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Thoreau's Importance for Philosophy

Rick Anthony Furtak

Publication Year: 2012

The philosophical significance of Henry David Thoreau's life and writings is far from settled. 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, many members of the academic philosophical community in America would be reluctant to classify Thoreau as a philosopher at all. The purpose of this volume is to remedy this neglect, to explain Thoreau's philosophical significance, and to argue that we can still learn from his polemical conception of philosophy.Thoreau sought to establish philosophy as a way of life, and to root our philosophical, conceptual affairs in more practical or existential concerns. His work provides us with a sustained meditation on the appropriate conduct of life and the importance of leading our lives with integrity, avoiding what he calls "quiet desperation." The contributors to this volume approach Thoreau's writings from different angles, collectively bringing to light what, in his own distinctive and idiosyncratic way, this major American thinker has meant to multiple areas of philosophical inquiry, and why he is still relevant. They show how the imagination, according to Thoreau, might be related to the disclosure of truth; they illuminate the nuances of embodied consciousness and explore the links between moral character and scientific knowledge. They clarify Thoreau's project by locating it in relation to earlier philosophical authors and traditions, noting the ways in which he either anticipated or influenced a host of later thinkers. They explore his aesthetic views, his naturalism, his theory of self, his ethical principles, and his political stances. Most importantly, they show how Thoreau returns philosophy to its roots as the love of wisdom.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Series: American Philosophy

Title Page, Copyright

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1. Locating Thoreau, Reorienting Philosophy

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pp. 1-13

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...

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2. Thoreau and Emersonian Perfectionism

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pp. 14-30

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...

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3. Thoreau and the Body

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pp. 31-42

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...

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4. Speaking Extravagantly: Philosophical Territory and Eccentricity in Walden

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pp. 43-67

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...

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5. In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World: Thoreau’s Environmental Ethics

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pp. 68-90

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...

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6. Articulating a Huckleberry Cosmos: Thoreau’s Moral Ecology of Knowledge

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pp. 91-111

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...

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7. The Value of Being: Thoreau on Appreciating the Beauty of the World

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pp. 112-126

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...

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8. Thoreau’s Moral Epistemology and Its Contemporary Relevance

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pp. 127-142

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...

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9. How Walden Works: Thoreau and the Socratic Art of Provocation

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pp. 143-158

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...

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10. Wonder and Affliction: Thoreau’s Dionysian World

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pp. 159-184

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...

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11. An Emerson Gone Mad: Thoreau’s American Cynicism

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pp. 185-200

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...

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12. Henry David Thoreau: The Asian Thread

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pp. 201-217

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...

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13. The Impact of Thoreau’s Political Activism

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pp. 218-222

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...

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14. Walden Revisited: An Interview with Stanley Cavell

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pp. 223-237

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...


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pp. 239-293


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pp. 295-297


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pp. 298-300

American Philosophy

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pp. 301-302

E-ISBN-13: 9780823249541
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823239306
Print-ISBN-10: 0823239306

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: American Philosophy