Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview

4
Thoreau at the Crossroads

Bought a telescope to-day for eight dollars. Best military spyglass with six slides, which shuts up to about the same size, fifteen dollars and very powerful.

Thoreau, March 13, 1854,
Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:166

Counted over forty robins with my glass in the meadow north of Sleepy Hollow, in the grass and on the snow.

Thoreau, March 14, 1854,
Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:167–68

Thoreau's movements into and out of science are delicately balanced. While we cannot simply dismiss him altogether from the ranks of mid-nineteenthcentury scientists, neither can we place him within that community. Scholars have debated the scientific character of his work in great detail. Contemporary discussion is in large measure framed by, and often in reaction to, Nina Baym's assessment (1965) that Thoreau grew increasingly alienated both from science and from the scientific character of his own work the more he recognized that Transcendentalism, and by extension his own project, were out of line with the science of his period (Rossi 1993). So too earlier critics who, in placing Thoreau among the Transcendentalists—an admission he himself readily made (March 5, 1853, Journal 5, 1997, pp. 469–70; discussed in chapter 3)—thereby excluded him from “science.” However, subsequent commentators (Howarth 1982; Angelo 1983; Hildebidle 1983; Richardson 1986; Sattelmeyer 1988; Rossi 1993;Walls 1995; McGregor 1997) have countered that this conclusion does not adequately address Thoreau's complex epistemological persona. On this latter view, Thoreau was well aware of the scientific advances of his day and employed scientific method in his own way. Indeed, some would endeavor to place him more firmly within the boundaries of science proper and have construed him as a hybrid figure in whom “scientist” figures prominently.

Some of Thoreau's nature study was indeed respectably scientific, characterized by scrupulous objective data-gathering guided, to varying degrees, by theory. His specimen collecting and classifying certainly qualified as “scientific, ” and as he matured, his projects became more ambitious and comprehensive.

-104-

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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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