Trane's Reviews > Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing by Alfred I. Tauber
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May 20, 08

bookshelves: literary-criticism-and-theory
Recommended to Trane by: dissertation reading
Recommended for: academics who study Thoreau
Read in May, 2008

In some ways Alfred Tauber's study of the relationship between Thoreau's epistemological take on nature and the "moral agency" of his "knowing" is a valuable book (primarily for Thoreau scholars), but on the whole I came away from it a bit disappointed. Tauber, who is Director of the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, seems like the ideal candidate to write a stunningly interesting book relating 19th-century scientific theory to Thoreau's highly observant and deeply philosophical writings about nature. In fact, the best parts of this book are to be found in Tauber's summaries of the work of those thinkers associated with the transition from Romantic scientism to positivist scientism: Goethe on the non-separation of viewing subject and viewed object; Coleridge on the aesthetic unity of nature; Helmholtz and the eradication of vitalism from biology; William Whewell's "antitheticals" and the attempt to reconcile the English "sensationalist" school with German idealism; not to mention appearances by Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Audobon, Darwin, and more.

While Tauber's explanation of the tensions between Romantic scientific modes of understanding and positivist epistemologies is revealing and suggestive, I found that ultimately it didn't add much to many of the standard positions on Thoreau's epistemological and moral stance that have already taken by other Thoreau scholars. It's already pretty clear that Thoreau is a transitional figure who is attempting to put empirically-derived techniques of intense observation in the service of a higher order of meaning (and consciousness) that is derived from Romantic systems of thought. In fact, it felt like there was a lot of setup in this book, but not very much payoff. With all of the scientific/philosophical firepower that Tauber mustered in his discussion of Thoreau I expected the arguments about his writing to be more concretely grounded, but instead there seemed to be more parallels and generalizations made than concrete and specific claims about what Thoreau's moral/epistemological stance might actually be. Toward the end of Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing, for example, Tauber has this to say about Thoreau:

"These two modes — the ontological and the moral — are intimately linked, so that knowledge is formed from each and thus inseparable. In short, to know the world is to know it morally, in the sense of assigning it value. Thoreau bound his world together through an endless dialectical process. His vision of nature — what he valued and what he saw — was framed by a particular attitude. In turn, the world informed and guided his own moral development and he matured and cultivated his ethical consciousness in response to what he experienced. Seeing consequently becomes a moral act. The prize was Reality."

I'm afraid this is too abstract for me (what, precisely, is 'Reality'?), and way too much of a generalization of Thoreau's complicated and contradictory epistemological, ethical, political, and philosophical set of attitudes for it to be very valuable as short-hand. This problem, of course, is not unique to Tauber among Thoreau scholars — Thoreau's attitude is notoriously slippery to make claims about because he plants landmines of negation and contradiction everywhere in his writing precisely to keep it from becoming generalizable in any ultimate way. To keep a part of things concrete and themselves while at the same time subsuming the specific to larger (momentary) patterns of thought is one of the techniques that is central to Thoreau's literary style, a style that I would argue is at the heart of his philosophical/moral project. In order to engage properly with Thoreau's thought the concrete material of his texts must be attended to at all times, and while Tauber may be a scholar of scientific thinking par excellance, I think this particular book doesn't follow Thoreau's writing close enough for it's claims to stick firmly.

I would definitely recommend this book as a text for those Thoreau scholars who want to engage with a series of interesting claims and an engaging account of a transitional moment in the history of scientific thinking, but don't expect to leave the room with a clear, exciting, and new vision of the actual content of Thoreau's "moral agency of knowing."
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