Thoreau and Knowing

Richard Hugus

March 10, 1977

Dated September 5, 1851 is the following entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy; we reason from our hands to our head.”1l The purpose of this essay will be to examine Thoreau’s views of human knowledge and perception, explicit or implied. The view above touches upon a philosophical question; other views pertain to a range of subjects from poetry to science to religion. They are all related, in a sense, to the questions of what is worthy to be known, and how and what men are capable of knowing. Thoreau’s writings in themselves speak to this, but there are occasional direct statements, such as the above. Of that statement, we may begin by inquiring: How may the senses be seen as prior to the mind as a means of knowing? How is truth perceived by “analogy?”

Though ‘the perception of truth’ seems to imply more than ‘the having of knowledge,’ the idea that knowledge, at least, proceeds from analogy, is not uncommon. Bertrand Russell once asked: “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited are nevertheless able to know as much as they do?2 That we discover general likenesses among the otherwise indistinguishable objects of the world, that we extract from particular experience an ‘analogy’ for the general, seems to be an adequate answer to Russell’s question. The answer, however, in comes short of explaining how ‘truth’ is perceived. ‘Knowledge’ would seem to entail true perceptions of the world more than the perception of truth itself.  However, if truths can be perceived somehow in the manner in which trees and rivers can be perceived, perhaps there is no distinction.

On the matter of reasoning “from our hands to our head,” the meaning seems to be that the hand takes in information which is reasoned (or categorized, or abstracted) by the mind–the hand’s feeling of heat from one or two fires may lead the mind to reason, by analogy, that all fires are hot. However, in the idea that we “detect” an analogy, which is different from the idea that the mind ‘makes’ analogies, it seems to be implied that the mind recognizes in the hand a thing which is already in itself. The analogy, in other words, is that between a sense in the hand and an idea in the mind. If this is the case, then in order for the mind to detect a likeness between something in itself and something in the senses  (i.e. the world), the idea of that sensation (or object sensed) must of necessity have pre-existed in the mind–the mind but recognizes in the hand (or world) a thing it already, in some sense, knows. Perceptions of truth, therefore, as in Plato’s theory, are a recollection, and the senses are merely responsible for evincing or sparking that recollection.

The problem arises, from the foregoing, of wherein truths lie. If they are perceived by what amounts to no more than the reflection in the mind of its (the mind’s) images, then truths are a quality contained in the mind rather than in nature or the physical world. A significant element in Thoreau’s writings, however, is that the physical world is itself a reflection of the man, hence, a quality contained in the mind is equivalent to, or indistinct from, a quality contained in nature. On the one hand, nature reflects the man (as would a mirror), and, on the other, insofar. as perceptions are recognized ideas, nature exists as a reflection in the man of his own ideas of it. The physical world thereby becomes, respectively, both the mirror and the projection of one’s own image. In Thoreau’s own words: “…man is all in all, Nature nothing, but as she draws him out and reflects him.3 A pond will reflect our own image as we stand looking into it, and we project ourselves, our ideas, into the pond, in such a way that the depth we find in it is equivalent to the depth we ourselves possess. “While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.” What nature “draws out” of a man, nature reflects. Until now the projector was thought to illuminate the screen. By Thoreau’s view, the illumination, in fact, goes both ways.

That a quality in the mind is indistinct from a quality in nature may be argued, more generally, as follows: If ideas are identical with  (being a part of) nature, then so too are nature and our ideas of nature (the material world) one. From this it follows that one only meets oneself, as it were, in nature or in what one sees:

“A man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally… We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If there is something which does not concern me, which is out of my line, which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, however novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not, if it is written, we read it not . . . Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and travelling. His observations make a chain”

Thoreau’s measuring the depth of Walden Pond is but a parable for his own self-exploration. The pickerel described in “The Pond in Winter” as     “the animalized nuclei or crystals of the Walden water” are not distinct from, but identical with, the element in which they live. Humans are likewise very much a part of the natural world, including its wildness. What is true in nature will be true of the man. It is “inward experience,” Thoreau writes, which “will make nature significant.” For example: “What is this beauty in the landscape but a certain fertility in me?” Another example: “The water, indeed, reflects heaven because my mind does; such is its own serenity, its transparency and stillness.” The oneness of identity between external and internal qualities, between sense and object, also holds between man and man; the oneness is no less than “being” itself:

“My prickles or smoothness are as much a quality of your hand as of myself. I cannot tell you what I am, more than a ray of the summer’s sun. What I am I am, and say not. Being is the great explainer. In the attempt to explain, shall I plane away all the spines, till it is no thistle, but a cornstalk?”

If one’s capacity for knowledge is innate — a thing attained by one’s own lights — then what one does not already in this special sense ‘know’ cannot be explained. It is for this reason that Thoreau cannot explain who he is, “more than a ray of the summer’s sun.” Only the man who knows what it is to be, or is himself, a ray of the summer’s sun, could recognize this. And if that were the case, no explanation would be necessary. Of the self-evident, neither inquiry nor explanation are necessary.

In the same way it is said, “What a man’s faith is, so is he.” Thoreau could be imagined to say, “What a man’s perceptions are, so is he. One, in other words, becomes identified with the things one perceives. One might merge with streams and earth and forest so that one may oneself be said to know them. There is a similitude between one’s flesh and the clay in the earth; rills of water cutting through sand in the spring are comparable to “how blood vessels are formed.” Hawks soar and circle in the air “as if they were the imbodiment of my own thoughts.” It should be clear by this time what the “analogy” is to Thoreau. It is the recognition of that in nature which is identical with, or similar to, that in oneself. If, as no small amount of philosophy has been devoted to arguing, the qualities of an object exist in the perceiver’s senses and mind, and not in the object (e.g. heat is not a real quality in fire, nor sweetness in sugar), then Thoreau’s view seems to be explainable this way: Qualities exist in the senses and mind of the beholder, but they also exist in the objects themselves. Qualities exist in the objects themselves exactly to the extent that one’s being is of a kind with the being of the object. The potential for this identification is limitless (because all being is one); however, it is frequently only partial.

The preceding explains why it is that only one who is himself “a ray of the summer’s sun” could recognize another of that kind. However, while perception of the world is often the recognition in it of what is in oneself, it is not always so. “We are not wholly involved in Nature,” remarks Thoreau,

“I may be either the drift-wood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it…”

The reason this passage is important is that it is a concise definition of self-consciousness. It is owing to self-consciousness, of course, that men are not wholly involved in any event, that their identification with the world is not total. It has been said to be a characteristic of schizophrenia, for example, that one who has it loses, at times, the ability to distinguish what he is from what the world is—one merges with surrounding things. But because of self-consciousness, this merging is never complete–“a part of me” always seems to remain distinct from the ” objects and events of the world, and necessarily so. When Thoreau, in “Baker Farm,” describes a rainbow arch “dazzling me,” of becoming momentarily “like a dolphin,” he remarks-that “it might have tinged my employments and life” had it lasted longer. This is an instance of a near loss of self; a dangerous possibility, perhaps, for a man capable of believing in the infinite or of “drinking deeper” of eternity. Whether or not insanity is the result of being “dazzled” is beside the point; that vision is of brightness manifestly divine, which one is fortunate, if anything, to behold. “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.” That is, to most men. “Genius,” to Thoreau, “is a light which makes the darkness visible.” As to men losing themselves occasionally — i.e. their worldly selves — Thoreau advises it; to do so may lead to the discovery both of ourselves and of “the infinite extent of our relations” to and in nature. As with what other men call “good” being, in fact, bad, it is precisely what other men call “insanity,” that is sane:

“If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.”

It may be that one has the capacity to see to the very bottom of one’s own nature. A capacity, however, is indifferent to results. The man described in “Solitude” who is possessed by “grotesque visions” in the dark of the woods may well have wished the darkness, this once, had not become visible. Yet what he saw, regardless of his will, was, in a manner of speaking, a truth about himself; the “disease” in the man only seemed to become the disease in the woods, coming after him, threatening harm. Even an illusion may contain a kernel of truth, if it is tracked to its source. Presumably, if the man in the forest had had the wits to face the grotesque ‘thing’, he would have discovered his true enemy, his true disease. Again, what seems to be in external things is in fact in us. ” . . . the desert which we see is the result of the barrenness of our own experience.”

Other writers of the 19th century — Melville, for example — have dealt with the idea of looking deeply into nature, and the discovery that it, or God, is ultimately mysterious, incomprehensible, indifferent, perhaps malevolent. The rise of empirical science in the preceding century is said to have played a part in this theme’s coming about. Belief in a prevailing order in the universe came to be upset by the discovery of change taking place on all levels of the physical world. Though change had become (or was) for others an intimation of disorder in the universe, which prospect was difficult to reconcile with belief in God, yet change is not disturbing to Thoreau, because it is seen as being a part of an overall design, a higher order. Disorder, he implies, is only apparent to men whose laws explanatory of nature are few and limited. There is, in fact, “an infinitely greater steadfastness” a power beyond human imagination, which preserves the universe. According to Thoreau, “All change is a miracle to contemplate . . . ”  Conflicts, incongruity, and indifference seem evident in nature only because one fails to discern nature’s real, larger harmony. Men are capable of this perception, to Thoreau, in proportion as they are capable, by their own lights, of illuminating, not what is forbidden, but what is merely dark. Perception, herein, involves a method patently at odds with what is called the scientific method. The scientist attempts to examine in detail what the poet knows can be seen only peripherally. It is the poet who sees the true details.

Knowledge of “higher laws,” which implies knowledge of God, is not, to Thoreau, the result of close, protracted observation. It is a knowledge, ironically, not of deep content, but of surface form. “It is salutary to deal with the surface of things, “he writes, as “hills and river in the moonlight.” “The perception of surfaces will always have the effect of a miracle to a sane sense.” In a number of other passages, Thoreau warns himself and the reader against the habit of looking at things minutely; he calls it “studying lichens.” It is precisely because the infinite is bottomless that it cannot be ‘grasped.’ Thus our knowledge of it must be arrived at by means which are literally ungrasping — one must contemplate nature instantaneously, taking in and letting go in constant succession. The images Thoreau uses to describe his discussions with the philosopher in “Winter Visitors” speak exactly to this point:

“We waded so gently and reverently, or we pulled together so smoothly, that fishes of thought were not scared from the stream, nor feared any angler on the bank, but came and went grandly, like the clouds which float through the western sky, and the mother-o’-pearl flocks which sometime form and dissolve there.”

It is “the great story itself” which interests Thoreau. The story may be revealed in “the humming of a gnat”, or in the battle of ants upon a chip of wood, as long as the perception of these phenomena is careful and fine. It is the focusing of perceptions upon minutiae, to the exclusion of the whole, which Thoreau warns against. Close, detailed inspection is the method of empirical science. Thoreau seems to hold this method to be a form of myopia. He does not resist science per se, but rather the idea that anything of significance will come of rote observation. Observation is to be identified with ‘insight’; the miracle of change is beheld by lighter, less possessive means, as “a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” Scientists but interfere with the objects they take up. With heavy, methodical hands, they disturb the sediment of truth in things which they meant to discover:

“ . . . this habit of close observation–in Humboldt, Darwin, and others. Is it to be kept up long, this science? Do not tread upon the heels of your experience. Be impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression and the expression–waits till the seed germinates naturally.”

The poet knows better than to attempt, seriously, to capture the loon. The symmetry of colors on a hawk’s wings are better seen while he is flying than in hand. Thoreau laments his killing a cistudo, or box-turtle, for the sake of science — “. . . such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception . . . and will affect the quality of [his] observations.”

The “perception of truth” is possible, Thoreau would argue, but insofar as truths are of a “higher reality,” thus meta-physical, they can be ‘grasped’ only indirectly, as by analogy. In other words, being bound to our senses, we can learn of insensible things only by analogy. Our language, moreover, is based primarily upon feeling, hence that which is immaterial or outside space and time is expressed by metaphor amounting to paradox. Milton’s “palpable obscure,” for example, is of a kind with Thoreau’s “star-dust…caught.” If the reader is to understand such expression, he must “detect” the analogy. The poet’s intention is, as much as language will allow, to make obscure phenomena ‘visible’ to the reader. The essence of his own perception, meanwhile, is that it be ungrasping. To grasp is to be transfixed. To tread on our own experience, by attempting to find revelation literally in it, is to get irretrievably stuck:

“Man cannot afford…to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone.”

At times in autumn, Thoreau tells of “waiting at evening on hill-tops for the sky to fall, that I might catch something, though I never caught much, and that, manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun.” It is a paradox that one receives by letting go. Among the “desperate” things wise men never do is attempt to really hold on to things received. The furniture collected in a man’s house eventually prevents him from living in it; it admits no air; the house becomes the coffin of its inhabitant. It is by possessing, and the wish to possess, that men get stuck. The vivid life is obscured by superfluities held fast; tedious detail comes to obstruct one’s view of a whole and larger harmony. In the Bhagavad Gita, a work important to Thoreau, it is said of “the disciplined man”: “He is bound only to letting go” (12.18).

Finally, to “reason from our hands to our head” must imply something comparable to ‘living from hand to mouth’, and that without being poor. The implication is that the value of experience is in its immediacy. When the direction is reversed — that is, when the head gets before the hands — one begins to see and hear only what one expects to see and hear. Subtle grooves are made upon that expanse of nerves between the senses and the mind. A great part of the human capacity for knowledge is lost as a result of these paths becoming fixed; instincts are lost, intuitions are dulled, men sleep in the waking state. By Thoreau’s view, the boundaries which imprison men are, for the most part, self-imposed. The path worn between his house and Walden Pond is heeded by Thoreau. It is his reason for leaving — an entirely consistent act.

The running stream, perhaps more than the pond, is an appropriate image for Thoreau’s inward-outward view. It is not fixed, but moving; it reflects eternity, yet remains in time. His sensitivity is largely a part of remaining on the surface, among outward forms which change every instant. The senses are instinctively receptive to nature, if they are allowed. The mind must be awake to sensations proceeding to it from unrecognized paths. It takes “infinite leisure,” Thoreau writes, “to appreciate a single phenomenon;” for example, the skater insects on the pond, a bough falling in a silent woods, the “buzzing sound” between the whipporwill’s calls.

On the subject of architecture, Thoreau considers the various parts of a house to have a likeness to, or “foundation” in, human nature. What the likenesses are is left unsaid. A door, we imagine, pertains to the senses–they may be open or closed; the window, letting light in, is perhaps the spiritual sense; the garret, a public room, may stand for the rational life of debate; and reading and conversation; and the cellar, for what is hidden and dark — the subconscious and primitive powers. When, in “What I Lived For,” Thoreau speaks of a morning on which the door and windows of his house are open, perhaps the meaning we have ascribed to these things is the correct one. He describes, on this morning, “the faint hum of a mosquito” being as much to him as “any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air . . . .There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.”

In a common, barely audible event, the poet finds “the great story itself.” Intimations of that which is outside space and time — the everlasting — are found somewhere between sensation and reflection. Yet the mind and the senses attuned yield this third thing — this belief in the infinite by Thoreau — which, as with the story of the artist of Kouroo, is expressible only by paradox, realizable only by analogy.


1 Odell Shepard, ed., The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals (New York: Dover, 1961). P. 57
2 Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of
3 Shepard, p. 166
Henry D. Thoreau, Walden (Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 287.
Shepard, p. 212-213
ibid., p. 112
ibid., p. 39
ibid. p. 56
ibid. p. 23
Bhagavad Gita, 17.3
Walden, p. 307
ibid., p. 159
Walden, p. 135
ibid., p. 202
ibid. p. 333
From “Walking”
Walden, p. 216
ibid., p. 216
Shepard, p. 130
Walden, p. 73
ibid., p. 11
Shepard, p. 98
ibid., p. 81
Walden, p. 269
Shepard, p. 101
Walden, p. 217
Shepard, p. 51
ibid., p. 135
Shepard, p. 109
Walden, p. 18
Shepard, p. 101
Walden, pp.88-89