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

Another Apple Tree


3. Another Apple Tree

Nature has looked uncommonly bare & dry to me for a day or two. With our senses applied to the surrounding world we are reading our own physical & corresponding moral revolutions. Nature was so shallow all at once I did not know what had attracted me all my life. I was therefore encouraged when going through a field this evening, I was unexpectedly struck with the beauty of an apple tree–The perception of beauty is a moral test.

Thoreau, June 21, 1852, Journal 5, 1997, p. 120

The last sentence of the abovequoted passage from Thoreau's Journal resounds with Walden's “Our whole life is startlingly moral” (1971, p. 218) if one properly situates these statements on a set of coordinates defined by several axes. Just as space is geometrically defined by three vectors in Cartesian geometry, so too might we draw a “space” by “vectors” which will analogously define the coordinates of Thoreau's writings: the first, the imperative of attention; the second, aesthetic imagination; the third, self-consciousness, specifically the assessment of personal value. Their meeting, at the origin of the vectors that delineate this metaphorical space, is the Thoreauvian self, whose metaphysics I am attempting to establish. To do so, I must now deal with Thoreau's epistemology, where these coordinates inform and guide his naturalist enterprise. Postponing consideration of Thoreau's status as “scientist” to later chapters, I will here offer a topography of Thoreau's epistemological endeavor. Heavily influenced by the lingering effects of High Romanticism, his epistemology, as judged by positivist standards newly emerging in the 1830s and 1840s, would meet with only varying success. It swings between careful observation of all forms of nature that indeed approaches scientific, and a form of prose poetry in the guise of nature writing. We need to understand what this epistemological spectrum meant to Thoreau and, further, why his discrediting of science resonates so powerfully with our own twenty-first-century humanism.

Much has been written concerning Thoreau's placement as a poet, writer, historian, naturalist, scientist, Transcendentalist, and social reformer. He, of course, possesses many identities, and to categorize him with one or another is to omit dimensions of his thought and work that do not fit neatly into

any single, even dual, grouping. As Henry Seidel Canby aptly noted, “Thoreau, as I see him, was a man with a foot in each of two worlds, the idealist's and the scientist's” ([1939] 1958, p. 323). At least. His complexity requires attention to his various modalities of thought. In their composite, an intellectual portrait emerges. This chapter continues the general epistemological description of how Thoreau enacted the subjectobject relationship and how it assumed its character as it was informed and guided by his selfconscious sense of valuation.

This signifying process is what I have been calling Thoreau's “moral attitude.” Here, as before, I am coupling two levels of analysis. The first is the more specific of the two, and it refers to a particular moral philosophy assumed by the moral agent. In chapter 6, I will delve into Thoreau's moral philosophy as an expression of virtue ethics, and so will not pursue that matter further here. The second level is more general and perhaps more elusive, as it concerns the value of knowledge itself. The nature of knowledge is the central concern of epistemology, and philosophers from Plato (Protagoras) on have elevated knowledge to a key human value. Indeed, because knowledge is valuable, the valuational aspect of knowledge and of the related states of justified belief have generated numerous parallels between moral and epistemic discourses (Zagzebski 1996). I read Thoreau as exemplifying that connection. By so doing, we can clearly see the interrelatedness of knowledge and value in a general sense, and perhaps more importantly, we can hear his declaration of a particular moral philosophy in the way the world and the past are known. Thoreau pursued that agenda along a continuum of knowledge stretching from the unreportable mystical, to the historical, to the scientific. (In the next chapter, I consider this latter mode.) The merit of this approach is that it offers us a ready means to see all of Thoreau's various writing projects, whether regarded as historical, naturalist, or political, as a single coherent effort. In exploring the structure of Thoreau's inner world, we seek primarily to discern its order and harmony, while also appreciating his contradictions and divided attitudes (McIntosh 1974).


We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else.

Thoreau, November 4, 1858,Journal, [1906] 1962, 11:285; published in modified form in “Autumnal Hints,” 1980d, p. 174


I wish to exhibit Thoreau's epistemology as the coexistence of several modes of knowing and an overlapping of several kinds of writing. He invoked various rationalities, and we must be sensitive to the role each played in mediating his experience. Knowledge and how we gain it occur in many ways, and only by examining several layers of inquiry and report may we begin to ascertain the accomplishments and failures of Thoreau's own epistemological ventures. Some inkling of my orientation has already been outlined, so let us begin on ground well trodden, namely Thoreau's discussion of time. As discussed in chapter 1, Thoreau would capture reality by capturing time. There are, to be sure, moments when Thoreau is fully in time, oblivious to its passing—as he reports, for instance, in the opening of Walden's chapter, “Sounds”:

Sometimes … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise to noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. (Walden, 1971, pp. 111–12)[1]

This is a fecund passage for my theme: Thoreau reports a reverie, a mystical state where time is suspended, only to be awakened by intrusions. He thrived in these states, achieving both a peace and deep knowledge that lent renewal to his life, the “Oriental contemplation” that the Hindu mystics taught him as laudable.[2] Time's suspension is completely confluent with nature, which knows no time, for while we understand the passing of seasons and hours, marking and dividing time is cognitive, a categorization of the mind. In espousing an animal's ignorance of time or even an intermediary position as exemplified by a preliterate Brazilian Indian, Thoreau celebrated his total envelopment within nature, exemplified by man's obliviousness of the hour. And finally, this reverie is true to Thoreau's highest ethical commitment of achieving total integration with nature. Although these glimpses of merger with nature's flux are only fleeting, they are sustaining. After all, to have a vision is to possess an orientation, a guidance, and, for Thoreau, a fulfillment.

The power of this passage is undeniable. As a rhetoretician, Thoreau masterfully controls the rhythm of the prose and the imagery, but as an epistemological report it sorely lacks information. Thoreau cannot reveal his

consciousness—it has been relieved of its cognitive burdens. He only has a vague recollection of his trance, the obscure appreciation that time had passed, but beyond that awareness, there is nothing more to say.Indeed, there is nothing else to report. The reverie is unreportable, otherwise it would not have been a mystical experience! So why is the passage powerfully evocative? How does the allusion Thoreau portrays resonate with our own experience? If we too have remembrance of such reveries, even shortlived and less intense, Thoreau's description reminds us of that experience. Simply put, Thoreau's passage delivers a powerful emotional impact to the extent that it evokes recall of our own mediative life.

Thoreau also achieves the same kind of evocation with the use of fable and similar narrative devices. For instance, consider Walden's mythic artist of Kouroo (discussed below), a creative fantasy that also illustrates Thoreau's own aspiration to suspending time, or perhaps to become one with time. In this regard, myth offers one recourse and history another, but Thoreau is all too aware of time's passing as he records history or makes a record of his observations. As discussed in the preceding chapter, the poignancy of noting an iron hook remnant (“Former inhabitants; and Winter Visitors,” Walden, 1971, p. 261) as the only sign of recent neighbors emphasizes the elusive character of remembrance—and significance—of our temporal existence which rests on the partial character of memory. The passing of the seasons marks more than just nature's course, for it entails the oblivion of man's seasons on earth, the insignificance of his presence. I maintain that this is a good case of Thoreau's historical epistemology in direct service to his metaphysics of time, his abiding concern with temporality and, most saliently, its passing. We respond, as he did, emotionally, as he leads us to peer into awful eternity.

Such emotive states fall well outside any rigorous scientific epistemology, or what Thoreau calls Knowledge. Transcendental emotional experience holds paramount importance for him; indeed, we have ample evidence that he regarded such encounters with the Unknown as the highest and most refined he might have. We may be struck by his “morning work”— the multiple notebooks filled with detailed descriptions ranging from careful (if not obsessive) measurements of dispersed seeds, soundings of Walden Pond, documentation of the first appearance of plants, or the behavior of animals and birds—but these pale in comparison with his passion for contemplation, dream, memory, trance. The message Thoreau was most interested in transmitting pertained to experience outside normal discourse, indeed beyond normal cognition. As important and impressive as Thoreau's achievement might be considered to be in natural philosophy, conventional

history, or social comment, these ultimately are subordinated to his most personal spiritual quest. He struggled to reconcile these divergent aspects of his intelligence, for while steeped in a scientific ethos that rewarded objective, clear description, he knew that his deepest mystical experience could not be so reported. He might refer to eternity, the celestial spheres, the ancient truths, Higher Laws, the divine, the Brahma, but in the end he relied on another convention, the encompassing Romantic ideal for all of these allusions to the Beyond,Intelligence, which might be “known” only through sympathy.

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun. (“Walking,” 1980b, p. 128)

This passage offers cardinal insight into Thoreau's mind. He declares forthrightly and with no hint of irony or qualification the premier position of Intelligence. All those activities that qualify in the hierarchy of the sciences and human sciences are decisively auxiliary to the ephemeral, elusive, “unknowing” Beyond.

Thoreau derives this position from a moral judgment, and in this sense we clearly witness how his metaphysics are in the employ of his ethics. Indeed, it is fair to say that his foundation is an ethical metaphysics.[3] Thoreau continues his testimony quite plainly:

There is something servile in the habit of seeking after a law which we may obey. We may study the laws of matter at and for our convenience, but a successful life knows no law. It is an unfortunate discovery certainly, that of a law which binds us where we did not know before that we were bound. Live free, child of the mist,—and with respect to knowledge we are all children of the mist. The man who takes the liberty to live is superior to all the laws, by virtue of his relation to the lawmaker. (Ibid., pp. 128–29)

In short, Thoreau would be oriented and guided by his communion with Intelligence. Conventional or public knowledge is not only intellectually limiting, it is morally confining, restricting the individual from living a full

life. Our true being is in the ephemeral mist, where only through sympathy do we perceive the cosmic Intelligence that permeates all things with its endowment. This might be known only through an emotional and spiritual apparatus.

Yet Thoreau was no zealous pilgrim, for he divided his work between his spiritual pursuits and more conventional labors, relying on different epistemological faculties for each. A cynic might easily say that Thoreau was a parttime mystic, one no doubt sensitive to the siren's song, but intermittent in his attention. After all, the bulk of his work consisted in exactly the opposite endeavor, making his consciousness explicit and shared publicly through his writing. How might we reconcile this conflict? We do not, nor did he. I will not delve into some psychological hypothesis to explain Thoreau's emotional and intellectual life, and simply accept the phenomenological evidence: he was a complex individual, whose active intelligence pulled him in several directions which were not reconciled. To accept each on its own standing is, from my perspective, the best we might do. If, however, we insist on seeing Thoreau's intellectual and spiritual life as one piece on a continuum, one might fairly say that Thoreau attempted to use his more formal “public” endeavors as pedestals for reaching higher consciousness.

I would stretch this project along a continuum between the two poles of observation determined by the relation of the knowing subject with her object of scrutiny. The first pole is what I will call “detached observation,” characterized by objective facts of measurement and date. Such knowledge is epitomized by the Kalendar project, Thoreau's formal attempt to document nature's changes and to detect some constancy and pattern. Seeking to parse time in a “natural” fashion by culling his Journal to create a series of monthly charts, he listed various natural phenomena in a lefthand column, and the years were strung along the top of the chart. The phenomena he tracked included the height of the Concord River, rain patterns, rainbow appearances, temperature, leafing of trees, and so forth. Some of such notekeeping made its way into his published writings; for instance, in Walden, Thoreau lists the dates when the pond was freed from ice for the years 1845, 1846, 1847, 1851, 1852, 1853, and 1854 (Walden, 1971, p. 303). One might regard this exercise as an attempt to “make a comprehensive picture of time” (Peck 1990, p. 47), but no matter how well motivated such recordkeeping might be, this proved to be an essentially futile endeavor, which despite Thoreau's most earnest efforts remained partial and incomplete. Indeed, as attested by his own record, the Kalendar project failed to find constancy in change. But this detailed observation had a value in and of itself to situate

Thoreau in time. I suspect that he required some anchoring as he groped in the mists.

But there is another agenda afoot in Thoreau's minute recording, namely his legitimating his interpretation of nature. One must know a subject before one might comment, and Thoreau, in a sense, was doing his homework to good purpose. Buell observes that “the potency of the environmental text consisted not just in the reader's transaction with it but also in reanimating and redirecting the reader's transactions with nature” (1995, p. 97). True, but before that reading, the writing of the text serves to focus the writer himself. To be sure, Thoreau enjoyed the naturalist work, and by his count it was “play.” But he also used his careful observations as a means to discover higher laws, to comment on the world and himself. One of the most powerful examples of this approach closely follows the listing of dates when Walden Pond thawed, namely the famous passage on the thawing sand on the railroad bank near his cabin.[4] After some descriptive detail, the passage turns to its true intent—a comment on the bank's aesthetics (“I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me” [ibid., p. 306]) and its metaphysical import (“What is man but a mass of thawing clay?” [ibid., p. 307]). I will have occasion to comment on these aspects of this important text, but suffice it here to simply note that the descriptions point to a deeper message, and this is a recurrent and characteristic pattern of Thoreau's nature writing: Observation is used as a springboard for contemplation, for seeking meaning, for communing with a higher intelligence. The observation, per se, takes on its significance within those contexts, and Thoreau crafted this linkage not only in published work but also in his Journal (for this passage see Journal 2, 1984, pp. 382–84). The epistemology was in service to his metaphysics.

This second pole, what I will call “dissolved observation,” leads to an interesting tension and may refer to Thoreau's reveries (mystical states) or what Sharon Cameron has called a “writing of nature,” in which Walden, and, even more importantly, the Journal, strive to obliterate the subjectobject divide. According to Cameron, Thoreau's recording of facts effaces his own identity and consciousness, which “does not just mediate or mirror natural phenomena; … the fiction of the Journal is that consciousness is displaced by them … [so that] [t]he self is not to be empowered by nature. It is rather to be converted to nature” (ibid., pp. 88–89).[5] On this reading, Thoreau has no Archimedean point where the self might rest and maintain its perspective and integrity, and the dichotomy between his epistemology of observation and his mystical experience thus dissolves.[6] Cameron regards Thoreau's fully matured position in the final Journal volume as transfiguring the perceiver

who, seeing nature outside the self, does not objectify it, and seeing it inside the self, does not familiarize it, for “‘seeing’ is an intimate relation, not requisite for some other goal but an end in itself” (ibid., p. 153).

Whether Thoreau indeed achieved this epistemological epiphany is doubtful. Perhaps we might concede that Thoreau aspired to unselfconscious merger, and although caught in a web of self-consciousness, he indeed experienced mystical moments. But as he wrote, as he functioned as a naturalist, a natural philosopher, even as a “scientist,” he had to translate those mystical episodes into words, into a lexicon, albeit open, so that they might be captured. In the very selfreflection, thought displaces the immediacy of nature experienced. So Cameron's interpretation, as intrigued as I am by it, is a more radical reading than I, and most critics, would allow (see chapter 5 for a more complete discussion of Thoreau's writing). As an epistemologist, Thoreau achieves what Peck calls “a lovely dance between the self and nature” (1990, p. 121). And I maintain that, however one regards the selfobject dichotomy epistemologically, Thoreau is caught on his quill. Despite his stupendous effort, he “fails” on both accounts: the objectivity of “detached observation” is always personalized and thus discounted; and by the other pole of “dissolved observation,” he must translate the experience into a text. When Thoreau communicated to his readers in polished works such as Walden, and even in the Journal—anticipating the stream of consciousness writing yet to become familiar in our own century—he was aware of his distance from what Cameron calls “the second self.” After all, he is writing! Only in reverie is the self merged with nature; then of course he is not writing and, indeed, has difficulty in reporting his experience, as we have seen.

My disagreement with Cameron about the character of Thoreau's writing as an epistemological project should not obscure our deeper agreement on Thoreau's metaphysics. The force of her argument derives from the insight that Thoreau asserted a metaphysical unity between himself and the world. But was he effective in demonstrating this assertion? Did he capture his metaphysics successfully in his writing? On this we diverge—not only on whether Thoreau was successful in his literary attempts to forge such a union, but even on whether his metaphysics was a viable formulation at all. Cameron thinks that Thoreau did overcome the Cartesian divide of res cogitans and res extensa:

[O]nce Thoreau sees that correspondences between nature and the self are incomplete and incompletable, what he would like to do is to prohibit them entirely. So doing, he would preserve the idea that nature is alien. But my claim is a complex and an apparently contradictory one,

for the way Thoreau imagines that nature is alien is also by imagining he could impersonate the alienness—that he could voice nature or be nature's voice. When Thoreau insists that he wants to write sentences that “lie like boulders on the page” or to be “the corn & the grass & the atmosphere writing,” he does not mean nature can express the human or be expressed by it—either of these claims would be conventionally indebted to metaphor or analogy. Rather he says he can abandon the human, can make himself into the alienness he was forced to confront. (Cameron 1985, p. 48)

This effacement of “the human” is the fundamental issue at hand, and hinges on Thoreau's identification of “the Wild” within him. By recognizing the source of his vitality and, further, bringing it to consciousness, Thoreau sought to overcome the divide between man and nature. The dilemma, of course, is that as humans we are ever selfconscious, and this selfreflexive attitude does not tolerate obscuring our rational contemplation of the world and of ourselves contemplating that world. Thus the very wildness he hoped to integrate would by necessity be “tamed.” Thoreau's metaphysics are at odds or, at least, in tension with human faculties of knowledge, and this tension accounts for an underlying anxiety present in all of his work. Cameron identifies the problem, but where she detects a “solution,” I perceive a noble “failure.” I maintain that, his mystical moments notwithstanding, Thoreau is caught in the web of his own self-consciousness.


I have seen where the mildew on a jar had taken the form of perfect leaves—thick—downy—and luxuriant. What an impulse was given some time or other to vegetation that now nothing can stay it. Some one has said he could write an epic to be called the leaf—and this would seem to have been the theme of the creator himself. The leaf either plain or variegated—fresh or decayed—fluid or crystalline—is nature[']s constant cypher.

Thoreau, 1842–44,Journal 2, 1984, p. 80

Thoreau was a consummate practitioner of the naturalist vignette, a genre inspired by careful observation, but often confused as derivative of science. Highly individualized and personal, the facts of the case are only the beginning of the narrative; and the observer, not the object, assumes primacy. In science, the exact opposite occurs. In characterizing Thoreau's mode of seeing, Buell has aptly noted that “the speaker's fascination with the process of seeing, not the objects seen, is the central subject here” (Buell 1995,

p. 74). When the observer takes on a certain primacy, the self-consciousness of seeing becomes an object of scrutiny and delight in itself. In the process, the self is implicitly asserted as a central focus of interest, albeit in the engagement of the world. This address is all part of the larger challenge of environmental interpretation, which requires “us to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, reference, metaphor, characterization, personae, and canonicity” (ibid., p. 2)—and, I would add, the very nature of the knowing self. This issue points to the central question of man's relation to nature, or rather to nature as a construction (Evernden 1992)[7] or man's “place” (Garber 1991) in nature, which is also a construction.[8] So we must keep in mind this complex topography of Thoreau's writing with regard to the epistemological distance he might assume from his object. But given the power of his selfprojected descriptions and the propensity he had for writing them, we need to better situate the place such writing held in Thoreau's epistemology.

It is incontestable that Thoreau projected his emotional state onto these “intermediary” descriptions. Indeed, one must be struck with the utterly fantastical character marking many of his depictions of animals or landscapes, and one might dip almost at random into any of his works for examples.[9] The emotionalism of his descriptions is one mark of Thoreau's Romanticism, and even if we were to place it within a developing genre of nineteenth-century realism, such writing is “far from being a transparent rendering” inasmuch as, at least by our standards, it is highly ideologically or psychohistorically determined (Buell 1995, p. 87). Thoreau was in this regard only following the lead of Goethe a generation earlier, who selfconsciously allowed his putative separation as perceiver to overlap his object of scrutiny, thus compromising his objectivity and its claims to realism. This was not a naive “error” in the usual sense. Goethe was acutely selfaware of the epistemological challenge of science, and it was precisely the conceit of complete objectification that he would not only attack, but counter with his own projected personalism. In both his biological and physical studies, Goethe would include all human faculties in the employ of his science: intuition, mathematics, accurate measurements, ardent imagination, and not least “a loving delight in the world of the senses” (Goethe [1792] 1988). As stated in his Theory of Colors, a bald attack on Newton, Goethe sought “the deeds of light, what it does and what it endures” ([1810] 1988). Goethe, in seeking “the deeds,” was intent on discovering the full panoply of phenomena in what he considered their dynamic unity of spirit and matter. For him, and for the Romantics generally, there was only nature and man as a

unified whole, one continuum of res cogitans and res extensa to be perceived together through Imagination.

Goethe's treatise on color is a multipronged study of light, both as a physical phenomenon and as psychologically perceived, and includes a rich mixture of history and philosophy of science. In this sense it conforms to the rhetorical style of the day, whose authorial voice, replete with individual impressions and opinions, blatantly ignores our own conventions of the neutral observer who presents us with “nothing but the facts.” The boundaries separating the subject and object are thus blurred and even disappear, so that personal judgments, and even prejudice, are projected.[10] Goethe was reflecting a different vision of science from the one that was to prove dominant in the nineteenth century, and totally hegemonic in the twentieth, namely the idea that the observer, in a radical sense, might be removed altogether, leaving his observation, preferably generated by a mechanical device, standing alone, utterly divorced from the scientist, to report on nature. (This proved to be an unattainable goal and an epistemological conceit.[11] See chapter 4.)

At one level, we might say that early-nineteenth-century science had not developed the disciplinary structure we have today, so that by modern standards, what should have been clearly separated as different modes of study—optical mechanics and visual perception (i.e., physics and physiology or cognitive psychology)—were fused in Goethe's approach. In addition, most would agree that history and philosophy of science began as parts of science proper. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, history of science was primarily a rhetorical and theoretical tool in showing how new science was part of a progressive, and rational, process. Review of the historical development of a particular science was an integral component of the scientific report. When Goethe wrote on color theory, Priestley on electricity, or Lyell on geology, these natural philosophers used history to legitimate their own work. Even into our own era, history of science—when still entertained as relevant to science—was often seen as exercising a beneficial influence on practice, so that the laboratory scientist might profit from history used as an analytical tool (Kragh 1987, pp. 33–34). While the historical perspective as a value in itself governed such innovators as Giambattista Vico, confusions about historical interpretation as an important scholarly activity distinct from doing science itself were only slowly untangled.

But the issue is more deeply grounded than a methodological problem. Goethe's purpose and strategy grew from a metaphysics where individual and nature were intimately connected and could not be torn asunder without

violating the “natural” relationship of man in nature. Goethe, from our vantage, was both poet and scientist, but he himself knew no such divisions as fundamental. For Goethe the “poet,” science must serve a complementary role to discovering a comprehensive reality. To dissect only by mathematical logic was to disjoint the whole, to destroy true relationships, and to restrict one's appreciation of nature's full horizon. The poet's eye might better serve, still with scientific method, nature's true design. In short, the decidedly Romantic view Goethe championed accused mathematics of obscuring the color phenomenon by limiting its broadened study. But Goethe already perceived twenty years before Thoreau graduated from Harvard that the Romantic perspective was in decline, if not moribund, and his scientific methodology was soon discredited (although still stimulating much current discussion—e.g., Amrine et al. 1987; Bortoft 1996; Seamon and Zajonc 1998). Hostile critics saw (and see) Goethe as a dilettante doing science without the requisite orientation toward mathematics, disabling him from partaking in the power of mathematical abstraction and rigorous methods of physical science. Goethe's preoccupation with capturing nature in her totality, as a fully human perception, not only restricted his acceptance of the value of a more divorced approach but corrupted its meaning (Wells 1971). But the problem is not so easily reduced to a deafness to mathematics' song, and again resides at a deeper metaphysical understanding of man in nature.

For our purposes, it is important to note that Thoreau was very much influenced by Goethe and frequently referred to him in his Journal and published works. This interest dates from Thoreau's last year in college, and upon graduating, he began to read Goethe in the original (borrowing various books from Emerson's fiftyfivevolume German edition [Sattelmeyer 1988, pp. 26–27]) and quoting him in his Journal (e.g., entries of November 15, 16, December 8, 18, 1837; Journal 1, 1981). The reasons are not difficult to fathom, given the strong correspondence in their views of nature and the self. There are two general ways Thoreau followed Goethe as a Romantic natural philosopher. The first concerns Thoreau's search for the expression of a universal organizing principle in nature, and the second, the underlying rationale that justified this epistemological approach. As discussed in chapter 5, Thoreau took pains to distance himself from Goethe, but the American's pattern of inquiry, and its telos, remain closely aligned to Goethe's own project.

In brief, Goethe aimed at establishing “new relations and discovering the manner in which Nature, with incomparable power, develops the greatest complexity from the simple” (Goethe [1786–88] 1982). His quest was the

Primal (or proto-) Plant (Urpflanze), the basic model from which all botany might be regarded as unified and as a variation thereof. He was searching for no less than nature's Holy Grail, and in an epiphany during a sojourn in Italy, he perceived precisely that vision at the botanical gardens of Palermo. There he fulfilled his celebrated conviction that nature indeed had such unity and that a singular model might be discerned, achieved with a powerful aesthetic sense that perceived the form of such a unifying principle. His confidence in seeking an archetypal theme and in recognizing it was the appreciation that “in organic being, first the form as a whole strikes us, then its parts and their shapes and combination” (Goethe [1790] 1989).

Thoreau, in one of his earliest Journal entries, records his own sympathetic response to this Goethian problematic,[12] and this theme was to reappear as Walden's climactic conclusion in the sandbank description, where Thoreau describes his own epiphanic insight into nature's vitality and unity (1971, pp. 304–9). Less than a year before Walden's publication, the sand bank as an aesthetic and natural image appears in Thoreau's Journal (first entry, December 31, 1851 [Journal 4, 1992, p. 230]), and we see the full harvest of the seed planted by his reading of Goethe fourteen years earlier:

On the outside all the life of the earth is expressed in the animal or vegetable, but make a deep cut in it and you will find in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder, then, that plants grow and spring in it. The atoms have already learned the law. Let a vegetable sap convey it upwards and you have a vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, which labors with the idea thus inwardly. The overhanging leaf sees here in its prototype. The earth is pregnant with law. (March 2, 1854,Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:148)

This conclusion, “the earth is pregnant with law,” epitomizes Goethe's specific concern with finding a template for plant diversity and, more generally, the intimation of nature's ordered unity—indeed, of the idea that nature is lawful. This insight and the foundation upon which it rests is important evidence of Thoreau's full embrace of Romanticism (Adams and Ross 1988, pp. 143 ff.), but note that its first expression is one we detect in Thoreau's earliest musings. It is for this reason that I would prefer to regard this Romantic orientation as a maturation or crystallization of an earlier, perhaps less well articulated understanding than a conversion as some critics argue (ibid.).

Goethe was an ardent holist, an orientation formed from both his aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities, and no doubt Thoreau found in him a clear articulation of this Romantic ethos with which he held a strong affinity. But there is a second important countervailing aspect of Romantic organicism,

which pertains to individuality, the unique standing of each creature, sacred and beautiful in its own right. This ethos is the foundation of the self's own discovery and expression. I briefly delve into this issue, because it so pervades the metaphysics of Thoreau's own project: insofar as he seeks the universal, he is nevertheless situating himself, the individual, in that universal setting. His individuation thus balances his cosmic surveying.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of this second point of view encountered by Thoreau was Coleridge's Hints towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life ([1848] 1970). As Sattelmeyer and Hocks (1985) have argued, Thoreau's reading of this work in late 1848 strongly influenced, or at minimum legitimated, his own work as a naturalist, offering an important epistemological and aesthetic rationale of Romantic thought to guide his own endeavors. Heavily influenced by Kant, Hegel, and the Naturphilosophie of Schelling, Coleridge, in the Theory of Life (written in 1816), characterized life according to three cardinal characteristics: First, nature manifested a creative force that had universal properties, namely vitality, but was also characterized by the individual expression of that power in the particularity of species and individuals.[13] The discerning eye would recognize the aesthetic unity of nature both in the universal elements of creative vitality and in the individuality expressed in the multifarious details of animal and plant life. Because of an underlying correspondence between the human mind and intelligence, the naturalist might discern the moving spirit of the world, the divine creative force of the universe in individuality.

Second, following Kant's third Critique (Critique of Judgment [1790]), Coleridge judged the integration of organisms as a reflection of an overarching telos where cause and effect are selfreferential, that is, effects inevitably influence initiating causes because all parts are interconnected and related to the whole that orders each constituent relative to that whole. As Coleridge put it in his own context of individuation, “a whole composed, ab intra, of different parts, so far independent that each part is reciprocally means and end, is an individual” ([1848] 1970, p. 44). In this general Kantian view, organisms not only had purpose but were structured by all components incorporated under the auspices of an organizing principle, the integrity of the organism. Accordingly, a central scientific pursuit was to understand the fundamental organization of animals or plants by some regulative principle, and in this respect, Romantic naturalists and biologists may be regarded as universally committed to this pursuit. It was this principle that informed Goethe's Urpflanze. The third element in Coleridge's Theory of Life pertains to a particularly strong sense of the Hegelian dialecticism that was so influential during this

period: the most general law is that of “polarity or the essential dualism of nature…. Life, then, we consider as the copula, or the unity of thesis and antithesis, position and counterposition,—Life itself being the positive of both” (Coleridge [1848] 1970, pp. 50–51).[14]

For our purposes, the question of individuation is paramount, and the other two themes of Theory are subordinate to our immediate concerns. In passing, I note that in regard to the question of the telos of nature, Thoreau repeatedly takes delight in witnessing the great design and artistry of divine order, a Romantic sentiment that is most evident in the perceiving of nature's beauty, a topic reserved for later in this chapter. And in regard to the role of “polarity” in Thoreau's work, while for Coleridge, as well as for Goethe and Emerson, polarity was a deep characteristic of nature, expressed as properties of forces and matter (e.g., magnetism, color, light, sex), this concept was far less prominent in Thoreau's metaphysics. McIntosh (1974, pp. 38–39) observes that rhetorically Thoreau used polarity in a variety of ways: in Walden juxtaposing chapters “Solitude” and “Visitors” or in A Week prominently contrasting masculine and feminine, East and West, Hindu and Yankee, or even in a phrase, like “a wilderness domestic,” and perhaps more importantly in assessing the complexity of a moral thought (e.g., “I find in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life … and another toward a rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good” [Walden, 1971, p. 210]). But I do not regard polarity guiding Thoreau's basic presuppositions of how nature works or is designed. Perhaps he simply assumed this characteristic or subsumed it in his general understanding of perception and moral understanding. In any case,polarity as such does not possess the metaphysical interest for Thoreau that it seems to have held for his Romantic predecessors.

So while one would be hardpressed to argue that Thoreau followed Coleridge in any programmatic sense, there are elements in Coleridgean themes that resonate in Thoreau's own work. Consonant with our present concerns, we will consider the issue of individuation. Coleridge may well have inspired Thoreau to pursue the poetic notion of individuation,sui generis. This project was enacted in Thoreau's Journal, where it is apparent that he regarded the recording of fine detail as legitimate in its own right, albeit toward a universal insight. And in Walden, Thoreau indeed makes the particulars of his world a deep metaphysical question (one already alluded to in chapter 1): “Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?” (Walden, 1971, p. 225). Peck reads this line appropriately as meaning that the world as we know it seems to correspond exactly to our

needs and expectations (1990, p. 117); but the “precisely” also refers to the world in its every detail, which in each instance is found to be in place and serves some greater whole. To witness the minutiae of nature to the smallest item is to testify to that order, not only marveling at its being but inquiring whence and how it came to be. The expression of each creature's own selffulfillment is implicit and intrinsic to that order, and Thoreau recognizes this coherence of will, diverse yet integrated, as the wonder of nature. Coleridge poetically expressed this individuality guided by the telos of the whole as a metaphysical characteristic of life, and Thoreau seems to have concurred. So in complement to Goethe's own characteristic epistemology, Thoreau may well have found important support for his own endeavors in A Theory of Life, and we might fairly regard Goethe and Coleridge as representing contrasting methodological exponents of a Romantic view of nature which Thoreau internalized in one form or another.

A third character must also be permitted entry to this intellectual drama, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Laura Dassow Walls (1993, 1995) has made a compelling case that Thoreau was inspired by, and followed the example of, Humboldt's style of natural history. Documenting that Thoreau was both knowledgeable about Humboldt's works and sympathetic to his approach, she goes on to show how they shared what she calls “Empirical Holism,” in contrast to “Rational Holism,” as a guiding philosophy of discovery. The latter philosophy is based on connecting observations and facts of the natural world to some underlying Divine Law, in the Coleridgean sense of Law as Logos. Empirical Holism, on the other hand, while sharing the same commitment to holism, sees facts as connected to each other in a more modern ecological sense, rather than to some preexisting Truth. This is best seen as a Baconian, inductive philosophy, where

out of the sum total of all the interconnections the observer determines the laws, or inherent properties of matter that appear to govern the phenomena observed. This method of connection does not rely on a central axis but on an understanding of the “network” of interacting factors. (Walls 1993, p. 57)

This Humboldtian approach, like those of Goethe and Coleridge, regarded nature as a unified and harmonious whole, but advanced an empirical method heretofore undeveloped in natural history. Indeed, from Humboldt's perspective, nature might only be known through its constituent parts empirically, in a firstorder way. This method thus required careful observation and a thorough commitment to the interplay of facts and theory— objective datacollection and thoughtful synthesis. Goethe was well aware

of these philosophical issues and explicitly addressed them, but Humboldt exhibited a commitment to the gathering of natural history facts which was highly consonant with Thoreau's own style and directly influenced the development of the American's nature study.

We might construe several unifying themes at work concomitantly. Thoreau and his mentors, separated by more than a generation and living in three different countries, shared a common sensibility—the organic unity of thought and the harmonization of all knowledge—each linked by an aestheticism of Imagination. And putting Thoreau closer to Goethe and Humboldt in their respective scientific alignments than to Coleridge (primarily because of the highly speculative character of Coleridge's thought—he had a deeper sympathy for Schelling's Naturphilosophie), we see, nevertheless, that each was firmly committed to certain precepts about nature: 1) nature was unified, and thus material independence was countered by polar or some other principle of connectedness; 2) nature was composed of active beings, as opposed to passive materiality; and 3) forces and objects were inextricably entwined, so the same laws must apply to both the organic and inorganic domains. But there is a fourth element that served as the point of departure, namely the relation of mind and nature, the socalled correspondence between them. Do mind and nature have the same source (thereby exhibiting harmonies, symmetries, and parallelisms), or is there an irredeemable split between ourselves and the cosmos?

“Correspondence” comes in two Romantic modes (Cameron 1985, pp. 44–45). The Emersonian variety plays on the mirroring of man and nature, a sharing of vital rhythms and an epistemological “sympathy”; the other type, inherited from Coleridge, “suggests that a fertile tension, a rise in consciousness, results from the recognition of the ‘polarity’ of man and nature rather than their connection” (Slovic 1992, p. 21). Of course, “polarity” demands connection along some continuum; after all, dipoles cannot exist apart. But the point of emphasis is the difference or tension. Recent critical comment has emphasized, as evidenced by the later Journal, Thoreau's growing distance from Emersonian harmony and confluence, and it is fair to concur that Thoreau's original position regarding Correspondence, and his understanding of nature more generally, evolved from something close to Emerson's ideas to something quite different (Porte 1966, pp. 117 ff.; Cameron 1985, pp. 44 ff.; Slovic 1992, pp. 21 ff.). This is the critical issue which focuses Cameron's provocative argument concerning Thoreau's writing. She notes how the later Journal revolves around Thoreau's contemplations of the relation of the mind and the world it contemplates (“Apparently to write about nature is to write about how the mind

sees nature, and sometimes about how the mind sees itself” [p. 44]), and how on that axis Emersonian Correspondence fails:

[T]he Journal proposes and subverts the idea of correspondence. The whole of nature may be a metaphor for the human mind, but Thoreau's formulations emphasize failed attempts to make sense of the congruence. (Ibid., p. 45)

Without reiterating my differences with Cameron, at least on this fundamental matter we agree: Thoreau wrestled with defining the gap between the inquring mind and the world of its scrutiny. Our differences lie in my interpretation that Thoreau, except in the extraordinary mystical state, saw the self and its world as irredeemably separate. Support for that position has already been offered above and will be reiterated in different ways in the ensuing chapters. My argument now turns to the “currency” of thought—facts—as illustrating Thoreau's pervasive selfconscious awareness of himself as a “knower”—a self distinct from and yet in nature.


It is true, we are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the most part, stand off and on upon a harborless coast … or steer for the public ports of entry, and go into the dry docks of science, where they merely refit for this world, and no natural currents concur to individualize them.

Walden, 1971, p. 292

Thoreau's “worlding” (Peck 1990)[15] may be fairly regarded as an attempt to capture nature in all of its multitudinous states from a myriad of perspectives to achieve some final synthetic vision.Walden was the most sustained and successful venture, but all of Thoreau's writings aspire to this coherent vision. His project is composed of two elements, critical observation and memory in reconstruction. Like social history, which is only partial, highly selective, and always oriented toward some thematic goal, natural history is similarly personalized and fractured by the hammer of creating an image of the world that conforms to an integrated image. In Thoreau's epistemological “topography” this inner faculty, which I have called a “personal image” or “vision,” must marshal a firstorder perception into an artistic expression. The integrity of that experience, its wholeness, if you will, is thus a product of the creative inner faculty, and in this respect we might see Thoreau as operating with a “split self.” Except during rare mystical reveries, he seemed always conscious of himself observing nature. In this sense his self is divided: the observer of nature is being assessed by

another consciousness—censoring the first and using its data to construct a secondorder expression, the artistic product. Thus Thoreau's modes of knowing always relate his knowledge to some substratum of consciousness that, ill defined as it might be, must reside separate from the world, and yet be part of it. In short, as a Romantic, Thoreau is precariously perched on a divide separating a radical solipsism—a world of his own making—from the “world” beyond him.

The constant interplay of the self's introspection and the inspection of the other—society, persons, the natural world—leaves Thoreau with a tripartite structure that he attempted to integrate and make whole: the world (nature); the observation; and the observation/observer scrutinized by self-consciousness. Thoreau was very well aware of the integrative challenge this structure demanded, and he sought to find “the point of interest … somewhere between” himself and the natural world (November 5, 1857, Journal, [1906] 1962, 10:165). The particular orientation, and perhaps the core issue for the Romantics, was, given the reality of the world, how to give primacy to the knower without pushing him into the solipsistic abyss. Their stance was intrinsically unstable, and “the interaction—the ‘dance’—of the creative self and the world” (Peck 1990, p. 123) must remain awkward, forever hobbled by the deep tension of the epistemological prominence given idealism and the centrality of the subjectivity inherent in the primacy of imagination and creative seeing. Thoreau himself was very much subject to that tension. Ultimately he strove to personalize the world, real in its own right but meaningful to him only on his terms.

We might best understand his difficulty in the context of Transcendentalism and his relation to that movement. Although often situated there, he seems to me an outlier of that group, and the differences separating them reach deeply into his unique epistemology. Before proceeding further, let me sketch Thoreau's project in the setting of the Transcendentalism with which he is typically identified.

Thoreau struggled to elaborate his own philosophy in relation to Emerson and other Transcendentalists. Indeed, when the secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Science questioned him about what branch of science interested him, Thoreau ironically offered a selfdefinition that played to the spectrum of his interests and which finally rested with his Concord friends:

I felt that it would be to make myself the laughing stock of the scientific community—to describe or attempt to describe to them that branch of science which specially interests me—in as much as they do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law. So I was obliged to

speak to their condition and describe to them that poor part of me which they alone can understand. The fact is I am a mystic—a transcendentalist–& a natural philosopher to boot. Now I think—of it—I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist—that would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.

How absurd that though I probably stand as near to nature as any of them, and am by constitution as good an observer as most—yet a true account of my relation to nature should excite their ridicule only. If it had been the secretary of an association of which Plato or Aristotle was the President—I should not have hesitated to describe my studies at once & particularly. (March 5, 1853,Journal 5, 1997, pp. 469–70)

This Journal passage is interesting in several respects relative to the issues we are now considering. Obviously, Thoreau is rather uncomfortable with his relation to the scientific community, for although he is involved in a “naturalist” project, he does not comfortably assume any recognized scientific persona, an issue discussed in detail in the next chapter. Not that his methods differed so radically from that of a taxonomist, or perhaps even an ethologist, but the rationale for his studies was hardly scientific.[16] Apart from one presentation late in his career, he made no attempt to publish scientific reports in professional journals and was satisfied instead to report his observations in artistic venues: literary essays, books, and, most importantly, his Journal. As he himself admitted, his observations of nature, instead of falling under the rubric of professional scientific discourse, led to another forum altogether, that of the Transcendentalists. Professional scientists, he correctly realized, were only distant intellectual cousins. The Transcendentalists were his brothers. So although Thoreau is, to a certain extent, a “natural philosopher”—or what we would call a scientist—he lists first, and then as a single designation, “transcendentalist.” At this point, his contemporaries, as well as modern commentators, diverge in assessing Thoreau's success in placing himself either within (e.g., Paul 1958) or outside (e.g., Porte 1966) that family.[17] Sketching the contours of Thoreau's differences with Emerson—the major foil to Thoreau's own philsophical identity—will serve to help us better situate Thoreau's epistemology and its metaphysical foundations.

There is little doubt that a profound parting of the ways finally, and irrevocably, separated Thoreau and Emerson in 1851, a break that was already well under way by the late 1840s (Harding 1965; Lebrieux 1984; Richardson 1986, 1996). To what extent this represented a psychological clash (personality incompatibilities, dependency needs, personal competition, jealousy) need not concern us here. Rather, it serves to highlight their intrinsic

differences, which only surfaced once Thoreau reached his philosophical maturity. The critical issue is to understand Thoreau's later epistemological project in reaction to his mentor and to the Transcendental movement more broadly. The problem in doing so begins, appropriately enough, with defining Transcendentalism—no easy task. After all, Transcendentalism represented a diverse array of beliefs and practices (religious and antireligious), arising from diverse cultural sources (German, English, American). The diversity of Transcendentalism itself is a fundamental difficulty with the subject and explains the continued fascination with attempting to adjudicate Thoreau's placement.[18] Here, I will simply enumerate some of the key issues which pertain directly to outlining Thoreau's epistemology relative to Emerson's in the hope that by juxtaposing them, Thoreau's own position will become clearer.

Although critics have divided on how closely one might place Thoreau in Emerson's shadow,[19] I regard their later animus as indicative of wide philosophical differences. If we attend strictly to the epistemological issues informing their respective philosophies, Emerson embraced a radical idealism, while Thoreau affirmed that, as a Transcendentalist, he was both an idealist and a materialist. This distinction reflects Emerson's general posture vis-à-vis nature, which he regarded only from a homiletical distance. As Sherman Paul noted, “The nature [Emerson] invoked was more programmatic and conceptual than actual: he did not need to go to Walden Pond to find it” (1958, pp. 176–77). Indeed, Emerson built his entire program at a certain distance from nature, so that he might remain an independent observer and so survey the world; Thoreau, in contrast, sought the particularities of nature in careful observation (at times in literal immersion in a river or a pond), bringing himself into the closest proximity to nature to glean from nature jewels of insight. As Olaf Hansen observed, “Where Emerson would claim that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ Thoreau would have insisted that every natural fact is a spiritual fact” (1990, p. 133). So while Emerson would write philosophically about nature, Thoreau read her (ibid., p. 135).

Idealism was Emerson's linchpin. “Having obliterated the world as matter … [he] could give it back as pure idea” (Porte 1966, p. 53), which was derived from the primacy he gave the soul as finer, higher, and truer than matter.[20] Indeed, idealism fulfilled Emerson's need for a theory to accommodate his essentially religious attitude, which he elaborated as a vision of moral law.[21] Emerson preached against the sensuous trap that matter portended, for in his view, nature must properly be regarded in its higher use— that is, to serve as a spiritual guide and inspiration for man. So Emerson

“went to nature for confirmation and illustration of his a priori ethical system, not for mystical ecstasy inseparable from its ineffable meaning” (ibid., p. 62). In short, as exemplified in “Nature,” “Emerson's idealism really signifies … a simple denial of the inherent worth of matter and sense experience” (ibid., p. 63). More, such a philosophy both allowed and justified the sovereignty of man over nature.

Thoreau thought utterly otherwise.[22] Nature was to be embraced first and foremost for its own sake, its sensuous beauty, and the pleasure derived from contemplating it. Rather than dominate and use nature, Thoreau was committed to celebrating the wild, seeing it as the primal source of civilization and his own vitality. Nature assumed a value sul generis, and he refused to contemplate nature as the Transcendentalists did, from their parlor armchairs: “We often hear the expression the natural life of man—we should rather say the unnatural life of man. It is rare indeed to find a man who has not long ago departed out of nature” (October 15, 1843,Journal 1, 1981, p. 475). More than anything else, Thoreau was committed to reconnecting this disjointed relationship. Against their comfortable dualism, he strove to find the bridge between spirit and matter, between the knowing self and nature. For him, sensuous experience initiated a cascade of emotive and philosophic responses that might end in some moral understanding, and along the way brought variegated perceptions and experiences, intellectual and mystical. Man's study of nature might direct, inspire, and otherwise instruct morality, but these were ultimately subordinate to nature's own standing, independent of the human use of it. Indeed, nature was real and might be known through perception, through engagement by sensory faculties. Thus an active interplay between the external and inner worlds created images of external reality that could be apprehended and understood. Mind then does not rest above, beyond, or superior to matter, but lives in active exchange with nature. Thus the world “is not a servant merely standing in for its Platonic master” (Porte 1966, p. 123) but is indeed primary and encompassing.

So, how would Thoreau appreciate reality, not just an intellectual distillation of it? As he wrote in A Week, “Are we to be put off and amused in this life, as it were with a mere allegory? Is not Nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?” (1980a, p. 382). Thoreau accordingly shed excess intellectual and moralizing baggage, which he deeply mistrusted.[23] Instead he immersed himself in a sensuous engagement with nature. Consider the following Journal passage, one of Thoreau's myriad reports that celebrate the sensuality of his experience:


I am thrilled to think that I owe a perception to the commonly gross sense of taste—that I have been inspired through the palate—that these berries have fed my brain. After I had been eating these simple–wholesome—ambrosial fruits—on this high hill side—I found my senses whetted—I was young again. They fed my brain—my fancy & imagination—and whether I stood or sat I was not the same creature. (July 11, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, pp. 215–16)

Thoreau could hardly have distanced himself further from Emerson's circle: “We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life” (A Week, 1980a, p. 382). This orientation in turn became the direction of Thoreau's own moral trajectory: “Our present senses are but the rudiments of what they are destined to become” (ibid.). And to what purpose? Simply because of the pure wonder of nature and the amazement evoked in her contemplation.

In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world was all man I could not stretch myself–I should lose all hope. He is constraint; she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world–She makes me content with this. None of the joys she supplies is subject to his rules and definitions. What he touches he taints–In thought he moralizes–(January 3, 1853,Journal 5, 1997, p. 422)

So much for Emerson's moralizing and the constraints that intellectual strictures would put on Thoreau's immediate engagement of nature.

Given his celebration of nature's sensuousness, the intensity of his communion, the exuberance of his pleasure, and the detail in which he recorded his naturalist experiences, we might fairly conclude that if Thoreau truly was a Transcendentalist, he represented the opposite pole to Emerson's idealism. I emphasize their differences, but there is no neat divide, and Emerson was to experience a continuum of feelings for Thoreau from outright disapproval[24] to admitting a susceptibility to Thoreau's own mystical inclinations. There are many levels at which Thoreau and Emerson parted company, and in an intellectual study we are bound to examine the more prominent philosophical issues. But just as I have read Thoreau's epistemology through what I regard as his own “personalized” prism, so too might we enlist another glimpse of Thoreau from the same general vantage point with Emerson's own testimony, one offered before their rupture. In a telling journal entry, Emerson writes poetically and enchantingly of Thoreau as a latterday Pan who, conversant with a dark and mysterious nature, appears as a guide to the deeper, perhaps mystical currents that might have similarly drawn Emerson, but which he resisted:


Then the good rivergod has taken the form of my valiant Henry Thoreau here & introduced me to the riches of his shadowy starlit, moonlit stream, a lovely new world lying as close & yet as unknown to this vulgar trite one of streets & shops as death to life or poetry to prose. Through one field only we went by boat & then left all time, all science, all history behind us and entered into Nature with one stroke of a paddle. Take care, good friend! I said, as I looked west into the sunset overhead & underneath, & he with his face toward me rowed towards it,—take care; you know not what you do, dipping your wooden oar into this enchanted liquid, painted with all reds & purples & yellows which glows under & behind you. Presently this glory faded & the stars came & said “Here we are,” & began to cast such private & ineffable beams as to stop all conversation. (June 6, 1841; Emerson 1969, p. 454)

But this sympathy did not characterize their later relationship; and Thoreau soon grew increasingly independent. A telling discussion recorded by Emerson's wife, Lidian, illustrates how far Thoreau—already in February 1843—had fallen outside Emerson's circle:

Mr Lane decided … that this same love of nature—of which Henry was the champion … was the most subtle and dangerous of sins; a refined idolatry, much more to be dreaded than gross wickedness, because the gross sinner would be alarmed by the depth of his degradation, … but the unhappy idolators of Nature were deceived by the refined quality of their sin, and would be the last to enter the kingdom. Henry frankly affirmed to both the wise men that they were wholly deficient in the faculty in question, and therefore could not judge of it. And Mr. Alcott as frankly answered that it was because they went beyond the mere material objects, and were filled with spiritual love and perception (as Mr. T was not), that they seemed to Mr. Thoreau not to appreciate outward nature. (Letter to Emerson; Thoreau,Correspondence, 1958, pp. 91–92)

And Thoreau was hardly shy in voicing his disdain for parlorbound Transcendentalists, as he wrote in A Week.

Very few men can speak of Nature … with any truth. They overstep her modesty, somehow or other, and confer no favor. They do not speak a good word for her … The surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, is better than the mealymouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature. Better that the primrose by the river's brim be a yellow primrose, and nothing more, than that it be something less. (1980a, pp. 108–9)

The Journal was more caustic: “Better that the primrose by the river's brim be a yellow primrose and nothing more, than the victim of his bouquet or

his herbarium—to shine with the flickering dull light of his imagination, and not the golden gleam of a star” (March 13, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 287). According to Thoreau, without immersing in the particular, in the immediate experience of the sensuous, one could hardly expect to reach the “ideal.” Truth was to be found in the actual process of seeing, it would be discovered in the particular, for the particular's own sake. Thus to turn the primrose into a symbol of something higher was actually to reduce its value: this is a key divergence in Thoreau's and Emerson's respective philosophies.[25]

But there was a second dimension to Thoreau's criticism, one derived from what he must have regarded as a naive and narrow view of nature, which spoke even more persuasively to the distorted posture of Emersonian Transcendentalism. Like Emerson's “pastoral” vision of nature, Thoreau's vision allowed for intimate intercourse. After all, Thoreau's socalled immersion took place in the placid confines of a subdued, harnessed, rural setting, which allowed the free interplay of a cultivated man in his “wild garden.” But Thoreau was jolted out of this complacent posture on an excursion to Maine's Mount Ktaadn in September 1846. As we saw in the preceding chapter, the Ktaadn experience forced Thoreau to recognize that nature was not always benevolent. In contrast to the pastoral setting, natureintheraw has an independent integrity (absent from most of his nature writing) which disallowed Thoreau free and easy access or projection of humane value. The Transcendental project thus could be brought up short by not scrupulously picking one's object. So while Thoreau characteristically engaged in a close interplay between himself as observer and his object of scrutiny, the stunning experience on Mount Ktaadn forced him to recognize that nature might not always comply with our sympathetic demands and thus might deny service as a congenial “canvass to our imaginations” (A Week, 1980a, p. 292). This experience thus had profound metaphysical meaning for him, and epistemological significance as well.

The standing of facts, their grounding in the world, and their relation to the knower remained a quandary for Thoreau and stimulated much of his selfreflection regarding his own relation to nature. Indeed, we might regard Thoreau's facts as the counterpositions to Emerson's Ideas. No matter what “facts” Thoreau presents, he regarded them as material to be arrayed for another mission, namely to construct a portrait of reality, in the process enunciating a metaphysics of the self. As discussed most extensively in chapter 5, facts became the vehicle by which a knowing self might mediate the world, and thus they would served as the linchpin of Thoreau's deepest epistemological contemplations. This was an understanding that matured during his young adulthood. In an early Journal entry Thoreau wrote: “How

indispensable to a correct study of nature is a perception of her true meaning–The fact will one day flower out into a truth” (December 16, 1837,Journal 1, 1981, p. 19), that is, a symbolic interpretation. But within six years a critical shift had occurred. As he wrote in his first important article, “Natural History of Massachusetts” (The Dial, July 1842 [1980c]), “Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth” (1980c, p. 28). The fact, not some postponed “true meaning,” is now Truth's flower: accurate observation and appreciation thereof. Emerson relied on finding Correspondence through idealist contemplation; Thoreau used careful observation “and left the spiritual laws to fend for themselves” (Porte 1966, p. 118). He would discard the “din of religion, literature, and philosophy” for “brave” science, by which he meant direct perception of nature and the appreciation of her beauty (“Natural History,” 1980c, p. 4). By lifting his eyelids and opening his ears, Thoreau would engage nature directly not for any symbolic venture, but for her own sake. “The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience” (ibid., p. 29). So, a new identity issue arises. On the one hand, Thoreau recognizes that he is not a scientist (detailed in the next chapter); yet on the other hand, he rejects the Transcendentalists' moralizing of nature. He was never comfortable in any camp. Although identifying with the Transcendentalists, Thoreau was careful to eschew too close an affinity with Emerson's circle.[26] From an early age (well before the Walden experiment), he had little patience for the moralisms supposedly derived from studying nature, as he attests in his Journal of 1841:

In reading a work on agriculture I skip the author's moral reflections, and the words “Providence” and “He” scattered along the page, to come at the profitable level of what he has to say. There is no science in men's religion—it does not teach me so much as the report of the committee on Swine. My author shows he has dealt in corn and turnips—and can worship God with the hoe and spade—but spare me his morality. (April 1, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 295)

Thoreau went public in A Week:

What he calls his religion is for the most part offensive to the nostrils[.] He should know better than expose himself, and keep his foul sores covered till they are quite healed. There is more religion in men's science than there is science in their religion. (1980a, p. 78)

And he was no less harsh on himself in this regard:


What offends me most in my compositions is the moral element in them[.] The repentant say never a brave word—their resolves should be mumbled in silence. Strictly speaking morality is not healthy. Those undeserved joys, which come uncalled, and make us more pleased than grateful, are they that sing. (January 8, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 361)

In other words, nature would address him directly, and abstract, referential musings are inauthentic as well as ultimately spiritually unhealthy as they distort or interfere with direct experience. To see nature is to move in a realm beyond ordinary human categories of good and evil.

The best thought is not only without sombreness—but even without morality. The universe lies outspread in floods of white light to it. The moral aspect of nature is a disease caught of man—a jaundice imported into her–To the innocent there are no cherubims nor angels. Occasionally we rise above the necessity of virtue into an unchangeable morning light–… to live right on and breathe the circumambient air.

There is no name for this life unless it be the very vitality of vita– Silent is the preacher about it—and silent must ever be. for he who knows it will not preach. (August 1, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 315)

In short, Emerson's cosmic vision of moral law, and the Transcendental Correspondence which must support it, have been upstaged. Thoreau rejects moralizing about nature, since in his view, one should not, indeed cannot, speak of the deepest recesses of what we might perceive as nature's spirituality. This is not to say that Thoreau's relationship with nature is “amoral,” only that to commune with nature has an “untranslated,” indeed untranslatable, moral standing.

The relationship of Emerson and Thoreau is obviously complex (e.g., Paul 1958; Porte 1966; Richardson 1985), and I will not further delve into it here, except to note that a key separation, evinced by Thoreau's scientific interests and frankly greater “immersion” in nature, suggests that, far more than Emerson, Thoreau was interested in defining nature's structure, both spiritual and material, for its own sake as opposed to discerning how nature might subserve humanity (Buell 1995, p. 116). Emerson's judgment that “Nature … is made to serve” and that it “receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode” (Emerson 1983a, p. 28) can hardly be more anti-Thoreauvian in sentiment. Thoreau was, of course, to make his own translation of the basic Emersonian precepts concerning how he might understand nature's coherent system of signs and her Transcendental meanings, but this radically opposed orientation in regard to man's integration versus domination of nature may be the key to their eventual separation.[27]


Thoreau, of course, did contemplate nature and drew ethical inferences, but this kind of referencing was only one faculty of the complex exchange between observer and his object of study. It was not the goal of his project in the same way it was Emerson's. And more, Emerson would hardly have recognized Thoreau as advocating a formal ethical or religious agenda: “The Wisest man preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb, against the heavens. It is clear sky” (A Week, 1980a, p. 70). But indeed, Thoreau was erecting a moral agenda for himself, and his community:

Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Men would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized, but naturalized, on the soil of earth. (A Week, 1980a, p. 379)

“Correspondence attempts to divert our attention beyond the visible reality; Thoreau was determined to stick with the thinginitself” (Porte 1966, p. 122). His engagement of nature—pantheistic and direct, sensuous and immediate—forthrightly rejected Emersonian Idealism and helped create a new way of relating to nature, one that has had a more lasting appeal.[28]

All these differences being cited, still, Thoreau's commitment to empiricism did not obviate his search for meaning. So, while Emersonian Idealism was radically transfigured by Thoreau's project, we must not lose sight that in his nature writing, Thoreau, like Emerson, was committed to seeking the same basic Romantic metaphysical truths: evidence for nature's unity and beauty; man's harmonious placement therein; clues as to the moral structure of the universe by which man might be ethically informed and guided. Their underlying vision of nature and man's relation to her were divergent, and their modes of knowing were separated by a great divide. Yet, while Thoreau practiced a more complex epistemology, one in which he sought natural facts, oftentimes in the guise of science, he still lived in Emerson's metaphysical neighborhood and therefore called himself a Transcendentalist. Thoreau's nature study, as empirical and “immersed” as it might be, was still characteristically Romantic—personalized and placed within a poetic vision: “We do not learn by inference and deduction and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy” (“Natural History,” 1980c, p. 29). This personalized faculty, the poetic and spiritual modes of knowing, were thus integral to his project; and thus Thoreau's vision of himself, the very metaphysics of the self, underlies each and all of the epistemological matters we are addressing. This will serve as a key theme

in the chapters to follow. But here we must note that Thoreau's own regard of nature is not so easily schematized and that we risk falsely characterizing his project by maintaining a singular point of view.

I draw these caveats not so much to blur the differences Thoreau exhibited with Emerson as to reemphasize Thoreau's Romantic character. I do so to keep in mind our own goal of discerning the structure of Thoreau's notion of his own personhood, the foundation by which we might better understand the distinctive quality of his project. Perhaps the philosophical differences that developed between Thoreau and other Transcendentalists over Correspondence is the key point upon which Thoreau would create his unique approach to the study of nature. But this is only one of the multiple issues that were at play in Thoreau's creation of his own worlding. So while it is interesting to cite Thoreau's rebuttal of Emersonian Transcendentalism, or to demonstrate his use of Humboldtian empiricism, or to show his employ of Coleridgean notions of individuation and polarity, or to trace his Goethian self-consciousness in the pursuit of the universal, Thoreau's endeavors cannot be readily placed in, or compete with, one schema or another. His was a complex calculus of thought and feeling, one that swung between established styles of discovery and exposition, and new ones that would be made uniquely his own. The question remains, after we dissect the intellectual forces being exercised in Thoreau's creative selfdiscovery— the one which is at the heart of my own inquiry—What was the relation of the observer to the object of study? And more specifically, How was (subject/object) “synthesis” achieved? What indeed did such a “synthesis” depend upon? Thoreau's distinction must be sought in understanding the responses (not answers!) he offered, and to do so we must place him struggling against the onrushing currents of positivism. To press further, let us unpack the amalgam of “science” and “sympathy” Thoreau attempted and determine how he dealt with the ascendancy of a radical separation of the knowing agent from nature, which not only objectified nature but isolated the self. To do so, we must first present a portrait of science during his era.

Another Apple Tree

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