Thoreau’s Importance For Philosophy ed. by Rick Anthony Furtak, Jonathan Ellsworth, and James D. Reid
Ask someone outside of the academy about who Henry David Thoreau is and your interlocutor will likely reply, “he is a philosopher.” Ask an academic, especially a philosophy professor, and your answer might be very different. Professional philosophy has a difficult time dealing with Thoreau. He fails to fit into a neat niche. Rick Anthony Furtak, Jonathan Ellsworth, and James D. Reid seek integration of Thoreau into the philosophic discussion by giving us a volume of essays entitled, aptly, Thoreau’s Importance For Philosophy. In this volume, an introduction, twelve essays, and an interview with Stanley Cavell make a strong case that Thoreau has a significant contribution to make not just for philosophers, but also for professors of philosophy. While the topics of the various essays each take on different aspects of Thoreau’s work, they tend to agree on three over-arching themes of his importance for rejuvenating not only studies of his work, but for philosophy itself. These themes are Thoreau’s dedication to living a disciplined philosophical life, the value of wildness and an ethos that results from valuing it, and Thoreau’s Socratic demand for authentically investigating the problems of life. I will take up these themes and discuss several of the noteworthy contributions, albeit not always in chapter order.
With a title like Thoreau’s Importance For Philosophy, a reader would certainly be entitled to a discussion of what makes Thoreau’s work significant for philosophers in the academy. This volume certainly does that. However, in its best moments it does more. It demands that we academic philosophers and others narrowly constrained in insular academic fields actually live a disciplined and thoughtful life. So, what is Thoreau’s import? In the chapter “Wonder and Affliction,” Edward F. Mooney most succinctly answers this question: “Thoreau addresses nonspecialists, bringing them to issues any person…might raise about orientations to a life, about what it is like to see life from unconventional perspectives in desperate or unanchored times” (183). Thoreau holds that disciplined activity allows one to live the philosophic life. The authors in this volume, for the most part, do not emphasize a [End Page 397] Transcendentalist doctrine as much as they emphasize that Thoreau demands that the good human life be one of thought and intelligent moral activity. We are, as Russell B. Goodman presents in “Thoreau and the Body,” beings of praxis that require discipline and development. In “Walking,” Thoreau does not constitute himself as a thinking thing—a cogito—but rather as a walking thing. His constitution is in his walk, in activity (33). Experience is the way into knowledge for Thoreau and it is inherently embodied. In this way the transcendentalists foreshadow the pragmatists and phenomenologists. The armchair is not where philosophy begins, nor where human beings are constituted. Instead we should walk with Thoreau out to the huckleberry patch or to eat wild apples in a deliberate and disciplined manner.
Related to Thoreau’s emphasis on a disciplined life is his emphasis on wildness. Thoreau’s attention to wildness as an intrinsic value, Philip J. Cafaro argues in “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World,” is not only one of the earliest instances of a nonanthopcentric environmental ethics, but also one that links “environmental awareness and protection to human flourishing” (69). For Thoreau, and importantly for the rejuvenation of philosophy, knowing and valuing wildness “defines human flourishing and excellence” (78). We are ourselves better for acknowledging wildness as much as we should value it in-and-of itself. Further, Thoreau’s study of wildness avoids both scientism and a naïvely romantic celebration. Wildness does not preclude our understanding as Alfred I. Tauber argues in “Thoreau’s Moral Epistemology and its Contemporary Relevance.” Indeed, “a life lived deliberately [includes] a recurrent assessment of [one’s] own place in nature” (128). But, it does not demand that we reject the meaning of the wildness of living. Thoreau’s realistic empiricism results in a lived understanding of the meaning of wildness without falling into a pernicious reduction.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Thoreau is important as a unique provocateur. Thoreau is, Ellsworth points out in his essay “How Walden Works,” an American gadfly. Just as Socrates bit the self-congratulatory Athenians, Thoreau bites us with his provocation to be awake to the world. If we hear him successfully, we ought be disturbed. Thoreau shows us that “annoyance or discomfort is at least the first sign that [we] are [beginning] to stir…[beginning] to think” (149). Thoreau, in Walden, renders an account—as Socrates demands. Thoreau’s work forces us to take account of ourselves, to make a real self-examination. Douglas R. Anderson continues this theme in “An Emerson Gone Mad: Thoreau’s American Cynicism.” Anderson goes further than Ellsworth, arguing that Thoreau moves beyond Socrates to become an American cynic. Thoreau, like the cynics, demands that we live a good life according to wildness. Anderson emphasizes the danger and challenge of taking Thoreau seriously. Under the dominant regimes of life we are removed from wildness, from thought, from being human and must therefore awaken and live deliberately. Thoreau demands that we take him seriously when he tells us that in an unfree society the free should be imprisoned or that maybe that living in a shack on borrowed land will teach [End Page 398] us something about living in a city of corrupted individuals. Thoreau is important for philosophy because he demands that we live well and cast off what prevents us from living well—injustices and distractions alike.
There is little to criticize about the book in its entirety. It makes the point it sets out to. The essays are uneven at times—some being somewhat repetitive and others presenting big ideas that need more thoroughgoing argumentation than a single chapter. Stand out essays include Russell B. Goodman’s “Thoreau and the Body,” James D. Reid’s “Speaking Extravagantly: Philosophical Territory and Eccentricity in Walden,” and Douglas R. Anderson’s “An Emerson Gone Mad: Thoreau’s American Cynicism.” Scholars interested in American philosophy in general will be interested in this volume, as will those interested in living a philosophical life and not simply studying one.