Nature Walks


There’s no lack of news about Thoreau this year. The New York Times tells us of the forgotten outcasts, Blacks and Irish, who were his shanty neighbors at Walden.[1] A block-buster biography by Laura Dassow Walls gets lengthy reviews.[2] The July 200th Anniversary Gathering in Concord is a grand success. But Thoreau’s an odd fellow in academia. We hardly know where to tether him: Literature?  Philosophy?  American Studies? No one belittles a nice walk in nature, yet on campus, there’s hang-wringing about how, academically, to fall into step with Thoreau’s poetic walks. Inside colleges and universities, nature writing is suspect. There’s a reason for this suspicion, and to me, it reflects badly on academia. Thoreau is out to enhance our experience, to vivify and expand it, but professors and administrators place knowledge-acquisition and analytical prowess far above openness to new experiential vistas.


My field is philosophy. As philosophers we step back to take the wide and deep view of things. Or we burrow into a detail to analyze its inner mechanics.  But stepping back or taking apart for precise analysis isn’t always a good thing.  These very actions – stepping back, taking apart – decisively alter the “material” that originally caught our attention. These actions are partially destructive.

If we step back to examine the environment, nature, or creation, we destroy immersive contact. If we step back from the edge of the pool rather than dive in, we’ll miss a crucial aspect of its width, depth, temperature, and “feel.”  These are aspects we can only get through immersion. We get contact through diving in, swimming the pool’s width and depth. That immersion gives an experience denied to those who keep dry. If we erect a large doctor’s-office-style poster on the wall depicting the shape and detail of some item of nature or creation, we forego diving into the original “stuff” – or letting it dive into us. In our informal walks, we can let nature or creation overcome us, sweep us away, enter our being.

Professional philosophy is not written to sweep us away by a glorious evening sunset — or to acknowledge our being swept away. As it’s now understood, the professional stance guarantees we’ll miss the wonder of that part of nature that right now accosts or overwhelms us. Of course, from time to time we can alter our professional sensibility and writing to leave wonder alive. We don’t need to shy from words stirring us the way Annie Dillard or Coleridge can. And we don’t need to shy from calling these deep stirrings legitimate philosophical stirrings.

Professional writing that relays a sense of “immersive contact” is not a replacement for detached analysis. It’s a supplement that has a rather different goal. Take the case of philosophers making arguments for environmental concerns. The “backward step” of analysis, when sustained, occludes, wipes out, crucial aspects of whatever part of the environment — or nature – is before us. We lose what Thoreau (and others) give us:  the raw or gentle feel of things; their imaginative resonances. Focusing on immersive contact is a healthy reminder of the way many of us are attuned to nature when not writing about it professionally.  And it reminds us of the value of what we study or observe. Observation should be in the interest of things that matter. And one way we’re convinced that something matters is that it accosts us, overwhelms us, gently awakens us.


Religious, biblical writers sometimes take the backward step. From the second or third balcony they report God’s creation over seven days. We’re interested onlookers, impressed but detached, listening to regal declarations: “Let there be light!” “Let there be . . . .“ But as often religious writers immerse us, fill us with silencing awe. They can effect gentle immersions. We inwardly sing, “I lay me down by still waters.”  Or we can be swept away by more tumultuous and grandiose events. We are plunged into a Whirlwind as it’s sung toward the end of The Book of Job in what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in all literature.

Moby Dick casts us into a rough and unsettling creation, a secular-sacred immersion in turbulent waters. And the tale can turn on a dime toward serenity. Rather than attack, the crew of the ill-fated Pequod becomes immobilized, in awe:

For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers . . . . [The new-born were] as human infants [who] while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence.[3]

In nature we are embraced by both birth and death, coming into being and annihilation, and on a scale that can reach from gentleness to the catastrophic. But if you’re a professional philosopher, you can’t write of creation or nature immersively as Melville does, or sing as the Whirlwind does — until after you get tenure, and perhaps even then, only intermittently.

Henry Bugbee, a friend, author, and professor, composed by Western Montana’s streams and still waters. His philosophical writings could sweep us up in whirlwinds, lead us on forest walks, or take us on fishing adventures. His little book, The Inward Morning, was written from the Harvard Philosophy Department as they bid him good bye.[4] He was hired as an Assistant Professor to write about aesthetics, but he disliked argumentative essays and preferred to immerse himself and his readers in nature’s taste, its powers of annihilation and renewal. His title comes from a Thoreau poem.

David O’Hara teaches in South Dakota. He leads extended field trips where his students will be immersed in equatorial jungles and Alaska tundra. His informal writing pulls us into immersive contacts with nature’s particulars.[5] Of course, he can also take a backward step to write up the ecology and economics of the terrain. However, for him, and for Henry Bugbee, philosophy isn’t only theory, analysis, or knowledge.  It also models wise practice. And it’s the evocation of experiential worlds, whether they be uplifting or terrifying.[6]


Genesis gives us a succinct, declarative overview of nature or creation. Job’s Whirlwind gives us synesthetic, existential immersion in creation’s particulars. Sight is merged with smell, touch, terror, and wind. We are immersed in the feel or tang of these. Even sight, which off-hand seems detached, can have an immersive feel — say as we look down a thousand feet over the edge of a cliff.

Distance and detachment make it hard for straight-laced philosophers to rehabilitate the notion of creation, or to amend or expand pinched notions of the environment or of a re-enchanted nature. If we’re professionally straight-laced we take our domain to be objective assessment, impersonal argument, and lawyer-like policy recommendations. If we like the poetry, drama, and music of walks — the sweet blossoms and smiles that give us the feel of creation — that’s fine for off-campus. But strictly speaking, none of that is philosophy’s business.

I’d loosen the corsets and stays, let a philosopher’s body relax into wider domains, into the feel and bloom of things. I’d plea for a poetic wisdom that revels and recoils as the touch, smell, and color of creation or nature intrudes. Now and then we can refuse the backward step and convey in our writing the sense that creation touches and invades us — leaves us its colors, excitements, lilts, and tangs.

Environmental philosophy holds nature and environment at bay. It steps back for research, analysis, or policy evaluation. But the pre-analytical experiential supplement is often the impetus that gets us to think.  Neglecting that trigger means getting only an incomplete sense of nature or environment. We fear global warming because we’re exposed to evocative depictions of a warmer, eviscerated world. It’s laudatory to present the dynamics of preservation or sustainability rigorously. It’s also essential to know, beyond utilitarian considerations, what should be preserved. We need a taste of nature or creation as an ever-unfolding set of invitations to immersion in places we cherish. We need exposure to the delicate, awesome or sublime – even the numinous, sacred, or holy. Good writing can provide it, as well as first-hand experiential immersion.

Among many good nature writers, I’d invite Thoreau and Annie Dillard, Henry Bugbee and Bruce Wilshire to environmental philosophy. They wed analysis and evocation, immersive contact and wise observation.[7]  They (and their kin) can be more than suspect transients in the halls of academic philosophy. The canon can radically change. Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer are no longer unwelcome interlopers. It has expanded in the last fifty years and can expand further.

Stanley Cavell has dramatically expanded the canon. Over the last fifty years, he has taught us, more than anyone, to loosen the borders between traditional philosophy and music, film, theater, literature, and opera. Allowing an experiential immersion in flows of art and literature is essential to his philosophical essays. He draws us into visceral exposure to the themes that capture his interest. Back in 1972, he was the first Anglophone philosopher to write a full book on Walden.[8] Nearly fifty years after this breakthrough, he tells us, poignantly,

That philosophers who have grudgingly come to accept the pertinence of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche persist in turning deaf ears to Thoreau strikes me . . . as soul-boggling and heartbreaking.[9]

Thoreau shifts effortlessly between stepping back for objective reporting – and then letting creation step forward toward him. He gets immersed in the touch of simple blooms or mountain mists that evoke the numinous, sacred or holy.


For Thoreau, creation gives a touch of the holy, and that touch is as much Vedic as it is Hebraic or Christian. He celebrates the touch of the holy while dismissing any religious fundamentalism or affiliation. He has no position whatsoever about how nature – overall — was created, if it was. And he has no position on the purpose or purposes of nature or creation. He finds sufficient immediate encounters with the sublime or divine. Arguments or analysis are distracting and beside the point. We see, taste, or dance with the holy or entrancing directly, immediately, or have no access to them.

Nature beckons us to know her better, she feeds science. She also offers resources: lumber for houses, fish for dinner.  We study apple trees for science, pick their fruit for sustenance, and commodify them for financial gain. Nature also performs. She gives us wonder, terror, and simple beauty. Environmental research is valuable, and some exploitation for resources is inevitable. It’s also valuable to absorb and dwell in the lilt and dance of the world. We study the chemistry of a good tomato without diminishing its savory taste.

To savor or be awe-struck at nature’s performances can morph toward the sense that ours is a holy place. In poetic elaborations, we feel wonder drift toward holiness. Perceptions of God, the divine, or holiness may be the cognitive and historical basis of traditional articles of biblical faith or of the narrative evocations the holy that the world’s religions provide. But for Thoreau, there is no need to move toward formal articles of faith. For him, the weight of perceptions is primary and commitments to narratives, beliefs, or liturgies is superfluous. In his writing, Thoreau is happy to induce religious perceptions and leave it at that.

Heaven or the holy is in the here and now. Thoreau preaches, in his words, “The Gospel of the Present Moment.” When the world isn’t frozen or drab but alive and sparkling, Thoreau is struck by the holy or sublime at particular sites: it animates mind and body, social others and particular things in their natural surrounds. The wondrous or holy hovers over or flows through mind-body or body-soul relations – think of contemplative walks. The holy or wondrous flows through kinship, friendship, and other social relations – think of walking arm in arm.  It flows through and hovers over relations to particular things of the world – think of being stopped by a sunrise or a path-side bloom.  And the holy hovers over and flows through the placement of friends, blooms, souls, and bodies in an embracing place, landscape, or surround—think of a vista holding distant village figures, flowers close by, and clouds above.

Psyche, soma, social others, particular things, natural surrounds can appear both individually and in ensembles as instances of the wondrous or holy. A refined mind can be the site of wonderful spirit. Thoreau tells us his body is his temple.[10] We might see the wondrous or divine in Thoreau’s embrace of the woodchopper as they read the Iliad.[11] We might see it in a flight of geese, or in the infinite vista that holds geese, friends and refined minds and bodies together within a gentle shimmer.

A wondrous presence can be rendered in either secular or religious terms. Someone comfortable with religious renderings of experience will see and attest to a holy presence whereas someone uncomfortable with these renderings will see and attest to a wondrous presence, period. A wondrous presence can shuttle between renderings in secular terms and renderings in religious terms. For those who do not deny a priori that there are religious experiences but only doubt they have them, the wondrous can be an entry spot to the holy, allowing reflective access to the great religious literatures of the world. The wondrous augments the vibrancy of daily life and also reverberates with Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, with Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

Repeatedly, Thoreau transitions from simple wonder to a holiness or divinity that has scriptural resonance. In Walden he alludes the “Maker” whose visage he sees it its waters. And he claims a role for Vedic “Intelligences” — packets of divinity streaming toward us bringing moments of illumination and ecstasy.[12]  My experience of rocks, birds, or trees — of musicians, parklands, night skies, and seas — is amplified by bridges to the hallowed or holy. These bridges are imaginative elaborations, poetically and religiously improvised. Like the biblical Whirlwind, Thoreau gives us an indissolvable mix of the wondrous, holiness, and divinity. “We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish.”[13]

In A Week on the Concord, Thoreau puts it succinctly:

The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible. May we not see God?[14]

The Whirlwind resonates, sounds out, holiness.  He find the sacred in Melville’s seas. In Walden, the holy flows from the pond’s “Maker,” and also from Vedic divinities — Intelligences dispersed through creation. Creation just is dispersion of divinity.


In a passage from The Senses of Walden that is nothing if not provocative, Stanley Cavell writes,

Human forms of feeling, objects of human attraction, our reactions constituted in art, are as universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics. This is the writer’s faith . . [15]

What have poets to do with philosophers or physics? What do poets and philosophers have to do with the sort of enchanting personal narratives that we find in Walden, or A Week on the Concord?  Cavell hopes for a three-fold accomplishment here, a way of writing and seeing that is at once philosophical, poetic, and autobiographical, and that reveals necessary structures of reality. His assertion that natural things speak without metaphor is as “universal and necessary, as revelatory of the world, as the forms of the laws of physics.” At least that is the poet’s faith. And how can we deny that breezes whisper (that’s not metaphorical), or that thunder crashes, or that rocks give silent testimony?

Words can be filler or chatter, or the can be more useful as reports and analyses that help to negotiate a utilitarian world. They may function as administrative or legal protocols.  Poetry is neither chatter nor information, neither practical advice nor a set of rules. We can think of poets as taking words from these hardened contexts to effect fresh, lively ways of seeing and feeling. Loosening up the routinization and practicality of words allows our talk of to come alive. Poets make sea and sky and resentment spin free of “same-ole-same-ole” rigid mortifications. Restoring new life to words and the space they animate occurs as the poet rolls out a new world, or the old world seen in new ways.

There are routine perceptions of Concord River. It’s a place on a map or it’s the river over there.  Thoreau breaks up routine perceptions. He amplifies the life of “Concord” by extending the name backward in time.  “Concord River,” we learn, is a replacement for the natives’ name, “Musketaquid.”[16] This gives “Concord River” lively historical depth, and referring to it by its ancient name gives it a poetic sheen. He lets the sands and dunes of Cape Cod drift back toward a more poetic history.  He calls the Cape an arm of New France.[17] Name-shifts poetically stretch our sense of time and place toward the endless vitality of creation.

These transfigurations are relayed in first-person narration. Thoreau verges on autobiography and secular confession, falling in with a canon that features Montaigne’s Essays, Rousseau’s Reveries, and Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of my Work as an Author.  Acknowledging this alternative canon sets aside the presumption that reason must quarrel with poetry, the personal, or the spiritual.

Cavell’s brilliant and difficult The Senses of Walden places Thoreau as a first-rate philosopher in a canon where reason is not at odds with a religious and poetic sensibility. Kant is an icon in the tradition of pursuing reason. Cavell makes Thoreau more Kantian than we would have thought, and stretches a Kantian perspective to include more than we would have thought possible: it can include a poetic-religious sensibility.

Thoreau characterizes the world as “answering to our conceptions,” an uncontroversial Kantian point.[18]  Cavell suggests that Thoreau intimates a Kantian “transcendental deduction” of the “thing-in-itself.”[19] This is a surprise. He suggests that Thoreau’s flux of vivid perceptions lays the groundwork for a “deduction,” or justification, of “the thing in itself” that Kant “didn’t provide, but “should have.”[20]

Kant’s “thing-in-itself,” generously interpreted, can clarify Thoreau’s wedding of objective research to immersion in alluring presences. The thing-in-itself, as Cavell-Thoreau would have it, is that elusive presence that holds in thrall the multiple perspectives we have on things. We know that the apple-in-itself is more than its color, taste, weight, and the side we can’t see. It is something deeper than all apple-attributes. It lies beneath them or within them as that “inexpressible something” that insures that a multitude of differing perspectives will be perspectives on something, on the same thing.

Thoreau’s objective descriptions of an “ice apple,” one that survives fall frosts and thaws in January, is supplemented by Thoreau’s poetic evocation of its exquisite fermented taste.[21] The “apple-in-itself” bundles multiple aspects underwriting that they are aspects of one thing,. This is the “thing-in-itself. The “deduction” of the thing-in-itself is a showing that no one aspect of the apple is the “apple-in-itself” yet all aspects need to be aspects of something unsayable that is deeper or other than any one of its aspects or features, or any collection of them.


Here’s another surprise from Cavell:

our images . . . of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, . . .  of freezing and melting and moulting, of birds and squirrels and snakes and frogs, of houses and bodies of water and words, . . . are as a priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[22]

Images of birds and moulting, of water and dawn, give us the vital presence of things in the world. To say that they’re a priori is to say that they’re available as images of presences before the poet works them up in an expressed revelation of reality.

Only because prior images gather to prepare our reception of Thoreau’s poetic witness are we convinced — if we are — of the sublimity, of the revelation, delivered in the image of distant hills reflected on the surface of the pond. The hills shimmering on water make it seem, as Thoreau puts it, “that the heavens and the earth had met.”[23] Then there’s a culminating reverie from Walden.

Thoreau kneels by the edge of the pond, almost in prayer. He finds his own face reflected up from still waters, and finds next to his face the pond’s Maker’s, also reflected. It’s as if Thoreau, the Pond, and its Maker were in communion, in intimate dialogue:

Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, . . .  He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you? [24]

We’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy and Thoreau’s joy.

God, a joyful Maker, can “excite in us a pure morning joy.”[25] We become who we are through everyday smiles of joyful affirmation between friends, between mother and child, between pilgrim, creator, and pond.

She rounded this water with her hand, deepened and clarified it in her thought, and in her will bequeathed it to Concord.[26]

This moment – wondrous and holy – passes by all bare-bones scientific observation. Thoreau is immersed in the pond’s reflections and its watery mirror. He calls on the resources of poetic imagination, more or less a priori.

our images of dawn and day and night, of lower and higher, of freezing and melting and moulting, are as a priori [ that is, as dependent on a priori rules and images] as our other forms of knowledge of the world.[27]

The reflected allure of distant hills, or of a face on the waters, bursts in on us, self-evident in its glory, just awaiting its recollection, right now. It’s not a registration of factual data. It’s as if we were discovering something that had been sleeping deep in the soul, and is now suddenly brought to full life. The wonderful constellation of watery reflections of my face, the face of a Maker, hills beyond, and perhaps fish below, seems to speak from eternity, and to carry the eternity of a just-now-perceived timeless poetic necessity and impact.

Thoreau sees a “Maker” at the pond and discovers gods in the fields and forests. He steals from the Bhagavad-Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences,” packets of illumination throwing light on the world.[28]  He hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family.[29] He sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise.[30] He hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies.[31] He preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment.[32] He finds God in the moment, speaking through all things, one by one and collectively.[33]


If Thoreau has a creed it is this: to acknowledge “the actual glory of the universe; the only fact which a human being cannot avoid recognizing, or in some way forget or dispense with.”[34] An experience of full life is ultimately a full experience of the divine, of creation. This is not brand name religion. It’s not found in cathedrals or synagogues, in mosques, temples or shrines. He’s one of a kind — as it should be.

Here is Thoreau in a familiar mood:

There is nothing so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields.  I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related.  It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging though invisible companion, and walked with him.  There at last my nerves are steadied, my senses and my mind do their office. . . I love and celebrate nature.[35]

We needn’t say that all environmental philosophy should be so poetic or allusive as this; only that the draw of the fanciful, the pull of the sublime, the allure of creation, should have a place at the table – perhaps not a privileged place, but a place nonetheless.

My own sometimes technical and sometimes exploring philosophy – whether presenting Kierkegaard on the tang of life, or Nietzsche’s dancing Gods, or Thoreau’s dreaming frogs — would be impossible without letting a muse sing.[36]

Homer beseeches, “Sing in me muse, of that man of twists and turns.”[37] We might remember, as we write of environment, nature, or creation, to ask, even in a whisper, for assistance: “Sing in me muse, of this world of many textures, presences, alluring wonders, even holiness. Sing in me muse of nature and creation.”



[1] Clancy Martin and John Kaag, NY Times, “The Stone,” July 11, 2017.

[2] Laura Dassow Wells, Henry David Thoreau, A Life (Chicago) 2017; Robert M. Thorson, The Boatman: Thoreau’s River Years (Harvard) 2017; Richard Higgins and Robert D. Richardson, Thoreau and the Language of Trees (California) 2017, rev. TLS July 4, 2017.

[3] Melville, Moby-Dick, Ch. 87, “The Grand Armada.”

[4] Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning: Philosophical Explorations in Journal Form, Georgia, 1999.

[5] See David O’Hara, Downstream, Cascade Books, 2014.

[6] Paradoxically, even a pessimist like Schopenhauer edifies his melancholy.

[7] Cf. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Harper, 2007; Bruce Wilshire, Wild Hunger, Roman & Littlefield, 1999.

[8] The Senses of Walden, Viking, 1972.

[9] Quoted in Furtak, et. al., Thoreau’s Importance for Philosophy, Fordham, 2012, 235.

[10] Walden, “Higher Laws.”

[11] Walden, “Visitors.”

[12] See “Sympathy with Intelligence,” Concord Saunterer, 2017.

[13]  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. ed. Carl F. Hove, William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell (Princeton) 1980, 382.

[14] Week, 382

[15] Senses, 102.

[16] Week, 9

[17] Cape Cod, sect. on Provincetown.

[18] Walden, 3 para. from end of Ch. 2.

[19] Senses, 104

[20] Ibid.

[21] See “Wild Apples,” 465, the “frozen-thawed” apple.

[22] Senses, 101.

[23] Walden, “Former Inhabitants.”

[24] Walden, “The Ponds,” 10 para. fm.end.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Senses, 101

[28] See ”Sympathy with Intelligence.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] J, August 15, 1845-6.

[31] J. Oct. 26, 1851,  81.

[32] “Walking,” 4 end.

[33] Walden, “Where I Lived.”

[34] Concord River, “Monday,” 10 para. fm. end.

[35] J., Jan 7, 1857

[36] Mooney, “The Very Tang of Life: Lyrical Jesting in Kierkegaard’s Postscript Title,” Kierkegaard as an Author, ed. Westfall and Tietjan, 2018; “Nietzsche and the Dance,” Philosophy Today, 1970; “dreaming frogs” J. June 13, 1851, 253, discussed in Excursions with Thoreau..

[37] Odyssey, Fagles trans.

A Mistrustful Animal: An Interview with Bernard Williams



I particularly learned from his criticism of dividing philosophy into what he called ‘isms’ and schools of philosophy. He believed there were many philosophical questions and ways of arguing about them, but that attaching labels like ‘physicalism’ or ‘idealism’ to any particular way of answering philosophical questions was extremely mechanical and also misleading.

Many philosophers pursue a line of argument in a very linear fashion, in which one proof caps another proof, or a refutation refutes some other supposed proof, instead of thinking laterally about what it all might mean.

Stuart Hampshire used to say that historically, there have been two aims or motives for philosophy. One was curiosity and the other was salvation (laughs). Plato, as he managed to combine almost every thing else, combined the two (laughs again). I think that Wittgenstein was very much on the side of salvation. So was…

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On Hating and Despising Philosophy


Bernard Williams in the LRB reprinted in Essays and Reviews: 1959-2002. An update, see: The London Review of Books.

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 11.33.36 AM

As long as there has been such a subject as philosophy, there have been people who hated and despised it.

I do not want to exaggerate, in a self-pitying or self-dramatising way, the present extent or intensity of this dislike; I am not thinking of the philosopher as emblematically represented by the figure of Socrates, the martyr to free thought who reaches what the pious or conventional regard as the wrong answer. Nor do I suppose that philosophers are often seen as politicians are in Australia, where that profession (I was once told) is regarded as much like that of nightsoil workers. Still less are they like American lawyers, notoriously considered powerful, ubiquitous and horrible.

Few people, after all, think about philosophers much, and some of those who do may…

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On Living One’s Own Life


These are remarks written in May 2012 as a response to remarks by Kelly Dean Jolley recorded on his blog Quantum Est In Rebus Inane.

I happened upon them today, and they seemed strangely fresh, as if newly minted — though a voice from the past.  At their conclusion, I include Kelly’s response, a few days later.

I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment–has he been living a strange life, or his own life.  That’s a funny question to ask, perhaps, yet people can get alienated from themselves, and regret that they’re “living-as-my-father-wants” rather than “living my own life.”

Prospectively, I think self knowledge is a “knowing how” that requires intimate acknowledgment of one’s desires, feelings, commitments and their weights, and so forth, and that sort of knowing how — knowing how to dig through all that — always questioning, always weighing, always proceeding in fear and trembling that one might be kidding oneself — is hard to share or expose or make public and will sound like a confession full of fits and starts and ill-formed thoughts. But along with that ‘reflective” and “confessional” side seems to be a willingness to pledge or promise, to stay true to something often only dimly apprehended. So Socrates remained true to things (say the assurance that the oracle was trustworthy, or that Diotima had something worthy to say) even while it’s hard to say what undergirds that pledge to honor a truth intrinsic to who one must be. “Living-as-Socrates”, knowing how to do that, is something Socrates has to work out for himself — we can’t guide him.

And if we LEARN from Socrates, how does that happen? Perhaps, as Kelly suggests, if I learn from a poem it may show up in my writing my own poem. If I learn, absorb, internalize “knowing how live out the unfolding self I am” by holding Socratic living in mind, that can’t mean Socrates has authority to tell me how to live. If I learn from him, it will not be that I learn how to “live-as-Socrates” (except in the most general way: for example, ‘think about what words you use in probing yourself’). Learning from him will be much more a learning how to “live-as-me” — “learning” what I can pledge myself to, to give my life that sort of solidity and continuity that in the longer run I can look back (and my friends can look back) and say: “for all his (propositional, informational, doctrinal) ignorance he knew himself, he led his own life. And “learning what I can pledge myself to” is perhaps mostly just pledging-in-the-relative-dark: not ‘finding out” but “doing.”

And here are Kelly’s reflections on the above:

I find what Ed has written very helpful, as I said.  One reason for that is because he clearly recognizes the difficulty of self-knowledge—that is, the conceptual difficulty about it (not the difficulty of acquiring it, although it is difficult to acquire).  Self-knowledge is not simply a species of information, information about myself.  Sure, there is lots of information about me, and lots of it I know (and some of it is hard to know, I need, e.g., doctors or x-rays to tell me about it), but none of that is what Socrates or Kierkegaard or Emerson calls on me to care about.  –In fact, Kierkegaard and Emerson signal this by ringing changes on the Delphic Commandment—“Choose yourself!” (Kierkegaard) and “Obey yourself!” (Emerson), distancing themselves deliberately from ‘know’ (without disavowing it).

As I see it, the difficulty (the conceptual difficulty) of self-knowledge reveals itself best when it is seen in the context of Perfectionism.  Now, although I am not quite a Moral Perfectionist of the Cavellian (Emersonian) sort, I am a Perfectionist.  (I suppose I could be called a Christian Perfectionist—of a Gregory-of-Nyssa sort.  Explaining that is a task for another day.)  And my Perfectionism can help itself to the “unattained but attainable self” structure that Cavell’s has.  Crucial to that structure is a form of self-involvement (in a non-pejorative sense) that can be described as knowing, as choosing and as obeying.  It can be described as discovery and as creativity.

Consider Kierkegaard’s “One must become a Christian.”  I take this as a grammatical remark.  But this means that no particular place a person finds himself on his Pilgrim’s Progress is going to be the final stop.  Even if the Pilgrim is, in one sense, a Christian, it will also be true that there is another sense in which he is not a Christian.  That is, for anyone who recognizes the grammatical remark, and lives in the light of that recognition, the term ‘Christian’ subdivides into two senses, one that applies to him now, and which seems to him now at best unsatisfying (conventional, rote, sclerotized, immanent), and another that does not (yet) apply to him now, but which seems to him to call him forward (and is unconventional, spontaneous, supple, transcendent).[1]  That person reaches out, as it were, toward the second sense by standing on the very edge of the first. The transcendent Christian self that the person is reaching out to is his own, himself, but is that transcendent self as yet is not fully determinate.  Who he will be when he becomes his transcendent Christian self is not (yet) fixed, not fully fixed.  And yet he will be himself.  He will be transmuted … into himself.  When he becomes his transcendent Christian self, he will come to know himself, but he will also choose himself, and he will obey himself.  He will discover himself and create himself.  Which of these descriptions we use will be a matter of how we center ourselves on the structure of his immanent Christian self and his transcendent Christian self.  If we center ourselves on the entire structure, then knowing is a natural enough description, since he comes to know a self he has not previously known, or to know about himself something he had not previously known.  If we center ourselves on his immanent self, then choosing is a natural enough description, since he determines or fixes, at least partially, that transcendent self.  Or, if we center ourselves on his transcendent self, then obeying is a natural enough description, since he has called himself  (immanent) to himself (transcendent).  So far as I can tell, none of these centerings is compulsory, all are available, and so each of the descriptions they generate is available—and natural enough. But even so, each of the descriptions is still in need delicate handling, since each is liable to be misunderstood.

Ed’s fascinating talk of ‘knowing-how’ relates to what I have in mind.  Ed understandably wants to retain the word knowledge (as I do too).  But since the knowledge we are after is not simply a species of information, a good thought is to treat the knowledge as know-how (where what is known is clearly enough not information).  Then we can think of our Christian as knowing how to become a Christian, and as utilizing his know-how by so doing.

Ed complicates his know-how story by bringing in ideas of loyalty, pledging and promising.  And here what he says sounds particularly Perfectionist.  When he mentions that the pledging he has in mind is “pledging-in-the-relative-dark”, I understand that as quite close to my idea that the transcendent self is not understood, not fully understood.

(I should add that although most of what I said on this topic in the previous post (and comments) painted self-knowledge as “confessional” or “reflective” (to use Ed’s terms) I too believe there is a commissive side to all of this, and that is part of the reason I have chosen to foreground my Perfectionist framework as I have.  Ed’s post helped me to see how better to balance what I wanted to say.)

Knowing, choosing and obeying are each natural enough descriptions, but each is liable to misunderstanding.  That all of the descriptions are natural enough reveals that each has its liability, since each normally ‘negates’ the other.  To seize one and to reject the others is not a good idea; the phenomenon to be saved is responsive to each, and not just serially but somehow all at once.  Socrates calls us to examine ourselves, so as to live worthily.  Kierkegaard calls us to choose ourselves, so that we are responsible for ourselves.  Emerson calls us out in front of ourselves, so that we can become our best.

[1] Each transcendent self condemns the immanent self and inspires its own eventual condemnation, since as it becomes immanent a new transcendent self becomes visible.


Now I know this is an unconventional way to proceed, but the more I read these thoughts from the past, just re-blogged, the deeper I’m moved into their context. Thus I dialed back to the original post by Kelly, “Writing Without Authority: Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard,” April 22, 2012.

Words from the past can be both fresh, new born, and ageless, like music we can hear over the years, always new and engaging.

Kierkegaard understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing without authority.  I’ve lately been mulling over whether it means anything, and if means anything whether it means anything sufficiently interesting, to say that Wittgenstein understands himself to be, wants to be understood as, writing PI without authority.

The answer of course hinges on what it is to write without authority.  For Kierkegaard we might say that writing without authority is, first and foremost, to abjure the role of preacher.  But that is not all that it is for him:  he clearly means not only to reject one form of relationship to his reader, but a panoply of forms–any form that would make it the case that the reader’s attention finds it easier, more natural, to perch on Kierkegaard than on the reader himself, any form that deflects self-attention.  So Kierkegaard is always and forever side-stepping, ducking out, disappearing.  He wants his reader to read as if the reader is reading what the reader has written.  Reading as self-confrontation.

But how is that to work?  Is the experience of such reading supposed to be like the experience of finding something you’ve written previously but forgotten, so that now its content seems news, as does the fact that you are its author?  That seems too distanced a relationship to what is written.  Is the experience supposed to be like the experience of re-writing something that you have written, editing, poking, patting and scraping?  That seems a not-distanced-enough relationship to what is written.  (Partly because there is, in an important sense, nothing written yet.  You are still writing.  Everything remains in the flux of composition.)  So what is the experience supposed to be like?

Wittgenstein writes: “Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tete-a-tete.

And Kierkegaard prefaces For Self-Examination with this: “My dear reader!  Read, if possible, aloud!  If you do this, allow me to thank you.  If you not only do it yourself, if you induce others to do it also, allow me to thank them severally, and you again and again!  By reading aloud you will most powerfully receive the impression that you have only yourself to consider, not me, who am without authority, or others, the consideration of whom would be a distraction.”

I reckon that what Kierkegaard wants from his reader is for the reader to experience the reading as private conversation with himself, as saying things to himself tete-a-tete.  Doing so fastens the reader’s attention on himself, makes any examination the reading requires self-examination.  We read Kierkegaard aright when we read in forgetfulness of him–and only read in remembrance of ourselves.  I believe that this is something Wittgenstein aspires to as well.  That is, I take his remark about conversations with himself as not purely descriptive but as also prescriptive, say as a registration of a realized writerly intention, realized in PI.

In this way, Wittgenstein aims to write without authority.  And I think Wittgenstein signposts this aim:  PI’s [Philosophical Investigation’s] self-effacing (as I read it) epigraph leaves it to the reader what sort of advance, if any, and if any, how much, PI represents.  His desire not to spare others the trouble of thinking and his hope that he would stimulate thinking seem not to target thinking about him (Wittgenstein) but rather thinking by the reader and for the reader and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to philosophical problems.  (As Kierkegaard targets thinking by, for and about the reader–specifically, about the reader in relationship to existential problems.)

Here is what I find myself moved to say:  PI exists as being-for-another.

Wittgenstein writes it as a gift to his readers.  It is a work of testimony, of confession, and Wittgenstein wrote it for those who are troubled as he is troubled.  It is a gage of his friendship, even his love, for them, for his readers.  But for it fully to exist as such, the reader must fully acknowledge it, fully acknowledge it as such.  To fully acknowledge it is to answer its call to self-awakeness.  Wittgenstein wrote a book to be acknowledged, not, if I may put it this way, a book to be known.  (I judge this one of the deep similarities between Wittgenstein and Emerson and Thoreau.  What they write puts the reader in the space of acknowledgement, and their reader answers the call of the writing, or not.  Sometimes gifts are refused.  And sometimes what looks like acceptance is still a form of refusal.)

Wittgenstein toyed seriously with the idea of prefacing his work with Bach’s epigraph to the Little Organ Book:

To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.

He hesitated because he thought that in the darkness of our time such a remark would be misunderstood.  And so it probably would.  But why is that?  What has gone wrong in a time when giving and receiving have soured, a time in which we have become so stuffy even while so indigent, a time so graceless as ours?  Job endured the Lord taking back what He had given.  We will never have to endure that.  But only because we have made ourselves unreceptive, and so have never been given anything.  Job got everything back, double; we go on and on with nothing.

 If you’ve read this far, you’re a serious and resilient reader!

Quantum Est In Rebus Inane

I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment–has he been living a strange life, or his own life.  That’s a…

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Tripping from Mother to Maker

Quantum Est In Rebus Inane


I think there come times in a life when regrets and fears have to be faced, acknowledged, owned. And, once owned, sifted, weighed. What regrets and fears are follies or the result of follies–and so rightly censured? What regrets and fears are miseries–and so rightly pitied, even in oneself?

I have been driving westward, away from the morning, my interstate journey mirroring my existential one, as I move ‘westward’, away from my birth. Closer to maker than mother, as Lloyd Cole once memorably put it. I wanted time, but even more, I wanted space in which to come to grips with myself, to not just know but to believe myself 51. The lush claustrophobia of Alabama has yielded to the barren agoraphobia of the high desert, of Montana and New Mexico. There is space here to turn around yourself, maybe enough to see your back parts as you pass…

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Notes to Teachers-to-be in the Humanities: The Central Place of Poetic Perception


I want to use poetry in a very wide sense

These photos are poetic as well as factual


What do they speak or bespeak?

The book that contains these depression era WPA pictures is called: Let us now praise famous men


What do we feel here?

What is the quality of life?

What virtues or vices speak?


Do we feel pity, admiration?

Are these lives base or noble?

Do they bespeak the dignity of labor or the shame of political/social neglect?


I recommend an inquiring generosity that flows into praise.


It’s unlikely that we’d get negative with these pictures, but we could:

             Is the photographer a snoop, a voyeur?

            Are these folk being set up for condescending exploitation?

            Are they just stupid trying to make a go of it in the dust bowl?

                        Are we stupid to look?

            What’s new?! — “The poor are always with us.”


My worry is that when we teach we can fall prey to the “gotcha” mentality, or an  

                “Only the facts, Mame” mentality


You may like or dislike this novel, Moby Dick, but it’s “really”

         Just white privilege

        Just a mirror of imperialism

        Product of apocalyptic hysteria

         Utterly sexist


We’re afraid of the opposite “Wow!” mentality for fear that after the “wow”, what do you say?


But there’s plenty to say.

We don’t read novels or look at art just for pleasure.

Why not praise Moby Dick for

            Racial inclusiveness

           Admiration for “cannibal” cultures

           Homo eroticism

           Critique of violence and hatred

            Critique of Quaker hypocrisy

          Embrace of the wonder of motherhood and birthing

         The over-all hope of rebirth and salvation through story-telling?


There’s a danger of emphasizing mainly facts, explanations, and ‘quiz-knowledge’

            Take the High school emphasis in reading Emily Dickinson:

                    “Look for rhyme scheme, alliteration, metaphor, simile”

                   “Look for the meaning of a poem as a whole”

                  “Do biographical research”


This suppresses the ring, the lilt, life, of

 “Wild nights, wild nights”;    “A funeral in my brain”

“I’m nobody, who are you?”;    “Hope is a bird with feathers”


I’d push literature and philosophy and religion closer to

           dance, theater, music, visual arts, and movies

           where “live-bodily performance” is essential.


 Parts of history, philosophy, sociology, and physics are obviously not

 this.  But then, if you aim philosophy at social justice,

     or aim history at exposing evil,

     or refuse to do research into better weapons,

     or aim psychology at caring for souls,

then you come close to “live-bodily-performance” in your efforts. You try to evoke what it’s like to sit in poverty before a camera, or to balance in a boat pulled by a whale.


More examples of “gotcha” academic moments — real quotes:

            “I aim to expose the cracks in the granite of genius”

            “We don’t want to hear about King’s ‘I’ve got a dream’ – but about

                    his ‘clay feet, his plagiarism and affairs’


The humanities is where we can find individuals and communities sorting out

                        Violence, pity, condescension,

                       Piety, hatred, tenderness, love of all sorts,

                       Death, suffering, tragedy, exaltation,

                      Joy, bitterness, age, sex, innocence, blame

                      Silliness, wit, burial, resurrection,

The display and reenactment of all these (and more)

— all this will be conducted “free-lance,” apart from false academic disciplinary rigor or esoteric expertise (Warning: Don’t tell the funding czars!  Careful at job interviews. Reveal this AFTER you have tenure.)


The humanities exist for richness, fullness of life,

            not for a better job or for security

           or for “pleasure” [shame on Stanley Fish — and many others — for saying this]

          or for sociability (shame on Rorty for saying poetry is good  for making an impression at parties).


Our vocation, quite simply, is to be

       Curators of the soul,

             it’s memories, animations, actions, passions, histories, and hopes —

(and only secondarily, to be aware of the blindness and  narrowness and evil that stand in our way)


These notes were background at an invited talk given to graduate students and faculty at Columbia University Teacher’s College, March 2016.










Excursions with Thoreau: A Review


In a highly referential, wandering, yet lucid style, Edward F. Mooney puts Thoreau’s writing in conversation with both ancient and modern thought, from scriptural and philosophical sources alike, in an attempt to reconcile  Thoreau  with  the  discipline of philosophy. The perceived need for reconciliation follows from the author’s contention that disciplinary philosophy, as institutionalized and canonized, has overemphasized systematic, disciplined argumentation to such a degree that other equally effective yet less systematic modes of thought have been unduly disregarded and even dismissed entirely.

The questions that most concern Mooney are, what is Henry David Thoreau to philosophy-and what is philosophy to Henry David Thoreau? Comparisons of Thoreau to other dominant thinkers in the Western canon-Kant and Nietzsche, most consistently show this Concord  sage to  be in their ranks, but  in a slightly different vein, namely that of the “literary philosophers” such as Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Kierkegaard, and Rousseau. There is occasional reference to Eastern thought, such as the Vedas and yogic practices, but the Western tradition serves as the primary point of comparison. By interlacing Thoreau’s work with the works of philosophy’s figureheads, Mooney contends that there is “a place in philosophy for wonder and shadows” (157). Thoreau’s writings demonstrate the power’ of “the  unargued  and  perhaps the unarguable” and, therefore, “the capacity of philosophy, well beyond argument alone, to reorient our perspectives and so let us see” (157), revealing the wonder and shadows of nature.

With his focus on the reader’s perspective, Mooney points to the affective power of Thoreau’s writing: “Thoreau spins words­ phrases-sentences that nudge us from one reality to the next. His sentences do not depict change but create it. Sentences or phrases are actions aimed at our receptivities. Responsive to them as they arrive, pebble by pebble, sound by sound, image by image, we get an intimate grasp, by monitoring our changes, of how and why Thoreau becomes among the greatest of American writers-and· among the world’s great religious adepts, political polemicists and subtle philosophers” (82). Thoreau’s thought, subtle as it may be, is most effective for being most affective. The key witness to the efficacy of Thoreau’s work is Mooney himself, who describes the affective heart of his critical practice: “My job in writing about writing is to let membranes be aroused in startle or allure as the address of the place and its things emerge-as their startle or allure arise from the words Thoreau provides” (13). As a result, Mooney is a curator of both Thoreau and the philosophical tradition, following a mandate to instigate, rather than instill, his reader’s understanding.

In each of the book’s fifteen “excursions,” the point of entry into Thoreau’s thought is his struggle to reconcile the wondrousness of nature with its unavoidable wildness and cruelty. Not surprisingly, the subjects most frequently examined are those of tragedy and death. Mooney returns again and again to three major losses that Thoreau faced in his life: the untimely deaths of his brother John, of Emerson’s young son Waldo, and of his acquaintance and literary contemporary Margaret Fuller. At issue in particular are Thoreau’s often cold, unfeeling, and even seemingly inhuman responses to such untimely loss. See, for example, a letter to Lucy Brown in the spring of 1842 in which Thoreau makes the surprising statement that his brother’s death was “less sad than strange”: “It’s a strange marvel that life yields to death, that music returns a world for a moment lost, and that the world, yes, is a wonder” (quoted on 120). Mooney draws on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, in this case, to help explain Thoreau’s ability to parlay sadness into wonder as part of a broader program of understanding nature and conceiving art as a means of fostering endurance.

Mooney sees Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy at the heart of Thoreau’s ability to both marvel and mourn: “Wildness [the Dionysian] is a vital counterforce to orderly Apollonian impulses. Thoreau and Nietzsche disavow detached theoretical on-looking, a stance that sunders persons from immersion in the lively disorders of the senses and of mobile embodied life” (137-8). The work and product of writing, then, facilitates an “immersion in the lively disorders of the senses,” a practice consistent with Kierkegaard’s contention that “All poetry is life’s glorification (i.e. transfiguration) through its clarification” (141). With the help of these two voices, Mooney concludes that ”Thoreau’s  art deflects or sublimates, not as a denial of trouble or affliction, but  as activity that transfigures  it in the service of life” (141).

In a similar manner, this book works through Thoreau’s responses to tragedy at a variety of scales, both personal and national, from the deaths mentioned above  to  the  martyrdom of John Brown and the looming fracture of the United States. From this reckoning emerges a picture of Thoreau as naturalist: a sensitive, observant, careful  documentarian  who  writes  what he finds, whatever and however cruel that may be. “As I  hear him, Thoreau thinks that Nature-the Universe as a whole-is oblivious to matters of justice. […] Nature innocently–that is, non-maliciously–dispenses death, devouring her young and old with the erratic abandon of innocent children swatting at flies. This is not an occasion for melancholy, or outrage, but a scene Thoreau would have us take in-no doubt with some  hyperbole-with good cheer.” Mooney’s Thoreau “will not deliver those ‘obvious’ conclusions that simplify and falsify experience. He prefers to leave us with a Nature that is anomalous, wild, and wondrous” (86).

By its own account, Excursions with Thoreau is improvisatory, meditative, exploratory, and somewhat unsystematic, echoing Thoreau’s style and, therefore, trying to draw on its version of power. The effort of reading such a work can be as trying as. it is revealing. These excursions take patience and care, tantamount to that their author has taken in drawing them together. The reader can expect to wander and wonder alongside this book’s author, reaping all the known, and some of the unknown, rewards of Henry Thoreau, philosopher.

**  **  **

The author, Grant Rosson, is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA. His dissertation tracks literary and geographic discourses in nineteenth- century America. This review appeared in The Thoreau Bulletin, Spring 2017