Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview

5
Thoreau's
Personalized Facts

The problem of restoring integration and cooperation between man's beliefs about the world in which he lives and his beliefs about the values and purposes that should direct his conduct is the deepest problem of modern life. It is the problem of any philosophy that is not isolated from that life.

John Dewey [1929] 1984, p. 204

I have already intimated that Thoreau regarded epistemology as fundamentally a moral problem of situating objective knowledge within a humane context. The value one placed on kinds of knowledge and their respective placement in a hierarchy of significance were key issues that undergird all of the Romantics' reaction to science. Meaning, they insisted, must be sought outside of an objective knowledge of nature, that activity which we call science or natural history. Science in its origins embraced an epistemology whose ideal—the separation of the subject (the scientist) from his or her object of study—was itself potentially alienating. Science thereby stratified along a continuum between “objective” and “subjective” poles of experience. In the 1840s and 1850s, this fragmentation of knowledge was only in its infancy; a century later, the transformation of culture and forms of understanding it wrought were well evident. C. P. Snow named the widening schism between the worlds of the humanities and of science/ technology in The Two Cultures (1959). There he argued that the two different intellectual modalities echoed a broad cultural conflict, wherein the analytical, mechanical, and abstract qualities of science displaced the elements of the primary encounter characterized in terms of the personal, emotional, or aesthetic. When the poet communes with nature, the artist does so almost always in rejection of the scientific stance.

Contemporary culture has been riven by the schism between the Two Cultures, and their partition remains deeply problematic. But in his day, Thoreau could still believe in some grand synthesis, wherein science might “enchant” through the aesthetic dimension of the observer's experience. From his vantage, the scientific view might be extended to encompass beyond nature more elusive dimensions—the emotional, the subjective. Not

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