Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview

Introduction

There is no account of the blue sky in history.

Thoreau, January 7, 1851,
Journal 3, 1990, p. 174

Would you see your mind–look at the sky.

Thoreau, January 26, 1852,
Journal 4, 1992, p. 291

Henry David Thoreau lived in an age of keen observers, and he was very much a man of his time. Both scientists and artists developed an acute selfconsciousness of their respective methods and faculties of observation, and of the limits as well as the prospects of their new modes of inspection. Thus each appreciated the problems of cognition with new insight. Within this tradition, for Thoreau, seeing—both the world and himself—became his preoccupation, and his problem. The least conspicuous or most obvious were equally susceptible to his gaze, and thus he made his contribution by making the ordinary extraordinary. He believed that the secrets of nature, and of humanity's place within it, were ultimately revealed by identifying what was significant in the everyday world; and that this revelation, in turn, depended on meticulous attention to, and accounting of, the commonplace. On the other hand, he too was guilty of complacency. An amusing observation made by Henry Petroski makes the point:

Henry David Thoreau seemed to think of everything when he made a list of essential supplies for a twelve-day excursion into the Maine woods. He included pins, needles, and thread among the items to be carried in an India-rubber knapsack, and he even gave the dimensions of an ample tent.… He wanted to be doubly sure to be able to start a fire and to wash up, and so he listed: “matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket); soap, two pieces.” He specified the number of old newspapers (three or four, presumably to be used for cleaning chores), the length of strong cord (twenty feet), the size of his blanket (seven feet long), and the amount of “soft hardbread” (twenty-eight pounds!).…

… [h] e advised like-minded observers to carry a small spyglass … a pocket microscope … tape measure … and paper and stamps, to mail letters back to civilization.

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Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - The Eternal Now 23
  • 2 - Another Apple Tree 45
  • 3 - Another Apple Tree 75
  • 4 - Thoreau at the Crossroads 104
  • 5 - Thoreau's Personalized Facts 140
  • 6 - Thoreau's Moral Universe 163
  • 7 - The Self-Positing I 195
  • Epilogue: Mending the World 222
  • Notes 231
  • References 285
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