Thoreau's Journal: 16-Dec-1850

There are wild men living along the shores of the Frozen Ocean. Who shall say that there is not as great an interval between the civilized man and the savage as between the savage and the brute? The undiscovered polar regions are the home of men.

I am struck with the difference between my feet and my hands. My feet are much nearer to foreign or inanimate matter or nature than my hands; they are more brute, they are more clod-like and lumpish, and I scarcely animate them.

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Philosophy as Education and Education as Philosophy: Democracy and Education
from Emerson to Thoreau Henry-David

In the contemporary culture of accountability and the
‘economy’ of education this generates, pragmatism, as a
philosophy for ordinary practice, needs to resist the totalising
force of an ideology of practice, one that distracts us from the
rich qualities of daily experience. In response to this need, and
in mobilising Dewey’s pragmatism, this paper introduces
another standpoint in American philosophy: Stanley Cavell’s
account of the economy of living in Thoreau’s Walden. By
discussing some aspects of Cavell’s The Senses of Walden
that suggest both apparent similarities and radical differences
between Thoreau and Dewey, I shall argue that Cavell
discovers rich dimensions of practice in Thoreau’s American
philosophy, ones that are overshadowed in Dewey’s
pragmatism: that he demonstrates another way of ‘making a
difference in practice’. Cavell, as a critical interlocutor of
Dewey, from within American philosophy, offers a way of
using language in resistance to the rhetoric of accountability
and in service to the creation of democracy as a way of life.
I shall conclude by suggesting that the enriched tradition of
American philosophy from Dewey to Cavell is to be found in
their promotion of philosophy as education and education as
In Democracy and Education, Dewey discusses what he sees as the
inseparable relationship between philosophy and education:
If a theory makes no difference in educational endeavor, it must be
artificial. The educational point of view enables one to envisage the
philosophic problems where they arise and thrive, where acceptance or
rejection makes a difference in practice. If we are willing to conceive
education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual
Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2006
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Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
and emotional, toward nature and fellow-men, philosophy may even be
defined as the general theory of education (Dewey, 1985, p. 338).
This captures the essence of Dewey’s pragmatism, declaring his
endeavour of reconstruction in philosophy—philosophy as problemsolving,
philosophy for our ordinary living and, most importantly,
philosophy as education. Such a philosophy involves changes in our
dispositions and ways of action: philosophy must ‘make a difference’ in
practice. This includes the role of philosophy in serving democracy as a
way of life—the ongoing creation of a democratic community in which
the welfare of each individual is enhanced through free and equal
communication, and in respect for differences, as the valuable source of
mutual learning (Dewey, 1988).
Dewey marked a turning point in the history of American philosophy,
but his philosophy still needs to be reconstructed in response to the
demands of our times. Problems in education and the ways of solving
them today challenge Dewey’s idea and language of reconstruction in
philosophy, presenting new difficulties in the realisation of his ideal of
democracy as a way of life. ‘Making a difference in practice’ is commonly
understood today in terms of measurable outcomes and visibly clear
standards, sufficient to show immediate effectiveness and impact. The
language of education has come to be characterised by ‘accountability’.
Within such a narrowly conceived notion of practice philosophy is
considered useless, associated, so it is claimed, with ‘mere words’, with
‘abstract ideas’, and as offering nothing more than an ‘ideal model’. In the
global (and, ironically, Americanised) economy of today, the gap between
philosophy and practice is far wider than Dewey took it to be. This is so
even within the academy: a discipline that does make a visible difference
cannot, in the economy of higher education, so readily secure its funding.
It is in the light of this trend that Dewey’s pragmatism, as philosophy for
practice, needs to be reconsidered. Such a reconsideration must go beyond
conventional notions of applying theory to practice, as the latter can
surreptitiously assimilate the former to its territory. To avoid this danger
pragmatism must recount its terms so that it can release us from the
narrow horizons of our practical lives: it must look again at what counts in
order the better to account—to offer its account and to bring things to
account. Pragmatism needs to resist the totalising force of an ideology of
practice, one that distracts us from the rich qualities of daily experience.
In response to this need, and in mobilising Dewey’s pragmatism, this
paper introduces another standpoint in American philosophy: Stanley
Cavell’s account of the economy of living in Thoreau’s Walden. By
discussing some aspects of Cavell’s The Senses of Walden that suggest
both apparent similarities and radical difference between Thoreau and
Dewey, I shall argue that Cavell discovers rich dimensions of practice in
Thoreau’s American philosophy, ones that are overshadowed in Dewey’s
pragmatism: that he demonstrates another way of ‘making a difference in
practice’. Cavell, as a critical interlocutor of Dewey, from within
American philosophy, offers a way of using language in resistance to
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the rhetoric of accountability and in service to the creation of democracy
as a way of life. I shall conclude by suggesting that the enriched tradition
of American philosophy from Dewey to Cavell is to be found in their
promotion of philosophy as education and education as philosophy.
Just like Dewey, Cavell is an American philosopher who is engaged in the
task of reconstruction in philosophy. Citing a passage above from
Democracy and Education, Hilary Putnam acknowledges the contribution
made by Dewey’s idea of education for democracy in the reconstruction of
philosophy as education. It is in this context that Putnam detects a thread
running from Dewey to Cavell. He writes: ‘[Dewey] anticipated Cavell’s
identification of philosophy with education’ (Putnam, 1994, p. 223). More
recently, Putnam has returned to Cavell’s theme of ‘philosophy as the
education of grownups’ (Putnam, 2005). Here he discusses Cavell’s
sustained reflection on scepticism as one that itself ‘exemplifies’, and
indeed allows him and us to undergo, the process of philosophy as
education. Cavell, in his Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy,
transforms the sceptical question ‘Can we know other minds?’ from an
epistemological question to one that relates to the ‘refusal to acknowledge
the other as a person’ (p. 124). Cavell enables us to change our ways of
seeing human suffering as suffering, Putnam says, by envisaging it as a
‘normal pathology’, that is, as a part of the human condition (p. 125).
Discussing how he himself, in reading Cavell, came to recognise a fault in
his approach to scepticism, Putnam suggests there is something in Cavell’s
writing that effects a conversion in our ways of seeing by introducing a
sense of ‘vertigo’ (p. 119). What Cavell says is inseparable from how he
speaks, and hence: ‘To read Cavell as he should be read is to enter into a
conversation with him, one in which your entire sensibility and his are
involved, and not only your mind and his mind’ (p. 117).
Indeed while Dewey talks about education, education in Cavell is to be
found in his manner of speaking to us, here and now in his style of writing:
Cavell demonstrates an alternative way of ‘making a difference in
practice’, as it were from deep within ourselves. This is tied up with the
content of his philosophy, his reinterpretation of scepticism. Cavell’s
reconstruction in philosophy is conducted through his resistance to
philosophy’s ‘suppression of the human voice’ and through a turning of
language back to the ordinary, that is, through a regaining of intimacy
between our words and life (Cavell, 1983, pp. 32–33, 48). In his efforts to
recover the human voice in philosophy, Cavell rediscovers in Emerson’s
and Thoreau’s writings on the ordinary and the common, the rich sources
of American philosophy. Thoreau and Emerson ‘underwrite’ the task of
ordinary language philosophy (p. 32). In their work, Cavell finds another
way of demonstrating ‘political liability’, in what he describes as ‘the
politics of philosophical interpretation as a withdrawal or rejection of
politics, even of society, as such’; Thoreau’s Walden is an ‘act of civil
disobedience, a confrontation which takes the form of a withdrawal’
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(Cavell, 1983, pp. 49–50). In the eyes of Deweyans, Cavell’s emphasis on
reading and writing may look like an indulgence in literary and, hence,
‘apolitical’ activities. It may sound scandalous to call ‘political’ the act of
reading a text in ‘withdrawal’ from society. Cavell’s writing on Thoreau
thus offers interesting points not only of convergence with but of
divergence from Dewey’s idea of democracy and education. What does it
mean then to read Cavell’s text on Thoreau? The better understanding of
practice realised by Cavell may help us to recognise the way that the
charge of ‘mere words’ fatefully underestimates the inseparable connection
between words and life.
The Senses of Walden is not simply a reinterpretation of Thoreau’s
Walden: it exemplifies Cavell’s project of reconstruction in philosophy, ‘a
revision of how we conceive philosophy, specifically in its relation to what
we conceive literature to be or to do’ (Cavell, 2005). His purpose of
writing The Senses of Walden is in a sense to make Walden more difficult
(Cavell, 2004; Standish and Saito, 2005, p. 214). As he puts this, ‘the
clarity and the discoveries in Thoreau’s always surprising intense prose
exemplify an intention to attend registers of experience that one will not
know whether to assign to philosophy or to religion or to literature or to
politics’ (Cavell, 2005). In resistance to conventional philosophy, Cavell
presents, with Thoreau, an alternative style of writing in philosophy—a
style that reclaims the human voice, and, that is, a distinctively American
voice that America has lost in its domination by professional philosophy;
this is a loss registered in the denial by that professionalisation that
Emerson and Thoreau are philosophers. While criticising the fallen state
of its democracy, Cavell tries also to retrieve the original ideal of the
foundation of America. Cavell wrote The Senses of Walden in a period of
some six weeks when the Vietnam War was nearing its denouement
(Cavell, 2004; Cavell, 2005). In this sense Cavell’s writing of the book
enacts the process of finding an alternative way in America’s relationship
with Asia. In Thoreau, so influenced by Eastern philosophies, Cavell finds
an alternative mode of thinking, sometimes of receptivity and silence.
Thus writing in and for philosophy is the process of ‘criticizing democracy
from within’, an alternative mode of ‘conversation in justice’ (Cavell,
1990, pp. 3, 27). This is not a matter of mere literary self-indulgence: the
political is internal to the writing, and the literary activity conditions
political participation (Standish and Saito, 2005, p. 220). Dewey says that
democracy must begin at home (Dewey, 1984, p. 368); Cavell goes down
deeper within home.
To demonstrate these points, I shall discuss in the following sections
some salient features The Senses of Walden.
Though there are diverse entry points to The Senses of Walden, the
interconnectedness of its themes mean that there is no obvious place to
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start. I shall highlight three main themes that suggest its common ground
with and its difference from Dewey’s pragmatism: the economy of living,
baptism in words and the phenomenology of ordinary experience. All
these themes show that words are not mere words but essential
components of practice.1
The economy of living
One of the criticisms made of the Japanese translation of The Senses of
Walden—the first translation of one of Cavell’s books into Japanese—is
that it is no more than a linguistic analysis of Emerson and Thoreau. This
statement shows the kind of assumption that is typically made about
Cavell’s writing: surely the title of its first chapter, ‘Words’, and of the
second, ‘Sentences’, show the reader that this is a book on semiology. In
reality The Senses of Walden presents us with a structure that transcends
the kind of dichotomous thinking that hides behind the charge of ‘mere
words’, a dichotomy that recurs between language and action, between
thinking and practice, between mind and body, and between the inner and
the outer.
‘Life’ and ‘the ordinary’ are central concepts in Dewey’s pragmatism.
‘[L]ife-situations’ or the ordinary context of living displace the foundation
of philosophy. The meaning of ‘life’ ranges from such daily activities as
using tools to the moral implications of democracy as a way of life.
Dewey’s emphasis is on action and bringing forth social changes. On the
one hand, Cavell’s American philosophy shares with Dewey this broad
framework of thinking; on the other, Cavell shows dimensions of ordinary
life that exceed what Dewey puts into words.
Cavell’s account of Thoreau’s economy of living provides a good
starting point for thinking what that excess consists in. The first chapter of
Walden is entitled ‘Economy’. It is filled with detailed descriptions of
clothes—of food and the hut Thoreau builds, of Thoreau’s labour in
building it, and of his hoeing of his bean field. Cavell reinterprets this as
an alternative notion of accounting and of the recounting of ordinary
practice. Philosophers have been engaged in questioning the necessary
conditions of knowledge, its logical necessity: for Cavell and Thoreau, in
contrast, the task of philosophy is to question anew the necessary
conditions of life (Cavell, 2004). As Cavell remarks, ‘the truth appears to
the writer, as if in a vision, a vision of true necessities, that the necessaries
of life are the means of life, the ways it is lived’ (Cavell, 1992, p. 73). In
Walden such economic terms as ‘account’, ‘interest’, ‘trust’, ‘means’,
‘spend’ and ‘investment’ recur. But behind their practical, economic
sense, these terms hold spiritual implications (Cavell 2004; Standish and
Saito 2005, p. 234). In Thoreau’s act of writing, recounting words in the
context of ordinary living means producing an account in and of words—
‘a document, with each word a warning and a teaching; a deed, with each
word an action’. Cavell finds Thoreau to be implying that ‘the lines
[should] be complete, omitting no expense or income, and that there
[should] be no mistake in the computation’ (Cavell, 1992, p. 30). As the
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analogy of hoeing in the bean field suggests, the labour of recounting
words is not simply a speculative process in the mind but is inseparable
from ways of living, from the movement of our bodies: hoeing symbolises
the ‘physical act of writing’ (p. 25).
Thoreau’s economy of living in the woods trades on the origin of the
term in the Greek oikos—that is, it concerns the building of a house, and
metaphorically, the building of the world as the house of words. Writing
for Thoreau and Cavell is in this sense an activity of rebuilding and
replacing the narrow construction of economic terms, the construction that
dominates our practical lives: it is an act of ‘win[ning] back from [the
circling of economic terms] possession of our words’ (p. 92). The
ordinariness of life involves one’s relation to clothes, food and housing as
its essential ground. It is not, however, limited to the use of instruments, to
learning the know-how of living, to utility. To see further what it means,
we need to examine more carefully how Cavell describes the role of words
in Thoreau’s economy of living.
The baptism of words
Emerson’s and Thoreau’s commitment to language suggests their
prescience of what was to become the motive of the ordinary language
philosophy of the 20th century, their own inquiry into the conditions for
knowledge and for living. These are thoughts adumbrated in Cavell’s
pondering of Emerson’s use of ‘condition’ (Cavell, 1990), which prompt
us to understand the way that saying (-dit) things together (con-) is
embedded in human condition (Standish and Saito, 2005, p. 226). What is
it that Cavell understands to be so much at stake in ordinary language
philosophy, in its insistence on the form of ‘When we say . . ., we mean
. . .’? Such a statement is in the first person, and it is plural. Its being first
person bears the weight of the individual voice—and, that is to say, the
commitment—of the speaker, while its being plural testifies to membership
of a community (p. 220). To have a relationship with words, to use
them, is inseparable from ‘placing ourselves in the world’ (Cavell, 1992,
p. 53).
A main theme in Cavell’s idea of language is the recovery of the
‘autonomy’ of the self and language. Its starting point is the state of loss, a
state in which the self and the language conspire to lose each other. More
concretely, in religion and politics this is a state in which such words as
‘God’ and ‘freedom’ are used in vain. It is a fallen condition in which ‘we
do not let the words assess our lives, we do not mean what they could
mean’ (p. 63). This state of loss is a relationship in which words, the self,
objects and others have lost their autonomy under pressure of conformity.
To acknowledge, to confront this shameful condition is the starting point
in regaining the autonomy of language and the self. Hence, Walden is an
attempt ‘to free us and our language of one another, to discover the
autonomy of each’ (ibid.).
Cavell says that the mutual return of words and ourselves is expressed
by words’ ‘literality’ (ibid.). Literality here should, however, be
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distinguished from the ‘literary’: literality is a broad concept that connotes
the physical characteristics of language as well as its relation to
communication, thought and existence. To acknowledge the literality of
words is to accept the dimension of words whereby not only they but also
the world itself, others, constantly exceed the grasp of human knowledge.
This brings us back to Cavell’s position on scepticism—as related to ‘an
intimacy with existence, or an intimacy lost, that matched skepticism’s
despair of the world’ (Cavell, 1983, pp. 32–33).
A turning point from loss to recovery is to be found in the notion of the
‘father tongue’—‘a reserved and select expression, too significant to be
heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak’
(Thoreau, 1992, III, 3, in Cavell, 1992, p. 15).2 The idea of the father
tongue is used here in contrast to the mother tongue, but it has nothing to
do with notions of authoritarian fatherhood or of doctrinal dogmatism. The
mother tongue is the essential starting point of one’s being initiated into
the language community, and it is symbolised by immediate, intimate
relationships. Precisely because of its familiarity, however, it entails the
danger of a conformity of the self to language, and of the self to itself. The
relationship with the father suggests a need deliberately to create a
distance within familiarity. In this regard, the father tongue is associated
especially with the written word. While the mother tongue, with its
emphasis on speech, suggests a relation of immediacy, the written word
enables a reflective, indirect relationship with what is native. This
indirectness in the act of writing gives us the time to think, to deliberate
and to readjust our relationship with the world. Furthermore, unlike the
assertive, and perhaps even the aggressive, mode of the language of social
justice and rights, Cavell’s and Thoreau’s father tongue is characterised by
the receptivity, silence and patience that are modes of a reader’s relation to
a text. This much is implied in words Cavell quotes from Walden: ‘You
only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all
its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns’ (Thoreau, 1992,
XII, 11, in Cavell, 1992, p. 48). This is the essence of the politics of
interpretation: in reading we subject ourselves to the words of a text; we
are ‘in the gaze or hearing of the text’, ‘letting ourselves be instructed by
texts’ (Cavell, 1983, pp. 52, 53). In acquiring the father tongue through the
medium of the mother tongue, one can undergo the moment of a kind of
rebirth. This is anything but to deny the mother: rather it is to ‘keep faith
at once with the mother and the father, to unite them, and to have the word
born in us’ (Cavell, 1992, p. 16). Rebirth in Walden is a baptism of words,
in the book of Walden, and the water of Walden (p. 17).
Our acquiring of the father tongue is manifested in our reading by the
fact that any anticipation of the writer’s authority as the solid foundation
of the text is destabilised. As its example, Cavell’s text presents us with
words that refuse to be fixed or defined: this ‘tests’ us, putting us, as
readers, on trial. While conventional philosophy has been searching for
the foundation of the truth in secure knowledge, Cavell converts the task
of philosophy into putting the reader into a state of ‘conviction’. The
reader is ‘convicted’ by the text in that she encounters the truth in the
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process of being tested by the text; she is caught in a position of
responsibility by the text (p. 34). Reading in this sense is the process of the
reader and the writer being engaged in a cooperative task of ‘conjecturing’—
that is, of testing the criteria of meaning, of sustaining the search for
The phenomenology of ordinary experience
The economy of living and the baptism of words thus illuminate the
unique features of Cavell’s politics of interpretation, ones that mark a
sharp contrast to (or at least a deviation from) Dewey’s notion of practice.
Cavell suggests that practice exceeds visible, actual change. It involves, as
Paul Standish puts this, an ‘economy of excess’ (Standish, 2005). The
subtle nature of that excess is narrated in The Senses of Walden in what
might be called a phenomenology of ordinary experience—a description
of the internal transformation of the self through the economy of living
and the baptism of words. Cavell’s text itself exacts this awakening,
whether one reads it or tries to translate it. This, as Putnam suggests, is the
task of philosophy for Cavell. According to Cavell, Thoreau transforms
conventional philosophy’s treatment of a sceptical problem as one of
knowing into ‘a matter of solving the mystery of looking through each
other’s eyes’ (Cavell, 2005). This is Thoreau’s revisioning of philosophy.
Thoreau’s ‘mystery’ is not some ethereal mystery beyond the grasp of
human knowledge; instead it is the kind of mystery one encounters in
one’s sense of strangeness within the familiar and the common, within the
here and now. This is Cavell’s Emersonian and Thoreauvian theme of
experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
The reencounter with the world for Cavell and Thoreau is the
achievement of ‘outsideness’ or ‘outwardness’ (Cavell, 1992, p. 55).
Cavell says that Walden provides Kant’s ‘transcendental deduction of the
categories’. While Kant left ‘unarticulated an essential feature (category)
of objectivity itself, viz., that of a world apart from me in which objects
are met,’ Thoreau articulates the ‘externality of the world as its nextness to
me’ (pp. 106–107). He says that ‘[o]ur imagination, or our capacity for
images, and for the meaning or phenomenology of our images . . . are as a
priori as our other forms of knowledge of the world’ (p. 103). Cavell thus
finds in Thoreau a clue to the imaginative power of human beings that can
reveal the reality of the world outside, starting from within consciousness.
With reference to this point, Russell Goodman states that, in his idea of the
‘marriage of the self and the world’, Cavell gives a poetic and
philosophical response to Kant’s intellectual dilemma: the answer that
‘you can experience the world as world, things as things, face to face as it
were, call this the life of things’ (Cavell, 1986, in Goodman, 1990, p. 14).
Dewey’s idea of experience, especially in his later aesthetic writings,
presents this commerce between the self and the world, overcoming the
dichotomy of the subject and the object. In contrast to Dewey, however,
who talks about the structure of experience, Cavell in his phenomenological
account of the ordinary recounts how such commerce can be
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achieved from within our experience, how the outsideness can be created
from within the inside, and how strangeness can be discovered from
within the familiar. In short, the phenomenology of ordinary experience is
an attempt to show a route from the inmost to the outmost.
A more detailed landscape for this route can be found in Cavell’s
phenomenological account of the self’s ‘nextness’ to the world in his
recounting of Thoreau’s idea of the ‘double’, the state of being ‘beside
ourselves in a sane sense’ (Thoreau, 1992, V 11, in Cavell, 1992, p. 102).
Cavell refers to this ‘consciousness of self, and of the self’s standing,
beyond self-consciousness’ (Cavell, 1992, p. 102) and to the ‘sense of
distance from self’ as a relationship of a ‘perpetual nextness’ (pp. 107–
108). The double as a state of distance acquired within the self is related to
the theme of ‘leaving’ in Walden. With reference to the influence of
Eastern thought on Thoreau (for instance, in the idea of ‘detachment’ in
the Baghavad Gita), Cavell says that a significant difference between
Thoreau and Heidegger is that ‘the achievement of the human requires not
inhabitation and settlement but abrogating, leaving’ (p. 138). At the very
end of The Senses of Walden, leaving acquires the connotation of
To allow the world to change, and to learn change from it, to permit it
strangers, accepting its own strangeness, are conditions of knowing it now
. . . [The writer] is bequeathing it to us in his will, the place of the book
and the book of the place. He leaves us in one another’s keeping (p. 119).
Walden as a place and Walden as a book constitute the place for Thoreau
to leave, as a writer and as a sojourner. We, the readers of his text, are left
with the text, with the task of conjecturing the meaning of his words for
each other.
In the phenomenology of ordinary experience, the discovery of the
intimacy between the self and the world is achieved through leaving. It is
the act of building the relationship of ‘neighbourhood’ both inside and
outside of the self. This is not merely a relationship of union or
identification but rather, through and through, the relationship of being
next to one another. It is an acknowledgment of the truth in scepticism that
separation, the gap between the self and the world, is an unavoidable facet
of experience. Goodman points out that it is this gap that is missing from
Dewey’s ‘marriage of the self and the world’ (Goodman, 1990, p. 113).
The experience of mystery for Thoreau and Cavell involves a
reencountering of the familiar in the ordinary as the strange other—even,
that is, within the most familiar identity of the self. In this sense the
transcendence of the self can be achieved not through any kind of selfforgetting
meditation but through the act of reading, thinking and, hence,
philosophising. The politics of interpretation is the exercise of detaching
oneself from ‘attachment’ to any fixed frame of mind; it involves the
reader’s (the student’s) learning to leave the authority of the author (the
teacher) and achieving ‘freedom from the person of the author’ (Cavell,
1983, pp. 52–53), in order to find her own voice.
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Cavell’s account of Thoreau’s Walden thus shows how the economy of
living can enlarge our horizon of practice and open possibilities of
language. While Dewey, Thoreau and Cavell share as American
philosophers some common ground, especially in their common
endeavour to reconstruct philosophy in such a way as to serve ordinary
life, close examination of what Cavell says and how he says it illuminates
a significant shift from Dewey to Cavell. The language in Thoreau and
Cavell sheds light on the transformation of the self, from the inmost to the
outmost. Reading and writing in this sense are original and essential
components of political participation, of critical reconstruction of
democracy as a way of life. This internal perspective is something that
is missing from Dewey’s language. Furthermore, in their common yet
contrasting theme of the ‘marriage of the self and the world’, Cavell
elucidates dimensions of human experience that are hidden by other points
of emphasis in Dewey—the moment of leaving the familiar, of acquiring
the sense of strangeness within the ordinary, or, say, of radical departure
from within home. It is this feature that most clearly distinguishes Cavell’s
idea of philosophy as education from Dewey’s. Cavell writes:
The first step in attending to our education is to observe the strangeness of
our lives, our estrangement from ourselves, the lack of necessity in what
we profess to be necessary. The second step is to grasp the true necessity
of human strangeness as such, the opportunity of outwardness (Cavell,
1992, p. 55).
The central theme of The Senses of Walden is, in a broad sense, education as
rebirth, conversion and awakening, which is simultaneously the task of
philosophy. Education for Cavell is, first of all, the education of the self
through language, and its existential task involves the finding of oneself
through loss. In discovering the bottom of Walden Pond, such finding
cannot start with solid ground: ‘There is a solid bottom everywhere. But
how are we going to weigh toward it, arrive at confident conclusions from
which we can reverse direction?’ (italics added) (p. 76). Cavell’s answer
refers us to the idea of ‘carrying weight, by your force of character and
in your words’, to allowing yourself to undergo the weight of the world,
to ‘lifting the thing that keeps you anchored, and sailing out’ (p. 72).
Foundation is something to be achieved. It also becomes a point of
departure. To accept and then to turn away—this is the idea of education in
Thoreau, captured in his reference to education’s having a ‘point d’appui’
(p. 71). The process of achieving outwardness involves a rediscovery of
one’s ‘interest’ in the world—another economic term that frequently
appears in Thoreau’s and Cavell’s texts. It is in regaining true interests in
the world and the self that we undergo the morning after mourning, in
Thoreau’s celebrated pun, and so can speak ‘in a waking moment, to men in
their waking moments’ (Thoreau, 1992, XVIII, 6, in Cavell, 1992, p. 34).
354 N. Saito
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The Senses of Walden appeals to its readers to ‘become essentially
students’ (Thoreau, 1992, III, 1, in Cavell, 1992, p. 48). This refers to the
achieving of something that is not exactly childhood but rather a process
that might extend throughout our lives. ‘[F]or the child to grow he requires
family and familiarity, but for a grownup to grow he requires strangeness
and transformation, i.e., birth’ (Cavell, 1992, p. 60). This is Cavell’s idea
of philosophy as education for grownups. It is an endless process of
perfection, the process of undergoing the strangeness in the ordinary.
Rebirth is not once and for all, as in Christianity, but a ‘continuous
activity’ in the here and now (p. 53). ‘Change’ in Walden is described as a
natural ‘crisis’ comparable to the moulting of a bird; at the same time, it is
the distinctively human crisis that is mediated by language (p. 43). And
the theme of leaving suggests that education of grownups is a continuous
process of departure from one’s own self and from the other as the teacher,
a process that involves the act of bequeathing.
The idea of philosophy as education in American philosophy helps to
release us from the narrow concept of practice that is dominant. In the
current economy of education and life as a whole, we forget the rich
excess of ordinary experience. This obliteration is the very crisis of
nihilism produced by the depletion of American democracy—a state in
which a facile notion of practice promotes contempt for ‘mere words’ in
an unreflective subjugation to the native use of language. Complementing
Dewey’s pragmatism, Cavell rediscovers a forgotten excess in the
ordinary, the experience of the strange in the familiar, as a part of our
daily practice of teaching and learning. Furthermore, by releasing us as
philosophers of education from our compulsion to apply theory to
practice—that is, by adding ‘educational implications’ to our theoretical
accounts after the event—the Cavellian perspective helps us acquire the
courage to take a step beyond the dichotomous view of theory and
practice, and to be receptive to the senses of a holistic economy of living
as a spring of authentic thinking. It is then that philosophy turns into a
form of practice.3
Correspondence: Naoko Saito, Graduate School of Education, Kyoto
University, Yoshida-Honmachi, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 606-8501,
Email: saitona@www.educ.kyoto-u.ac.jp
1. For a relevant recent discussion of Cavell’s text, see Paul Standish’s ‘Uncommon Schools: Stanley
Cavell and the Teaching of Walden’ (Standish, 2006).
2. In accordance with the system that Cavell uses in The Senses of Walden, chapter references in
Thoreau’s Walden are shown in roman numerals while arabic numerals refer to the paragraph
within the chapter.
3. The original version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Philosophy of
Education Society at Great Britain (March 31, 2006). I am grateful to those present for their
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