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Work, life, and self-cultivation: Thoreau's Walden as a philosophy of work

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posted on 2023-09-27, 06:22 authored by Anastasia Chan

In this thesis, I explore Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 classic Walden and demonstrate that it harbours a complex philosophy of work stressing work’s ethical and existential dimensions. This philosophy of work is based on the key notions of human finitude, self-cultivation, and elevated perception, in the spirit of the American Transcendentalist values. The problems of necessity and the malaises of modern work are explicitly examined in Thoreau’s philosophy. However, the most remarkable aspect of his thought is the elevation of humble toil as an activity that holds spiritual and existential potential. Rather than a merely instrumental activity, work is reconceptualised as an activity that can cultivate the soul, provided that it is deliberate and in line with our highest intentions.

Although Walden has been overlooked in recent philosophy of work debates, it is worth returning to as Thoreau adds significant and original insights to contemporary discussions on craftsmanship, post-work, and meaningful work. Contrary to instrumentalist economic approaches to work and their dominant status in economic thinking, Thoreau offers an account that emphasises the subjective worker, their intrinsic motivations, and the magnitude of their life.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Life and self-cultivation -- Chapter 2: Thoreau's negative account of work -- Chapter 3: Work and necessity -- Chapter 4: Thoreau's positive account of work -- Chapter 5: Potential objections to Thoreau's philosophy of work -- Conclusion -- References

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis MRes


Master of Research

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Jean-Philippe Deranty

Additional Supervisor 1

Mark Alfano


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




82 pages

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