Thoreau’s Body of Knowledge

by Liam Heneghan

Henry_David_ThoreauWalking is a foundational practice, amounting in natural history to methodology. Charles Darwin in his Journal and remarks 1832–1836 more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) used the verb “walk”, or variants thereof, almost twice as frequently as the verb “sail” (walk, 94; sail 50). Darwin’s was more a journey on foot than a voyage by ocean. In fact “walking” is more prevalent in Darwin’s Voyages than it is in Walden, written by Thoreau that most legendary walker. Thoreau, however, has more to say about walking qua walking than Darwin. In his essay Walking (1862) Thoreau proclaimed that “I cannot preserve health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Thoreau’s walking is not, of course, mere exercise, nor is the essay Walking an instructional treatise though it does tell us something of the where (”the West”) and the how (“…shake off the village…”) of walking. The chiefest value of walking is that it carries the walker “to as strange a country as [he] ever expected to see.” Walking surprises us! Though half our walking time is taken up with the return to “the old hearth-side from which we set out”, nonetheless, the true spirit of walking consists of “the spirit of undying adventure”, from which we might never return.

For all of his talk of permanent leave-taking there is Thoreau claimed, a “harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape and a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life.” Thus there exists for Thoreau a non-trivial relationship between walking, our personal finitude, and finding our place in this world.

Thoreau makes the connection between walking and epistemology more transparent in his discussion of what he described as “beautiful knowledge”, a type of knowledge “useful in a higher sense”. A scholar, Thoreau ruminated, can toil for a lifetime accumulating “Useful Knowledge” like a cow in a barn who has fed on hay all the year round and not left out to green pastures. Such a scholar suffers from “ignorance [of] our negative knowledge.” She knows what she knows and yet “[W]hat is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance.” Of such ignorance Thoreau claimed that a “man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful but beautiful — while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse that useless, besides being ugly.” For Thoreau whose desire is “to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant”, what he wants is not “Knowledge” but “Sympathy with Intelligence.”

The idea that walking, sauntering as Thoreau dubs it, leads to Sympathy with Intelligence, a cryptic phrase to be sure, but by which he means “a novel and grand surprise in a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before…”, is a radical claim. Thoreau's grand surprise brings to mind the “Augenblick”, the “glance of the eye,” that William McNeill noted as important in Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle (The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle and the Ends of Theory, SUNY 1999). The significance to Heidegger, and to Thoreau perhaps, is the distinction between theoretical knowledge and the moment of ecstatic experience which is foundational for ethical knowledge. In Thoreau’s discussion of “beautiful knowledge” Max Oelschlaeger, the environmental philosopher, hears a pre-register of the phenomenological methods of Edmund Husserl. In The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, Yale University Press (1993), Oelschlaeger wrote “And with brilliant insight Walking proposes what is in effect a bracketing of both scientific and philosophical method — an epoche as relentless, if not as incisive, as that of twentieth century phenomenology” (p166).

None of this is to suggest that Thoreau eschewed traditional scientific knowledge or theorizing. He made meticulous observations, measured obsessively, and enunciated generalities. For instance observations on squirrels caching pignuts [hickory] lead him to the conclusion that “[t]his is the way, then, that forests are planted.” (Journal 24 Sept 1857). True, the term “theory” is seldom used by him, and the proximity of his use of the term to concrete, and often surprising facts, is close. Thoreau is, for instance, credited with coining the term “succession’ to describe the somewhat predictable changes that occur in vegetation over time, which provided a conceptual framework for much of 20th Century ecology. His theory of succession emerged from these observations on squirrels and from other meticulously details reported in his journals.

Thus, though I am not arguing that Thoreau was skeptical of scientific knowledge in general, he was nonetheless skeptical of facts, and of the pose of objectivity, for their own sakes. The naturalist must be above all be an attentive and attuned observer. In his journal on May 6 1854 he wrote: “There is no such thing as objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant must be subjective.” He goes on to contend: “The man of most science is the man most alive, whose life is the greatest event.” And later in that same entry he wrote: “I cannot help suspecting that the life of these learned professors has been almost as inhuman and wooden as a rain-gauge or self-registering magnetic machine. They communicate no fact which rises to the temperature of blood heat.” He concluded that day’s entry as follows: “Dandelions, perhaps the first, yesterday…. I am surprised that the sight of it did not affect me more, but I look at is as unmoved as if but a day had elapsed since I saw it in the fall.” The mood of the scientist, or the poet, or the philosopher is all. In turn, the choice of material for reflection affects the perceiver.

Thoreau is the philosopher of attentiveness and experience rather than of systematic and theoretical reflection. The list of philosophers to whom he has not been compared appears short indeed, though there has been reluctance to welcome Thoreau into the philosophical fold. After all, it was Thoreau who quipped: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” (Chapter 1, Walden). Perhaps most interestingly Stanley Cavell has argued in The Senses of Walden (University Of Chicago Press,1992) that Thoreau completed Kant’s critical project: Walden, in effect, provides a transcendental deduction for the concepts of the thing-in-itself and for determination — something Kant ought, so to speak, have done.”

Thoreau, Darwin, von Humboldt, Muir and all the other great naturalist-walkers ambled off, for the most part, to wilder regions. Thoreau, who to some extent remains most closely associated with a town — being almost synonymous with Concord — has the most scornful things to say about urban life. “Hope and the future for me,” he wrote in Walking, “are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” In contemplating the prospect of walking on the asphalted pavements of English towns he wrote: “I should die from mere nervousness at the thought of such confinement. I should hesitate before I were born, if those terms could be made known to me beforehand.” When contemplating the direction of his walks he emphatically walks in the direction of the forest where there are “no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me.” (Walking).
Not all contemplatives have avoided the city, of course. Philosophy, especially since the time of the Greeks is arguably a product of urban locations. This is a central claim of Jean-Pierre Vernant, the French historian and anthropologist. In The Origin of Greek Thought (1962, trans Cornell University Press, 1984) he contended that “The advent of the polis constitutes a decisive event in the history of Greek thought.” Elsewhere Vernant is even more explicit: “The advent of the polis, the birth of philosophy — the two sequences are so closely linked that the origin of rational thought must be seen as bound up with the social and mental structures peculiar to the Greek city.” (130). So if we are to argue that Thoreau is a philosopher of sorts — which sort being, of course, undecided — his thought too would be a product of the very polis that he disdains.

Be that as it may, there is nonetheless, a general recognition of affiliation between the city and philosophy. Philosophical walking in the city is a familiar gesture from the time of the Greeks. The Phaedrus, for example, is exceptional among the Socratic dialogues precisely in not being conducted within the city walls. In that dialogue Socrates expressed appreciation of nature. As Phaedrus and Socrates settled under a plane-tree Socrates cooed: “How delightful is the breeze: so very sweet; and there is a sound in the air shrill and summerlike which makes answer to the chorus of the cicadae. But the greatest charm of all is the grass, like a pillow gently sloping to the head.” Yet Phaedrus retorted: “Socrates: when you are in the country, as you say, you really are like some stranger who is led about by a guide… I rather think that you never venture even outside the gates.”

The tradition of peripatetic philosophers continued through Aristotle’s peregrinations about the Lyceum to such latter day walkers as Walter Benjamin whose Arcades Project (New York: Belknap Press, 2002) written mainly in the 1930s popularized the figure of the flâneur, the literary urban stroller. In this tradition also is the work of Michel deCerteau. Like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, deCerteau’s important essay Walking in the City in the volume The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1984) has important things to say to environmentalists, but they are not themselves explicitly environmental works.

So we find ourselves in the situation where philosophy, a product of the polis, gave birth to environmental thought which concerned itself, almost exclusively, with the world outside the city gates. At the birth of contemporary environmental thought the threshold between the philosophy and science was thin — which is why both ecologists and philosopher, when they are in the mood to do so, claim Thoreau as one of their own. Now, however, that the city, almost for the first time, has become the subject of enquiry for scientific ecology, it seems as if this proceeds without a filial relationship with philosophy. What should the foundations of a urban environmental philosophy look like?


In the very paragraphs I have left I want to bolster the claim that urban ecology is without a firm philosophical underpinning, and suggest how something like a Thoreauvian spirit, applied in a metropolitan direction, could be helpful.

Urban ecology is now a systematic sub-discipline within ecology, perhaps the newest. That which is “ontically nearest and familiar” to borrow from Heidegger is ecologically the farthest — it is as if ecologists were tripping over the cities in which the lived for almost a century without noticing that they were there! A emerging critical distinction in urban ecology is between “ecology of the city” versus “ecology in the city.” The distinction is regarded as a significant conceptual leap forward. It places uni-disciplinary, small scale ecological studies on one side, and multidisciplinary, multiscalar studies, especially those that examine the human and non-human aspects of nature simultaneously, on the other.
For instance, a study of the physical environment, the soil, or the biota of a city or a neighborhood would be considered “ecology in the city.” These studies can be aggregated to allow for generalities to emerge. Cities tend, for instance, to have their own distinctive climatic situations. Rain is more frequently in cities than in the hinterlands. Animal behavior in the urban settings in idiosyncratic. City temperatures tend to increase as the human population grows, up to a certain limit at least. These climatic differences have, in turn, implications for vegetation growing in the city. All the above representative insights emerge from within the “ecology in the city” paradigm.

“Ecology of the city” takes an explicitly systems view of things. By system here is meant a set of entities that interact to make a connected whole. In what manner do the elements of the city the human and non-human aspects of nature interact to contribute to an emergent whole city? A study of this form might be to ask what pollutants or carbon are taken up (sequestered being the $100 term preferred by ecologists) by all the trees in Chicago (that total is considerably larger than $100, to be sure!). The resource accounting tool of “ecological footprinting”, developed by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, provides another example.
Another feature of the this approach is that it calls for integration of social science approaches with more traditional approaches to ecology, and they illustrate what this looks like with a series of increasingly sophisticated conceptual models revealing the interaction of physical, ecological, and social variables. Without insight into the integration of the human and the ecological perspectives at local and global scales urban ecology will be less effective in guiding public policy and management.

Although neither approach, I think, is a preferred approach, disciplinary leaders, nonetheless, seem to have a preference for ecology of the city studies preferring more abstract form of systems studies. Much effort is expended in trying to integrate the social and natural sciences in attempts to answer questions about so-called social-ecological systems — out cities, our agroecosystems and so on.

For the most part I agree with this emerging disciplinary consensus. We need those multidisciplinary, multiscalar, aggregative, holistic, inter-urban studies to really understand the sorts of ambiguous, hybrid, cyborgian affairs that have relatively recently created and in which now we dwell. We have, after all, become an urban species and wanting to know the ecological patterns and processes associated with these novel entities is understandable.

All of this being said, I have a suspicion that a full-throttled commitment to the discipline's (maginally) favored approach — ecology of cities — will result in losses of certain types of knowledge: the knowledge that manifests when a human body meanders through an ecosystem that it is enraptured by. An old-fashioned encounter with beings, coming in touch with what we might call brute reality, must count for something. This, of course, is the very essence of a Thoreauvian approach to ecology.


Let me conclude with this short anecdote. One of my first jobs as a young zoologist was to catalog the reprint collection of the Irish dipterist, Dr Declan Murray. In the collection was a paper that reported a rather unusual incident. A Finnish entomologist was in the field, north of the Arctic Circle, collecting chironomid midges. In the subzero temperatures the flies were inactive, and the biologist was in danger of getting hypothermia. He took out his hip flask and had a nip of a fortifying drink. He began, he reported, to sing an old Finnish folk tune. As he did so, he noticed that the flies began to swarm. When he stopped humming the flies went to ground. Again he sang, and again the flies arose in response. What he had stumbled upon in those frozen conditions, by virtue of his hypothermia avoidance technique, was that to conserve energy the male flies only swarmed when the female fly was nearby. His humming reached notes that replicated the wings of the female fly. The dipterist hummed and the world hummed back. There are some forms of ecology that are only learned with our bodies, whether it be our bodies traversing New England forests, or clambering up Douglas Spruces in the Sierras, or humming to flies in the high Arctic, of walking the pavement of cold Midwestern cities in search of the confluence of waterways.

I read an earlier version of this essay at the Philosophy of the City conference in Brooklyn College in December 2013. Thanks to the organizers of the conference, Shane Epting and Michael Menser, for organizing this wonderful event.

Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.

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