- Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy ed. by Rick Anthony Furtak, Jonathan Ellsworth, and James D. Reid
Henry David Thoreau’s legacy as a major figure in the American tradition seems assured. Though largely ignored in his own day, his book Walden is now considered an American classic, and the site of his cabin at Walden Pond is a regular pilgrimage destination for tourists. Yet less clear is how to characterize Thoreau and his contribution to American thought: Is he a naturalist? A literary figure? A social critic? A transcendentalist? Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy makes the argument that Thoreau should best be understood as a philosopher, though as part of the older tradition of philosophy as learning to live well, to care for one’s soul. In particular, the editors insist that the book Walden, which is taken here as Thoreau’s most important contribution, is more than a “classic work of American literature” but is an “important philosophical text” (1). Closely connected with the attempt to bring Thoreau to philosophy is the equally important insistence on bringing philosophy (at least, present day academic philosophy) closer to Thoreau. Throughout this [End Page 114] book, we hear criticisms of the “logic-chopping” obsession with arguments and technical rigor, as well as the increasing subdivisions of branches of philosophy that do not communicate with one another.
The book is divided into an introductory chapter, twelve essays by different contributors, and finally a transcript of an e-mail interview with Stanley Cavell at the end. In the introductory essay, the editors defend the unique style of Walden as a way of doing philosophy, despite its personal approach and the lack of a thesis defended by arguments. In the second chapter, Stanley Bates criticizes modern moral philosophy for neglecting writers such as Thoreau, whom he characterizes as an “Emersonian perfectionist,” following Cavell. The third chapter, by Russell Goodman, emphasizes the central role of the body in Thoreau’s work, something he claims is long neglected among the great philosophers. James Reid in the fourth chapter again argues that modern philosophy has lost touch with the art of living, and that it can learn from Thoreau’s insistence on the meaning or significance of facts, rather than bare facts in themselves. The fifth chapter, by Philip Cafaro, presents Thoreau as a pioneer in the area of environmental ethics, and interprets Walden as a “searching, sustained attempt to specify a nonanthropocentric ethics” (73).
Laura Dassow Walls in the sixth chapter contrasts Emerson’s fascination with metaphysics and abstract systems, with Thoreau’s focus on the local and immediate, a form of what she calls “ecological thinking,” noting Emerson’s disdain for swamps and the huckleberry parties that were so important to Thoreau. Rick Anthony Furtak in the following essay identifies Thoreau’s contribution to philosophy as his insistence on combining both science and poetry, fact and enchantment; an alternative to the positivist insistence on sharply separating the subjective and objective worlds, “appearance” versus “reality.” Alfred Tauber in the eighth chapter calls Thoreau a “moral epistemologist,” by which he means someone who rejects the positivist distinction between fact and value and attempts to re-enchant the world. Jonathan Ellsworth follows by interpreting Walden as a Socratic discourse, one in which Thoreau deliberately presents contradictory views, frustrating our desire for conclusions, and throwing us back on ourselves to find the truth in ourselves.
Edward Mooney in the tenth essay emphasizes the tragic, Dionysian strain in Walden, the brooding sense of loss and suffering, and the need to see wildness as a counterpart to order and civilization. Douglas Anderson claims Thoreau is best understood in the Cynic tradition, with the goal of living simply and in accordance with nature. Robert Kuhn McGregor details the influence of Asian thought, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, on Thoreau’s intellectual development. Paul Friedrich presents a short essay debunking the notion that Thoreau was a recluse or a hermit, and arguing [End Page 115] that Thoreau was a political activist all his life. The final chapter is the interview with...