Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview
Save to active project


This study addresses Thoreau from an unusual vantage point. As a historian and philosopher of science, I note that my own discipline has paid scant attention to him, but here I wish to claim Thoreau—or, better, to “borrow” him. He offers a rich grist for the philosopher's mill and, by extension, to those current cultural studies that begin with the philosophical questions he poses: the character of the self, the grounding of moral agency, the nature of knowledge. Thoreau was no postmodern, but he faced many of the same challenges we do, and in studying his life, I have come to value the ethical example he offered. While philosophical readings might enrich the literary approaches that have dominated Thoreauvian scholarship for a century, I believe structuring his project on a philosophical edifice also offers critical insights into certain quandaries that reach into the very mainstream of contemporary science studies.

For me, Thoreau is a fascinating “hinge” character residing between an ebbing Romanticism and a rising positivism. Stretching from early Romanticism to the contemporary molecular revolution, my own endeavor is to better understand the tension generated by science's positivist leanings against both the humane demands of its knowledge and the role of the participating scientist. In this respect, Thoreau, usually seen as a naturalist and champion of the environment, is of interest to me because of the clear fashion in which his life and work have focused the problem of the observer in this scientific setting. More generally, he exemplifies the difficulty of assigning value to our science that seeks dispassionate objectivity, yet remains firmly tied to humane understanding. We assign value to our knowledge; we require placing the self in its world; we seek to use our knowledge for humane purposes. Each requires the assignment of value and the exercise of choice.


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 301

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?