Thoreau as Philosopher

Below is the Prefatory Statement I wrote for an issue of Reason Papers devoted to Thoreau that I edited back in the 90’s.  Ed Mooney’s recent blog entries on Thoreau have me thinking about Thoreau again.

Thoreau as philosopher: Why does this theme still seem a bit strange, a bit forced – like
an attempt to fob off something phoney on us? Well, one problem is that most of us
met Thoreau too early. We met him in adolescence, and we thought of him then as a quirky nature prose-poet; or, as a rustic rebel whose name connected up vaguely with peaceful political protest. Did we think of Thoreau as a philosopher? – No; we poeticized him; we rusticated him. How, then, to reclaim him?

At a time when philosophy is increasingly professionalized, Thoreau is worth reading
because he reminds us of the distinction – and of the relationship – between philosophy
professed and philosophy lived. Like the Greeks, Thoreau heard philosophy’s call, heard
philosophy call for a life, heard philosophy call for professing – in Thoreau’s case, for
writing. What Thoreau understood was that the authority of philosophical writing must
always be won anew, word by word, inkling by inkling. The authority of philosophical
writing is won anew not by displays of virtuosity, whether literary or argumentative, but
by displays of vitality, by finding words that incorporate, and are incorporated by, a
well-lived life. Philosophically authoritative words are words that stand face-to-face with
a well-lived life; such words and such a life reciprocally implicate one another. Thoreau
demonstrates his understanding of this by writing in the first-person and by providing
what he demands from others – “a simple and sincere account of his own life.” Clearly,
this understanding of philosophical authority is dangerous – by that I mean, has its dangers: empty self-obsession, stultifying idiosyncracy, blank unintelligibility. But perhaps worse than these dangers is the danger that such an understanding of philosophical writing renders philosophy written in its service unavailable to contemporary professional philosophy. Put crudely, the danger is that philosophy written in the service of such an understanding and contemporary professional philosophy will end up out of even spitting distance of one another. To contemporary professional philosophy, Thoreau’s writing is writing ad hominem, or worse, writing ad personam: philosophical writing conceived in a matrix of fallacies, not to be borne. If philosophy as Thoreau writes it and contemporary professional philosophy continue to recoil from each other, philosophy will lose much of what has made it admirable – its stubborn efforts to make ends meet, to keep body and soul together. Philosophy will then exist only as a zombie, or as a ghost, of its former self, demanding either voodoo or exorcism.

Thoreau’s philosophical writing alternately provokes and pacifies. It knots together
paradox and platitude. Thoreau does not write books to be held at arm’s length; he writes
books to be either pitched angrily or clutched greedily; or, maybe, both. Thoreau gives
and requires a live response, the response of a life. Call this Thoreau’s Concordian
Revolution: Copernicus taught us that our sun with all its furies is at the center of the
galaxy; Kant taught us that our mind with all its categories is at the center of space and
time; Thoreau teaches us that our life with all its forms is at the center of things. Kant set
reason after reason, because reason is fated to ask itself questions that it cannot answer.
Thoreau set life after life, because life is fated to ask itself questions it cannot answer.
Reason and life are alike antinomian: both require transcendental responses. Thoreau
requires that we read him against our lives, and through our lives.

Before clearing the way for the essays that follow, I acknowledge the overwhelming
debt this collection owes to the pioneering work of Stanley Cavell. I also record my
sadness, and the sadness of others, at the death of David L. Norton. Had David lived, he
would have contributed an essay to this collection. If time is, as Thoreau said, “a stream
we go a-fishing in,” David was the Compleat Angler.

Auburn, Alabama

5 responses

  1. It has taken a while for my thoughts on this most excellent and Cavellian “prefatory statement” to coalesce. I absorb it as a recalling of a question that for US philosophers and intellectuals will not go away: Do Thoreau and Emerson deserve to be called philosophers? (A more elaborate question could include Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Emily Dickinson, Pierce, Dewey, William James, Stanley Cavell and so forth.) I would call attention to two aspects of the question. First, we are asking if we Americans can do philosophy, or is it rather something that is reserved to ancient Greeks, Germans, Scots and Brits? Or to ancient Greeks, Germans, Scots and Brits, and a few French people, John Rawls and Willard Quine? If we lack the language or culture for doing philosophy, . . . Well then, software engineering pays better.
    Secondly, there is the question of whether this deserves the name of philosophy: Emerson’s sermon-lectures or the Thoreauvian “response of a life” — his combination of observations of nature, things read and Concord civilization (“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”), and of what we might call moralizing (“If we can listen, we shall hear. By reverently listening to the inner voice, we may reinstate ourselves on the pinnacle of humanity.”). Above all, I take this to involve a set of personal questions. Is what “I” (this particular American intellectual writer) am doing philosophy? And — the better question, the question I have wanted to get to — Might I, instead of trying to write philosophy like a German, Brit or French person, let myself go and do what in my heart of hearts I would really like to do: observe and moralize (my personal “matrix of fallacies” be damned!)? Keep “body and soul together,” abjure system in favor of honest (or as honest as possible) recording of the inner voice and of intellectual self-exploration?
    Of course this is not only the province of Americans, Nietzsche (a fan of Emerson’s work) and Montaigne leap quickly to mind. And since I am writing this as a comment on a blog of a well-known Wittgensteinian, I would add that in reading Wittgenstein I often feel he is wrestling with this temptation, to abjure system and logic and just write what he really thinks. Apparently Kant once said, “If a man were to say and write all he thinks, there would be nothing more horrible on God’s earth than man,” and sometimes I have the sense that this well describes a temptation for Wittgenstein, a temptation that, I imagine, at times made him smile.)
    So now I would like to make a quixotic proposal, or join in the proposal that Cavell, Jolley and others have made, albeit less directly and with greater sophistication. The proposal is quixotic because it tilts at the windmills of the business (or guild) of academia, of Ph.D.s and tenure-track jobs (and of adjunct positions and of “independent scholars,” such as myself). All this is a Germanic business (spurred on by the work of Kant, himself the son of a guildmaster). This “increasingly professionalized” business militates against people seeking to earn their livings as philosophers writing like Thoreau. (Though it hardly stops writers like Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry from earning good livings as writers.)
    But supposing — in a new birth of freedom — we were to set this wonderful word and tradition, philosophy, aside. Not to reject or ignore it, or them, but to say that, as Americans, what we do — what we can do, what we are drawn to do — is something else. We have a different tradition which goes back to Jonathan Edwards (and from there to Isaiah) and certainly includes Emerson and Thoreau, and Abraham Lincoln, and Dickinson, Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. And we can say that our tradition connects with Nietzsche, Montaigne and Rousseau’s Confessions as well. It cannot produce the kinds of truths that Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Locke or even Hume (for examples) sought. It can certainly exercise the senses and the mind and make room for the soul, and my belief is that writing, of any kind, can do no better than this.
    Certainly all these paragraphs are too much and too many for a comment to a blog which is to be read (or likely not) electronically, on a small screen. However, I would like to do one more, very American thing: add a plug, do a little self-promoting! (Or something close to it.) That is, last year I became the Editorial Adviser to a fledgling City University of New York open-access, interdisciplinary journal, Zeteo. (This being a transliteration of a verb (ζητέω) used liberally in classical Greek philosophy (yes) as well as in the New Testament. The verb may be translated: to challenge, to question, to seek honestly, to dispute, to debate and pose alternative ideas and solutions.) One of the goals of Zeteo is to encourage the writing, and publication, of articles and essays that combine the personal, political and intellectual — à la Thoreau, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Wendell Berry, Terry Castle, . . . Writers with texts, possible ideas are encouraged to e-mail us at
    But, believe it or not, the original point of this comment was not self-promotion, but comment. I like to think of Kelly’s excellent blog as a modernday version of the Athenian agora. I suppose that if I had tried to give such a long speech there I would have been shouted down long, long ago. Amen. – William Eaton Warner

    • Your remark, Mr. Warner, lances the boil, it seems to me. Setting aside the academic shunning of Thoreau (a crisis so far removed from my own experience that I can’t fret much about it), the title “essayist” strikes me as having no less dignity than the title “philosopher”, but with the added virtue of being entirely free of the ownership anxieties that “philosopher” seems to arouse in academic circles. And let’s face it: the overwhelming preponderance of writers classified as philosophers over the whole great tradition of philosophy were arguers who wanted to make the best case they could for what they regarded as the truth and to present it before the ideal community of rational beings. Disambiguation of terms, examination of premises, logical development of ideas, conceptual analysis, and above all consistency over the long haul have been the revered standards of philosophical practice since Socrates. Even the anti-philosophers, those who, on principles grounds, were more or less system-phobic (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and so forth), were pushing toward definite conclusions. Yes, they adopted unconventional modes of presentation, but they thought that their ideas were worthy of being taken seriously by more traditional philosophers according to at least some of the standards those philosophers would recognize. However indirect, aphoristic, and unsystematic they might have been, they were not simply throwing out random ideas or tracing fluffy notions drifting lazily through their azure minds. The essay, a far more open and tolerant medium than the philosophical treatise or “paper”, is the proper home for every type of thoughtful emoting or emotional thinking that does not live up to, that does not want to live up to, the neutral standards of reason. If an essay happens to echo philosophy at times (often as little more than pointless name-dropping, I’m afraid), it is only philosophy by analogy, so to speak, and not the real thing; which is why thinkers in this vein are often classified, leniently enough, as philosophical essayists. I think if Emerson or Thoreau, philosophical essayist both, had been asked how their particular type of literary activity stacks up against Berkeley, Kant, or Fichte, they would probably have say it doesn’t, and let it go at that. They might have said: “Write as you will, with your whole heart and soul, and let the rest go by – if that is what fits your temperament.” They did say: “Trust thyself!” and “Explore thyself!”, and they did not scruple to justify their commandments. They definitely did not say: “Trust reason!” And therein lies the big difference – it seems to me.

      • “The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.” – Jane Austen

        “principles grounds” = principled grounds
        “probably have say” = probably have said

        “tracing fluffy notions drifting lazily through their azure minds” = a hasty imitation of purple prose

        Sorry, Jane.

      • Yes, Kelly, among other things, this reason-emotion distinction you come to seems crucial, and to my mind a great virtue of the (personal) essay approach. To use an idea from your first post, the essay approach offers the possibility of keeping mind and body (and soul) together, on the page at least. (And since I think of “reason” as expressions of emotion couched in a particular rhetoric…) Other subjects not taken up here: (1) Your response reminded me of Emerson’s “The Poet”, wherein he stakes a claim for a slightly different status than essayist or philosopher; and (2) I am mindful of having ignored an important aspect of your original post: that right writing might/should also involve right living. (We’re back to Wendell Berry again, and Socrates and Thoreau.) With best wishes on a steamy Memorial Day, Wm.

      • Apologies for a confusion of names. I have replied to Bill as if he were Kelly and citing both at once. Perhaps here we come to another truth about the agora disguised by Plato’s texts: It’s not always possible to know who is speaking or who has said what. Best, Wm.

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