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He goes on to encourage persons to balance a cultivation of the mind, body and imagination, never attending to one and unduly neglecting the other. It is not so with the pleasures of sense.

Henry David Thoreau

What does one do with the imaginative vision, and why prefer some visions over others? What role has the will in relation to the imagination? The limitations and insights of the young Thoreau are instructive. First, Thoreau stands in the rather young at the time tradition of those building on and reformulating the pre-romantic and classical understanding of imagination as essentially passive, imitative or as merely a kind of mental mirror.

Thoreau does not provide a systematic theory of knowledge in the same sense as the theory animating this study. Still, beyond the Harvard essays, he did speak of imagination and was occasionally transparent as to how he understood its centrality. Thoreau asserts that one must be prepared for what they will see. Individuals see what they want to see, and they see it as they want to see it. Experience, desire, emotion, awareness of physical and historical context — all these things contribute to what humans perceive and how they interpret it. We know what we want to know, or at least seek knowledge in the particular context of self-interest.

Each of us follows his or her unique train. Thoreau writes in the Journal that:. Your observation, to be interesting, i. The sum of what the writer of what ever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science. The man of most science is the man most alive, whose life is the greatest event.

It matters not where or how far you travel, — the farther commonly the worse, — but how much alive you are. If it is possible to conceive of an event outside to humanity, it is not of the slightest significance, though it were the explosion of a planet. Thoreau is clear, as Emerson seldom was, about the location of meaning and value. It is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mythopoetic power of the human mind.

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. Building and dwelling at Walden Pond are just as important, and just as philosophical, as the writing of Walden itself. His trips to Maine and Cape Cod, excursions to nearby mountains and villages, his lectures and his assistance to runaway slaves and marginalized Irish immigrants were all as much a part of his philosophy as was the content of his works.

To live like a philosopher is to live, not foolishly, like other men, but wisely and according to universal laws. On the other, Thoreau is bringing to the fore another significant element of his understanding of imagination, which he shares with Emerson: a belief in the unity of all knowledge. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. As biographer Robert D.

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If nature was the same and if men were the same — two constants in a world of change — then the modern writer stood in relation to his world in just the same way Homer stood in relation to his, and modern achievements could indeed rival the ancients. The problem for Thoreau is that this particularity is viewed more as an obstacle in the realm of politics than it is in the world of poetry, literature and art.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of imagination for Thoreau. He was deeply concerned with how one sees and understands, and what that meant for how one lives. It also means that seeing and knowing are deeply moral activities. Imagination was a powerful and creative, but morally neutral, faculty of perception, learning and pleasure. Indeed, Thoreau was rather cavalier about the possibility of a disordered imagination. It is [a] sort of vomit in which the unclean love to wallow. That is, the concrete, historical reality as well as the moral and spiritual reality of the present.


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Thoreau would likely reject this criteria or simply emphasize the subjectivity of such a formulation. Yet this disposition is precisely why later environmentalists would benefit from revisiting his work. But the consequences of such a disposition manifest themselves in the misdiagnosis or oversimplification of environmental problems and solutions.

Neglecting the imagination opens the door to more ideological and misanthropic streams of environmentalism while also overlooking a critical tool for cultivating ecologically sensitive individuals and cultures. In Thoreau, then, environmentalism not only finds the resources for reform and self-understanding but also for self-critique. The criticism of Thoreau and his environmental heirs offered herein is meant to be primarily constructive.

An imagination of a poor quality will beget ineffective or irresponsible behavior in environmental politics or otherwise. But an admirable imagination offers much to the reform and endurance of all that environmentalism seeks to achieve. There is simply too much at stake in the realm of environmental politics to confront such complex ecological problems with an under-developed or immoral imagination. Lawrence Buell. Press, p. Claes G. Originally published in New York: Cambridge Univ. Henry David Thoreau.

Early Essays and Miscellanies. Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser, with Alexander C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ.

Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing

See M. New York: Oxford Univ.

This distinction between the pre-romantic and Romantic conceptions of imagination is indebted to Abrams It is to imagination that Thoreau turns again and again as the cognitive apparatus upon which he builds his history, his science, his poetry. Although Thoreau has been skillfully and thoroughly examined as a writer, naturalist, mystic, historian, social thinker, Transcendentalist, and lifelong student, we may find in Tauber's portrait of Thoreau the moralist a characterization that binds all these aspects of his career together.

Thoreau was caught at a critical turn in the history of science, between the ebb of Romanticism and the rising tide of positivism.

He responded to the challenges posed by the new ideal of objectivity not by rejecting the scientific world view, but by humanizing it for himself. Tauber portrays Thoreau as a man whose moral vision guided his life's work. Each of Thoreau's projects reflected a self-proclaimed 'metaphysical ethics', an articulated program of self-discovery and self-knowing.

By writing, by combining precision with poetry in his naturalist pursuits and simplicity with mystical fervor in his daily activity, Thoreau sought to live a life of virtue - one he would characterize as marked by deliberate choice. This unique vision of human agency and responsibility will still seem fresh and contemporary to readers at the start of the twenty-first century.

Flap copy "Tauber's book is encyclopedic--not only a revealing and comprehensive study of Thoreau but also a full vision of the Romantic Weltanschauung and its relevance to contemporary concerns in philosophy, science, and poetics. While this scope is wildly ambitious, Tauber admirably delivers, always informing his parts with the whole, consistently altering the whole with his parts.

Philosophy as Self-Knowledge | SpringerLink

It's one thing to praise Thoreau for his opposition to the Mexican War, his philosophy of passive resistance, and his fervent opposition to slavery. It's quite another to argue that his entire project--his whole sense of identity, self-formation, and his relation to nature--is part of a deeply moral enterprise Thoreau's modernity has been defined in many ways in recent years. Tauber adds another important and distinctive dimension to this discussion. Back cover copy "Tauber's book is encyclopedic--not only a revealing and comprehensive study of Thoreau but also a full vision of the Romantic Weltanschauung and its relevance to contemporary concerns in philosophy, science, and poetics.

It's quite another to argue that his entire project--his whole sense of identity, self-formation, and his relation to nature--is part of a deeply moral enterprise.


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Gifts of all Kinds. Stephen Gorman's stunning full-color photographs harmonize with selections from the classic writings of Henry David Thoreau, one of America's most original thinkers and a perennially inspiring nature writer.


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A century and a half ago Thoreau first entered the Maine woods and found freedom in a wild realm "far from mankind and election day!