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Gary Borjesson A SOUNDING OF WALDEN'S PHILOSOPHICAL DEPTH It is hard to make up one's mind about Waiden. One expects die spiritual landscape to be familiar, so familiar perhaps diat you need not read die book to feel you know it. But Waiden disappoints this expectation. Having read it, one may wonderjust what is so familiar or American about Thoreau's sensibility. And righdy so. Waiden is long on observation and short on plot, as tedious in its detail as it is devoid of action. It is a wondrously slow, contemplative work and would be demanding enough for this reason alone, to say nothing of the enormous vocabulary, the abundant allusions to classical mythology, and die Latin and Greek scattered tiiroughout—all of which hint that despite his democratic rhetoric, Thoreau addresses himself to a rather small audience. Like the lusty chanticleer, "standing on his roost, ifonly to wake his neighbors up," Waiden speaks to the best part of the soul, to that in us which is divinely awake or mindful.1 Such speeches necessarily transcend not only America's borders, but common-sense understanding as well, "the sense ofmen asleep, which they express by snoring" (p. 325). As Thoreau puts it: "I desire to speak somewhere widiout bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in dieir waking moments" (p. 324). This desire "to speak somewhere without bounds" is philosophical. Waiden witnesses to die philosophical experience of the world. Originating in wonder and die desire to understand, Waiden moves dirough die senses, experience, the arts, and science. But its specifically philosophical character lies in Thoreau's evident desire to situate all tilings, including himself, in dieir ultimate context. Recognizing the integrity of this desire means appreciating that the full realization of one's nature requires discovering one's place in die cosmos. Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 287-308 288Philosophy and Literature The tiiree parts of this essay articulate what I take to be philosophical about Thoreau's sensibility. The first part considers Thoreau as a surveyor of the whole of things, a traditionally philosophical endeavor. The second part examines Thoreau's desire for truth and shows how it must be distinguished from the tenets of transcendental philosophy generally and Emerson's transcendentalism in particular. Contrary to a common opinion, a true estimation of Walden's philosophical depth hinges on seeing why Thoreau is not a transcendentalist. Some may worry that attention to these universal, theoretical features ofThoreau's workjeopardizes doingjustice to his famously idiosyncratic individualism . But Thoreau does not ask one to choose either allegiance to oneself or to universal laws: such a dichotomy is false and must be sublated. Thus the final part of this essay explicates how Thoreau envisions the web of particular and universal, the alignment of individual and cosmos. I conclude by framing my disagreement with Stanley Cavell's reading of Waiden. As the only well-known philosopher to have devoted a book-lengtii study to Waiden, his influence has been great, and on central points his reading sanctions the common emphasis on subjectivity.2 Two last prefatory remarks. First, Waiden is not a work in philosophy, at least not a treatise, for Thoreau does not explain his insights thematically. Nevertheless, the work has a distinct philosophical character , one I shall try to sketch with die degree of precision appropriate to it. This raises my second point. Precision does not sit easily with comprehensiveness or with the need to praise. All three are relevant to philosophical understanding, yet Thoreau evidently felt that synoptic contemplation and all its fruits, including "any memorable praise of God," were in die shorter supply (p. 78). As Thoreau tells it, he wished to "cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms," "to front only the essential facts," "and if [life] proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to die world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion" (pp. 90—91). If Thoreau is right...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 287-308
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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