previous sub-section
next sub-section



1. There is little doubt where Thoreau placed science in the hierarchy of knowledge, even in his mature period. Two examples will suffice:

Even the facts of science may dust the mind by their dryness—unless they are in a sense effaced each morning or rather rendered fertile by the dews of fresh & living truth (July 7, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, p. 291)

The scientific startling & successful as it is, is always some thing less than the vague poetic … it is the sun shorn of its beams a mere disk … Science applies a finite rule to the infinite.–& is what you can weigh & measure and bring away. Its sun no longer dazzles us and fills the universe with light. (January 5, 1850, ibid., p. 44)

Indeed, Thoreau fully recognized his discomforture when too committed to a “scientific” pursuit, e.g., writing his sister in 1852: “I am not on the trail of any elephants or mastodons, but have succeeded in trapping only a few ridiculous mice, which can not feed my imagination. I have become sadly scientific” (Correspondence, 1958, p. 283). But as this chapter will show, Thoreau did use science for his own purposes, seeking objective facts of nature to ground his own aesthetic and spiritual musings. An interesting contrast with Emerson is that Thoreau seems not to have operated within a particular scientific paradigm as his mentor apparently did. According to Eric Wilson (1999), Emerson's fascination with electromagnetism inspired the powerful metaphors of Nature. Translating organic life into electric force and Romantic symbols into electromagnetic circuits, the essay became “a linguistic version of the electrical cosmos.” Nature as animated and charged drew Emerson to conceive the unity of nature in such terms and to deepen his appreciation of the sublime order of the cosmos. As discussed later in this chapter, the shared metaphysics of unity linked the scientific and Romanticpoetic worldviews; so in this context, Emerson's project is characteristic of the era. The interesting point, however, is that Emerson chose a particular scientific theory upon which to hang his idealism and ground his version of the sublime. [BACK]

2. There are numerous testaments to Thoreau's jaundiced view of objectivism in the guise of scientific inquiry. For example:

The astronomer is as blind to the significant phenomena—or the significance of phenomena as the woodsawyer who wears glasses to defend his eyes from sawdust–The question is not what you look at—but how you look & whether you see. (Thoreau, August 5, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, pp. 354–55)

Science is inhuman. Things seen with a microscope begin to be insignificant. So described, they are as monstrous as if they should be magnified a thousand diameters. Suppose I should see and describe men and houses and trees and birds as if they were a thousand times larger than they are! With our prying instruments we disturb the balance and harmony of nature. (May 1, 1859, Journal, [1906] 1962, 12: 171)

3. A subtle venture to address this issue is offered by Daniel Peck, who has astutely argued that Thoreau wrestled with the “realness” of phenomenon, a

catchall class for what Peck maintains is a synthesis between Thoreau's obvious commitment to objective observation and his poetic faculty of aesthetic perception (1990, 1991). Peck interprets Thoreau as seeking to establish the relation among elements as signified by science without relinquishing the implications of philosophical idealism. Thus in Peck's scheme, the “phenomenon” captures the totality of experience, both objectively and aesthetically. Almost analogous to a “painting of the mind,” the “phenomenon” stands out as a selfaware picture of the world (in the form of, say, a landscape or cluster of natural objects). Things remain “things,” but imagination orders them in composition and for contemplation: birds, trees, clouds, and so on do indeed belong both to the real world of nature and to the domain of the mind. But how to understand that relation? The aesthetics of nineteenth-century art criticism à la Ruskin or Gilpin hardly sufficed (ibid.), and the ontological standing of “phenomena” remained problematic.

Thoreau was highly critical of Ruskin (e.g., October 6, 1857,Journal, [1906] 1962, 10:69; October 29, 1857, ibid., p. 147), but Peck notes that this criticism was largely unfair, inasmuch as Ruskin's writings certainly reinforced and refined Thoreau's own ideas on nature's symmetry, its “likeness of forms” (Peck 1990, p. 65). But according to Daniel Pick there might have been an even deeper resonance linking Thoreau to Ruskin:

Ruskin understood, ahead of impressionism, that our knowledge of the visible world creates the difficulties of art. We do not simply see afresh as we look through our eyes; our vision today is slave to our experience. If we could forget what we already know, we would see differently, better, he declared in The Elements of Drawing (1857): “The perception of solid Form is entirely a matter of experience. We see nothing but flat colours; and it is only by a series of experiments that we find out that stain of black or grey indicates the dark side of a solid substance, or that a feint hue indicates that the object in which it appears is far away.” … It was crucial to free oneself as far as possible from any presumption of knowledge. All great artists, Ruskin proposed, have a capacity to look anew at shapes and colours; to see the world with what he took to be a childlike innocence. (Pick 1997, pp. 197–98) [BACK]

4. I am indebted to Philip Cafaro for alerting me to the significance of the bream episode, and whose unpublished paper “Thoreau on Science and System” has offered me important insights. See Cafaro 1997 for a reading different from my own of how Thoreau might be regarded from a virtue ethics perspective, discussed in chapter 6. [BACK]

5. See n. 17 to chapter 2. [BACK]

6. “We boast of our system of education, but why stop at schoolmasters and schoolhouses? We are all schoolmasters, and our schoolhouse is the universe. To attend chiefly to the desk or schoolhouse while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed is absurd. If we do not look out we shall find our fine schoolhouse standing in a cowyard at last.” (Thoreau 2000, p. 238) [BACK]

7. Origin was published in 1859, and Thoreau read the book in early 1860. Thoreau first encountered the text when Charles Brace, a New York social worker and brotherinlaw of Asa Gray (a Harvard botanist and correspondent of Darwin's),

brought a copy of the newly published book to Concord. On January 1, 1860, Brace, Bronson Alcott, and Thoreau had dinner at Frank Sanborn's home and discussed the new book. Thoreau soon got his own copy, made extensive notes, and, as a Sanborn letter indicates, apparently told Sanborn that he liked Origin very much (Harding 1965, p. 429). There are other indications that Darwin might have counted Thoreau as an intellectual comrade based on disparaging remarks Thoreau made about Agassiz, a Darwin nemesis (ibid.), but there is little by which we might assess the extent of influence Origin had on Thoreau's thinking. Harding thought Darwin's theories had appeared too late to have any significant influence (ibid.), while Richardson misassigns a Journal entry, where Thoreau applauds himself for reading clues in the wild and comments on the receptivity of the mind for such decoding, as a comment on Thoreau's preparedness to accept Darwin's thesis (Richardson 1993, p. 12). But Thoreau's late scientific interests and style of work suggest that he did, indeed, comprehend well the significance of Darwin's work and was keen to perceive its manifestations in his own observations, particularly the dispersion of seeds project. [BACK]

8. As discussed in chapter 4, it is apparent that some scientists of the high Victorian period were able to translate the Romantic sensibility of wholeness and harmony into a post-Darwinian construct. For instance, Thomas Huxley, “Darwin's Bulldog” and most celebrated British champion of Darwinism, emphasized how the theory offered both unifying explanation and a vision of harmony in nature. For Huxley, the primary import of Darwinism was the value of its description of evolution as an allinclusive Law, connoting unity and regularity through its bringing man himself within the realm of an allinclusive natural causation (Huxley 1869). The relations of the various species was thus no longer metaphorical but had a literal basis in the notion of common descent. All of nature is thereby connected by Darwin's great Tree of Life. Instead of competition, organic interrelatedness and cooperation could just as easily be singled out as representing the cardinal feature of the organic world as depicted by Darwin, and indeed Darwin himself so emphasized ([1859] 1964, pp. 485, 130, 109; Kohn 1996). [BACK]

9. As Canby opined, “His objective was literary, philosophic, not really scientific…. Thoreau's science is always amateur. It is the science of the selfmade student who labors excessively for small returns because he lacks frames of reference and good methods. And in Thoreau's case it remained amateur because he was really more interested in the literature to be made of it than in the facts themselves” ([1939] 1958, pp. 335–36). Hildebidle (1983, pp. 24 ff.) appropriately disallows Canby's distinctions between “scientific” and “philosophic,” and even between “amateur” and “professional,” but like most critics agrees with the final assessment: Thoreau was primarily, as he himself described, a man of letters, a view held from John Burroughs (“Thoreau was not a great philosopher, he was not a great naturalist, he was not a great poet, but as a naturewriter and an original character he is unique in our literature” [1920, p. 120]) to Lawrence Buell (“Thoreau is the patron saint of American environmental writing” [1995, p. 115]). [BACK]

10. Frank Egerton and Laura Walls have recently reviewed the debate as to whether Thoreau fits the designation of America's first “ecologist” and, more

generally, as to how well (first or not) he fulfills the putative role of ecologist or, more circumspectly, protoecologist (1997). Indeed, some mid-twentieth-century ecologists like Edward S. Deevey, Jr., and Aldo Leopold have generously embraced Thoreau into their tribe, and other critics see Thoreau's tireless observations—beyond his late work on forest succession—as worthy of scientific notice. Two issues, easily mingled, need to be teased apart in this discussion: 1) the character of Thoreau's science, and 2) his influence in the persona of scientist. In the first case, as I have maintained, Thoreau offers an intriguing attempt to forge divergent attitudes, and for that effort he deserves careful study, not as a “scientist” but as some other kind of “knower.” In this context, I am attempting to show how Thoreau's own selfevaluation as “scientist” should be respected and acknowledged as distinguishing him from the scientific practice of the day. However, in the second case, I believe Thoreau's ecologic ethos allows us to see him as a key expositor for an integrated, holistic vision of nature of which the science of ecology partakes. There are, no doubt, cogent reasons to place him within an “Arcadian” ecologic tradition (e.g., Worster 1994), but given his attitudes about science and the paramount importance he assigns to “personal knowing,” I think we border on an anachronistic assignment in making Thoreau the patron saint of ecology as a science. So by this interpretation we could hardly deny his inspirational or prophetic influence, but his status within the science of ecology is problematical for the reasons already cited; furthermore, the scientific profession hardly glanced at his work as preliminary to later study. Rather, we should recognize Thoreau's general insights regarding the character of nature and our relation to it as contributing to the development of ecology as part of a more general cultural adjustment, of which the science is only one element and whose complex evolution is only beginning to be deciphered (see, e.g., Bramwell 1989). To argue over Thoreau's standing as “ecologist” displaces him from the broader forum in which he must be considered and risks the full appreciation of his contribution. [BACK]

11. Laura Dassow Walls has thoroughly discussed Thoreau's standing as a scientist and argues that as his career developed, Thoreau became “scientific,” especially in his work of the late 1850s (Thoreau 1993), but only understood in his unique fashion (Walls 1995, pp. 179 ff.). Following themes I have already outlined and will further develop, Walls similarly sees Thoreau as holding a complex attitude toward positivist science and objectivity, more generally:

Thoreau tried to join the “Woodman” and the “man of science” into something new: literary science, perhaps; not literature and science but science seen as literature, in its fictive constructions of the world, and literature seen as science, in its operational effectiveness in the world. Thoreau's consilience of an Emersonian insistence on higher or spiritual ends with a Humboldtian, worldly empiricism resulted in not just a new “fact” or a new literary work but an experimental new genre, conceptually avantgarde even in our own time. (Ibid., pp. 178–79)

The points upon which Walls and I meet are numerous, but probably most important is the appreciation that “authority comes from individual involvement and experience” (ibid., p. 207), i.e., “it is finally ourselves making science”

(ibid., p. 209), so that Thoreau “did not just see but created his world, even as he was created by it” (ibid., p. 176). But our readings radically diverge at this point. Thoreau becomes a postmodern in her reading; indebted to recent constructivist theories (e.g., Latour 1987), she builds her case on the breakdown of the subject/object dichotomy (Walls 1995, p. 169). It was, in my view, precisely his selfconscious awareness of the observer's scrutiny that marked his science and poesis and distinguished him from other scientific practitioners of the day. I believe Walls applies categories of contemporary criticism that are not easily adapted to Thoreau's venture; most importantly, she fails to identify the unifying ethos for the coherence of his thought.

Walls's theses are twofold: In a general sense, she maintains that “Thoreau strove to create … a new form of science, a scientia that would be relational rather than objective” (ibid., p. 147). More particularly, in her view, Thoreau sought to create a holistic science, drawn from Romantic roots, and she believes that as a result of his efforts in this regard, he should be credited with building a science of the biota where connections and relationships were regarded as paramount, to wit, a protoecology (1995, pp. 142 ff.). I would concur with this general characterization (see n. 10 above), but then the postmodern theme appears, where she attempts to argue that the subjectobject split is to be overcome in some communal venture so that the scientific community becomes Thoreau's larger alter ego. In this broadened sense, “relationship” involves the larger scientific community itself, where not only was all of nature to be studied as interconnected and dialectical but also the knowers of the natural world would similarly engage in a relational ethic as the basis of their scientific approach, both in the study of their object of scrutiny and in the character of their endeavor: “True knowledge is generated and maintained by the community of knowers, a ‘round robin’ in which the center rotates, which includes all as subjects and all as objects. In this way Thoreau breaks down the dualism embedded in the foundation of ‘rational’ holism, which assumes that knowing can take place within the isolated, rational mind” (ibid., pp. 143–44).

Not to argue this postmodern notion here, while Thoreau's relational philosophy is an important element of his epistemology, it is individualistic, not community oriented; more importantly, his effort cannot be translated into science, or even a scientia (by which I understand she means a new form of science). Thoreau might have used science, but he was not a scientist and had no aspiration to become one. While he might have engaged in some scientific studies, the very ethos of those efforts were antithetical to science as even he understood it. To make Thoreau a scientist is to place him into a period two or three generations before his own. He, and the culture he inhabited, had evolved into a different setting altogether, and what might have been a legitimate program for a Romantic natural philosopher became, by the 1850s, another program altogether. [BACK]

12. The critical turn (between 1890 and 1910) in Thoreau's literary and philosophical standing is well summarized by Oehlschlaeger and Hendrick (1979), and a useful survey of Thoreauvian criticism may be found in Glick 1969. [BACK]


13. As Walter Harding observes, Burroughs's assessment has been widely held:

Havelock Ellis (The New Spirit, p. 94) has perhaps been the most vehement in his denunciation of Thoreau's science: “He seems to have been absolutely deficient in scientific sense.” Lowell, in his wellknown 1865 essay on Thoreau, said, “He discovered nothing. He thought everything a discovery of his own.” Bradford Torrey, the editor of Thoreau's Journal, thought that he “leaves the presentday reader wondering how so eager a scholar could have spent so many years in learning so comparatively little” (Journal 1, xliii), and the coeditor of the Journal, Francis Allen, in Thoreau's Bird-Lore, devoted much space to pointing out Thoreau's errors in ornithology. Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, in her essay on “Thoreau's ‘Maine Woods,’” went to some length to emphasize his weakness as a naturalist. W. L. McAtee denounced him as naïve for accepting some of the theories of protective coloration. And even John Burroughs, who … realized that natural history was not Thoreau's major interest, delighted in disparaging his observations on nature. (1959, p. 137)

Foerster (1923, pp. 87–95), while generally more sympathetic, agrees with these critics, but salvages Thoreau by recognizing that his observations were in service to another purpose than scientific or even natural history as practiced by the knowledgeable amateur. [BACK]

14. Interestingly, as Goethe had seen the primal leaf fulfilling the aesthetic and organizing principle in botany, Thoreau would pick up this same leaf as the trope to carry his own witness of the birth of life itself:

The lobes [of the sand rivulet] are the fingers of the leaf …

–So it seemed as if this one hill side contained an epitome of all the operations in nature. So the stream is but a leaf[.] What is the river with all its branches—but a leaf divested of its pulp– –but its pulp is intervening earth—forests & fields & towns & cities–What is the river but a tree an oak or pine–& its leaves perchance are ponds & lakes & meadows innumerable as the springs which feed it. (Journal 2, 1984, p. 384)

15. This was a theme already clearly articulated seven years earlier in “Thomas Carlyle and His Works,” albeit in the writing of history, and cited in the previous chapter (Thoreau 1975a, pp. 264–65; originally published in Graham's Magazine in March 1847). [BACK]

16. This Thoreauvian fiction holds a profound poignancy: Unlike the staff maker, Thoreau is caught in time and cannot achieve the ideal. The artist's vision cannot be fully conveyed:

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, it shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life…. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him…. When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain.


The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful? (Walden, 1971, pp. 326–27)

17. “[H]e was satisfied with giving an exact description of things as they appeared to him, and their effect upon him…. He speaks as an unconcerned spectator, whose object is faithfully to describe what he sees, and that, for the most part, in the order in which he sees it. Even his reflections do not interfere with his descriptions.” (A Week, 1980a, p. 326) [BACK]

18. Although I have concentrated on Goethe's epistemology and how it guided Thoreau's own efforts, I might just as easily have also focused on Goethe's notions of history and time, which are uncannily similar to Thoreau's own views, albeit derived from a different perspective. Goethe's view of history, like Thoreau's, was “mythical, intuitive, and poetic, rather than scientific” (Van Cromphout 1990, p. 98). More to the point, anticipating Thoreau (and Emerson and Nietzsche), Goethe “protested against the ‘burden’ of history, against the everaccumulating legacy of the ages that threatens to prevent the present from living a life authentically its own” (ibid., p. 102). The present is elevated to make the past relevant to the contemporary muse, and indeed the past and present are pressed together. (As Goethe wrote, “The present is the only goddess I adore” [Werke] (1948–71), 22:232; quoted by Van Cromphout 1990, p. 101.) “What matters concerning history, therefore, is its presentness, not its pastness” (ibid., p. 102), a theme reiterated by Emerson (ibid.) and absorbed in his own fashion by Thoreau. [BACK]

19. What Thoreau might have accomplished is one thing, what is possible is another. In other words, the Romantic aspiration may be regarded as having an intrinsic flaw at its very foundation. As Roger Cardinal observed,

It is … quite possible that the very premises of the Romantic project contained the formula for its collapse. Novalis' celebrated equation of Romantic vision with a “qualitative involution” engineered by the sheer authority of the percipient subjectivity, secretes an implicit disavowal: “The world must be romanticized…. When I confer a higher meaning upon the commonplace, a mysterious aspect upon the ordinary, the dignity of the unknown upon what is known, or an appearance of infinity upon what is finite, I romanticize it.” In drawing attention to the magisterial power of the creative subject to confer special qualities upon what lies outside itself, Novalis tacitly concedes that the world is not intrinsically Romantic, and must receive poetic treatment before it can fulfill itself. It follows that, if the Romantic self should ever lose its potency, the nonself in isolation will fall short of the mark…. [A]lmost from the outset, Romanticism was forced to incorporate into its idealism a tacit recognition of its incompatibility with real life…. I suggest that in fact few Romantics were so naively entranced as to have ignored the discrepancy; indeed the lament for a lost ideal was itself a Romantic commonplace from early on. (1997, p. 150) [BACK]

previous sub-section
next sub-section