Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

By Alfred I. Tauber | Go to book overview

Notes

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
1
Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) was a French phenomenologist whose moral philosophy has established him as a major Continental figure. In a radical critique of autonomy-based ethics (and perhaps more broadly in reaction to Martin Heidegger), Levinas argued that philosophy must address the individual's unavoidable responsibility for others. But his ethics takes on a much more global quality than simply a narrow construal of civic duty or moral attitude. It is a comprehensive ethic which would ground epistemology and metaphysics in this ethical encounter. Levinas's philosophy then may be fairly regarded as an ethical metaphysics, within which the self not only is defined in relation to the other but regards persons only in relation to our relationships with others. Levinas's major works have been translated, the most important being Totality and Infinity ([1961] 1969) and Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence ([1974] 1991). Excellent general reviews of his work include those of Edith Wyschogrod (1974) and Arthur Peperzak (1993); shorter comments in Cohen (1986) and in Bernasconi and Critchley (1991). This idea of an ethical metaphysics—how a moral philosophy offers a grounding to metaphysics and epistemology—permeates my own study of Thoreau. I regard the orienting force of Thoreau's moral character as shaping his distinctive vision of the Other—whether nature, history, or culture—so that his entire sense of identity and his relation to the world are joined parts of a deeply moral enterprise. Thus the most fundamental work of “knowing” is, for Thoreau, value-laden, an orientation profoundly instructive to our own time and perhaps key to his enduring popularity.

INTRODUCTION
1
For example, in 1841 Thoreau read Coleridge's Aids to Reflection (1829), which carefully explained the difference between Understanding and Reason,

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