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Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 25, Number 2, October 2001
pp. 361-363 | 10.1353/phl.2001.0021

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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 361-363

Book Review

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing, by Alfred I. Tauber; xi & 317 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, $40.00.

Among the marvelous qualities of Thoreau's writing is its vivid concreteness and immediacy. As befits one who spent his life seeing for himself, Thoreau shares a vision of a cosmos whose significance is there to be discovered in the things themselves, if only one cultivates the desire, faith, and discipline required for seeing to the bottom of things. An ironic and happy consequence of Thoreau caring more for the company of nature than for that of his fellow man is that it ultimately made him a finer, more engaging writer with a large audience. Whereas Thoreau might have lost himself and his subject-matter (not to mention the better part of his audience) amidst the twists and turns of Kant's or Fichte's conceptual plumbing, he came to his senses instead -- and avoided their abstractions and the intellectual fuss they generate. Imagine how tedious and stale his reflections on the supposed bottomlessness of Walden pond would be if he had framed them explicitly in the terms of intellectual debates revolving around skepticism and realism, phenomena and noumena, and their like. It belongs to Thoreau's enduring genius and charm that he avoided such trappings. One can rely on him for a philosophically inflected appreciation of the realms of nature and spirit, while Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche are more reliable for philosophically incisive articulations of the first principles governing these realms.

Inevitably, scholarly books like Alfred Tauber's Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing will not have the same fresh, original spirit as do their subjects. But though a scholar addresses someone's views rather than the things themselves, one nonetheless chooses whether to develop one's subject's views primarily in light of (what the scholar understands to be) the things themselves, or whether to focus on how the subject's views relate to the views of others. By claiming his book is philosophical, Tauber in effect claims that it is of the former sort, but in fact it is of the latter sort. As such, readers interested in Thoreau's Zeitgeist and contemporary influences, in past and recent assessments of his thought, as well as in some discussion of its place in contemporary intellectual currents will find Tauber's book timely and valuable. For example, prior to articulating his own view of Thoreau's relation to the science of his day, Tauber gives the reader a primer on the history of positivism. Similarly, in the course of assessing how Thoreau viewed the relation of self and nature, Tauber leads the reader through summary appraisals of (and here I give only a sampling) some relevant swatches of Kant, Fichte, and Barthes's thought. And this is not the half of it. Tauber also weaves into his argument reflections on Augustine's discussion of time in the Confessions, themes from Polanyi's Personal Knowledge and James's Principles of Psychology, as well as Goethe's interpretation of what should constitute scientific activity. So Tauber's book addresses itself to Romanticism, Transcendentalism, positivism, environmentalism, postmodernism, mysticism, idealism, solipsism, and the like. Though eclectic in their material, his discussions are grounded in copious references to and an interpretation of Thoreau's own words. (One pleasure of the book for this reviewer was the opportunity to become acquainted with more of Thoreau's journal entries.) Yet the variety of the book's sources and themes contribute to some repetition as well as diffuseness in the main arguments.

Tauber sees his book as "structuring [Thoreau's] project on a philosophical edifice" and thereby making possible "critical insights into certain quandaries that reach into the very mainstream of contemporary science studies" (p. ix). He argues that his approach is novel (Tauber's own background is the history and philosophy of science) because most treatments of Thoreau have been from a literary perspective. He finds Thoreau particularly fruitful for study because he is a "'hinge' character residing between...

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