Wilderness in America

Philosophical Writings

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Henry Bugbee
David W. Rodick
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , August
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Wilderness in America: Philosophical Writings, edited by David W. Rodick, compiles works of Henry Bugbee from student writings through published and unpublished essays. An appendix includes Bugbee’s Curriculum Vitae, an added angle from which to ponder this philosopher’s life work. Bugbee’s philosophy, said to be “deeply experiential and resistant to summarization” (4), is a unique contribution to the American tradition and may be a new discovery to many. A particularly revealing anecdote, repeated in the course of the book, is Bugbee’s denial of tenure at Harvard. Bugbee is said to have “accepted the position knowing full well that the Harvard approach to philosophy would chafe against some of his deepest philosophical commitments” (3). Even so, he received praise from Willard van Orman Quine who “described him as the ultimate exemplar of the examined life” (2). Bugbee received the George Santayana Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Philosophy right after being denied tenure, 1953-54 (179). This and Bugbee’s resignation from a position at the University of Montana in 1961 resulting from a lack of support from the administration for building a strong Philosophy Department (179), shows a strong commitment to his unique calling and kinship with philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel; who writes in the introduction to Bugbee’s book, The Inward Morning, that both “inhabit the same land ... illuminated by a light of its own ... Since this is a spiritual light, however ... we do not occupy fixed and distinct positions which might be plotted on a well-defined map” (6).

Bugbee’s student writings reveal his profound maturity and great facility with particular philosophical thinkers. His undergraduate thesis from Princeton, written in 1936, places his thought in opposition to the tide of philosophy in America but within what was happening in Continental Philosophy. He writes, “Consciousness is essentially unique in that it cannot be represented in the Spatio-Temporal dimensions of Science, nor can we understand it by an exclusively behavioristic approach” (20). More than an academic exercise, philosophy is for him a way of life: “more than an outfit of systems, with which a certain academic minority professionally invests itself, to discard them by the fire and bedside—but rather that reflections of everyman, however adequate or persistent, with which he pursues the entire course of this life” (27).

Bugbee completed his doctoral writing at Berkeley in 1947. We find clear resonance between his thought and the tide of Continental Philosophy at the time, but there is also an American essence, finding meaning as experienced in the natural world: “[b]eing is really an unusually commonplace sort of affair. It is not surprising that we are only seldom impressed with it, and that such occasions are largely inadvertent and even less susceptible to artificial cultivation ... The sense of being is a face to face encounter with the presence of things” (48). His dissertation evokes both Heidegger and Thoreau.

Heidegger’s investigation of the thing in the commonness of a jug resonates with what Bugbee might reference as a “face to face” encounter that brings to presence the thing. Heidegger writes that things stand “forth into unconcealdeness of what is already present,” (“The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, 168) and Bugbee points out that there is something of us being “only seldom impressed with it.” Bugbee returns to “things” in 1962 in an unpublished response to Huston Smith’s essay in the Saturday Evening Post: “The Revolution in Western Thought.”

The concreteness of things also calls us into wonder. Addressing philosophical wonder, Bugbee turns to Aristotle’s Metaphysics (983a), “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (52). Bugbee writes, “It is through the sense of being that the most profound wonder of reality is borne in upon us” (52). He continues to reflect on Aristotle’s statement writing that wonder involves “a recognition of ignorance, and consequently a motive to escape from ignorance, upon which the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake ensues” (53). But the spark of wonder that draws us to pursue knowledge for its own sake is slowly snuffed out through some of the ways of knowledge such as procedures of explanation: “ways in which explanation is accomplished ... tend to expurgate wonder” (53). Bugbee asserts, “There is no explanation for being, and it is in this sense that our wonder ‘that things are as they are’ is fundamental and final” (54). 

Bugbee’s coupling of thought and action through the medium of speech and witness repeats in various writings. He writes that meditation is “discovered as a meaning to be done” (70), and “we are more able to take the measure of what is thought and said” as we call “one another out in the open of living speech.” In this opening Bugbee questions the criteria of judgment, which should not remove us from the situation of our thinking as in various methodologies. He writes, “[t]hey must themselves share the questionableness of our very existence, and require to be distinguished from methodological and procedural rules” (66). Bugbee cautions against reason that prevents us from living through a concrete reality (71).

In Bugbee’s essay “Thoughts on Creation” the theme of living speech and co-articulation comes forth. Myths of creation are a speaking and ‘primordial thinking of the coming into being of things and man,’ which is also described as a participation in the coming to pass of that of which such myths tell” (75). He poetically describes the creative play and mutual unfolding that these myths disclose in the world’s coming into being. He writes, “myths of creation tend to disclose that of which they speak; the mists and emerging grandeur of the morning of creation play in the very speech. Here speech itself seems to find its origin and meaning, bursting forth decisively” (75). The coming into being of the world as the unfolding of speech is an ongoing happening, never settling into something solid. He writes “that the world essentially can be only in coming to pass; it cannot be conjured with as extant. World is, if you will, always in the building, being forged to be done; it cannot lapse from dawning and formation” (75).

For Bugbee the wilderness is an attitude cultivated through dialogue, “potentiated in a listening through which we find ourselves addressed” (86). Listening involves waiting in silence, “solitude, and the infinite manifestness of the place” (86). In this dialogue our speech is not a “thematization of a speaking about,” but rises out of an attention to “the primordial address of the place in which the potential of speech may be trued and renewed” (87). Dialogue happens with the other, who like wilderness, is undomesticated.

Reading this wonderful book inspires me to look back on my own research and writing and wonder why I had not known Henry Bugbee? I feel as though he were following me, always there in a blind spot, and now suddenly coming around offering a smile and a wave as he passes. I have discovered the reality of Gabriel Marcel’s statement the we “inhabit the same land.” I plan to visit Henry Bugbee often as the days unfold.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kip Redick is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion and Professor Christopher Newport University.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Henry Bugbee (1915–99) was the author of The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form.

David W. Rodick is assistant professor of philosophy at Xavier University. He has taught philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maryland University College at Bagram, Afghanistan, Michigan Technological University, and Xavier University in Cincinnati.


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