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.