Preferred Citation: Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2001 2001.





1. Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) was a French phenomenologist whose moral philosophy has established him as a major Continental figure. In a radical critique of autonomybased ethics (and perhaps more broadly in reaction to Martin Heidegger), Levinas argued that philosophy must address the individual's unavoidable responsibility for others. But his ethics takes on a much more global quality than simply a narrow construal of civic duty or moral attitude. It is a comprehensive ethic which would ground epistemology and metaphysics in this ethical encounter. Levinas's philosophy then may be fairly regarded as an ethical metaphysics, within which the self not only is defined in relation to the other but regards persons only in relation to our relationships with others. Levinas's major works have been translated, the most important being Totality and Infinity ([1961] 1969) and Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence ([1974] 1991). Excellent general reviews of his work include those of Edith Wyschogrod (1974) and Arthur Peperzak (1993); shorter comments in Cohen (1986) and in Bernasconi and Critchley (1991). This idea of an ethical metaphysics—how a moral philosophy offers a grounding to metaphysics and epistemology—permeates my own study of Thoreau. I regard the orienting force of Thoreau's moral character as shaping his distinctive vision of the Other—whether nature, history, or culture—so that his entire sense of identity and his relation to the world are joined parts of a deeply moral enterprise. Thus the most fundamental work of “knowing” is, for Thoreau, valueladen, an orientation profoundly instructive to our own time and perhaps key to his enduring popularity.


1. For example, in 1841 Thoreau read Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1829), which carefully explained the difference between Understanding and Reason,

“perhaps the key epistemological concept of the Romantic age” (Sattelmeyer 1988, p. 30). Thoreau's philosophical education began at Harvard but flourished in the first years of his friendship with Emerson (Richardson 1986; Sattelmeyer 1988).

2. Walden was to reflect this overtly Romantic shift, and while some regard A Week as also a Transcendental treatise (Buell 1973, p. 207), it is far less well articulated and clear, for Thoreau has achieved in Walden a sense of selfrealization absent from the earlier work. Lynden Shanley, who was the first to make an extensive study of Walden's creative evolution (completed by Clapper's comprehensive genetic text [1967]), maintained that its essential nature did not change from the first to the last (eighth) version of 1854 (Shanley 1957, p. 6), a critical opinion vigorously contested by many more recent studies (e.g., Adams and Ross 1988; Sattelmeyer 1990).Walden's structure or theme need not be detailed here otherwise than to note certain key features of its architecture: As Charles Anderson (1968) argues, “The Ponds” is a central focus of the finished work, for it expresses Thoreau's mystical union with Walden Pond, which had evolved into a symbol of the ultimate reality, the limitless bounds of man's mind, and the potential of nature. With this vision Thoreau narrates, in the three chapters that follow, his attempted ascent to purity and perfection very much in keeping with the Journal entry just cited (Adams and Ross 1988, p. 183). A second climax occurs in the penultimate chapter, “Spring,” where Thoreau witnesses an epiphany of natural renewal that he translates into personal rejuvenescence. Thus from this reading, the first half of the book attempts to illustrate a new moral and psychological perspective on the material world, with an emphasis on personal economy and a critique of competing social values. The critique is informed by the use of heightened imagination guided by an appreciation of the divine character of nature. In the second half of the text, Thoreau then espouses his own role as mythmaker, the prophet heralding the organicism of the world, and the mystical transcendence available to the cognizant individual. And in the “Conclusion,” Thoreau calls us to live courageously—a life guided by the imagination is to live the life one has dreamed. As Adams and Ross document (1988, pp. 166 ff.), the substantive material added to the second half of the book in version IV (written during 1852) places this structure in the text.

3. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first use of “transcendental” in Thoreau's Journal, and he uses it in three contexts in this same entry. The others refer to the intuition concerning time— “We review the past with the commonsense—but we anticipate the future with transcendental senses” (June 7, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 245)—and the second refers to himself, “I am too transcendental to serve you in your way” (ibid.), referring to a practical social mission.

4. Harold Bloom schematizes them as an early phase Prometheus struggling against nature, society, and all orthodoxies, to be followed by a laterstage Real Man, the Imagination, who in crisis steps back and internalizes the quest, now recentered in the self. In this latter mode, the Romantic hero is no longer “a seeker after nature but after his own mature powers,” turning away, not from

society to nature, “but from nature to what was more integral than nature, within himself” (1971, p. 26). The widened consciousness seeks not a union with nature or the divine, but rather with the “selfless self” (ibid.).

5. This is a widespread view. Hicks was of the opinion that “his [Thoreau's] object was never scientific knowledge, nor, for that matter was nature his true subject” (1925, p. 72). This perspective was reiterated by Walter Harding (1959, p. 136) and Roderick Nash: “The crucial environment was within. Wilderness was ultimately significant to Thoreau for its beneficial effect on thought. Much of Thoreau's writing was only superficially about the natural world. Following Emerson's dictum that “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind,” he turned to it repeatedly as a figurative tool (1967, p. 89). Thoreau's putative “ecocentric” vision has been contested, reflecting the complex cultural trajectory of modern environmentalism (Buell 1995, pp. 364–69). Buell, more thoroughly and carefully than any other critic, has attempted to recast the ego centrist Thoreau—the Thoreau of Marx (1964) and Nash (1967)—into an eco centrist portrait (1995) (further discussed in chapter 7). This may well be a meaningful reading for those concerned with the environmental movement who wish to use Thoreau, as Buell writes, as a “point of reference.” Taylor vehemently criticizes this position:

Buell's analysis is, of course, remarkably patronizing toward Thoreau as a thinker. The unargued assumption is that our (Buell's) ideas are correct, and that the task is to legitimate these ideas by tracing them back to Thoreau, even though the fit is certainly less than perfect. In the process, Thoreau is made to look like little more than an immature, imperfect vision of ourselves…. Instead of discovering in Thoreau a powerful thinker, Buell instead finds only an “environmental saint,” a symbol we can exploit in promoting our own views and fighting our own battles. Here Thoreau has been completely drained of his critical and philosophical power. (1996, pp. 141–42)

I have attempted to interpret Thoreau's maturation strictly within his own cultural moment—the mid-nineteenth century—as fulfilling a personal agenda, of which nature was an important element, a vehicle, as it were, to another consciousness. While Thoreau may be enlisted in our ideological wars of environmentalism, this question seems to me to be framed by a post-Thoreauvian audience, whose own program is enriched by his odyssey. To be sure, Thoreau's nature writing is a fecund resource for current sensibility, but such an interpretation is to a large degree a projection of our own concerns framed by our own time. Thus an ecocentric environmentalism does not fall within my purview, and, for that matter, I doubt it was a primary concern of Thoreau's either.

6. We may safely conclude that some “vision” inspired Thoreau deeply, sustaining much of his aesthetic and spirtual project. As he confided to his friend Harrison Blake, “I have had but one spiritual birth (excuse the word,) and now whether it rains or snows, whether I laugh or cry, fall farther below or approach nearer to my standard, whether Pierce or Scott is elected, … the same surprising & everlastingly new light dawns to me” (letter to Blake, February 27, 1853,

Correspondence, 1958, pp. 296–97). But as will be clear from this discussion, Thoreau lived easily in the world of fact and in the transcendental climes. To put him into one camp or the other is to restrict him inappropriately from the diverse arenas of his identity, a duality generally disregarded for at least half a century (Matthiessen 1941, pp. 92–93).

7. So in the end, unmediated, direct, mystical experience remains in its own domain, not to be conflated with the refined literary product, or even the intermediate Journal musings and recollections. Despite their intimacy, Thoreau would not confuse writing with the experience writing sought to capture, and this tension extended to all areas of his writing. After all, this is the fundamental conundrum of literary theory: “its skepticism about how texts can purport to represent environments in the first place when, after all, a text is obviously one thing and the world another” (Buell 1995, p. 82). This tension reflects the deeper impasse that has become a central theme in contemporary nature writing. As Edward Abbey writes in Desert Solitaire, “I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, and separate” (1968, p. 6). Buell draws out the inner conflict: “This is a dream that cannot be fulfilled, partly because the dreamer does not unequivocally want it to be fulfilled” (1995, p. 72).

8. Olaf Hansen, in reference to this Journal entry, explicitly poses the issue in terms of selfhood:

The clear view of the unattainable lends identity to our existence in this world because we cannot integrate the cosmos. So then, whatever shape each individual's existence will have, its identity is derivative of a purity of vision which can only be defined in terms of its unworldliness. Hence the worldly, practical consequences of our quest for identity. (1990, p. 4)


1. This dictum is reiterated, perhaps more clearly, in his next letter to Blake:

When, in the progress of life, a man swerves, though only by an angle infinitely small, from his proper and allotted path … then the drama of his life turns to tragedy, and makes haste to its fifth act. When once we thus fall behind ourselves, there is no accounting for the obstacles which rise up in our path, and no one is so wise as to advise, and no one so powerful as to aid us while we abide on that ground. Such are cursed with duties, and the neglect of their duties. For such the decalogue was made, and other far more voluminous and terrible codes. (Letter to Blake, May 2, 1848, Correspondence, 1958, p. 221)

2. What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? … Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm myself to know that if nothing passes away, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed there would be no present time. Take the two tenses, past and future. How can these “be” when the past is not now present and the future is not yet present? Yet if the present were always present, it would not pass into the past: it would not be time but eternity. If then, in order to be time at all, the

present is so made that it passes into the past, how can we say that this present also “is”? The cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward nonexistence. (Augustine, Confessions 11. 14. 17)

Augustine's discussion echoes philosophical debates among Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics, and he follows a skeptical course, inasmuch as he concludes that the human mind cannot formulate an “answer.”

3. James quotes E. R. Clay (The Alternative [London: Macmillan, 1882], p. 167) approvingly:

“…Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three … nonentities—the past, which does not exist, the future, which does not exist, and their conterminous, the present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.” (James [1890] 1983, p. 574)

James goes on to make his own comment:

In short, the practically cognized present is no knifeedge, but a saddleback, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time…. The experience is from the outset a synthetic datum, not a simple one; and to sensible perception its elements are inseparable, although attention looking back may easily decompose the experience, and distinguish its beginning from its end. (Ibid., pp. 574–75)

4. Peck reads Thoreau as ravaged by the trials of time (the death of John Thoreau) and as psychologically endeavoring to immerse himself “in the flow of time in order to overcome time … and confront and experience the destructive force of history in order to recover from it his own and his region's lost past” (Peck 1990, p. 35). Thoreau's preoccupation with history and memory in A Week is thus explained by Peck as an elaborate psychological catharsis initiated by a grief response, whereby “remembrance becomes redemptive” (ibid., p. 14). My emphasizing the centrality of Thoreau's preoccupation with time reflects my indebtedness to this work in many respects.

5. Note that this is quite a different reading from the many interpretations of the circle or sphere in Thoreau's oeuvre, where, in placing man in the center of the circle, Thoreau follows 1) a Romantic egocentric epistemology (Tuerk 1975, p. 51), 2) an Emersonian construction (elaborated in “Circles,” 1983d) which regards God as a circle whose center is universal and whose circumference is nowhere (Tuerk 1975, pp. 14 and 58), or 3) a cyclic view of time, an “eternal return, and in no matter what part of a cycle man may be, something in him remains constant” (ibid., p. 40). In these respects, the symbolism of Walden Pond itself may be variously interpreted according to these modes of circularity.

6. I am not concerned here with Augustine's vision of time's linear progression, i.e., time's eschatological progress, but with how Augustine, like Aristotle (Chadwick 1991, p. 230), as well as certain neo-Platonists, perceived time as a function of the soul. Aristotle spells out his views of time in the Physics, and in book 4 he refers to time's relation to the soul (if there cannot be someone to

count, there cannot be anything that can be counted either; it is impossible for there to be time unless there is soul [223a]); the cyclic nature of time as related to the homogenous primary movement in a circle or sphere (223b); and time's character in the now (220a): “Time depends on the now both for its continuity and for its differentiation into parts, as movement does on the moved body, and the line on the point. And … if it is by virtue of its nows that time is numbered, we must not suppose that nows are parts of time, any more than points are parts of a line. There is no least time as there is no least line” (Ross [1923] 1995, p. 91).

For the neo-Platonist Plotinus, time “is in every soul … and in the same form in every one of them, and all are one” (Ennead 3.7). Augustine shares the Platonic view that the true “I” was the incorporeal soul, but differs from Plotinus, who “begins with the universal soul and moves to individual souls which are somehow one with it, while Augustine … begins with individual human souls and moves to a universal mind or soul that embraces all of time” (Teske 1996, p. 54). But for each, time is primarily a distention of the soul by which form is given to the world; and because of the soul's dual individual and universal nature, time is experienced not only as subjective and private but also as objective and public (ibid., pp. 48 ff.).

7. It is interesting to compare this passage with a similar one found in the “Sunday” chapter of A Week. The shallowest still water is unfathomable. Wherever the trees and skies are reflected there is more than Atlantic depth, and no danger of running aground. We noticed that it required a separate intention of the eye, a more free and abstracted vision, to see the reflected trees and the sky, than to see the river bottom merely; and so are there manifold visions in the direction of every object, and even the most opaque reflect the heavens from their surface. Some men have their eyes naturally intended to the one, and some to the other object. (Thoreau 1980 a, p. 48)

8. Much of this discussion follows Porte's (1966) presentation, but while he uses Thoreau's mysticism to contrast Thoreau with Emerson, I am concerned rather with how the mystical aspiration forms a component of Thoreau's metaphysics of the self, serving, in a sense, as a counterpoint to his scientific epistemology. Further, I disagree with Porte's conclusion that “unlike the other Transcendentalists, his [Thoreau's] concern was ecstasy—and ecstatic illumination— rather than ethics” (p. 164); instead I see Thoreau's mysticism as part of the greater moral enterprise which informed all of his activities.

9. Besides Thoreau's frequent allusions to Eastern mystics (e.g., the “Monday” chapter of A Week), Porte makes note of the inspiration Thoreau apparently drew from the great mystic philosopher Plotinus. “The union that Plotinus advocated was one involving a man's total being: the coincidence of ecstatic feeling with perfect vision. This was Thoreau's goal as a naturalist” (Porte 1966, p. 166). That union ties together Thoreau's naturalist project with his metaphysical inspiration. In his Journal (June 14, 1840,Journal 1, 1981, p. 127), he quotes from Plotinus's Ennead 6: “a kind of tactual union, and a certain presence better than knowledge, and the joining of our own centre, as it were, with the centre of the universe” (“Annotations,” ibid., p. 519). Porte writes, “Being

‘on the mount’ was a way of describing that ‘contact’ with the One of Plotinus which led to the ‘greater presence of knowledge.’ Like Plotinus, what Thoreau brought back from his experience of union with the center of all things was teasingly ineffable” (1966, p. 166).

10. Thoreau described these experiences in various ways: the “vision” or “insight” of inspiration (e.g., December 29, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, pp. 348–49); the accidental and transient quality of the experience (e.g., November 21, 1850, Journal 3, 1990, p. 148); the intractability of capturing the experience in consciousness and then translation into writing (e.g., December 11, 1855,Journal, [1906] 1962, 8:45); and in public testament: “The most glorious fact in my experience is not anything that I have done or may hope to do, but a transient thought, or vision, or dream, which I have had. I would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of the heroes, for one true vision” (A Week, 1980a, p. 140).

11. See n. 6 to Introduction.

12. As Robert Milder comments: “Fallen into history (or adulthood), we are obliged to press onward through history in a pilgrimage toward the timelessness beyond it. In heightened moments, however, we miraculously pierce the veil of time to glimpse the ‘perennial,’ and if we are disciplined, or worthy, or fortunate enough, we can hope to string such moments together to make a beatific life” (1995, p. 31). See Giorgio Agamben's strikingly rich and original essay on the sources of history, memory, and language in infancy (1993). A theme I develop in chapter 5 concerns the selfreflective arc that commences with the primal recognition that we discern the world by splitting “pure experience”—that presemantic world of infancy and early childhood—into two domains: the knowing self and the world known, thereby constituting ourselves as the subject of language.

13. Stanley Rosen's essay “The Lived Present” (1999) offers a close parallel to this construction of time and its ethical structure from an entirely different perspective (that of a critique of Plato, Kant, and Heidegger). Rosen begins by rejecting conceptual analyses of time, whether in the language of mathematical physics or of ontology, and he also discards attempts to explain the present as some kind of synthesis of past and future. Instead, he builds on the provocative metaphor of time as played out as a “secretion” of living and uses the image of a spider's web to serve as the “structure” of temporality.

Living is distinct from the spiderweb, which is not life but the structure of time…. [Thus] if human activity produces time rather than filling or occupying it like a place or a structure of places that already exists, then it makes no sense to ask for the temporal location of this activity. More precisely, it makes no sense to locate it in the present, as for example by saying that I (= anyone) am now, that is, presently, and so in the present, producing time, including the present. But neither does it make sense to locate this activity in the past or the future. In short, if I produce time, then the activity of production must be atemporal. (Pp. 24–25)

The present as a characteristic of human existence then becomes presence. In this formulation, Rosen is attempting to capture the immediate and embedded character of human experience in the world, but even more radically, the primacy of

human existence as rank-ordering—the production of a world constituted and ultimately determined by human value. This socalled “erotic ascent” (Plato) interprets human activity as atemporal: the experience of the present is neither the moment, nor the synthesis of past and future, but the primary act of “opening” or making our world (in a sense, Heideggerian self-authentication).

This “opening” is not temporal in itself; it is neither the present, the past, nor the future. Instead, we should think of it as the founding of presence as the atemporal condition that makes possible the articulation of past, present, and future. (P. 32)

Presence then is “the nontemporal foundation of the temporal present” (p. 33) and thus cannot be an object of perception but is praxis itself (p. 32). So the “present” is selfconsciously constructed, while “presence” is human praxis or experience—immediate and unreflexive, “the pulsation of eros, that is the rankordering and world-constituting force of the human soul” (p. 33). These are themes highly resonant with my own reading of Thoreau.

14. This Romantic ideal was clearly enunciated in again a different mode by Emerson (“Self-Reliance” [1983c]), and perhaps most celebrated by Nietzsche. George Stack (1992) has made a compelling case that Nietzsche was heavily indebted to Emerson, not only in a general orientation regarding their respective philosophies of the self, but more particularly in the enunciation of man's relation to fate and the moral imperative of asserting responsibility for our destiny. One readily appreciates the general affinity of Emerson and Nietzsche in Emerson's insistence on the “intensification of subjectivity” and thus “forming his ideal of the man who has faith in himself, who values above all the integrity of the self, who is willing to stand alone, who strives to think, act, and live truth” (Stack 1992, p. 11). But beyond these general notions, which might have arisen independently, Stack documents how Nietzsche carefully studied Emerson (e.g., pp. 42 ff.), providing marginalia that clearly express his admiration (“the author richest in ideas of this century” [ibid., p. 45]), and shows how certain key Emersonian ideas were explicitly developed. Of concern here is the idea of the eternal recurrence. Each begin with the cyclicity of the moral development of the individual; and more broadly, for both Emerson and Nietzsche, the “circle” is the ideal representation of reality (ibid., pp. 198–99). From this point they each affirm that “the powers of the self are as real as the power of fate” (ibid., p. 200), and in regard to the eternal recurrence, “if we ourselves are fate, then we are part of the processes of fate, and in a sense, we ‘condition it for all eternity’” (ibid., p. 205). Stack credits Emerson with the basic principles, albeit undeveloped, with which Nietzsche erected his own vision of the eternal return. In regard to the genesis of Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return, Stack concludes:

Nietzsche would have had to have read Emerson with meticulous care and sympathetic understanding to have joined together four separately discussed conceptions in one of nature; the affirmation of life, of the entire circular process; and the notion of a lived experience of immortality. Given the symmetry between Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence and his emphasis upon the experience of eternity and Emerson's disjointed remarks on these topics, there is no doubt that he had assimilated and, consciously or unconsciously, synthesized these theoretical conjectures. (Ibid., p. 209)


Nietzsche of course was more of a philosopher than Emerson, and his thinking is sharper, deeper, more subtle, and more farranging than his. But it cannot be denied … that Nietzsche could not have constructed this part of his philosophical edifice without Emersonian foundations. (Ibid., p. 211)

A concurring opinion is offered by George Kateb (1995, p. 149), who offers an interesting comparison of Emerson and Nietzsche around the theme of individuality and selfreliance. Kateb essentially agrees with Stack's appraisal: “I believe Emerson's influence on Nietzsche's formulations is direct and profound” (ibid., p. 149). Thus an intriguing triangulation between Emerson, Thoreau, and Nietzsche is suggested.

15. In the context considered here, Nietzsche's own use of the cycle of time, which he called the eternal recurrence, is of most interest. Not to stretch their similarities, it is not too farfetched to suggest that despite the great differences in their respective philosophical projects, the ethical structure of Thoreau's cycle of time and Nietzsche's own view of time share strong resemblances. Nietzsche's conception of the eternal return is coupled to two basic premises: 1) the circularity of the eternal process of becoming, and 2) a morality that had neither revealed status nor universal standing nor philosophical foundation—to wit, no ethical imperative other than the force of our will and the imperative of exercising choice. If God is dead, then our morality must be based on our selfwilled sovereignty (e.g.,On the Genealogy of Morals). The will, alone on its own axis, unself-consciously knows no past or future, only the present. Responsibility then resides solely in the self, which lives in a radical present; the past and future are only constructions of the now. Time is framed not in the past or future, but it accompanies us, moving steadily forward within the present. The present vision of the self thus defines the past, and if the present is accepted, then all that has led to that juncture has been enjoined. Most important, the past as forming the future is acknowledged. Thus to accept the present in Nietzsche's terms is to have willed—or willed to choose to accept—all that led to this moment. The eternal recurrence, as an ethical mandate, becomes the ultimate assertion of individual free will and choice.

The present is, in a sense, pulled out of time—inasmuch as it has become the only mode of temporality. Further, being placed in eternity, the notion of time's passing has been radically altered. As life is eternally cycled, Nietzsche's recurrence does not refer to a life precisely like this one, but to this selfsame life. (This interpretation is informed by Arthur Nehamas [1985]; my own views are extended in Tauber 1994.) He would thus imbue every moment with the quality of eternity and lead us to a supreme selfawareness of our ultimate and inescapable responsibility for our acts. The last element of his ethic, then, is to accept the irrevocability of every choice, thereby allowing us to assume the mandate of responsibility for our life, a life to be lived again and again, eternally. In short, if life is to be eternally recurrent, then we must accept living in the present in its full and selfsufficient complement. If we deduct the extravagant poetic quality of the eternal recurrence, we might appreciate that the ethical structure of Nietzsche's formulation is essentially the same advocated by Thoreau, namely

the assertion that each moment is not only immutable but precious, making us forever accountable to ourselves. By living each moment as if it is to recur again and again into eternity, Nietzsche sought to inspire an acute awareness of our “presentness.” Indeed, in facing eternity, we must face ourselves. In this respect, there are strong similarities with Emerson and Thoreau, because the eternal recurrence is a metaphor for personal responsibility, which arises from an Emersonian-Thoreauvian sensibility, one shared by many other Romantics. While I am not attempting to pose Thoreau (or Emerson for that matter) as a proto-Nietzschean, Nietzsche does, nevertheless, serve as a useful foil for understanding Thoreau's metaphysics of time.

16. Considering the centrality of the present for Thoreau, it is intriguing how Jonas reads the progression of Nietzsche's thought to Heidegger's own philosophy of time:

[The] “present” remains practically empty—at least as insofar as modes of “genuine” or “authentic” existence are concerned…. Actually a great deal is said about the existential “present,” but not as an independent dimension in its own right. For the existentially “genuine” present is the present of the “situation,” which is wholly defined in terms of the self's relation to its “future” and “past.” It flashes up, as it were, in the light of decision, when the projected “future” reacts upon the given “past” (Geworfenheit) and in this meeting constitutes what Heidegger calls the “moment” (Augenblick): the moment, not duration, is the temporal mode of this “present”—a creature of the other two horizons of time, a function of their ceaseless dynamics, and no independent dimension to dwell in…. No present remains for genuine existence to repose in. (Jonas 1963, p. 336)

If we accept Jonas's interpretation of Heidegger, and in turn accept Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche's deeper metaphysics, the “present” assumes a very different meaning from Thoreau's understanding of it.


1. Harding, in reviewing Thoreau's earliest works, concurs with Moser (1951) that “all of Thoreau's basic ideas are in the college essays, the seeds are all present, awaiting maturation” (quoted by Harding 1959, p. 43), a reading that is important in how we regard Thoreau's relationship to Emerson and the development of Thoreau's ideas, especially in light of the socalled Romantic conversion of 1851–52 (Adams and Ross 1988, pp. 143–90). (All these matters are considered in later chapters.) While I recognize that Thoreau certainly developed his ideas over two decades, I am far less concerned with tracing that development than in outlining the basic structure of his thought that I perceive as essentially established by the early 1840s.

2. If we could pierce the obscurity of those remote years, we should find it light enough; only there is not our day…. There has always been the same amount of light in the world…. Always the laws of light are the same, but the modes and degrees of seeing vary…. There was but the sun and the eye from the first. The ages have not added a new ray to the one, nor altered a fibre of the other. (A Week, 1980 a, p. 157)


3. A Week was written in memory of a camping trip Thoreau took with his brother John in 1839. John's tragic death of tetanus in January 1842 was a profound loss for Henry, and Peck has interpreted A Week both as a memorial work to John and as a psychological conflict fought between an attempt to kill time (“by containing it, by taking the entire temporal order … within himself” and thereby “kill the vehicle of temporality in which the world and the self have their being and their relation; in this sense he has committed suicide” or at the very least become “trapped deeply within a solipsism of his own making” [Peck 1990, pp. 5–6]) and an effort to resituate the self in the world, or, in Peck's parlance, “to keep time without killing it” (ibid., p. 8). Thoreau's preoccupation with history and memory in A Week is thus explained by Peck as an elaborate psychological catharsis initiated by a grief response whose existential manifestation is an elaborate treatise on the nature of time and our attempt to understand temporality, whereby “remembrance becomes redemptive” (ibid., p. 14), a theme further developed by Burbick (1987; see note 7).

4. Duston was the first American woman to be honored with a commemorative statue, erected at the site of the escape, in Boscawen, New Hampshire, in 1874. A second monument, dedicated in 1879, may be seen in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the site of the Indian abduction. The story has routinely appeared in various histories of New Hampshire and Massachusetts (e.g., Chase 1861; McClintock 1889; Lyford 1903; Pillsbury 1927; Squires 1956; for further citations see Arner 1973, note 25), and might fairly be spoken of as “being now ‘frozen’ in the New England imagination” (Arner 1973, p. 22). Perhaps the most thorough recent review was made by a legislative historian, Leon Anderson (1973).

Duston remains a highly enigmatic figure for nineteenth- and twentieth-century commentators. In 1836, Hawthorne wrote for the American Magazine, “Would that bloody old hag been drowned in crossing Contocook river, or that she had sunk over head and ears in a swamp, and been there buried, until summoned forth to confront her victims at the Day of Judgement” (quoted by Ulrich 1982, p. 172). She figures as a historical foil for a contemporary murder mystery by Susan Conant (1997), who implies that Duston might have exhibited certain sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies dominant in her family by citing a relationship discovered by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1982): “Cotton Mather preached a sermon about Hannah Duston, who was in church when he proclaimed her a savior of New England. Four years earlier, Mather had preached a sermon of condemnation about a woman named Elizabeth Emerson. The unmarried mother of one child, Elizabeth Emerson had given surreptitious birth to twins and promptly killed them. In 1693, she was convicted of murdering her newborn babies. Hannah Duston's maiden name was Emerson. Hannah Duston and Elizabeth Emerson were sisters” (Conant 1997, pp. 114–15). To what extent the Emerson sisters were prone to violence and whether the psychodynamics of their family might have promoted such behavior it is impossible to decide. In any case, Ulrich's account of colonial women clearly documents their not so infrequent violent behavior (chapters 9 and 10) and notes that Hannah

Duston's exploits followed a long tradition of women defenders of the New England Zion—if not against aggressive Indians, certainly in the more traditional role of maintaining Puritan mores and protecting the family, writ large.

5. Mather's ecclesiastical history of New England devotes chapter 25, entitled “A Notable Exploit—Dux Femina Facti” (A Woman the Leader of the Deed), to Duston, who apparently told him,

in Obedience to instructions which the French have given them, they [the Indians] would have Prayers in their family no less than thrice every day … nor would they ordinarily let their children Eat or Sleep, without first saying their Prayers.

Indeed, these Idolaters were, like the rest of their whiter brethren, Persecutors, and would not endure that these poor women should retire to their English Prayers, if they could hinder them.

Nevertheless, the poor women had nothing but fervent prayers to make their lives comfortable or tolerable; and by being daily sent upon Business, they had Opportunities, together and asunder, to do like another Hannah, in pouring out their souls before the Lord. Nor did their praying friends among ourselves forbear to pour out supplications for them.

Now, they could not observe it without some Wonder, that their Indian master sometimes when he saw them dejected, would say unto them What need you trouble yourself? If your God would have you delivered, you shall be so.

And it seems our God would have it so to be. … One of these women took up a resolution to imitate the action of Jael upon Siseria; and being where she had not her own Life secured by any Law unto her, she thought she was not forbidden by any law to take away the Life of the Murderers by whom her children had been Butchered. (Mather 1702, book 7, pp. 90–91 ; English spellings modernized)

This deist bent was subscribed to by Duston herself. A remarkable testimony is given in her 1727 membership application to the Haverhill Center Congregational Church: “I am thankful for my captivity, twas the Comfortablest time that ever I had; In my affliction God made his Word Comfortable to me. I remembered 43d ps. ult [“Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God”]—and those words came to my mind—ps 118.17 [“I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord”]” (Anderson 1973). Hannah Duston, 39 years old at the time of her celebrated exploits, gave birth to her last (thirteenth) child in October 1698 and lived to age 80.

6. In America these wars between England and France are generally known as King William's War (1689–97); Queen Anne's War (1702–13); King George's War (1744–48); and the French and Indian War (1754–63).

7. History is always valueladen, and certainly the historians to whom Thoreau was reacting wrote within a long line of committed religious ideology (see Buell 1986, part 3, “Reinventing Puritanism: The New England Historical Imagination” for an excellent survey). So the issue is not that of a lost objectivism as some positivist ideal, but rather that Thoreau was selfconsciously writing history in opposition to the dominant tradition and ethos of his time. This point of view is consonant with that of Joan Burbick (1987), who similarly argues that Thoreau wrote an “alternative” history, one she characterizes as “uncivil” (i.e., natural) in contrast to the false civilized history of tamed America.

This “redemptive” history became one of Thoreau's attempts to show the true relationship of man and nature, where the Puritan ethic of greed and dominance, the shortterm economies of profit, might be replaced with another naturerelated, communal, nonproprietary mode of existence (also developed by Berry 1987). The opening chapter of Walden is, of course, the clearest statement of this perspective, but Burbick gleans the essential ethical lesson by a systematic examination of Thoreau's early and late writings, not all of which are obviously “historical” in the usual sense. More importantly, Burbick regards Thoreau's historiography as firmly integrated within what we would normally characterize as his nature writing—or his translation of perception: In “his grand experiment of observation, Thoreau faces the dilemma of … extracting from sequences of perceived natural events a law or demonstrable pattern of redemptive growth,” which would suit “his need to formulate a sustained vision of history” (pp. 123–24). Thus, while building on Hildebidle's (1983) insight of how Thoreau's natural history methodologically informed and guided his historiography, Burbick goes further in the direction I am proceeding in by insisting on emphasizing the moral character of Thoreau's historical project—how history was invoked to support his natural history and vice versa, both of which in turn were in service to his moral philosophy. It is all of one piece. In the following chapters I will more fully develop how Thoreau's moral attitude framed his natural history and more deeply the metaphysics of his selfhood.

8. This part of the story is particularly suspicious according to my Boscawen, New Hampshire, neighbors, who live along the river at the site of Hannah's escape. The Merrimack River at the end of March is in full rush from the melting snows of the mountains, and it is highly unlikely that Duston would have made the effort, even if it were possible, to execute an upriver navigation. Given that an Indian child and woman had escaped, Duston would well have made haste to place as much distance as possible between her and alerted Indians. Given the falls at Concord, another significant obstacle to her downriver run, Duston's delay might well have been a fatal mistake. Thoreau must have appreciated these factors, and therefore his keeping Mirick's embellishment over Mather's account can only be explained by Thoreau's larger literary intentions unencumbered by historical accuracy in a narrower sense. Thoreau remained intrigued with Duston and visited the original homestead after A Week was published (May 12, 1850,Journal 3, 1990, p. 64).

9. Although this general orientation dates to the Romantics, it was Nietzsche who perhaps best celebrated the need to mend the subjective-objective divide as the very basis of a meaningful epistemology. There are many vantages from which we might pick up his argument, but perhaps as a historian his early critique of his fellow philologists is most relevant to our own discussion. In On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life ([1874] 1980), he argued that the historian must already possess something of the past within himself or he will fail to see what is being offered to him:

And might not an illusion lurk even in the highest interpretation of the word “objectivity”? By this word one understands a condition in the historian in which his view of

an event with all of its motives and consequences is so pure that it has no effect at all on his subjectivity; one has in mind that aesthetic phenomenon, that detachment from all personal interest with which the painter sees his inner picture in a stormy landscape amid lightening and thunder on a rough sea, one has in mind the total absorption in things: yet it is a superstition to believe that the picture which things produce in a man in such a state of mind reproduces the empirical essence of those things. Or is one to think that things in such moments, as it were, retrace, counterfeit, reproduce themselves photographically on a pure passivity through their own activity? (Pp. 34–35)

Subjectivity in this view is then partially constitutive of objectivity, a view already articulated by Thoreau.

10. Of course engineers routinely design for likelihood of such a single incident per century—and rarely make allowance for it beyond that limit—but that is beside the point of historicity that Thoreau is making.

11. Ginzburg further explains: “The object is the study of individual cases, situations, and documents, precisely because they are individual, and for this reason get results that have an unsuppressible speculative margin…. Even if the historian is sometimes obliged to refer back, explicitly or implicitly, to a sequence of comparable phenomena, the cognitive strategy, as well as the codes by which he expresses himself, remain intrinsically individualizing” (Ginzburg 1989, p. 106).

12. “Scientist” was coined by William Whewell in 1833, and irrespective of his own philosophical intent in using the term, at first the designation had a somewhat derogatory connotation. Instead of being “philosophical” (in the sense of eighteenth-century natural philosophy being the global study of nature in both epistemological and metaphysical contexts), the “scientist” was generally understood to have interests in developing technology, which, of course, had commercial overtones that might sully investigation for its own sake.

13. “In 1802 Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus announced the birth of a new scientific discipline. He called it ‘Biologie,’ the science whose aim was to determine the conditions and laws under which the different forms of life exist, and their causes. The significance of his declaration was not in denying that biological phenomena had been investigated previously … rather Treviranus sought to affirm a set of methods which characterized biology as a discipline in its own right” (Lenoir 1990, p. 119).

14. Thoreau's keen interest in Indian history highlights his concern that a balanced rendition of the colonial period include the native perspective. After all, “the Indian is absolutely forgotten but by some persevering poets…. For Indian deeds there must be an Indian memory—the white man will remember his own only–We have forgotten their hostility as well as friendship” (Journal 2, 1984, pp. 38–39). This is but one example of many in which Thoreau's critical acumen regarded what passed as scientific history with a jaundiced eye.

15. Emerson was heavily influenced by Thomas Carlyle and refers to him in many places. See especially Emerson's comments on Carlyle's On History, in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 4 vols. (Boston, 1838–39), 2:247. For Emerson's relation to Carlyle, see Richardson 1995. Thoreau also studied Carlyle carefully (see, e.g., Thoreau 1975a, pp. 219–67).


16. This passage from the first version of Walden (Shanley 1957) is, as expected, a hybrid between the Journal and the final Walden:

24 years ago I was brought from the city to this very pond—through this very field— so much further into the world I had but recently entered. It is one of the most ancient scenes stamped on the tablets of my memory. That woodland vision for a long time occupied my dreams. The country then was the world—the city only a gate to it. And now tonight my flute has waked the echoes over this very water. One generation of pines has fallen and I have cooked my supper with their stumps—and a new growth of oaks and pines is rising all around the pond to greet other infants' eyes. Almost the same Johnswort springs from the same perennial root in this pasture. Even I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my dreams, and the result of my presence and influence is seen in these bean leaves and cornblades, and potato vines.

I planted about 2 acres and a half of upland … (Pp. 177–78)

17. Robert Kuhn McGregor (1997) makes the salient and important point that Thoreau's interest in nature was quite limited—as attested by his writings—prior to the spring of 1846, almost midway in his sojourn at Walden Pond. If one surveys Thoreau's lectures and published writings from 1837 to 1849 (McGregor 1997, pp. 207–10), there is a paucity of natural history. “‘The Natural History of Massachusetts’ was the only essay Thoreau published in the first ten years of his writing career in which he directly addressed the subject of nature” (ibid., p. 54), and this was hardly characteristic of his later nature writing. Other essays, “A Walk to Wachusett” and “A Winter Walk,” are more travel essays, laden with symbolic inner examination. Nature is only “‘emblematic,’ intended only to point the way to greater spiritual achievement” (ibid., p. 55). The exuberance of Thoreau's later nature writing, characteristic of a Romantic enchantment and psychological expansion, have been interpreted by some commentators (e.g., Adams and Ross 1988) as a dramatic and sudden Romantic turn (occurring in the 1850–51 period), well after the break with Emerson. McGregor, pointing out that the sensitivity to nature reflected an earlier transformation, cites suggestive entries in the May 1846 Journal entries, which show that the Walden experiment was more than originally designed: beyond establishing a haven to find solitude to write and conduct an experiment in home economics, the grand themes that were to preoccupy Thoreau's efforts in natural history were, in a sense, thrust upon him by simply living in one of the few remaining wild acres of Concord, a wood lot left relatively immune to the voracious appetite of the lumber and fuelconsuming industry. The mature sensibility soon followed, when Thoreau, on a trip to Maine's Mount Ktaadn in September 1846, encountered the awesome grandeur and terrifying aspect of nature, a cognitive/emotional experience that jolted him into realizing that Emerson's idealism was an inappropriate means of mediating man and nature. McGregor makes the mountaintop experience a critical turning point in Thoreau's (conscious) understanding of nature. I would argue, based on Thoreau's early Journal entries, that while he certainly had an epiphany on Mount Ktaadn, this only added a dimension to a deeply committed Romantic sensibility, vividly placing nature's awesome power in balance with a more pastoral

vision. The essential aesthetic and spiritual quest remained unchanged. In other words, the structure of Thoreau's study of nature reflected a moral attitude already discernible in his earliest musings.

18. Peck notes that “while the river distinguishes the role of the observer, it also distances him from the object of his vision and in other ways also restricts and defines his possibilities” (1990, p. 23), a point well appreciated by Thoreau himself: “To … see the earth from the water side, to stand outside of it on another element, and so get a pry on it in thought at least, that is no small advantage” (March 25, 1860,Journal, [1906] 1962, 13:226–27).

19. Cited by Hovey (1966, pp. 62, 151) as Original Manuscript of Concord and Merrimack River in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, p. 6.

20. “As yesterday and the historical ages are the past, as the work of today is present, so some flitting perspectives, and demiexperiences of the life that is in nature, are, in time veritably future, or rather outside to time, perennial, young, divine, in the wind and rain which never die” (AWeek, 1980a, p. 8). Thoreau is, of course, referring to the everpresent present. Don Gifford notes that this general tenor is central to the Romantic project:

Thoreau's longings for sustained visionary consciousness, suggest attempts to reify memory in time so that the process of memory, fully contemplated in timepast, can be reversed, anticipated as a future experience to be reentered and fully realized in an ideal timepresent. That is what I call Romantic time. (1990, p. 80)

But this “timepresent” is, of course, never fully captured or replayed, and by 1857 Thoreau was resigned to accepting the poetics of his memory—incomplete and thus, in some sense, inadequate, but at the same time the more salient and “truer” report. (March 27, 1857,Journal, [1906] 1962, 9:306; quoted in chapter 1).

21. That man does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and aural hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way. After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his genius tries again what nobel life it can make. All memorable events, I should say, transpire in the morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. (Walden, 1971, p. 89)

22. In our own postpositivist era, objectivity is regarded as arising from consensus, and communal standards are recognized as always changing; criteria of proof have a long history of metamorphosis; assumptions about rationality change similarly; even Truth can no longer be designated as stable. Thus objectivity, whether in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities is built from a value system, and these values are themselves constantly under scrutiny and modulated as our needs and sophistication evolve (Megill 1994). Postmodern historians have been particularly conscious of these unstable foundations (e.g., Friedlander 1992; Fay, Pomper, and Vann 1998), and their perspective enables us to see more clearly the antipositivism of Thoreau's own project.



1. Thoreau continued,

I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went…. [I]t was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing admirable is accomplished. My days were not days of the week … nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day” [Ida Pfeiffer, A Lady's Voyage Round the World (1852); cited by Rossi 1992, p. 76 n. 1]. This was sheer idleness to my fellowtownsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence. (Walden, 1971, p. 112)

2. Thoreau's interest in oriental literature began while he was residing with Emerson in 1841, and by the time he published A Week, he could confidently write, “The reading which I love the best is the scriptures of several nations, though it happens that I am better acquainted with those of the Hindoos, the Chinese, and the Persians, than of the Hebrews” (1980a, p. 71). See Harding (1959, pp. 98–100) and Richardson (1986, pp. 106–9) for review of the significance of the oriental influence on Thoreau.

3. See n. 1 to Acknowledgments.

4. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the laws of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards' paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. (Walden, 1971, p. 305)

5. Thoreau's enterprise seems one of exchange—an identity for an occupation, the externalization of the self for the internalization of the seasons.

Insisting that the self could substitute its attributes for those of the elements, Thoreau spells it out: “You who complain that I am cold—find Nature cold–… That I am cold means that I am of another nature” (December 21, 1851 [Journal 4, 1992, p. 214]). The self, not dispensed with, is converted to “another nature” in the words of one passage, or to a “second person” in the words of another, and can see its own reflections as if from outside them. In the separation of the self into two discrete persons (one who watches the self who in turn watches nature) the second person is foreign. “Who is this?” Thoreau asks. The second person is alien not simply because it is a projection wholly defined by impressions of nature, but because these impressions are then conceived as if they were inseparable from the elements they were recording. (Cameron 1985, p. 86)

6. In Thoreau's Journal nature and the mind are not like each other, or if they are, it is because man has been naturalized, because nature has been as if driven into the mind. Descriptions of nature at once displace our idea of what thoughts are, and, as these pictures

exist instead of thoughts, in that replacement, seem inseparable from them, very much as subjects and examples have been made inseparable. (Cameron 1985, p. 150)

I think Thoreau would have differed, inasmuch as he was forthcoming concerning the limitations of his success in fusing with nature. For instance, in the great description of the loon in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter of Walden, Thoreau acknowledges his inability to be anything but an encumbered observer: As the loon dived, Thoreau could not predict his reappearance, and its cry mocked him in its “demonic laughter” (1971, p. 236). The object remains aloof and independent, and the bird's consciousness inaccessible to Thoreau; so try as he might, their respective intelligences remain disparate and noncommunicative: “While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine” (ibid., p. 235). There may have been moments of the most intimate joining, but more often than not, his epistemological self-consciousness was paramount, or, said in another fashion, his pantheistic impulse was stymied.

7. Neil Evernden's study is a rich amalgam of Foucauldian analysis, the philosophical insights of Hans Jonas, historical commentary, and environmental activism. Evernden is writing from the perspective that “the environmental crisis is as much a social phenomenon as a physical one” (1992, p. 7), and thus “what matters is not what ecology is, but how it functions, how it is perceived and used” (ibid., p. 15). The object of inquiry, then— “nature” as it might “exist” in its asocial state—is constructed by social forces and epistemological understandings to yield a human category: “nature.” Evernden stresses that in this sense, nature cannot be simply described as an object but “is also an assertion of a relationship” (ibid., p. 21). He then draws upon Roland Barthes's (Mythologies, [1957] 1972) fecund observation that while it generally appears that history or culture rests on nature, the reverse is in fact the true state of affairs: nature as a social creation turns history into nature (i.e., history becomes a subcategory of nature). Nature is thus contingent, pliable, and subjective—fully vulnerable to human judgment; natural law is, then, hardly “natural,” and, of course, there is no normative content to nature; nature becomes, from this perspective, our appropriation, what we have selfconsciously assigned to the “other.” Indeed, self-consciousness becomes the basis of establishing the otherness of nature as we see her in what Evernden calls “a category, a conceptual container” (1992, p. 89). Empathy suggests that the subject and object are akin (ibid., p. 41), and thus the Romantic notion of nature as a source of human inspiration and a directive to the moral venture represents a “loosening” of the subjectobject dichotomy. Evernden would like us to do away with the natureculture dualism altogether:

The absorption of ourselves into Nature is simply the absorption of ourselves into ourselves, or rather, into our own conception of how it “ought” to be. The paradox we encounter, of this perpetual oscillation between the domains of nature and culture, arises from a fundamental error. The dualism cannot actually be resolved, because it never existed. The dualism we fret over exists only because of our own decision, not only to constrict the naturetube into two domains, but to create the container in the first place. One might even say that there is no “nature,” and there never has been. (Ibid., p. 99)


This proposal is doubtful, and as I read Thoreau, he too would discount it for all the reasons discussed in this chapter.

8. Buell make the cogent point that “humanity qua geographer is Homo faber, the environment's constructor, and the sense of place is necessarily always a social product and not simply what is ‘there’” (Buell 1995, p. 77).

9. For instance, in Walden, in describing the sounds of screech owls, we are struck with the evocative description of a bird's song, but it is accompanied by a heavily laden emotional veneer to show us how we should read the anglicized melody. The birds cried

like mourning women their ancient ululu. Their dismal scream is truly Ben Jonsonian. Wise midnight hags! It is no honest and blunt tuwhit tuwho of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. Yet I love to hear their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside, reminding me sometimes of music and singing birds; as if it were the dark and tearful side of music, the regrets and sighs that would fain be sung. They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape nightwalked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. Oho-oo-o that I never had been borr-rr-n! sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles with the restlessness of despair to some new perch on the gray oaks. Then— that I never had been borr-rr-n! echoes another on the farther side with tremulous sincerity, and— borr-rr-n! comes faintly from far in the Lincoln woods. (Walden, 1971, pp. 124–25)

10. For instance, “Color … acts on man's inner nature … [and] hence we will not be surprised to find that its effect has a direct connection with the moral realm…. A tiny imperceptible shift changes the beautiful impression of fire and gold into a muddy one. The color of honor and joy becomes the color of shame, loathing and disquiet. This may explain the yellow hat of the bankrupt and the yellow circles on the Jew's mantle” (Goethe [1810] 1988, pp. 278, 280). Thus, despite Goethe's aspirations toward objectivity, he was sometimes guilty of what seems to us to be extraordinarily brazen subjectivism. But this is a complex matter, for Goethe was no subjectivist in the usual sense. After all, he espoused a rigorously detached view of observed phenomena. The scientist is supposed to “observe and survey [the objects] with a uniformly calm eye and to take the criterion for his perception and the date for his judgement not from within himself, but from the sphere of things he observes” ([1792] 1988), but the theoretical (archetypal) construction of his major scientific works on plant morphology and light are testaments to the dangers of his own theoretical formulations. In addition, his observations themselves frequently suffered from bias, relating phenomena as pleasant or unpleasant, useful or useless, etc. For him, the quest for objectification only went so far, leaving the phenomena to become integrated and “meaningful” by some active, perhaps creative process. See Amrine et al. 1987; Bortoft 1996; Seamon and Zajonc 1998.

11. This divorce of subject and object was belied by quantum mechanics, which showed how measurement in the atomic world imposed an effect, so that

the assessment of the momentum of a particle altered the ability to determine its position. Thus there is an irreducible measurement effect that cannot be canceled, placing the observer intractably within his system of study. Strict “objectivity” is thereby lost. (See Tauber 1997, pp. 91–124.)

12. It struck me that these ghost leaves and the green ones whose forms they assume, were the creatures of the same law. It could not be in obedience to two several laws, that the vegetable juices swelled gradually into the perfect leaf on the one hand, and the crystalline particles trooped to their standard in the same admirable order on the other. (Thoreau, November 28, 1837, Journal 1, 1981, pp. 15–16)

13. I define life as the principle of individuation, or the power which unites a given all into a whole that is presupposed by its parts. The link that combines the two, and acts throughout both, will, of course, be defined by the tendency to individuation. Thus, from its utmost latency … there is an ascending series of intermediate classes, and of analogous gradations in each class. To a reflecting mind … [classes] are homogeneous, and … are but degrees and different dignities of one and the same tendency. (Coleridge [1848] 1970, pp. 42–43)

14. Thus Coleridge is a particularly interesting case of Kantian, Hegelian, and Schellingian philosophies of life intermingling, and thus serves as an important example of Naturphilosophie at work. For analysis of Theory of Life, see Levere 1981, pp. 42–45, 161–66, 215–19.

15. The “worlding” theme serves as a major scaffolding for Daniel Peck's Thoreau's Morning Work (1990), which he explains as follows:

This phrase [“worlding” of the world] comes from an essay by Richard Pevear, who uses it in a discussion of the poetry of George Oppen. Pevear places Oppen's work in contrast to the “solipism of so much contemporary writing” and understands it as an antidote to the “worldlessness” of the postwar period. It was, of course, a nineteenth-century version of worldlessness—the condition of “quiet desperation”—that sent Thoreau to the Pond to recover his world, and Walden may be considered the “poem” he wrote toward his recovery. He was, as many have observed, prescient in understanding how the technology and coercive social structures emerging in his time could alienate people from nature and turn them into machines. One of his reasons for going to Walden, like many another utopian of his day, was to recover the very ground of being, to “world” the world in this quite literal sense. (Pp. 125–26)

16. This view, despite recent attempts to overturn it (e.g., Walls 1995; see next chapter) has been long recognized. For instance, consider Hicks's assessment: “There was every reason why, with his keen, sensuous perception, his zealous and incessant observation of the facts of nature, and his intensive study of a single, small district, Thoreau might have become one of the foremost field naturalists of modern science. He chose to be something else” (1925, p. 87).

17. I will adopt Porte's basic reading. Suffice it to note here only that Paul regards Thoreau as “fortunate to find in an emerging Transcendentalism a program for his life” (1958, p. 1); accordingly, his challenge was “to apply transcendental ideas, to bring them to the test of living” (ibid., p. 16), and thus most of Emerson's treatise [Nature] was embodied in Walden (ibid., p. 301). Thus Thoreau, from this perspective, attempted to prove Emerson's philosophy

(p. 274), although the naturalist method, writ large, was ill suited for the disciple's greater task (ibid., pp. 275 ff.). This of course was Emerson's own view, as he wrote in 1841: “I told H. T. that his freedom is in the form, but he does not disclose new matter. I am very familiar with all his thoughts,—they are my own quite originally drest” (1970, p. 96), and then reiterated after Thoreau's death: “In reading him [Thoreau], I find the same thought, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, & illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality” (June 24, 1863, 1982, p. 353). Matthiessen (1941, p. 80) quotes the first journal entry and then more fairly balances the ledger with the following general assessment: “his [Emerson's] failure to concentrate squarely on the fact that here, among all his followers, was the rare artist for whom he had been looking” (ibid., p. 81). An interesting commentary on Emerson's dismissal is offered by his own son, Edward Waldo Emerson, who, in 1917, wrote an appreciative correction on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of Thoreau's birth:

His close association, under the same roof, for months, with the maturer Emerson [Ralph Waldo] may, not unnaturally, have tinged his early writings, and some superficial trick of manner or of speech been unconsciously acquired, as often happens. But this is all that can be granted. Entire independence, strong individuality were Thoreau's distinguishing traits, and his foible was not subserviency, but combativeness in conversation, as his friends knew almost too well. Conscious imitation is not to be thought of as a possibility of this strong spirit. (1999, p. 12)

Notwithstanding a possible family tension, the younger Emerson was particularly irked by James Russell Lowell's view of Thoreau (e.g., 1899, p. 25).

My own favorite defense of Thoreau was that offered by his early biographer, Henry Salt:

I would hazard the suggestion (though well aware that it must at present seem fantastic) that Thoreau's genius will eventually be even more highly valued than Emerson's. No sane critic could for a moment doubt the mighty influence which Emerson's great and beneficent intellect wielded among his contemporaries, or dream of comparing Thoreau with him as a nineteenth-century power. But the class of mind which has the most lasting hold on men's interest and homage is not always, and not often, the same as that which rules contemporary thought…. Of all the Concord group, the most inspired, stimulating, and vital personality is Thoreau's; and when time has softened down the friction caused by superficial blemishes and misunderstandings, the world will realize that it was no mere Emersonian disciple, but a mastermind and heart who left that burning message to his fellowmen. ([1890] 1993, pp. 127–28)

18. Thoreau, as he himself acknowledged, was a Transcendentalist, and critics generally agree. The question is simply, What kind of Transcendentalist? For one must seek a common denominator, given the diversity of the movement. Walter Harding pithily offers the following: “Thoreau classified himself as a Transcendentalist. If we use the popular definition that a Transcendentalist is one who believes that one can (and should) go beyond Locke in believing that all knowledge is acquired through the senses, that in order to attain the ultimate in knowledge one must ‘transcend’ the senses, we can unquestionably classify

Thoreau as a Transcendentalist” (1959, p. 134). For my purposes here, this assignment will do.

19. As Robert Richardson (1986) has discussed in detail, Thoreau brought together several tributaries from “Nature” that would remain as major currents of his mature project. Emerson's pivotal essay had posed questions concerning 1) the relation of ideas that correspond to material nature, 2) the role of intuition as a valid mode of knowing, and 3) the character of an individual's ethical standpoint. Each of these issues, according to Emerson's perspective, was grounded in man's relation to nature, as opposed to God, state, or society. As did the Stoics long before him, Emerson evoked a parallelism: nature's laws were fundamentally the same as the laws of human nature, and thus man could base a good life, a life of virtue, on nature. Emerson took the next step of his argument in his Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard, delivered the day after Thoreau graduated—and which he probably did not hear—by asserting that the business of the American Scholar (the title of this famous lecture [1983b]) was to study nature and thus attain selfknowledge by the correspondence discovered in that examination. Further, in a Hegelian variant, Emerson maintained an idea of history as the record of a universal mind. On this view, the human mind is, and has been, essentially the same in all ages and places, and thus the similarities of different ages and cultures are more important than their differences.

Influential earlier critics concurred that Thoreau should be regarded as an expositor of Emerson's doctrines. For instance, James Russell Lowell accused Thoreau of having gathered his “strawberries” from Emerson's garden (1899, p. 369; quoted by Hansen 1990, p. 133), and Mark Van Doren saw Thoreau as “a specific Emerson,” whose philosophical position was “almost identical with Emerson's” (1916, pp. 70, 91; quoted by Porte 1966, p. 4). Hicks saw Thoreau as in “agreement with the essential features of Emerson's attitude toward nature” (1925, p. 80) and as one who “exemplified … in his life and in his work, most of the doctrines of Emerson's Nature” (ibid., p. 98). In this reading, Thoreau's “most important contribution … is his expression of the Transcendental attitude toward nature, which … gave rise to the poetic and philosophic attitude as contrasted with the utilitarian or purely scientific (ibid.).

20. Emerson's key concept of Correspondence—the notion that nature is symbolic of spiritual truth, and indeed holds its highest and truest function as a handbook of moral truth—is derived from a complex constellation of eighteenth-century ideas that Thoreau found less conducive, and from this position Porte draws diverging philosophical lines (1966, pp. 11 ff. and 68 ff.). Scholarly opinion is sharply divided on this point: for instance, Hansen (1990, p. 6) agrees, while Paul (1958) draws exactly the opposite conclusion, seeing Transcendentalism as “rejecting most of the assumptions of the eighteenth century” (p. 3), but he accedes to the critical point upon which Porte will build his own argument:

Intuitive apprehension (the capitalized Reason of the nineteenth century as opposed to the reason of the eighteenth) was man's creative power, the warrant of his freedom, and his key to the universe. Not only did its synthesizing powers account for the way in which experience becomes meaningful, but being an imaginative faculty as well, it

could directly seize reality. And this apprehension of reality, though mystical in the epistemological sense of making the knower one with the thing known, was not the vaporous emotional state usually ascribed to mysticism; it was a cognitive experience, the liberating power of which came from possessing ideas—not the mere Lockean representative idea, but the idea in the mind of God, the idea in the Platonic sense of being the correlative of Reality itself…. [T]he ideas in the mind were the only reality one could know; the world outside the mind was phenomenal…. [O]ne never knew the reality outside of one's self.” (Paul 1958, p. 5)

And with Ideas, “man can remake the world” (ibid., p. 6), so that interpreting nature, turning it into consciousness, was “a process of taking up the Notme by the Me. Mind, ideas, consciousness were primary, and the external world existed to be assimilated as the stuff of thought” (ibid., p. 7). The solipsistic break is made through Correspondence: spirit resides behind nature, and we might, because of our own spark of divinity, know spirit. I concur with Porte that Thoreau rejected this thesis and sought another path.

21. Emersonian Transcendentalism stressed the correspondences one might discern in observing nature to enlighten and spiritually instruct us. Nature was thus to be mastered and read for human purpose, and because man is only dimly aware of his innate divine sources, the natural world remains “the present expositor of the divine mind” (Emerson 1983a, p. 42). Through correspondences we might “read” nature and thus decode her, for “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (ibid., p. 30), and conversely, “all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols” (ibid., p. 22). This “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” (ibid.) reflects the emblematic nature of the world, where “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (ibid., p. 24). If one would discern that language, nature then holds “models for human art, metaphors for human growth, assurances of human stability,” and thus one who studies nature is afforded a “means of recovering his ‘power,’ his charismatic capacity for the mastery of life” (McIntosh 1974, p. 28). The product is the reconstruction of human divinity in its various forms and, most pertinent to our present concerns, the making of a selfcreated world. The key is the creative element, where meaning is established between a contemplating individualized mind—the self—and the world (natural and divine) about him. Emerson's return to nature is to bring her under human dominion so that the universe, devoid of value in itself without man's survey and assignment, might become entirely spiritual, and thus morally informed. Porte summarizes previous analyses that explain Emerson's (and Coleridge's) misreading of Kant (ibid., pp. 85 ff.), who denied ontological idealism and its implications for moral law.

22. A concise picture of Thoreau's divergent empiricist approach to nature is captured in Emerson's own journal entry of May 21, 1856:

Yesterday to the Sawmill Brook with Henry. He was in search of yellow violet (pubescens) and menyanthes which he [found] waded into the water for. & which he concluded, on examination, had been out five days. Having found his flowers, he drew out of his breast pocket his diary & read the names of all the plants that should bloom on this day, 20 May; whereof he keeps account as a banker when his notes fall due. rubus triflora, guerens, vaccinium, &c. The cyprop[ae]dium not due ‘till tomorrow. Then

we diverged to the brook, where was viburnum dentatum, arrowhead. But his attention was drawn to the redstart which flew about with its cheah cheah chevet, & presently two fine grosbeaks[,] rosebreasted, whose brilliant scarlet “made the rash gazer wipe his eye,” & which he brought nearer with his spy glass, [his pockets are full of twine &c. also,] [then to the note of a bird] & whose fine clear note he compares to that of a “tanager who has got rid of his hoarseness,” then he heard a note which he calls that of the nightwarbler, a bird he has never [seen] identified, has been in search of for twelve years; which, always, when he sees, is in the act of diving down into a tree or bush, & which 'tis vain to seek; the only bird that sings indifferently by night & by day. I told him, he must beware of finding & booking him, lest life should have nothing more to show him. He said, “What you seek in vain for half your life, one day you come full upon all the family at dinner.—You seek him like a dream, and as soon as you find him, you become his prey.” He thinks he could tell by the flowers what day of the month it is, within two days…. There came Henry with musicbook under his arm, to press flowers in; with telescope in his pocket, to see the birds, & microscope to count stamens; with a diary, jacknife, & twine, in stout shoes, & strong grey [pantal] trowsers, ready to brave the shrub oaks & smilax, & to climb the tree for a hawk's nest. His strong legs when he wades were no insignificant part of his armour. (1978, 90–92)

Thoreau's Journal entries for May 20 and 21, 1856 (Journal, [1906] 1962, 8:349–50), make no mention of Emerson, and there are inconsistencies that are not easily resolved. Thoreau notes going to Saw Mill Brook on the 21st, not the 20th as in Emerson's note, but since there are two Saw Mill Brooks, it is possible that Thoreau indeed visited one or the other on the 20th with Emerson, although on that date Thoreau notes only that he went to “Beck Stows.” The grosbeaks and pubescens are noted by Thoreau in the 21st entry (not the 20th), but there is no mention at all of the nightwarbler in either account. Thoreau makes frequent Journal references to nightwarblers, which, according to Emerson's relay of information from “Brewer,” “is probably the Nashville warbler” (Thoreau, May 3, 1857,Journal, [1906] 1962, 9:355). But Thoreau persisted in calling this elusive bird a nightwarbler in later Journal entries (e.g., May 16, 1858, ibid., 10:426) and finally seems to make a definite identification as a “Maryland yellowthroat!!” (August 5, 1858, ibid., 11:74), although referring to the bird thereafter by its original designation, nightwarbler (May 8, 1860, ibid., 13:283, and August 28, 1860, ibid., 14:67).

Emerson's admiring account was, to be sure, ambivalent. He narrates another outing with Thoreau two years later, and while giving due credit to the intrepid naturalist, there is no doubt that Emerson distances himself. While noting Thoreau's talent (“The charm which Henry T. uses for bird & frog & mink, is patience. They will not come to him, or show him aught, until he comes a log among the logs, sitting still for hours in the same place; then they come around him & to him, & show themselves at home” [May 21, 1858, Emerson 1978, p. 203]), Emerson admonishes him: “I tell him that a man was not made to live in a swamp, but a frog” (ibid.), an observation he reiterates in two separate journal notes: “If God meant him to live in a swamp, he would have made him a frog” (ibid.), and in the form of a mock letter: “My dear Henry, A frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp. Yours ever, R.” (ibid., p. 204). Emerson, apparently, was quite pleased with his reproof.


23. “We may believe it, but never do we live a quite free life, such as Adam's, but are enveloped in an invisible network of speculations–Our progress is only from one such speculation to another, and only at rare intervals do we perceive that it is no progress.– –Could we for a moment drop this byplay—and simply wonder—without reference or inference!” (Thoreau, December 7, 1838,Journal 1, 1981, p. 58).

24. As already remarked in n. 22 above.

25. On the central role of symbols, Emerson is closer to Goethe than to Thoreau. There is a long scholarly tradition that regards Goethe's historicism as largely guided by symbolic rendering, but even more broadly we see in Goethe's archetypal leaf the crucial function symbol plays in his epistemology more generally (Van Cromphout 1990, pp. 100–101). Thoreau too sees symbolically, but the symbol hardly serves the same central function it does for Emerson, where it is the nexus of his system. Thoreau is certainly happy to represent various spiritual and aesthetic insights or visions through symbols, both literary and cognitive, but such representations are only part of a varied lexicon of recording experience and certainly do not claim primacy in his thinking or artistic endeavors.

26. If one were to place Thoreau on some continuum of Transcendental orthodoxy, with Emerson holding the middle position, William Ellery Channing would be closer to Thoreau and Bronson Alcott would be furthest away. Alcott might appear to have mimicked Thoreau's own sentiments in writing for the first issue of The Dial,

Nature is not separate from me. She is mine, alike with my body; and in moments of true life I feel my identity with her; I breathe, pulsate, feel, think, will through her members, and know of no duality of being. (Alcott, “Orphic Sayings,” no. 35 ; quoted by Shepard 1937, p. 293)

But in fact Alcott was far removed from Thoreau's own views of nature and human wildness. For Alcott, the imperative of civilization was to conquer the wild so that all could be cultivated and placed under human control:

These woods do not belong to art nor civility till they are brought into keeping with man's thoughts, nor may they encroach upon us by nearness…. Like unkempt savages nodding saucily at us, they need to be cropped and combed before they are fairly taken into our good graces as ornaments of our estates. (Quoted by Shepard 1937, p. 395)

Thus taming of the wild was an inner cultivation for Alcott, one radically different from Thoreau's own efforts both to celebrate and to develop what he regarded as the source of human vitality.

27. Emerson also had his mystical moments—e.g., the famous passage in “Nature,” “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (Emerson 1983a, p. 10)—but the contrast to emphasize is the absence of any notion of dominance in Thoreau's view of nature. See McIntosh 1977, pp. 284–85 n. 4, and further discussion here in chapter 5.


28. But before we dismiss Emerson so cavalierly, it is clear that while Thoreau's entire project was, in some sense, fundamentally different from Emerson's, Thoreau nevertheless actively responded within the broad boundaries of a framework established by Emerson. The basic structure of their respective inquiries may be said to share strong affinities: selfreliance and individuality, the introspective self, divided and dialectical with reference to the world and its own voice; the existential status of man counterpoised to nature; the spiritual quest for meaning in a world increasingly hostile to man. To be sure, each stamped these issues with his own characteristic approach and understanding, but these general questions outline a shared inquiry; and while Emerson and Thoreau staked out differing claims and led very different intellectual lives, it is inappropriate simply to conclude that Thoreau “rejected” Emerson. Considering the close relationship Thoreau enjoyed in his formative period, the ability to exercise his intellect against his mentor, and yes, even the opportunity to “rebel” against the Master Transcendentalist, seem to follow Harold Bloom's notion of revision or correction engaged in the creative reaction, where “strong poets” must “clear imaginative space for themselves” (1973, p. 16). That discussion would take us too far afield, but suffice it to note that influence is a matter of multiple determinative factors and cannot be reducible to a simple rejection of one organizing idea or another.


1. Rossi quotes a letter written to Benjamin Austin in 1860 regarding an invitation to lecture:

I shall be very happy to read to your association three lectures on the evenings named, but the question is about their character. They will not be scientific in the common, nor, perhaps, in any sense…. [T]hey will be transcendental, that is, to the mass of hearers, probably moonshine. Do you think that this will do? Or does your audience prefer lamplight, or total darkness these nights? I dare say, however, that they would interest those who are most interested in what is called nature. (Thoreau 1958, p. 584)

2. Positivism's influence affected all intellectual domains. It called for renewed vigor in scientific objectivism, and it was also manifest in application to human sciences and moral philosophy, where explanations of social behavior were sought in biology. As Leszek Kolakowski observed, “positivism … renounces the transcendental meaning of truth and reduces logical features to biological behavior. The rejection of the possibility of synthetic judgments a priori—the fundamental act constituting positivism as a doctrine—can be identified with the reduction of all knowledge to biological responses” (1968, p. 214).

3. Diana Postlethwaite (1984) and Peter Dale (1989) have cogently argued that positivism was the dominant nineteenth-century successor to the Romantics' efforts at totalization, that vast cultural project which sought a unifying basis for nature and society. Dale writes that, militantly realistic,

the ground of its realism lay not in the historical structures of society so much as in the evolving structures of the natural world, to which it tended to reduce the historical.

And although, like Marxism, it proposed ultimately to bring about the the union of the individual with society and within himself, it began by proposing to fit the structures of the mind to those of nature, not in Wordsworth's metaphysical manner of strong romanticism, but in the materialistic or naturalistic manner that seemed increasingly to be offered by natural science. The use of “scientific naturalism,” as F. M. Turner has testified … was the single most important intellectual phenomenon of the postromantic nineteenth century. (Pp. 6–7)

4. The battle was to be fought on philosophical—specifically, epistemological—grounds. The reductionists proceeded to reduce life to a problem of defining attractive and repulsive forces (very much in keeping with the Romantic preoccupation with polarities) in order to link the physical sciences to the biological, which indeed were connected “not empirically, not because the physical foundations of physiology had been experimentally determined, but a priori, independent of any scientific investigation at all[!]” (Galaty 1974).

5. Romantic holism, as a philosophical construct, grew out of seventeenth-century debate over the metaphysical structure of nature. Indeed, Spinozan pantheism was the direct antecedent of the Romantic notion of nature's unity (McFarland 1969), and Thoreau was, of course, a disciple of that orientation. Spinoza, in response to the dualistic construction of mind and body proposed by Descartes, endeavored to unify the schism by transcending the alternative primacy of either mind or body with a new concept, “substance”: absolute, infinite, and unknowable. The finite expression of substance was the “mode,” known only by our cognizing abilities as “thought” and “extension.” Thus, body and mind are the only conceivable manifestations of substance as mediated through modes, and although each appears distinct, both, according to Spinoza, are in fact derivative of primal substance and thus complementary aspects of one and the same reality. The key issue was the unity of nature that undergirded all the variegated manifestations. This is an important example of an abiding theme in Western civilization, namely, “the need to reconcile, to bring to line, to unify within a single, allembracing, coherent, and logical system of thought those divergent— and diverse—elements that threaten to disrupt an orderly world” (Smocovitis 1996, p. 4, citing Berlin 1977 and 1992). In this sense, as discussed in chapter 6, Thoreau regarded himself as pursuing a heroic endeavor. But this definition is incomplete, for Romanticism also embraced disruption, fragmentation, irony, and chaos. It required its own sustaining structure, one constructed from the rejection of any universals. For further discussion, see the Introduction.

6. Notwithstanding the deficiencies of such a position, it is fascinating to note the fecundity of Goethe's musings, which were later developed in twentieth-century phenomenological philosophy. This general orientation is again regarded as an important direction to explore in terms of the experiential quality of science. See Kohàk 1978.

7. Thomas Nagel (1986) argues that “absolute objectivity”—or allembracing knowledge—is deeply paradoxical because such knowledge cannot adopt some particular view, that is, be inclusive of reality as we know it (the subjective), and is thus always partial and incomplete. Ideally the subjective and the objective sides of objectivity should be joined, but because of the limits imposed on absolute

objectivity, it can offer only “a view from nowhere”—that is, a knowledge which cannot be situated. In such a world, there is no perspective, context or voice, and knowledge has no meaning.

8. See n. 1 to Acknowledgments.

9. Interestingly, Goethe did not defend Romantic subjectivity to preserve a particular humane orientation to counter a scientific worldview (he predated the positivists and perhaps felt less defensive than Thoreau); rather he sought a fine balance between interpretative free play with observations and a mode of doing science which would allow the full play of human imagination in order to stimulate discovery. Goethe thus personifies the deep conflict in Romantic science—the search for some objectified nature filtered through the sanctity of human interpretation—a tension that was to plague his cohort until their eclipse by the positivists, who sought to minimize, if not eliminate, the human element in the gathering of facts.

10. See n. 7 above.

11. I hasten to add that Thoreau was hardly an antiscientist and clearly understood the power of the scientific method and the importance of science for his own worldview and poetic appreciation. For instance, in discussing the important role of identifying and naming a natural object, he wrote:

I have known a particular rush … for at least twenty years, but have been prevented from describing some [of] its peculiarities, because I did not know its name…. With the knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing. That shore is now more describable, and poetic even. My knowledge was cramped and confined before, and grew rusty because not used,—for it could not be used. My knowledge now becomes communicable and grows by communication. I can now learn what others know about the same thing. (August 29, 1858, Journal, [1906] 1962, 11: 137)

12. At the other end of the philosophical spectrum from Whewell, John Stuart Mill advocated both a pragmatic (or utilitarian) understanding and a rigorously inductive explanation of scientific research and theory formation (A System of Logic [1843]). He maintained that all reasoning, even apparently deductive reasoning, is ultimately inductive. Methodologically opposed to Whewell's reliance on the verification of hypotheses as evidence of truth, Mill insisted that since various hypotheses could explain a group of facts, inductive proof required the affirmation of one hypothesis at the expense of the others. The crucial difference between Mill and Whewell perhaps may be reduced to the role of hypotheses in their respective philosophies. Whewell, in reading the history of science, saw that history as an illustration of the Hypothetical Method, where the truth of a hypothesis is attested from its ability to explain observed phenomena (socalled Inference to the Best Explanation). Mill argued for the undeterminedness of theory, where a body of data might be equally explained by more than one hypothesis.

13. In the letter declining membership (December 19, 1853), Thoreau included answers to a questionnaire:

Occupation (Professional or otherwise). Literary and Scientific, combined with Landsurveying…. Branches of science in which especial interest is felt The manners and

customs of the Indians of the Alonquin Group previous to contact with the civilized man. Remarks I may add that I am an observer of nature generally, and the character of my observations, so far as they are scientific, may be inferred from the fact that I am especially attracted by such books of science as White's Selborne and Humboldt's “Aspects of Nature.” (Thoreau 1958, p. 310)

14. This perspective on “the disenchantment of the world” has found adherents in our own century, the most eloquent perhaps being Max Weber ([1922] 1946). While acknowledging that successful science depends on a singleminded devotion to its own methods and its own conclusions, Weber believed that to be a specialist is not simply to be a calculator or tool in the scientific process but a vital, creative agent. To situate science in terms of its humane function rather than its epistemological standing or its technological application, Weber referred to the “inward calling for science”; that is, he addressed the possible meaning of the enterprise for its practitioners. He suggested that the defined scope of scientific disciplines provides an opportunity for specialization, and that the fragmentation of domains of knowledge in modern society entails the conclusion that genuine achievement is possible for the individual only within a narrow and confined domain of expertise. However, Weber rejected the notion that science “has become a problem in calculation.” He was unwilling to accept that only a “factory” method of cold calculation and methodical computation can yield scientific results, and he strongly maintained the necessity of intuition and inspiration—of “ideas”—in science (as in art). And so he joined the Romantic tradition of finding human value in scientific practice.

15. Kuhn looked at the history of science and saw that the narratives bequeathed him in the 1950s were hardly rational or cumulative in the normal sense. As a novice physicist, he understood that scientific development hardly ever depended on knowing the history of what had preceded the particular narrow question at hand, and thus that the practicing scientist had little, if any, historical consciousness. As Kuhn wrote in Structure, “More historical detail, whether of science's present or of its past, or more responsibility to the historical details that are presented, could only give artificial status to human idiosyncrasy, error, and confusion. Why dignify what science's best and most persistent efforts have made it possible to discard? The depreciation of historical fact is deeply, and probably functionally, ingrained in the ideology of the scientific profession, the same profession that places the highest of all values upon factual details of other sorts” (1970, p. 138). This was an important insight that brought at least two ideas in train. The first was the fundamental question of how and why science proceeds without this selfconscious awareness of its own method. The second—and this was the one Kuhn himself, and later the entire discipline of history of science, pursued—was to what extent science might be characterized by some historical self-reflexiveness. In a sense, the first set of questions would in effect be answered as a shadow response to the second set. If science, to proceed, does not rely on understanding its own origins and tracing its historical evolution, then to what extent does it adhere to such rational categories of development? The answer offered by Kuhn—and later aggressively

pursued by the more radical Kuhnians whom he repudiated—was that science was hardly as rational as previously assumed.

16. These attacks, begun in the 1960s and 1970s, on the normative standing of science generated heated rebuttals (Holton 1993; Gross, Levitt, and Lewis 1996), and the socalled Science Wars of the 1990s pitted conservative defenders of science against those whom they regarded as attacking a bastion of Western civilization. The fundamental issue in the Science Wars is the degree to which scientific findings—from theory to elemental fact—are “constructed.” The issue goes back, at least in its modern formulation, to Kant, who, in proposing that we know the world only insofar as our mental faculties allow, offered a philosophical constructivist theory of cognition: our manner of perceiving the world and acting in it depend on the particular character (i.e., biology) of our minds,and that world exists for us (i.e., can be known) as defined by those faculties of knowing. (Metaphysical realism was thus challenged, if not replaced, by the noumena/phenomena distinction.) We might concur that the degree of epistemological agreement between individual knowers must be very high (because of adaptive evolution, the commonality of language, and the overwhelming evidence of practice); yet because of the “other minds” problem and the uncertainty of noumena, doors to skepticism and relativism have been opened. Science has, of course, always made a privileged claim on objectivity, but if one extrapolates the Kantian position from individual perceptions to instruments, on the one hand, and social factors (including language, cultural values, political organization, etc.) on the other hand, then “constructivism” in science becomes a problem of degree. In short, the argument hinges on the degree to which science's privileged epistemological position protects its cognitive content from contamination by confounding elements not factored into the calculus of ideal objective knowing.

The constructivist quandary entered science studies through each of its three branches—history, philosophy, and sociology of science. When a logical structure for scientific discovery and verification seemed elusive at best (philosophy), and the history of science seemed similarly marked by nonprogressive, nonrational models of growth, students of science paid closer attention to the social variables that might account for scientific practice. While a comprehensive description was hardly forthcoming, one major result of these studies was that science exhibited a construction of its knowledge in a fashion analogous to other forms of knowledge formation. While there indeed was a privileged epistemological standing in the natural sciences, this was different in degree, not kind. Simply put, science is, in a trivial sense, “social,” i.e., it is a human activity, which draws upon all those elements of our culture that support its enterprise. This is hardly contentious in itself, but the argument commences as to the degree of construction which would be allowed for scientific practice and discourse, and from there, the degree of relativism allowed for science's content.

17. See n. 16 above.

18. My own views and papers supporting what I would call a pragmatic realist's position may be found in the anthology Science and the Quest for Reality

(Tauber 1997), where references to the philosophical, historical, and sociological dimensions of this issue are given.

19. When discussing science and aesthetics, it is difficult to draw the line between psychology and philosophy. Geometric form and other visual metaphors generally fulfill criteria of form that we “perceive” as beautiful, but whether the appreciation of a phenomenon or form as beautiful is learned (i.e., culturally derived) or in fact fulfills some resonant cognitive function remains a vexing question (Rentschler et al. 1988). The literature concerned only with defining the beautiful in science is vast; see Tauber 1996b for a partial listing.

20. Indeed, a useful way of illustrating the elusive synthesis of scientific experience may be seen in the way the aesthetic has often served to span, in scientists' own accounts, the deep metaphysical schism (Tauber 1996b). For instance, when the physicist Paul Dirac said, “it is more important that a theory be beautiful than that it be true” (quoted by Charles Hartshorne [1982] as heard in a lecture), he did not proclaim qualitative equivalence, as did John Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”), but offered the sense of the beautiful as paramount. Dirac clearly emphasized a mathematical aesthetic method at the expense of inductive empiricism: “A theory of mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data,” and “there are occasions when mathematical beauty should take priority over agreement with experiment” (Kragh 1990, p. 284, quoting Dirac). Or again, “It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment” (Dirac 1963). This socalled Dirac-Weyl doctrine in fact can be traced in modern physics to Hermann Minkowski, but perhaps of greater influence on Dirac was Einstein, who was guided by principles of simplicity and exhibited legendary confidence in his equations of gravitation theory. Dirac and many other physicists of his time regarded Einstein's gravitation theory as created virtually without empirical reasoning, although Einstein himself was more circumspect in his trust in aesthetic parameters (Kragh 1990, pp. 286–87; see also McAllister 1990).

Dirac's pronouncement falls prey to the disjunction of the rational scientific from the emotive beautiful. In the very separation of beauty from truth we perhaps might be satisfied with Keats's assignment of equality, or at least complementarity, inasmuch as “truth” fulfills certain necessary criteria and “beauty” others. Dirac distinguishes them as different and hierarchical. In a most profound sense, by separating truth and beauty, we again admit a potentially debilitating dichotomy. Dirac's proclamation jolts as it challenges the usual perception of scientific inquiry, and yet it is neither a novel assessment nor a radical position. The entire issue of the subjectivity and changing standards of aesthetic criteria is beyond our concern, but there has been much discussion of this issue. (See Renscher 1990 and Tauber 1996b for introductions.)

21. See Henri Atlan's discussion of this issue (1993, p. 193), where he draws upon Gaston Bachelard's original insights concerning the psychological motivations of scientists (Bachelard [1934] 1984). See also the discussions of Holton (1994) and Torrance (1994) for other perspectives on the quest for universal, transcendent truths from religious and scientific orientations.



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.

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)

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.

5. See n. 17 to chapter 2.

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)

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.

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).

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]).

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.

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.

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.


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.

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).

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)

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.

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)


1. “I sometimes despair of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world with the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press first, to squeeze their old notions out of them.” (Walden, 1971, p. 25)


2. See n. 14 to chapter 1.

3. The use of personal story to frame philosophical questions of moral knowledge is a tradition in Western letters stretching back at least as far as Augustine (354–430), whose own Confessions, through the appeal and power of his introspective narrative, still engage the modern reader. Those Confessions stand stylistically as a triptych: the autobiographical illustration of his philosophical principles forms the first panel (books 1–9); his contemplation of the moral, epistemological, and integrative life of memory, the second (book 10); the direct application of these earlier insights to his immediate imperative—knowing God through Creation—the third (books 11–13). His narrative is so compelling and immediate, however, that too often the modern reader's interest ends with book 9. We mistake his ingenious essay for “simple” autobiography, and so miss the specifically philosophical restatement of the questions by which he shaped his life story, and the answers he has to give. Surely the power of his personal narrative informs and enriches his more formal philosophy, which in itself is an interesting comment about the nature of his discourse. But the critical point to emphasize is that Augustine's Confessions are first and foremost not autobiography but philosophy.

4. For instance,

Virtue will be known ere long by her elastic tread.–When man is in harmony with nature. (September 27, 1840, Journal 1, 1981, p. 180)

Virtue is not virtue's face. (November 2, 1840, ibid., p. 193)

My virtue loves to take an airing of the winter's morning—it scents itself, and snuffs its own fragrance in the bracing atmosphere of the fields—more than in the sluggishness of the parlor. (January 2, 1841, ibid., p. 215)

We cannot well do without our sins, they are the highway of our virtue. (March 22, 1842, ibid., p. 385)

5. He continued:

Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive. Listen to every zephyr for some reproof, for it is surely there, and he is unfortunate who does not hear it. We cannot touch a string or move a stop but the charming moral transfixes us. Many an irksome noise, go a long way off, is heard as music, a proud sweet satire on the meanness of our lives. (Walden, 1971, pp. 218–19)

This theme was to appear again and again in Thoreau's Journal in different guises, many of them poetic and lyrically evocative. I cite but one from his early period:

The future will no doubt be a more natural life than this. We shall be acquainted and shall use flowers and stars, and sun and moon, and occupy this nature which now stands over and around us. We shall reach up to the stars and pluck fruit from many parts of the universe. We shall purely use the earth and not abuse it–God is in the breeze and whispering leaves and we shall then hear him. We live in the midst of all the beauty and grandeur that was ever described or conceived.


We have hardly entered the vestibule of Nature. It was here be assured under these heavens that the gods intended our immortal life should pass—these stars were set to adorn and light it—these flowers to carpet it[.] (August 26, 1843, Journal 1, 1981, p. 460)

6. See n. 15 to chapter 1.

7. Thoreau wrote frequently and passionately of mythic heroes, with whom he closely identified. For example, consider this early Journal entry:

Virtue is the deed of the bravest. It is that art which demands the greatest confidence and fearlessness. Only some hardy soul ventures upon it—it deals in what it has no experience in. The virtuous soul possess a fortitude and hardihood which not the grenadier nor pioneer can match. It never shrunk.

It goes singing to its work. Effort is its relaxation. The rude pioneer work of this world has been done by the most devoted worshippers of beauty. Their resolution has possessed a keener edge than the soldier's. In winter is their campaign, they never go into quarters. They are elastic under the heaviest burden—under the extremest physical suffering. (January 1, 1842, Journal 1, 1981, p. 354)

8. McIntosh (1974) discusses this passage in pp. 114 ff. Self-Consciousness necessarily separates the Romantic observer from nature, but the character of that relationship is variegated. McIntosh accepts Thoreau's complex relationship to nature as a “programmed inconsistency” (ibid., p. 17), and I think this is a fair reading:

[Thoreau] is trying to do justice to a single concept and a single reality that is itself full of contradiction and inconsistency. One purpose of Thoreau's programmed inconsistency is to make sense of nature as a whole, to comprehend the multiplicity of the entire natural world he lived in. The diverse meanings of “nature” shade into each other…. Taken together, they are to be regarded not as an array of concepts, to be separated from each other in the manner of Lovejoy, but as comprising a single beloved realm, a theatre of operation for Thoreau's psyche. (Ibid., p. 26)

9. Porte (1966, p. 30) quotes a passage from Emerson's Journal (1828) that offers some interesting insight into the later psychological dynamics between Thoreau and his mentor:

“It is a peculiarity … of humour in me, my strong propensity for strolling. I deliberately shut up my books … put on my old clothes … and slink away to the whortleberry bushes and slip with the greatest satisfaction into a little cowpath where I am sure I can defy observation. This point gained, I solace myself for hours with picking blueberries and other trash of the woods, far from fame, behind the birchtrees. I seldom enjoy hours as I do these. I remember them in winter; I expect them in spring” (J, II, 244–45 [July 10, 1828, Emerson 1963, pp. 136–37])…. Emerson … had apparently ceased to remember his golden hours …by 1851, when he jotted down in his journal a notable sentence which, in enlarged form, was to serve as part of his funeral oration on Thoreau eleven years later: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of huckleberry party” (J, VIII, 228 [Journal CO, May-November 1851, Emerson 1975, p. 400])…. There is clearly a personal animus in the statement. [J in Porte's citations = Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. E. W. Emerson and W. E. Forbes (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin; Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1909–14)]

10. As Leo Marx observed of this ethos, “What concerns him [Thoreau] is the hope of making the word one with the thing, the notion that the naked fact

of sensation, if described with sufficient precision, can be made to yield its secret—its absolute meaning. This is another way of talking about the capacity of nature to ‘produce delight’—to supply value and meaning” (1964, p. 249). A useful compendium of what Thoreau himself wrote on writing has been compiled by Burkett and Steward (1989).

11. See n. 7 to chapter 3.

12. Respecting Kierkegaard's insight, Wittgenstein drew the full implications beyond spiritual discourse. Indeed, the limits of language defined Wittgenstein's philosophy, which, for better or for worse, dominated twentieth-century analytic philosophy. Wittgenstein urged that one should abandon the hopes of developing language suitable for experience that is in fact unsuitable for public discourse. According to him, there is no logical basis by which we might understand ordinary language, bequeathing a tradition of analysis that restricts the province of logic to logic; of knowledge (in a empirical positivist fashion) to science; and of ethics to the metaphysical, where philosophy's analytical tools were inapplicable. His major message was that we are on very tenuous ground when assessing the logical basis of our language, and for that matter in understanding our very thought (for language and thought are inseparable). Philosophy's role was then to “shew the fly the way out of the flybottle” (Wittgenstein 1953, p. 103e), or, in other words, to demonstrate our faulty thinking when we believe we have finalized a philosophical problem. On this view, philosophy's primary role is to disenchant us from thinking that we are offering logical or analytical “solutions.” The narratives we weave around the classic philosophical issues are simply delusional if we expect some kind of logical formulation. In Wittgenstein's terminology, questions of this kind are “meaningless” because they are bereft of final adjudication. In contrast, such a question as, “Is it raining?” demands a meaningful response: “Yes” or “No.” So for Wittgenstein, only certain questions were “meaningful,” and he turned to science as a paragon of such inquiry. Scientists deal with meaningful questions, because the answers investigators glean from nature may be verified by objective means. This is the realm of “facts” as commonly understood. For other kinds of “facts”—personal, supernatural, ethical— language restricts and even distorts. Of course, we must attempt to communicate, but philosophy was dealt the responsibility of showing the faulty logic employed in such discussions, albeit without necessarily offering a better means to communicate. He thus offers us a rather “lonely” solution, one Thoreau—at least temperamentally—would have understood. We each live in a solipsistic and insulated world of our own making, but on the other hand, we now might at least comprehend the locks and chains in which language ensnares us. Insight must balance the existential quandary.

13. With this understanding of writing, Cavell presents a certain ontological condition of words:

[T]he occurrence of a word is the occurrence of an object whose placement always has a point, and whose point always lies before and beyond it. “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains” [Walden, 1971,

p. 325]. ((Wittgenstein in the Investigations (section 432) records a related perception: “Every sign by itself seems dead.” [Wittgenstein 1953, p. 128 e])) (Cavell 1981, p. 27)

14. See n. 12 above.

15. The strife which occurs within is an early theme for Thoreau: “A glorious strife seems waging within us, yet so noiselessly that we but just catch the sound of the clarion ringing of victory, borne to us on the breeze.– –There are in each the seeds of a heroic ardor, Seeds, there are seeds enough which need only to be stirred in with the soil where they lie, by an inspired voice or pen, to bear fruit of a divine flavor” (July 15, 1838,Journal 1, 1981, p. 49).

16. This theme appears in Thoreau's earliest notebooks and is evidence of a grandiose vision that remained a powerful selfimage, one that no doubt has fed Thoreau's various psychological analysts (e.g., Bridgman 1982; Lebrieux 1977, 1984). I doubt that the imagery is solely metaphoric, and there is a messianic element which is difficult to ignore:

Cease not thou drummer of the night, thou too shalt have thy reward. The stars and the firmament hear thee, and their aisles shall echo thy beat till its call is answered, and the forces are mustered. The universe is attentive as a little child to thy sound, and trembles as if each stroke bounded against an elastic vibrating firmament. I should be contented if the night never ended—for in the darkness heroism will not be deferred, and I see fields where no hero has couched his lance. (June 19, 1840, Journal 1, 1981, p. 132)

The requirement, anticipating Nietzsche, is will, and also like Nietzsche, only a prophet of great personal strength might be successful:

Who knows how incessant a surveillance a strong man may maintain over himself—how far subject passion and appetite to reason, and lead the life his imagination paints? (Thoreau, May 21, 1839, Journal 1, 1981, p. 73)

17. Of the many biblical narratives of such strife, the story of Jacob's return to “the land” he fled as a result of usurping his brother, Esau's, inheritance is particularly illuminating to our theme:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32: 24–28)

The “man” is an agent of the divine, and Jacob's nighttime fight is the stuff of dreams. The setting is the eve of the critical meeting to take place with Esau the next day—fraught with danger and even guilt anxiety. It is quite apparent that Jacob is wrestling with the complex interplay of his return with a new identity, rich with wives and children, to a land he had fled under the most suspicious of circumstances. He prevails in the wrestling match, despite suffering a grievous blow, and is able to extract a blessing. The form of this blessing is most interesting, for it takes the form of a new name, signifying a new self. No longer was

he the Supplanter (25.26; 27.36) but Israel (35.10), which probably means “God rules” and is interpreted to mean “The one who strives with God” (Metzger and Murphy 1991, p. 43, note to Genesis 32:28). He may just as easily have struggled with himself and emerged with a new name, a new identity, and with it a new ethical mandate.

18. Lebeaux asserts that Thoreau wished to become his own father in naming himself as part of a developmental selfassertion (1984, p. 15; see also 1977, pp. 70–71); Bridgman considers Thoreau's attempts at “selfconquest … a fantasy” (1982, p. 26).

19. Cavell has drawn identifications with Jeremiah and Ezekiel (1981, pp. 17 ff.). Although he also sees Thoreau's writing assuming a heroic pose (ibid., p. 21), this persona is subordinated to the prophet or perhaps “poetprophet” (ibid., p. 19). Cavell is certainly correct in drawing out Walden' s biblical parallels, but at the same time he does not pay due service to Thoreau's immediate identification with the Greek tradition and the frequent citations to those ancient heroes. (Another allusion—in a rather minor essay—to Thoreau as prophet is offered by Groff [1961].)

20. Walter Harding may have expressed the matter most succinctly: “Nowhere in the past or present could Thoreau find his ideal man. He could only hope that such a man would develop in the future. He concentrated therefore upon developing such a man. And consistent with his philosophy, he began with himself” (1959, p. 155). Joseph Wood Krutch draws a similar conclusion: “Thoreau's principal achievement was not the creation of system but the creation of himself, and his principal literary work was, therefore, the presentation of that self in the form of a selfportrait to which even those descriptions and expositions which seem most objective are in fact contributions” (1948, p. 11). The parallel with Nietzsche—in the guise of Zarathustra—is striking, but this theme, of course, is a dominant one in Romanticism more generally (see, e.g., Garber 1982; Porte 1991; Taylor 1989) and thus hardly unique to Thoreau. Indeed, one might easily argue that Thoreau identifies as a Romantic in large measure as he seeks his self-actualization, or as Joel Porte put it: “His great theme, of course, was renewal, the Romantic myth of infinite selfpossibility and self extension” (1991, p. 164). Taylor notes that the “expressive” turn of Romanticism may be characterized as the newly discovered ability, and imperative, to explore and express the inexhaustible inner domain of the self: “To the extent that digging to the roots of our being takes us beyond ourselves, it is to the larger nature from which we emerge. But this we only gain access to through its voice in us. This nature, unlike Augustine's God, cannot offer us a higher view on ourselves beyond our own selfexploration” (1989, p. 390). And thus the individual must explore himself and nature with creative imagination to uncover the radical subjectivism and the internalization of moral sources. The virtuous life is then one of selfseeking, self-responsibility, in an everdemanding quest for some moral ideal.

21. To make Thoreau's political posture attractive, Len Gougeon makes the salient point that what Thoreau “ultimately discovered in his dealings with society

is that the reform of individuals, through the development of virtuous selfculture, can only occur in an environment where personal freedom is guaranteed. Political, spiritual, and physical oppression, especially in the form of the institution of slavery, must be actively opposed” (1995, p. 196). As discussed at the end of this chapter, I regard this rationalization of Thoreau's political posture as generous and forgiving.

22. Thoreau was obviously outraged by this episode. “I have lived for the last month … with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country” (Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1973c, p. 106). The trial of Anthony Burns and the linked proceedings against those who attempted to forcibly free him from jail are detailed by von Frank (1998), who situates this episode within the broader political and intellectual contexts of the period. In particular, like Len Gougeon before him (1990), von Frank cites the Transcendentalists, Emerson in particular, as lending moral leadership to the abolitionist movement: “In the thought of the Transcendentalists … the concept of a law higher than any that space and time could show had been extensively explored, not as a tool for blocking the compromise of 1850, but in the broadest sense of freeing slaves or (what is the same thing) producing a free point of view. There is an implication in this that no point of view can be truly free that is also predominantly instrumental” (von Frank 1998, p. 282).

23. Thoreau can hardly be regarded as subscribing “to what have become the defining elements of the standard account of civil disobedience in contemporary political theory—elements designed to distinguish it from revolution— nonviolence, the limited nature and purpose of actions in violation of the law, and voluntary acceptance of punishment” (Rosenblum 1996, p. xxiv). To engage in civil disobedience, to the contrary, was to exercise conscientious action; democratic authority was thus regarded as only conditional (ibid., p. xxvi).


1. This conception of “moral” follows from Nietzsche's notion of “beyond good and evil,” where, in the aftermath of God's death, man is responsible for establishing his moral code, as opposed to the universal dictates of religions, most particularly Christianity. From Nietzsche's perspective, such revealed precepts are inadequate, or worse, in serving as an ethics, and are discarded as human constructions. “Morality” consequently becomes more than defining the goodevil axis, and now encompasses the entire project of constructing a moral code. To go beyond good and evil is to go to the foundations of what it means to be a moral agent, and thus the architecture of how we value becomes the philosophical problem. Nietzsche discarded a Kantian categorical imperative and Millian utilitarianism, and grounded his morality in the selfaggrandizing Will. (This biological metaphor celebrating the individuality of the striving organism was discussed in chapter 1 and is discussed further in n. 16 below.) In many respects, Nietzsche articulated Thoreau's own vision of morality, inasmuch as they both concur that

the formulation of morals is an individual responsibility and envelops the entire universe of an individual's experience. Thus, for example, the aestheticization of experience is a moral mandate in their scheme, for to search for the beautiful is a moral act, one imbued with value as determined by a freewilling individual. (See Young 1992.)

2. Thoreau goes on to write:

When facts are seen superficially they are seen as they lie in relation to certain institution's perchance. But I would have them expressed as more deeply seen with deeper references.–so that the hearer or reader cannot recognize them or apprehend their significance from the platform of common life—but it will be necessary that he be in a sense translated in order to understand them. (November 1, 1851, Journal 4, 1992, p. 158)

3. It is useful to compare this prayer with one written eight months later, March 15, 1852 (Journal 4, 1992, p. 390), and quoted in the Introduction, pp. 11–12.

4. The mind for Kant consisted of distinctive cognitive functions that required synthesis: sensibility (sensations received in space/time), understanding (faculty of conceptualizing and synthesizing data into knowledge of objects), and reason (faculty of synthesizing knowledge of objects into systems, like laws of science), which was in turn divided into “theoretical” and “practical” domains. Theoretical reason was based on the transcendental categories which permitted the “translation” of the noumenal world (the unknowable Real) into the “phenomenal”— the world of human perception and “knowledge.” This socalled “Copernican revolution” in philosophy, as Henry Allison succinctly describes it, “involves reversing the usual way of viewing cognition and instead of thinking of our knowledge as conforming to a realm of objects, we think of objects as conforming to our ways of knowing. The latter include ‘forms of sensibility,’ through which objects are given to the mind in sensory experience, and pure concepts or categories, through which they are thought. Since objects must appear to us in accordance with these sensible forms in order to be known, it follows that we can know them only as they appear, not as they may be in themselves” (1995, p. 436). Thus the world of experience was structured by the categories of understanding, which in and of themselves were insufficient to capture nature in terms of simple empirical laws that could then be combined into a system of natural science. Theoretical reason was responsible for such systematic knowledge. Morality required a different form of reason, “practical reason,” which distinguished man's action in the world and allowed the work of culture to proceed.

5. Kant's Third Critique (The Critique of Judgment [1790]) was to show that it is legitimate to think of the natural realm both as universally governed by the principle of natural causality and as embodying the effects of a rational, nonmechanistic causality. The operation of teleology in the biological world was to serve as an example of this unity, a reflective judgment that must supply a transcendental principle by which we might understand the functioning of the organic. This transcendental faculty could not be derived from theoretical understanding nor from pure practical reason, but had its own standing, and thereby permitted human comprehension of function not explained by other forms of reason (McFarland 1970).


6. Spinozan determinism was recast in terms of Critical Philosophy by F. H. Jacobi (in Letters on the Doctrine of Spinoza [1785]), who maintained that human freedom was incompatible with the view of reality that reason seems to require us to accept. Specifically, he argued that according to “sufficent reason,” “every existing state of affairs Y is grounded in some other set of conditions X such that the presence of X is sufficient to necessitate the existence of Y…. [Therefore] how is it possible to conceive of the human being as capable of free action, if his deeds are all necessary consequences of prior conditions external to himself?” (Neuhouser 1990, p. 4).

7. Given the complexity of drawing the configurations of Thoreau's experience as he reported it, Peck has correctly sought a broad designation for Thoreau's attempts to mark the boundaries of his structured perceptions; this he calls Thoreau's “categorical imagination” (1990, p. 81), and from here he draws the contours of “phenomenon.” The critic is primarily interested in unraveling the structuring of Thoreau's experience in his writing, and to the extent that Thoreau is assessed by his literary product, Peck's analysis is cogent and highly useful. But I believe that we must probe between Thoreau's words and the lines of his writings to the source of his experience, where we finally come to a metaphysics of the self.

8. See n. 6 to Introduction.

9. This passage did not appear until the post-Romantic “D” version of Walden was written (Adams and Ross 1988, p. 182), and we see it virtually intact in the Journal (August 8, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, p. 290).

10. The paragraph ends with, “This doubleness may easily make us poor neighbors and friends sometimes.” I think it no accident that Thoreau begins with asserting his “sanity” and ends with the admission that he is difficult, ascribing his misanthropy to this double character. A complex personality, Thoreau was acutely aware of his solitude, and while I eschew a psychological analysis, it is difficult to ignore the psychic manifestations of his philosophical introspection. See various commentators (e.g., Harding 1965; Lebrieux 1977, 1984; Bridgman 1982; Richardson 1986) for wideranging discussions and opposing opinion, and Taylor 1996 for a fair and measured appraisal in the context of Thoreau's political philosophy.

11. For instance, Thoreau read Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), where Coleridge was both drawn to and ultimately dissuaded from Fichte's philosophy. The rejection, based on substituting the Logos as a divine attribute for the unifying principle (Coleridge 1983, pp. 157–60; Perkins 1994, pp. 165, 248–50), is of less interest than Coleridge's embrace of Fichte's principal tenet about personhood in action. Coleridge believed Fichte had achieved a significant step beyond Kant: “by commencing with an act, instead of a thing or substance, Fichte assuredly gave the first blow to Spinozism” (Coleridge 1983, p. 158). Coleridge goes on, however, to reject Fichte's “other” as simply a “not-I” as opposed to a divinely imbued nature. But Coleridge looked more favorably on a later Fichte, who, in The Vocation of Man, had described the act of faith by which the individual determines himself, his consciousness; this determination

of consciousness by conscience was characteristic of Coleridge's own conception of “person” (Perkins 1994, p. 248). Thoreau was exposed to Fichte through other secondary sources (Sattelmeyer 1988, p. 46), and he may even have read the original in Emerson's library, but the direct connection is not at issue.

12. Because of the fundamental unity of his conception of the self, both theoretical and practical reason must be contained therein, and upon this construction Fichte attempted to reconcile the Kantian challenge of synthesizing the various forms of reason under one unitary scheme. The unity of the self, what Fichte called the “immediate unity” of both intellectual and empirical intuitions, constitutes a single conscious state composed of two basic modes of awareness: When seeing an object, there is, at one level, a perception or appreciation of the object, as well as an implicit (which may become explicit) selfawareness that “I know that I am seeing X.” Self-Consciousness is fundamentally different from the consciousness of objects. This early phenomenological formulation makes selfconstitution an underlying foundation of knowing, so that, as Fichte claimed, the subject is at all times present to itself within consciousness, implicitly if not explicitly (Neuhouser 1990, p. 69). Thus Fichte's early philosophy places practical reason as a precondition for theoretical reason, but that need not concern us here, except to note the continuity of Fichte's project with Kant's.

13. Perhaps better stated in the First Introduction of the Wissenschaftslehre of 1797/98:

The representation of the selfsufficiency of the I can certainly coexist with a representation of the selfsufficiency of the thing, though the selfsufficiency of the I cannot coexist with that of the thing. Only one of these two can come first; only one can be the starting point; only one can be independent. The one that comes second, just because it comes second, necessarily becomes dependent upon the one that comes first, with which it is supposed to be connected. Which of these should come first? (Fichte [1797/98] 1994, pp. 17–18)

Fichte adopts a radical idealism, whose “philosophy shows that there is no other type of reality at all” (p. 34).

14. We readily see the notion of the striving self, central to the philosophies of Emerson, Thoreau, and Nietzsche, in this Romantic mulch: Fichte's “absolute I with which the system seems to begin turns out to be only a practical ideal of total self-determination, an ideal toward which the finite I continuously strives but can never achieve” (Breazeale 1998, p. 642).

15. Fichte preceded Hegel's dialecticism: “To be aware of itself the I must limit itself … and this it can do only by positing something other than itself, a non-I. (Antithesis.) The I is now involved in another contradiction: it both posits and negates itself. This can be resolved only by a synthesis: the I posits a divisible I, limited by, and limiting, a divisible non-I; that is, the non-I, in part negates the I, and the I, in part negates the non-I” (Inwood 1995, p. 278).

16. Nineteenth-century biology discovered its own expression of dialecticism in the form of “adaptation,” the cardinal feature of Darwin's theory of evolution. The ability of organisms, and species writ large, to adapt determined their

survival in the short term, and evolutionary stability in the long run. Thus after Darwin, species were appreciated not as static entities but as subject to change as a result of the vicissitudes of time and happenstance. The scientific agenda directed itself to explain how each life form responded to endless competition and collective adaptation. Here we see the ipseityalterity scheme presented in its natural setting. Biologists pursued these issues with a very different understanding of the organism from that assumed in the pre-Darwinian era. By postulating an everchanging biosphere, the organism was constantly challenged by its environment, engaged in a dialectical process where, on the one hand, the environment was modified to the extent the organism might effect utilitarian use from it, and on the other hand, the organism/species was also subject to change through adaptation and ultimately species evolution. In this setting, a new element of relational cause and effect was introduced. Moreover, Darwinism became a scientific expression of indeterminacy, extending from the problem of defining a species (a question still unresolved) to the individual organism. Indeed, species may be regarded as an “individual” (Ghiselin 1997), and the particular organism then becomes only a constituent of the collective whole. The same kind of analysis may be applied to the organism itself, which is composed of symbiotic and parasitic elements. So, beyond the role assigned to the organism as a unit of selection (a major problem in its own right), what is the relation of the individual to the collective? Moreover, how is the individual organism in this evolutionary context to be defined in its own individual life history? The developmental process was reexamined as a process of emergence. No longer viewed as a static entity, the process character of the organism was recognized as its dominant defining element. The organism's boundaries and mechanisms of self-actualization represented definitional problems analogous to that posed for the species at large.What was the organism that must always adapt and change? In the twentieth century the question was modified, but hardly resolved: To what degree did genetics program the life history of the individual? What was the adaptive capacity of the organism? In what sense could biological “potentiality” be understood? How did the organism protect itself in its environs? Thus the core issue of organismal identity for the first time became a problem (see Tauber and Chernyak 1991) and continues to be (Tauber 1994, 1999b).

17. Kierkegaard offered a “reflexive” definition of the self, which broadens James's selfconscious examination of consciousness as the very definition of the self attempting to “find” itself:

The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self…. Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite…. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self…. Such a relation which relates itself to its own self (that is to say, a self) must either have constituted itself or have been constituted by another. If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation. Such a derived, constituted, relation is the human self,

a relation which relates itself to its own self, and in relating itself to its own self relates itself to another. (Kierkegaard [1849] 1955, p. 146)

18. Fichte, Hegel, and Kierkegaard laid the foundation for later phenomenological philosophical responses to the problem of personal identity by making alterity the descriptive focus of selfhood. The self, to the extent that it can be actualized, is, from this general perspective, defined by the other (e.g., Taylor 1987). Discussion has focused on whether, and how, in response to an encounter, the self articulates itself or is altered as a consequence of that engagement. Also considered is how the engaged self might alter its object and their shared world. In short, the phenomenological approach explores how the self lives in its world, essentially in a universe of others. The self alone either is alienated, that is, alienated in its selfness, or it actively engages the world and thereby becomes actualized. The debate revolves about the contingency of this process and its problematic opportunities for success. But by and large the parties agree that the potential for self-aggrandizement must be realized in the world, and the self must ultimately actualize itself in the encounter with the other (Tauber 1994). But even the contingency of the self's construction has been attacked in more recent post-structuralist arguments. Structuralism understands meaning to be a function of the relations among the components of any cultural formation or our very consciousness. For instance, the pictures of our mind's world assume their meaning, value, and significance from their relationships, that is, their “place” in a structure. But the deconstructionists broadly argued that any structure crumbles when we recognize that no part can assume participation outside its relation to other parts. In other words, there is no center, no organizing principle privileged over structure and thus able to dominate its structural domain. From this perspective, there is nothing “natural” about cultural structures (e.g., language, kinship systems, social and economic hierarchies, sexual norms, religious beliefs), no transcendental significance to limit “meanings,” and only power explains the hegemony of one view over another. Similarly, “the self” may be regarded as constructed by arbitrary criteria, and thus occupies no natural habitat. In this scenario, the phenomenological insistence on the self's dependence on the other has been radically challenged: not only has the self's autonomy been rendered meaningless,any construction of the self is regarded as arbitrary.

19. See n. 18 above.

20. From a Wittgensteinian perspective, the self is a metaphysical category and thus inaccessible to philosophical discussion. The question as to the nature of the self is, according to the “early” Wittgenstein, a false question, i.e., it is not a question at all and therefore any “answer” is meaningless. So, not surprisingly, Wittgenstein had precious little explicitly to say about “the self.” In his early notebooks, written in World War I trenches and military prison camps, he sighs about the self as “deeply mysterious” (1961, p. 80e). Consequently, Wittgenstein's position has been actively debated. A distillation yields two primary concepts: Wittgenstein's views are severely solipsistic. In a fundamental sense, only the self exists; the world exists for the self; thus is “knowledge” coordinated.


And therefore it is nonsense even to attempt to define such a self, since there is no external Archimedean point by which a knowing entity might survey or characterize itself otherwise than in the totality of its experience: we cannot see ourselves from outside, and thus possess no coordinates for any discussion of these matters. James's influence here is obvious, and clearly Wittgenstein read James carefully and with respect. Wittgenstein's profoundly disturbing philosophical critique issued forth from what in the 1890s seemed to represent a sophisticated psychological description. Selfhood is a metaphysical construct that has been rendered meaningless and that cannot be analyzed or concretized in any fashion. To try to do so is to speak nonsense. We obviously do refer to “the self,” but this is an expression in our language game, a particular social convenience that allows us to communicate, but it has no logical or scientific basis. As Henri Atlan writes, “Of this ‘I’ itself one can say nothing. It can only be manifested, and that in silence. Any discourse about this subject (about the subject of the subject) is merely speaking to say nothing: words that do not mean to say anything, that are there in order to say nothing, an isolated abracadabra without context. Just like someone outside a closed door who, to the question, ‘Who's there?,’ responds, ‘It's me’; but we do not recognize his voice, and before we can open up he vanishes without a trace” (Atlan 1993, p. 401).

But in his later philosophy Wittgenstein offered a possible vehicle for at least understanding the appeal that such a construct might hold for us. The self, Wittgenstein presumably would have argued, if pressed, only “exists” as part of a “language game,” a convention within which it possesses some explanatory value. But to define that value is a seemingly hopeless task and, more importantly, a vacuous hope. Neither logic nor science can establish a basis for defining the self, and any attempt to do so sinks into the ambiguities of other metaphysical constructs like “mind.” We might want to discuss consciousness, but we can only examine neurological function, measure brain electrical activity, trace nerve networks, assess biochemical transmitters. We are, and that is that.

If the self only “exists” as part of a “language game,” a convention from which it possesses some explanatory meaning, to define that meaning is a vain aspiration. Within this postanalytic context, the self is no longer decentered, it is dissolved. The very question of selfhood is rendered meaningless altogether. This is the extreme radicalism of a postphilosophical analysis: Beyond the self as a relational construction (phenomenologists) or a decentered subject defined by arbitrary cultural constructions (deconstructionists), the self as an entity simply does not exist. If Wittgenstein's position is taken seriously, the philosophical basis of an ethics evidently also dissolves.Who is the moral agent and how is he or she defined? How can we ask about responsibility if we cannot even define the moral agent? Wittgenstein's fascinating, nihilistic response: Ethics is known, morality is enacted, but to require a philosophical answer as to how and why is to give false answers and to invoke deceptive rationalities, distorted by prejudice supposedly buttressed by logical argument. Ethics derives from beyond rationality; its ground is metaphysical. And, said Wittgenstein, metaphysics cannot be analyzed.


21. As Jonathan Dollimore cogently observes, “what we might now call neurosis, anxiety and alienation with the subject in crisis are not so much the consequence of its recent breakdown as the very stuff of its creation, and of the culture—Western European culture—which it sustains” (1997, p. 254).

22. Theoreau's selfportrait drew upon the same dynamic operative so clearly in Wordsworth and Rousseau, which saw the psyche “in terms of the interplay between a hidden structure that was the source of human energy and imagination and a visible one that revealed only derivative powers of intellectual invention” (Hutton 1993, p. 62).

23. Buell's reading of Thoreau's environmentalism has been roundly attacked, for instance by Bob Taylor (see n. 5 to Introduction) and Leo Marx (1999). This debate over Thoreau's place in the development of American environmentalism is extended by the various essays assembled by Schneider (2000), a collection containing rich resource material and measured discussion, which came to my attention only after my own manuscript was completed.


1. Much vexed, Thoreau confided to his Journal:

Fatal is the discovery that our friend is fallible—that he has prejudices. He is then only prejudiced in our favor. What is the value of his esteem who does not justly esteem another?

Alas! Alas! When my friend begins to deal in confessions—breaks silence—makes a theme of friendship–(which then is always something past) and descends to merely human relations …

I thought that friendship—that love was still possible between—I thought that we had not withdrawn very far asunder–But now that my friend rashly thoughtlessly–prophanely speaks recognizing the distance between us—that distance seems infinitely increased. (February 15, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, p. 193)

Later in the year, Thoreau continues to lament:

Ah I yearn toward thee my friend, but I have not confidence in thee. We do not believe in the same God. I am not thou–Thou art not I. We trust each other today but we distrust tomorrow. Even when I meet thee unexpectedly I part from thee with disappointment. Though I enjoy thee more than other men yet I am more disappointed with thee than with others. I know a noble man what is it hinders me from knowing him better? I know not how it is that our distrust our hate is stronger than our love. Here I have been on what the world would call friendly terms with one 14 years, have pleased my imagination sometimes with loving him—and yet our hate is stronger than our love. Why are we related—yet thus unsatisfactorily. We almost are a sore to one another.

…We do not know what hinders us from coming together. (October 10, 1851, Journal 4, 1992, p. 137 ; see also the Journal entry for January 22, 1852, Journal 4, 1992, pp. 276–77)

Indeed, he did not, at least not consciously.

2. “There is some advantage in being the humblest cheapest least dignified man in the village—so that the very stable boys shall damnyou. Methinks I enjoy the advantage to a unusual extent. There is a many a coarsely well meaning fellow,

who knows only the skin of me who addresses me familiarly by my christian name–I get the whole good of him & lose nothing myself…. I am not above being used, aye abused, sometimes” (July 6, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 287).

3. See n. 2 above.

4. The testimony of a fellow townsman, James Hosmer, is illustrative: “He stood in the doorway with hair which looked as if it had been dressed with a pinecone, inattentive grey eyes, hazy with faraway musings, an empathetic nose and disheveled attire that bore signs of tramps in woods and swamps” (quoted by Harding 1965, p. 255).

5. In the domain of the everlasting spirit, Thoreau is only the product of his Maker: “I did not make this demand for a more thorough sympathy. This is not my idiosyncrasy or disease. He that made the demand will answer the demand” (Journal 3, 1990, pp. 313–14).

6. This post-Kantian theme was developed by later American philosophers, most prominently William James, who reduced the various philosophical systems to “just so many visions, modes of feeling the whole push, and seeing the whole drift of life, forced on one by one's total character and experience, and on the whole preferred—there is no other truthful word—as one's best working attitude” (James [1909] 1987, p. 639). Russell Goodman, in observing how James regarded the relationship of the intellect and feeling, also summarizes Thoreau's own project:

James makes four different claims about the feeling intellect that he discerns: 1) the phenomenological claim that thoughts are inseparable from feelings, 2) the causal claim that feelings produce or determine our thoughts and beliefs, 3) the epistemological claim (so common in Romanticism) that we know the world as much through feeling as through thought or sensation, and 4) the metaphysical or existential claim that in certain circumstances our feelings produce not our thoughts but the objects that our thoughts or feelings posit, anticipate, or acknowledge. (1990, p. 70)

7. From another perspective altogether, Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy, focused upon the question of praxis, which in the form of “language games” and “forms of life” directed philosophical attention on how we know and act in the world as lived experience as opposed to the private (and inaccessible) domain of the mind. Thus language and other overt behavior became suitable subjects for analysis. Tying together Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and most directly the later pragmatists, especially John Dewey, the human knower, as removed from the objects and processes she observes, is set aside and replaced by another epistemological model: Instead of some private mental domain as the core of personal identity, hidden in an “internal” realm of the sensorium (à la Locke) and thus separated from the “external” world, the knower is constituted in interaction with that world. This represents a major shift in philosophy, as questions about language and thought, meaning and reason, are shifted from the private domain to the public arena of praxis—i.e., practical operations and overt procedures (Toulmin 1984, p. xix).

8. The phenomenologists formally attempted to address whether, and how, we might encounter nature as “uncaged experience,” that is, before we formally

organize it (Harvey 1989). By “bracketing,” Husserl ([1913] 1982) proposed that we might strip experience of its social, symbolical, and historical meanings, to achieve an unfashioned “rawness,” a project Merleau-Ponty continued in the attempt to return to that world which precedes knowledge (Merleau-Ponty 1962).

9. “Unremittingly, skepticism insists on the validity of the factually experienced world, that of actual experience, and finds in it nothing of reason or its ideas. Reason itself and its [object], ‘that which is,’ become more and more enigmatic…. [W]e find ourselves in the greatest danger of drowning in the skeptical deluge and thereby losing our hold on our own truth” (Husserl [1935] 1970, pp. 13–14).

10. Edmund Husserl saw scientific rationality as usurping the wider project of philosophical Reason, assuming in its practical victories the place of a more comprehensive theoretical Reason. Herbert Marcuse offers a succinct description of Husserl's criticism:

The new science does not elucidate the conditions and the limits of its evidence, validity, and method; it does not elucidate its inherent historical denominator. It remains unaware of its own foundation, and it is therefore unable to recognize its servitude…. What happens in the developing relation between science and the empirical reality is the abrogation of the transcendence of Reason. Reason loses its philosophical power and its scientific right to define and project ideas and modes of Being beyond and against those established by the prevailing reality. I say: “beyond” the empirical reality, not in any metaphysical but in a historical sense, namely, in the sense of projecting essentially different, historical alternatives. (Marcuse 1985, p. 23)

11. The most comprehensive account of Nietzsche's view on science may be found in the collected essays edited by Babette Babich and Robert Cohen (1999). A succinct summary is best offered by Nietzsche himself: “[P]recisely the most superficial and external existence … would be grasped first, and might even be the only thing that allowed itself to be grasped. A ‘scientific’ interpretation of the world … might therefore be one of the most stupid of all interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning” (Nietzsche [1882] 1974, p. 335; emphasis in original).

12. What began as Descartes's Dream, a philosophy that seeks to encompass in the unity of a theoretical system all meaningful questions in a rigorous scientific manner, has left science as “a residual concept” (Husserl [1935] 1970, p. 9). By this, Husserl notes that “metaphysical” or “philosophical” problems that should still be broadly linked to science under the rubric of rational inquiry are separated over the criterion of “fact.” In a powerful sense, “positivism … decapitates philosophy” (ibid.) by legitimating one form of knowledge at the expense of another. For Husserl, the crisis was not limited to “science” or “philosophy” but reflected a fundamental challenge to European cultural life— indeed, to its total Existenz—and betokened the very collapse of a universal philosophy. He thus renewed the Romantic attempts by Wordsworth ([1800] 1965), Shelley ([1821] 1977), and their compatriots to unify poetry and science.


Preferred Citation: Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2001 2001.