Thoreau on Knowing vs. Seeing and What It Takes to Apprehend Reality Unblinded by Our Preconceptions

“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”


“No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings,” physicist David Bohm wrote in examining the nature of creativity, “unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.” And yet, stranded in the purgatory between objective and subjective reality, we are often too blinded by our preconceptions to receive facts as we encounter them, the raw material of reality — something Galileo considered the greatest enemy of critical thinking as he was launching his epoch-making crusade against delusion.

Perched in time between Galileo and Bohm is an improbable kindred spirit: Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), who contemplates what it takes to shift from knowing to seeing, from prejudgment-primed interpretation to apprehension of pure reality, in a passage from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — a book I continue to consider an existential Bible of secular scripture, replete with the great transcendentalist philosopher and poet’s wisdom on the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

In a journal entry from the thick of winter in 1860, just before he became bedridden with what would be his final illness, the forty-three-year-old Thoreau writes:

A man receives only what he is ready to receive… 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, or if we read it, it does not detain us. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and traveling. His observations make a chain. The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe. By and by we may be ready to receive what we cannot receive now.

Complement this particular portion of the endlessly rewarding Journal of Henry David Thoreau with Hegel on the peril of fixed opinions and electromagnetism pioneer Michael Faraday on curing our propensity for self-deception, then revisit Thoreau on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, the spiritual rewards of winter walks, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.


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