- 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...