Thoreau's Importance for Philosophy
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Fordham University Press
Series: American Philosophy
Title Page, Copyright
1. Locating Thoreau, Reorienting Philosophy
The philosophical significance of Henry David Thoreau’s life and writings is far from being a settled matter. Although his best-known book, Walden, is admired as a classic work of American literature, it has not yet been widely recognized as an important philosophical text. In fact...
2. Thoreau and Emersonian Perfectionism
What is at issue in deciding whether to call Thoreau a philosopher? One could employ Heidegger’s distinction between thinking and philosophy, and concede “thinking” to Thoreau but not “philosophy.” This, however, would require some considerable reflection on Heidegger’s distinction...
3. Thoreau and the Body
For some time now I have been interested in philosophers in whose writing the body plays a major role. I note, for example, that in the essays of Michel de Montaigne there is a strong sense of the earth and our animal nature. He talks of his kidney stones, of horseback riding, of the way he...
4. Speaking Extravagantly: Philosophical Territory and Eccentricity in Walden
In a well-known polemical passage in Walden’s opening chapter, Thoreau complains that, in our era of specialized labor, the economic world justified in 1776 by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations and parodied in “Economy,” there are more than enough professors of philosophy...
5. In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World: Thoreau’s Environmental Ethics
Environmental ethics asks how people should treat the rest of nature. In the words of a leading environmental philosopher, it seeks to specify “duties to and values in the natural world.” Over the past few decades, environmental ethics has emerged as an important area within...
6. Articulating a Huckleberry Cosmos: Thoreau’s Moral Ecology of Knowledge
In 1850, still simmering from the outrage of the Mexican War and the failed Revolutions of 1848, Emerson jotted in his journal, “The question of the Times is to each one a practical question of the Conduct of life. How shall I live? Plainly we are incompetent to solve the riddle of...
7. The Value of Being: Thoreau on Appreciating the Beauty of the World
According to a common philosophical bias, the material world is devoid of value: Such axiological qualities as the beauty of a bird’s song must lie only in the eye (or the ear) of the beholder. On this view, the color and scent of autumn leaves, the radiance of the sun, and the...
8. Thoreau’s Moral Epistemology and Its Contemporary Relevance
Thoreau’s practice of natural history and his understanding of science have been refracted from various perspectives and offer a composite intellectual portrait: an Emersonian transcendentalist, an empirical naturalist, a romantic naturalist, an epistemologist reassessing perception...
9. How Walden Works: Thoreau and the Socratic Art of Provocation
Thoreau’s Walden remains at the margins of philosophy today because we are still unsure what sort of book it is, and uncertain what we might do with it. And so it seems that, at most, Walden is regarded as a peculiar literary work that may lend itself to philosophical reflection but...
10. Wonder and Affliction: Thoreau’s Dionysian World
Tragic undercurrents, figured both as primal sufferings and as literary coping with sufferings, course through Thoreau’s writing, especially in some of his lesser-read works, and prominently in his Journal. “If it is not a tragical life we live, then I know not what to call it.” These dark...
11. An Emerson Gone Mad: Thoreau’s American Cynicism
We sometimes forget that Emerson and Thoreau were hard-core, if somewhat romantic, social reformers. They were also engaged in the transformation of philosophy, ready to quit the old school British empiricism and the tedious moral dogma of their Harvard professors...
12. Henry David Thoreau: The Asian Thread
For the early stages of his writing career, Henry David Thoreau might be characterized as an intellectual man-of-all-trades. Certainly Thoreau found himself drawn to an almost impossibly broad array of subjects, ranging from local history and archaeology through ancient mythology...
13. The Impact of Thoreau’s Political Activism
In the Bhagavad Gita that Thoreau so admired, the virtue of bhakti, or “loving devotion,” is both a source of knowledge and a motive for action. Believing that a contemplative life should also be an active one, Thoreau sought to follow the example of Arjuna, hero of the Gita. In the...
14. Walden Revisited: An Interview with Stanley Cavell
One of the most prominent and accomplished philosophers in America, Stanley Cavell has demonstrated his appreciation for Thoreau’s Walden in a number of his own books: The Senses of Walden, Cavell’s most sustained engagement with Thoreau, was first published...