Off Campus Ethics

Let me share some work on Thoreau that presently absorbs me.  I’m following up on my earlier question, Why we know — and don’t know — our classics.  I approach now from a slightly different angle.  I think that a modern university will want us to remember Thoreau by name.  But going deeper, finding what he has to say, becomes hard if not impossible on campus, for he has no academic home.  That’s not all his fault, and he’s in fine company.  So maybe it’s not a bad thing.  And with persistence, we even squirrel him in through the checkpoints.

**  **

Thoreau belongs to a broad tradition of moral philosophy that flourishes in the work of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Hegel and Carlyle, and earlier in the work of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Montaigne.  This broad tradition — moral philosophy on a grand scale – died out in America and Europe in the first decades of the 20th century.  It is now generally deemed impossibly general, disordered, and grandiose.  Academics today prize a level of specialization, expertise, and professionalization unknown before the last century, not only within philosophy and its sub-disciplines, but more generally throughout the humanities.

Writers of “grand moral philosophy” like Plato or Spinoza are often enough subject to piecemeal critique today.  But contemporary ethicists would not dream of thinking on the scale of these, or of  Montaigne, Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche.  The latter would not enjoy academic careers, nor would Emerson or Thoreau.  They would find university warrens divisive and stifling. They are paradigmatically writers without differentiating expertise.

It’s illuminating to reflect that in 1882 Josiah Royce, traveling from Grass Valley, California, joined the Harvard philosophy faculty because he impressed Charles Pierce and William James by dint of conversations, conducted by post.  They improvised on large matters of consciousness and truth.  He was not hired (as would be expected today) because he was expertly trained in a well-defined sub-field called “metaphysics,” “epistemology,” or “ethics,” but for a relatively indefinable yet recognizable talent, the capacity to think philosophically.

Here’s a slightly different case.  In 1937 Martin Buber immigrated to Palestine and was hired to teach in the sociology department at the relatively new Hebrew University.  Academically speaking, where did he belong?  Was he a philosopher, a scholar of German and Hebrew, a social theorist, a religious thinker, a psychologist?  He belonged everywhere, and therefore nowhere.  Despite having held a professorship in Germany in philosophy, when he arrived in Palestine there was no invitation from philosophy.  My hunch is that he seemed suspect.  He could not be a good philosopher precisely because, like Thoreau, his writing escaped any specialized niche or field of expertize.

Thoreau belongs to the now-moribund tradition of “grand moral theory.”  We on-campus consumers feed off it, but don’t cultivate it.  We don’t generously give back in kind.  It’s hard today even to think in its sweeping terms – a space where history, psychology, religion, natural philosophy, and world literature can inform a vast mural whose aim, shall we say, is immodest: to catch what it is to live, live well among others, against an incalculable background of contingencies and necessities rooted in earth, and poignantly aware of mortality and birth.  If we have no tolerance for trying to think in these terms, then Thoreau’s ethics – his wild ethics – is lost.

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4 comments on “Off Campus Ethics

  1. dmf says:

    not sure if the “grand” is the preferable scale, more and more I think of it in terms of something more improvisational akin to perspicuous presentations and aspect-dawning, making connections in the moment and perhaps for the moment, making one’s way in the world as opposed to trying to model worlds. If we can hit the gestalt switch to draw attention to aspects of the sweeping blooming buzzing environs in which we always already exist wouldn’t that be wild enough?

  2. Ishmael says:

    Is the problem that you’re describing, Professor Mooney, one of specialization and narrowness of focus merely? Or does it concern the unusal stress that higher education now places on the analytical, argumentative, and “scientific” modes of thinking vs. the more impressionistic, essayistic, and poetic modes? Or is it that specialization necessarily leads to the more “precise” modes of thinking vs. the more literary modes. I tend to think your problem concerns the “scientific” vs. literature distinction more than anything else – until, that is, you include in your list of admirable thinkers writers like Aristotle, Hegel, and Royce, who, regardless of what one might think of their analytic finese, did strive for logical rigor and systematic order and for a certain closure on their subject-matter; and they often combined these ambitions with only fair-to-middling (Royce) if not egregious (Aristotle and Hegel) writing. I hardly need to say that logical rigor and systematic order were not the strong suit of many of the other authors you mention – certainly not of Emerson and Thoreau. Is the problem narrowness vs. breadth, specialized scholarship vs. literature, or logic and system vs. imagination and open-ended “aspect-dawning” (as dmf nicely puts it)? Another issue that seems mixed in with these things seems to be: Who has title to the word “philosophy”? Or perhaps: Who are the REAL philosophers?

  3. Robert Ruehl says:

    I agree with you, Ed. It is an unusual position Thoreau is in within the academy. On one hand, he is celebrated as a classic American author; he is an author literary scholars recognize as important to teach. Yet, as you pointed out, he is much more than a literary figure. He gets boxed-in within colleges and universities. I like to think of Thoreau along the lines of Cornel West’s assessment of Emerson. Emerson and Thoreau were organic intellectuals in the Transcendentalist movement. With their intellectual outlook and religious sensibilities, they brought together individual and communal concerns, religious and political, scientific and literary, and educational and esthetic concerns. They were all interconnected and interdependent. They functioned from a worldview so different from our compartmentalized thinking. They saw organic wholes, and their view of correspondence allowed them to learn from nature and art in ways that seem alien to us today. We are a microcosm in a macrocosmic universe. For example, Thoreau constantly wrote about science, history, and math in different ways throughout A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. These disciplines weren’t meant to be objective, but they were meant to transform the individual in a way that transformed the person’s life and the lives of others. For Thoreau, science, math, and history were an objective-subjective enterprise that led beyond the facts to a deeper appreciation of life and nature. They were all done for the very subjective reality of the here and now. This is why his “wildness” is so important: It allows us to break free of disciplinary constraints. It allows us to engage different ways of thinking, seeing, and dreaming that guide us into an infinite realm of possibilities and becomings. Yet today’s educational framework seems to be about processing – manufacturing – students to become worker bees who compartmentalize their thinking and cannot see the connections between different disciplines. Thoreau’s life was presents him as a religious writer, a naturalist, a historian, a lecturer, a highly accurate land surveyor, a teacher, a pencil maker, and an activist. From his position as an organic intellectual within the Transcendentalist movement, which was a religious movement, Thoreau was able to articulate his religious vision in science, history, etc. He was highly original and creative in a way that aimed to qualitatively change his life and the lives of others. Such an approach seems impossible in academia today – or at least devalued. As with Kierkegaard, Thoreau gave us an approach that would allow us to secure truths that were subjectively true – radically life-changing. He asked a question in A Week that I don’t think can even be captured or asked in most academic circles. He asked, Who can hear the fish cry? His senses and intellect were geared to many different strata of life and angles of truth, and academia generally can’t or won’t allow such wide angles in a highly compartmentalized world. How many of us engage in scholarship that can take the tears of fish seriously?

    • efmooney says:

      Rob, Thanks! Did you remember that Basho, too, has “fish cry”, which belongs side by side with Virgil having “stones weep” at the memory of war. We indeed live in a time that cuts the world into smaller and smaller bits, each a domain unto itself, so fish are for a sub-class of biologists, who would throw out the beauty of a fish, or its mysterious watery abodes, and certainly dismiss a fish crying, or our hearing the cry. Yet — sometimes when I see salmon struggling to leap up ‘ladders’ (and tumble back in defeat) I feel I can almost hear a sigh of raw near-despair — (“Crap, got to try it again!”)

      I’m glad you mentioned that even math in Thoreau’s day could be a way to connect in the here and now with a better way of life. Kepler (that great scientist) heard music in the spheres. And, on a related front, that’s a very nice way you offer to render “subjective truth” — “truth that can transform my life.” Thoreau is wild in so MANY ways.

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