intellectual community. In the spring of 1846 the geologist Josiah Whitney called Boston “the only city in America where anything of any account is done for science” (cited by Bruce 1987, p. 32). A hyperbolic statement, perhaps, but based on an assessment of the actual distribution of major scientists and the institutions supporting them. Through the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a disproportionate number of those educated in the Boston constellation would emerge as the leaders of the larger scientific community. Despite being half the size of Philadelphia and a third of New York's population, by 1846, when Thoreau was living at Walden Pond, Boston had taken the lead in American science by possessing the deepest infrastructure to support scientific inquiry. As Robert Bruce has documented (1987, pp. 29 ff.), the factors that came into play for Boston to assume this role indicate deep historical and cultural roots, the most important being a strong educational tradition in Puritan New England and the support offered by Boston's social and commercial elite who, in underwriting institutions of learning, expressed an ideal of stewardship and noblesse oblige. Combined with a strong Yankee competitive work ethic and a cultural ideal that opportune circumstances might be translated into material gain, the key institutions supporting science—societies, libraries, colleges—were richly endowed.


Such resources promoted the professionalization of scientists. By 1846, two out of every three scientists confined themselves to a single major field, and specialization was even more practiced than this statistic indicates. The third of the scientists who apparently worked in several disciplines were actually more likely to perform minor interdisciplinary research. For instance, the number of crossover geologists might be increased by counting a chemist who analyzed geological specimens, or a physicist who measured terrestrial magnetism. On closer scrutiny, there was widespread application of specialized interests and skills (ibid., p. 94).

So in the mid-1840s, of the life scientists listed in the Dictionary of American Biography, 10 percent bore the oldfashioned label of “naturalist.” While there was a rich tradition of natural history in America (e.g., the wellknown travels of the Bartrams, the celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition, the popular paintings of Audubon), by this time the work of the naturalists was being eclipsed by a descriptive biology based on another scientific agenda. Zoology heavily influenced by an intellectual explosion in geology and paleontology expanded prodigiously; growing controversy over the nature of species would swell into the polemics over Darwinism in 1859; descriptive embryology was radically changing as a result of the acceptance of the cell theory in the 1840s and the preoccupation with species relationships; physiology was emerging as a new discipline, stimulated in large measure by attempts to make medical correlations. And botany was growing as a specialty area, led by Harvard's Asa Gray, whose Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States (1848) made an organized science out of American systematic botany. But Americans, despite their professionalization in the various life sciences, lagged behind Europe in experimental biology. Indeed, there was no significant research before 1880 in that arena, and despite ambitious American enterprise, the instrumentation and technology required to support sophisticated scientific research also remained largely European until the next century.

Much of the growth of American science in the nineteenth century depended upon the colleges and the societies, both of which lobbied the government and wealthy patrons for support. By promoting science and presenting its advances to the public at large, scientific societies served to increase the cultural presence of science generally. Strong amateur participation characterized these societies. Both the Boston Society of Natural History and the older American Academy of Arts and Sciences (founded 1780) housed a majority that was made up of “gentlemen who, to use an expression of … [the] founders [of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia], are ‘friendly to science’ and its cultivation. Many of them pursue science

only as a recreation during leisure hours, some are pleased to observe and know what others do, and others are content to encourage those who work” (from a report on the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; cited by Bruce 1987, p. 36). During the 1840s, even a small village might form a “scientific society” to organize discussion groups and host lectures, for the insularity of professional exchange had yet to be created, and those inclined could still engage directly with the latest discoveries and theories.

Mid-Nineteenth-century science was thus accessible to a broad population, both conceptually and socially. The larger scientific societies played an important role in science's “democratization” by distributing information and serving as important repositories of books, periodicals, specimens, and apparatus that might be employed even by the amateur. Amateurism was part of the general democratic ethos of American society of this post-Jacksonian period, and so we might well imagine that Thoreau could affiliate comfortably with the Boston Society of Natural History and still maintain a strong aloofness from the trend to professionalize. He lived in multiple worlds. Indeed, Emerson and Whitman, like Thoreau, not only respected scientists, they sought their company and welcomed interchange with them (Bruce 1987, p. 118). But the tides were, in fact, changing, and the respected amateur scientist was rapidly being eclipsed by the professional. In 1846, when Thoreau was studying Walden Pond and its surrounding forests, only 15 percent of the leading scientists (as determined by their listing in the Dictionary of American Biography) were amateurs, drawing no income from their sciencerelated work; by the time of Thoreau's death sixteen years later, the percentage had shrunk to 9 percent (Bruce 1987, p. 135). In regard to natural history in particular, Agassiz was instrumental in relegating its field studies to secondrate status, reducing its fieldbased model to an amateur standing (as opposed to specialty training offered at Harvard), and essentially disfranchising the scientific role of its supporting institutions like the Boston Society of Natural History (Kohlstedt 1976; Walls 1995, p. 146). Already in the 1840s, research and study groups at Harvard were superseding the training, cooperative enterprises, and research activities of the Boston Society, so that by 1867, when the society opened its own Museum of Science, its goals had become almost entirely educational as opposed to researchoriented.

Agassiz's sentiments were formed in Europe, where natural history, especially in the Germanspeaking states, was already being professionalized (Nyhart 1996, pp. 426–29). With an emphasis on morphology and physiology, a new journal (founded in 1848),Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, sought to establish a more scientific approach to what passed for

natural history as Thoreau might have understood it. Excluding what they deemed applied topics and plain taxonomy, the editors wrote:

We desire to give our journal the most scientific character possible…. To this purpose we exclude all announcements of new genera and species that do not relate to this task, unless they offer us a more thoroughgoing insight into plant and animal structure [Bau], into the lifehistory of animals and plants, or in the lawful organization of the organic realms. For the same reason we will exclude any kind of simple notes and natural history news. (Quoted by Nyhart 1996, p. 429)

With the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, the boundaries of natural history were again redrawn, and the fate of life histories in the evolving discipline of biology followed a complex path. This move toward a scientific ethos which emphasized “structure” and “organization” and disregarded nonsystematic natural history “notes” and “news” reflected the influence of an increasingly stringent view of the organic realm. To a large extent this attitude drifted in from German reductionism, born in the 1840s (Galaty 1974), and in the drive toward a reductionist account of nature we witness the most dramatic contrast to Thoreau's own endeavor. Not only did reductionism reflect an orientation radically different from his holism, but the adherents of its approach were professional scientists, who were little concerned with the practice of what they perceived to be an outmoded style of studying nature.

Thus by the 1850s, despite the democratization of science, a perceptible widening schism had opened between the professionals and their supporting culture. Some scientists of the period admittedly deplored the political and social necessity of promoting and popularizing their profession. For instance, in 1854 James Dana complained that to satisfy the “vulgar appetites of the people,” science had to be “diluted and mixed with a sufficient amount of the spirit of the age” (cited by Bruce 1987, p. 115). It is not clear what Dana meant specifically by “spirit of the age,” but he might well have had in mind the lingering Romantic airs, which were not easily mixed with the emerging clouds of invention and burgeoning technology issuing forth from laboratories revitalized by a new scientific ethos.


Walt Whitman,By the Roadside (1865)

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist nightair, and from time to time, look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Walt Whitman was not sanguine about the education he received in popular lectures, and more to the point, he intuitively resisted objectification of the cosmos. The world of letters had a complex relationship to science, but certainly it is no exaggeration that a dominant theme was the deep fear about science's unleashed power (e.g., as framed by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [1818]). Mid-Nineteenth-century literati offered a tenacious resistance to the allure of scientific knowledge and its attendant technological promise. As a young Henry Adams predicted in 1862, shortly before Thoreau's death,

Man has mounted science, and is now run away with it. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world. Not only shall we be able to cruize in space, but I see no reason why some future generation shouldn't walk off like a beetle with the world on its back. (Letter to Charles Francis Adams, London, April 11, 1862, Adams 1920, 1:135)

Famously, Romantic criticism called into question the legitimacy of science both as a mode of cognition and as a social institution (Marx 1979). The theme that seems to connect both elements of the Romantic critique is Schiller's warnings against “disenchantment.” Disenchantment here comprises the belief that there are no mysterious forces at play, that “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (Weber [1922] 1946).[14] At one level this clearly optimistic outlook elevates science as the bearer of all (only seemingly esoteric) knowledge. On the other hand, the process of scientific analysis evidently denied any possibility of a metaphysical/religious/ “enchanted” response to nature. This Romantic indictment charged science with wrenching man out of his privileged niche, where he once resided unique in nature, a privileged creature in communication with God. It laid modern metaphysical disjointedness at the feet of an imperialistic scientific worldview which not only defined nature and humankind in antispiritual language but called into question the legitimacy and value of other modes of knowing the world. Science subordinated human intuition, imagination, and feeling to intellectual abstraction. Thus the Romantics' revolt against the positivists. Against the reductionists, critics accused science of breaking

unified nature asunder, incapable of reassembling the fragments. The consequences, they railed, were dire for both man and society: an inevitable metaphysical vacuum yawned where once religion stood. Any of these accusations and concerns express a profound remorse for a lost innocence.

Science, however, had never claimed to address the problem of meaning; to do science is, practically and pragmatically, to believe in its methods and its results. Consequently, to ask science to answer moral questions is to make a fundamental category error. The scientific language does not allow this sort of question to be asked within the confines of its own grammar. Science does not “partake of the contemplation of sages and philosophers about meaning in the universe” (Weber [1922] 1946). Thoreau did not want to disfranchise science from metaphysical meaning. He would have disagreed with Max Weber, who despaired that these “ultimately possible attitudes towards life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion” (ibid.). Rather, Thoreau sought to place scientific insight within a broader humanistic universe. Ultimately, he would interpret morally the world that science presented, creating a portrait of nature from atomistic facts, ordered and signified by the aesthetic and spiritual vision which informed his own worldview. In these pursuits he was in good company.

A stark division between Victorian science's worldview and the literary reaction to it is too neat and prescriptive, and certainly did not apply universally either to the scientists or to the literati. In fact, the broadest intellectual concerns of some leading scientists during the Victorian period attest to the humane character of their scientific endeavors and the falsity of dividing the intellectual world into simple proscience and antiscience groups. Nineteenth-century science was too multifarious an enterprise to be delineated so clearly, and more to the point, the deepest metaphysical aspirations of its practitioners arose from concerns shared with their poetic brethren. Tess Cosslett (1982, pp. 11–30) has outlined the values of Victorian science in this humanistic context along the following lines:

1. Truth: The search for truth should reject the easy consolations of religion, for nature never lies and she provides a standard of veracity. This scientific fidelity to the truth of nature alone was seen by Thomas Huxley as the basis of morality, for

the foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge. (Huxley 1886, p. 146)

On this view, those holding science as the standard of veracity seize the moral high ground from those embracing the fantastic revelations of religious tradition, and instead help establish ethics on a foundation of reason.

2. Law: Science discerns laws of natural causation and thereby can perceive a deeper order in the universe than that expressed by poetic or religious imagination. For instance, John Tyndall (a celebrated physicist and popular commentator on science [1820–93]) saw science as the effort to place man harmoniously within the natural cosmos. Scientific culture is

based upon the natural relations subsisting between Man and the universe of which he forms a part…. The world was built in order: and to us are trusted the will and power to discern its harmonies, and to make them lessons of our lives. (Tyndall 1854, p. 302)

Huxley similarly believed that moral order might derive from natural order, for the same faith in, and search for, laws of cause and effect learned from nature might be applied to the understanding and the regulating of human conduct. This extrapolation was also sought by the Transcendentalists, albeit with different methods (see chapter 3).

3. Kinship with nature: Natural causation not only implies regularity but also confers an inherent unity with nature (as discussed in chapter 3; Postlethwaite 1984; Dale 1989). So, while Darwinian evolution or Lyellian geology was metaphysically destabilizing in one sense, to be intelligible these theories still had to be coherent. Thus the interconvertibility of light and heat, the evolution of species, the rise and fall of mountains sounded the keynotes of unity and continuity. As a popularizer wrote in 1888, “all things are made of the same stuff differently mixed, bound by one force, stirred by one energy in divers forms” (Clodd 1888, p. 231). The barriers between inorganic and organic were thus broken down by the universal operation of scientific law and a universal materialism. Tyndall and Huxley insisted that this view did not degrade the “organic” but rather dignified the “inorganic,” a position also championed by Coleridge and Thoreau, as well as many others.

So instead of the material analogy being extended upwards, the analogy of life could equally well be extended downwards, and the whole of Nature, including man, be seen as one living organism, rather than one dead machine. Instead of feeling an alien in a hostile universe, man can just as well have a new feeling of kinship with the rest of Nature. (Cosslett 1982, p. 22)

On this view, “mechanism” has become “organism” and “matter” has been transmuted into “process.” These formulations humanize nature into categories analogous to human agency and action.


4. Organic interrelation: While the organic view of nature rests on the integrated unity of nature as its primary characteristic, in addition it holds the critical corollaries that each organic part is integral to the whole and each element has an essential effect on that whole. This view had deep aesthetic and moral implications, especially telling when human history and natural history were seen as one. Humanity from this vantage can be viewed as one perpetual, selfrenewing, transgenerational organism. Regarded as of one piece, each constituent is responsible for, and to, the whole. So, as discussed in chapter 1 in regard to the moral value of the present, each act, no matter how seemingly inconsequential or trivial, assumes a cosmic significance both in its own right and by its effects on subsequent human history.

5. Scientific imagination: While they rejected Romanticism's subjectivity, some Victorian scientists (e.g., Tyndall) recognized that scientific creativity still rested upon Imagination, and they used the notion in the same way Coleridge did. Because of its affinity with idealism and an older Naturphilosophie, this notion was highly controversial, and while embraced by certain philosophers of science (e.g., William Whewell and David Brewster), it must be regarded as a retained characteristic of Romanticism that did not readily find a compatible environment in a scientific culture increasingly dominated by a materialist positivism. In the perspective of this residually Romantic view, Imagination referred to the unifying, allencompassing vision which, by grounding theory, offered the connecting apparatus for disjointed objective observations. For instance, in order to perceive nature as a unified organism, the scientist must look at nature as integrated in the first place. A theory of such an organic construction then follows, and then facts and data can be placed within that formal model. Thus Imagination in the employ of the scientist underlies both the gathering of data and the construction of theory. Moving between particular fact and general theory, the visible and the invisible, the real and the ideal, scientific imagination was not “unbridled” (since it always referred back to the particulars of nature), but its ability to serve as a metaphysical “glue” depended on its reference to the Real.

Yeo (1985) maintains that a transmutation of this form of Romantic idealism took place later in the nineteenth century, when the orienting role of hypothesis was increasingly recognized, so that intuitive generalization became constitutive of scientific reasoning. This said, deep and abiding tensions between the poet's and the scientist's approach and resulting worldviews remained. The mystery and transcendental quality conferred by scientific insight fundamentally lies outside formal science praxis. Science has no voice to articulate its vision in terms that are subjective. So when the scientist

faces the ultimate mysteries, he must step across the line dividing science from religion and poetry and acknowledge what Herbert Spencer called “The Unknowable.” John Tyndall eloquently attested:

In one sense [science] knows, or is destined to know, everything. In another sense it knows nothing. Science understands much of this intermediate phase of things that we call nature, of which it is the product; but science knows nothing of the origin or destiny of nature. Who or what made the sun and gave his rays their alleged power? Who or what made and bestowed upon the ultimate particles of matter their wonderous power of varied interaction? Science does not know: the mystery, though pushed back, remains unaltered. (1865, 2:52)

Humane scientists like Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall, in promoting the power of scientific explanation, acknowledged the limits of the scientific dominion. With an appreciation that could only be developed from an education steeped in humanistic values, they understood that science's values of objectivity were, indeed,values. Science is ultimately based on a belief in the values of objectivity, rationality, and order as construed within certain limits and prescriptions. These are chosen for particular purposes and undergo historical development: in this sense, scientific principles are themselves historically and culturally conditioned. Thoreau could join this liberal company and stretch himself, as they did, between two intellectual universes, which at the time did not appear as disparate as they do today: the world of humane letters and the world of science. To us, now, it may seem selfevident that the two discourses are governed by different rules of thought, that their respective rationalities possess a different character, and that their objects of study demand different methods of exploration. But in the mid-nineteenth century a synthesis was still possible in the mind of the individual whose eclectic interests allowed diverse pursuits. The tensions and potential contradictions that resulted were regarded as problems, not dilemmas.

Thoreau, in some sense, was a synthesizer, but we situate him among the scientists of his era, even the most poetically inclined, only with difficulty. While he respected the power of scientific knowledge to “capture” a fact and hold it up to scrutiny, Thoreau had a conflicted view of that public fact, and ultimately he gave primacy to the “private” fact and the intimate truth it revealed to him. Concomitant with his personal quest, he found his own facts in his own characteristic fashion, and to do so, he selfconsciously placed himself outside the scientific community even as he visited it. However, Thoreau could not escape his scientific culture: science only heightened his self-consciousness—epistemologically, metaphysically, and existentially.

And as scientific objectivity increasingly asserted itself against the centrifugal forces of subjectivity, Thoreau attempted to maintain his own true orbit, balancing the centripetal pull of objectification against the collapsing attraction of solipsism. He lived a delicate equilibrium.


The eye which can appreciate the naked and absolute beauty of a scientific truth is far more rare than that which is attracted by a moral one. Few detect the morality in the former, or the science in the latter.

Thoreau,A Week, 1980a, p. 361

I suspect that the child plucks its first flower with an insight into its beauty & significance which the subsequent botanist never retains.

Thoreau, February 5, 1852, Journal 4, 1992, p. 329

The scientist never sees anything for the first time.

Bachelard 1969, p. 156

Thoreau lived in a transitional period in our culture, when the inspiration offered by a Goethian view was still sympathetically appreciated and the selfconscious positivist approach to nature was in active ascendancy. Thoreau keenly felt the tug of each, and we see the swings of attitude toward formal science as an expression of his own ambivalence. Only when we restrict our vision of Thoreau to him as a “naturalist” or a “scientist” in the narrow sense do we oblige ourselves to scrutinize his observations by the standards of those disciplines. To be sure, he suffers our critique quite well, but that is beside the point. For Thoreau, the observation of nature served another purpose beyond a value in and of itself. The naturalist was in the employ of the artist who in turn served the moralist. When Thoreau concludes Walden by observing, “We know not where we are” (1971, p. 332), he is not acknowledging defeat but alluding to a means for fulfillment. It is precisely in being aware of our confusion and looking for our place that we might begin the redemptive task: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations” (ibid., p. 171). In the process, the situating of man in nature remains ongoing.

Thoreau is distinguished from the positivists by his assertion of the inextricability of human value from our assessment and study of nature. During

a period when ideas on nature were undergoing radical objectification, he maintained the primacy of the subject to behold nature with a personalized vision, which brought a set of values and selfjudgments that could not be escaped. His views have found posthumous support in the rise of a popular attitude toward nature that we now refer to as the environmental movement, and more generally in later philosophical reassessments of positivism. The modern environmental movement expresses a popular disenchantment with a sterile survey of nature and seeks instead to view the world in humane terms—aesthetic or moral—where the human mediator's centrality in interpretation is always given. This general perspective has also received a renewed legitimacy in mid-twentieth-century postpositivist critiques of science, which are useful to situate Thoreau's own views.

Positivism continued to garner strength into the twentieth century, and its program achieved its major influence from the 1920s into the 1950s under the guise of logical positivism (also called logical empiricism). This movement, often identified as the Vienna Circle, extended well beyond science into the social sciences and largely shaped analytic philosophy, whose principle concerns dealt with how sentences might be verified and thus determined as truthful or not (Ayer 1959; Kolakowski 1968; Giere and Richardson 1996). Putting aside the issues concerning the analytic basis of truth statements in ordinary language, logical empiricism, extrapolating from its key tenet that scientific method alone provides knowledge, regarded a statement as cognitively meaningful only if it was “scientific,” that is, empirically veridical. In this context, propositions are meaningful only if they can be assessed by an appeal to some foundational form of sensory experience. Thus proponents of this Vienna Circle position espoused science as the gold standard of knowledge, because sense data—especially in the form of mechanical objectivity—were treated as worthy of foundational status; and, conversely, given such criteria for a basis for truth claims, these positivists judged religious, metaphysical, and ethical statements “meaningless.”

This strong empirical orientation has been justly challenged on many philosophical, historical, and sociological grounds. Most celebrated of those assailants was Thomas Kuhn, who, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962; 2d ed., 1970), argued that scientific evolution did not exclusively follow such precepts and that other social and aesthetic factors were important determinants of scientific truth.[15] Indeed, according to Kuhn, scientific evolution occurred in two modes: “normal” science was the ordinary confirmation of encompassing theory; “revolutionary” science radically altered the entire structure of scientific investigation, redefining a worldview. Once

a new construction was in place, this socalled “paradigm” again determined normal praxis. Famously, paradigms were the conglomerate of cultural, political, economic, aesthetic and sociological ingredients that constituted the highly complex activity we refer to as science. The pursuit of truth, of course, remained science's cardinal aspiration. But truth, rationality, and objectivity evinced by the historical record were more contingently constructed than the positivist ideal acknowledged. Coupled to historically based critiques, philosophers, led by Paul Feyerabend (1975, 1981a, 1981b), argued that there was no prescribed, orthodox scientific method and that science was better characterized as a plurality of philosophies and practices. Finally, sociologists firmly placed science among other social institutions and showed how scientific practice was influenced by a vast intellectual and cultural infrastructure (Hollis and Lukes 1982; Jasanoff et al. 1995). In short, argued the critics, science was hardly normative, and because of an intricate matrix of philosophical, historical, and cultural contingencies, it could not possess a singular universal and prescribed method of discovery or verification. Some further argued that as a result of these critiques, even science's cognitive content was open to new skepticism.[16]

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a blossoming of alternatives to the rational models of scientific progress that increasingly put the positivist proponents on the defensive. Instead a constructivist argument became dominant which, in its broadest interpretation, disallowed the insularity to the practicing scientist sought by the logicalempirical perspective.[17] Accordingly, in seeking objectivity, the researcher works under the auspices of pragmatic, realist demands as well as within an intricate web of social and linguistic constraints. Debate ensued about to what degree such “extraneous” factors determined the cognitive content of scientific descriptions. Contemporary philosophical, historical, and sociological perspectives largely converged in concluding that objectivity cannot be arrived at by transcendental, timeless norms of scientific practice (Megill 1994). Yet these critical perspectives diverge in the degree to which they see social forces effecting scientific content. And here we find the locus of contention. Those embracing a radical constructivist orientation hold that objectivity is achieved primarily as a matter of rhetorical practice and communal praxis.[18] Because the individual cannot achieve objectivity as a private mental condition, monitoring objectivity then becomes a matter of broad social policy, and a communal notion of objectivity takes on a new dimension.

If Kuhn spawned the major thrust of “social” critiques of positivist science, others drove the discussion back into the cognizing scientist, a perspective most relevant to our discussion of Thoreau's personalized epistemology.

The clearest articulation countermanding positivist injunctions for logical empiricism at this level of discourse was offered by Michael Polanyi, who wrote Personal Knowledge in 1958 just as the positivist crest was about to crash. I think it informative in exploring Thoreau's views to understand how his concerns were later reframed and legitimated by Polyani's critique proposed a century later.

Personal Knowledge begins with the bald assertion, “I start by rejecting the ideal of scientific detachment” (Polanyi 1962, p. vii), and proceeds by analyzing the word “knowing” to show that its connotations refer to many levels of understanding. Impersonal, “objective” knowledge is only one kind aspired to, but even this category, according to Polanyi, is a conceit, and a limiting one at that. His complex argument attacks the positivists' position essentially from within the strictures of their own logic (incidentally, very different from the strategy employed by Kuhn), and I will only highlight certain aspects. Much of the argument concerns the logical futility of establishing any fixed framework which could critically test the positivist program. In other words, the positivists offer no perspective from which their own axioms might be examined critically. Specifically, we cannot escape our own perspective, the personal assessment that is intrinsic to any knowing. Simply put, Polanyi regarded the positivist view of science's logic as too narrow. He saw “rationality” as a broader category than the criterion of objectivity construed in a narrow sense. He notes,

the act of knowing includes an appraisal; and this personal coefficient, which shapes all factual knowledge, bridges in doing so the disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity. It implies the claim that man can transcend his own subjectivity by striving passionately to fulfill his personal obligations to universal standards. (Ibid., p. 17)

Polanyi explicitly discounts subjectivism and substitutes personal. In this fashion he still aspired to objectivity's ostensible goals. This is not an either/or choice, for Polanyi would simply broaden our cognitive category of “objectivity” to include those mental faculties which play in the realm of discovery and cannot be, in any formal fashion, finalized in logical format. He also explicitly recognizes the “legitimacy of pretheoretical experience— which is not the same as random subjectivity!” (Hansen 1990, p. 14). He was to call this broadened realm of knowing the “tacit dimension” (Polanyi 1966), and in that domain the full panoply of knowing—aesthetic sensibility, probabilistic judgment, intuition, metaphoric extension, and the like—comes into play. In short, Polanyi argued that we see the world through different cognitive lenses, each of which has a part to play in scientific discovery.


In still offering an objective vision of the world mediated by the active person in his or her various knowing modalities, Polanyi resurrects the deeper metaphysical goals of science. Sounding a rich Thoreauvian theme, he employs objectivity as a humane tool:

Objectivity … does not require that we see ourselves as a mere grain of sand in a million Saharas. It inspires us, on the contrary, with the hope of overcoming the appalling disabilities of our bodily existence, even to the point of conceiving a rational idea of the universe which can authoritatively speak for itself. It is not a counsel of selfeffacement, but the very reverse—a call to the Pygmalion in the mind of man. (Polanyi 1962, p. 5)

For Polanyi, science is a passion, which despite its apparent austerity and aloofness must reflect a deeply personal way of viewing the world.

[P]ersonal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality. Of this responsibility we cannot divest ourselves by setting up objective criteria of verifiability—or falsifiability, or testability, or what you will. For we live in it as in the garment of our own skin. Like love, to which it is akin, this commitment is a “shirt of flame,” blazing with passion and, also like love, consumed by devotion to a universal demand. Such is the true sense of objectivity in science … the discovery of rationality in nature, a name which was meant to say that the kind of order which the discoverer claims to see in nature goes far beyond his understanding. (Ibid., p. 64)

Wary of becoming ensnared in the confines of restricted theory or disciplines of thought and, more importantly perhaps, limited to only a narrow wedge of experience and modes of knowing, the scientist by the latter third of the twentieth century again becomes the arbiter of what warrants inclusion (the problem of different layers of reality) and endeavors to widen his or her scope of investigation and worldview to become as inclusive as possible. I would not suggest that Polyani is reviving “subjectivism,” but he is espousing subjectivity's recognized role in scientific discovery and theory formation. Rather than deny the selective process of observation and the interpretative character of scientific investigation, Polyani embraces them. Thus “personal knowledge” becomes a catchall for the necessary creative elements which cannot be accounted for in the positivist rendition of science.

As presented earlier, objectivity is intrinsically coupled to notions of subjectivity: one cannot speak of one without at least implicit reference to the other. Our regard of the subjective has been recast. We no longer are inspired

by Goethian Sturm und Drang nor guided by Coleridgean Imagination, but we do appreciate the unfathomable depths of creativity and celebrate its application to science. Further, we understand that scientific discovery follows no prescribed “rules”: scientific methods evolve and have no final structure; verification is never complete, and theory is always “underdetermined”; “facts” are invariably embedded in complex structures which may range from formal laws to informal models to nebulous hypotheses, and thereby facts have no clear status or meaning. To render order with such pliable cognitive structures, we must interpret, and interpretation requires judgment in all of its various guises, ranging from a positivist ideal to the vaguest of intuitions. Having no final calculus of scientific reasoning, we might fairly regard the Romantics' scientific project, and their epistemology more generally, with greater sympathy. We are less prone to dismiss their struggle of placing the subjectobject distinction in a humane framework now that we recognize that indeed there is no escape from our own perspective. In philosophy, this socalled “perspectivism” is most often traced to Nietzsche, but in studying Goethe or Thoreau, we witness the unresolved tension between achieving various degrees of objectivity and maintaining—indeed, insisting on—the integrity of the observer. Theirs was a sensitive appraisal of how individual assignment of significance and meaning conferred value on their observation.

While the cognitive confluence between subject and object was formalized and developed in twentieth-century philosophy as an epistemological problem in science, Goethe's “solution” (followed by Thoreau), namely, that the aesthetic experience may serve to integrate self and the world, was essentially ignored (Tauber 1993, 1996a). Yet we must acknowledge that scientific knowledge is variegated and complex, incorporating what I have called “raw observation” as well as “contextualized observation,” of which “the beautiful” is a crucial component. It is insufficient merely to call upon such notions as “key insight,” “beautiful experiments,” and “elegant theory,” as glosses for the “extrascientific” aspects of the experiences of a few scientists of titanic creativity. The very practice of everyday science, beyond its drudgery and frustration, must embody recognition and realization of a personalized ideal which governs the undertaking as much as impersonal standards of objectivity. While this position may be supported by a variety of strategies, it is most effectively advanced in the recognition that science, being essentially a creative project, must acknowledge that component of the personal which we call the aesthetic.[19] Thoreau, led by Goethe and other Romanticists, keenly understood our predicament, embracing the notion that the poet's eye might serve science in seeking nature's true design. As

Thoreau confided to his Journal, “the laws of nature are science but in an enlightened moment they are morality and modes of divine life. In a medium intellectual state they are aesthetics” (September 28, 1843,Journal 1, 1981, p. 468). The aesthetic in this sense serves as a crucial faculty reintegrating experience. In short, the aesthetic dimension may be the bridge that unifies the objective, qua scientific, with the subjective, qua personal. As Goethe wrote, “Nowhere would anyone grant that science and poetry can be united. They forgot that science arose from poetry, and did not see that when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends” (Goethe [1817] 1988). From this perspective, the scientist, just as the poet, draws upon the same aesthetic resources as a primary component of his experience (Tauber 1996a).[20]

While science often appears most driven by its quest for technical mastery, its aspirations for explanation draw upon a deep aesthetic reservoir, one steeped in the metaphysical thirst for meaning.[21] The dissection of the world has yielded a kind of knowledge which beckons to be coordinated in our full human experience. The scientific object may reside seemingly separate— “out there”—the focus of an inquiry of what it is, in itself (ignoring the philosophical difficulties of that expectation), but the challenge is to integrate that object into our full experience, rational and emotional. The search for this common ground is the elusive synthesis of our very selves in a world ever more objectified from us—a beguiling reminder of the lingering fault of our very identity. To the extent that we appreciate that our twoculture world reflects a disjunction of that integration, we gain insight into a metaphysical chasm that may still be mended. Thoreau has offered hope that such a project might still be successful. Instead of regarding science and poetry as disparate, he chose to integrate them within his own expansive experience, knitting their apparent divergence into a creative composite, a new vision of nature.

How then do the crucial and variable elements of creative intuition, deduction, observation, replicable method, and assembly of disparate information create “objective” reality? This has been the question informing most discussion in the philosophy of science during the twentieth century, and we might judge that Thoreau's project had philosophical merit on many levels as evident from the course of our own debates. At a minimum he might well have argued that science, too, is governed by values, which of course are both chosen and developed, hardly existing as steadfast and unchanging. Indeed, as Hilary Putnam (1982) has urged, we must get past the rigid fact/value dichotomy, for science itself is subject to assuming value judgments regarding its own practice and can hardly be said to proceed by

any formal, final method. When theory and fact conflict, sometimes one is given up, sometimes the other, and the choice as often as not is made “aesthetically,” by adopting what appears to be the simplest, the most parsimonious, or elegant, or coherent—qualities which themselves are values. These are what Putnam calls actionguiding terms, the vocabulary of justification, also historically conditioned and subject to the same debates concerning the conception of rationality. The attempt to restrict coherence and simplicity to predictive theories is selfrefuting, for the very logic required even to argue such a case depends on intellectual interests unrelated to prediction as such. Putnam concludes that if coherence and simplicity are values, albeit the objective values governing science, then the classic argument against the objectivity of ethical values is undercut, for all values suffer of the same “subjective softness.” The point is to dispel the intellectual hubris of the scientific attitude and allow “that all values, including the cognitive ones, derive their authority from our idea of human flourishing and our idea of reason” (ibid.). This is a matter to which we must return, but let us first complete situating Thoreau's own immediate concerns.

The final ingredient—one we have considered from several vantages already—is to regard nature as of one piece, where each part—ourselves included—must be understood in relation to the whole. This is what Polanyi referred to as nature's “rationality,” and as Thoreau affirmed in Walden,

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveller, a mountain outline varies with each step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form. Even when cleft or bored through it is not comprehended in its entireness. (1971, pp. 290–91)

This vision also requires a poetic faculty whereby one might see the integration of diverse nature into a single whole. The communal flash might occur observing a hawk flying (ibid., pp. 316–17), contemplating the weeds in a field (ibid., p. 166), or while fishing:

It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this

faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook. (Ibid., p. 175)

In this sense, science—as observation of nature—also becomes personalized, that is, personally meaningful at a level of comprehension beyond that experienced by those confined to a narrow positivist definition of what might be scientific. For our culture, dominated by a scientific worldview that too often is regarded as competing against humane values, the path leading to personalized knowledge begins at the door of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond.

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