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Finding One’s Own Voice: The Philosophical Development of Henry G. Bugbee, Jr.
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Finding One’s Own Voice:
The Philosophical Development of Henry G. Bugbee, Jr.

Get down as far as possible the minute inflections of day to day thought. Get down the key ideas as they occur. . . . Write on, not over again. Let it flow. . . . Don’t be stopping to jam the idea down somebody’s throat. Give it a chance. If there can be concrete philosophy, give it a chance. Let one perception move instantly on another. Where they come from is to be trusted. Unless this is so, after all is said and done, philosophy is arbitrary and idle.

—Henry G. Bugbee, Jr.

I first heard the name “Henry Bugbee” several years ago in a graduate seminar on Heidegger. After discussing the mystical-poetic aspects of Heidegger’s later thought, the question was posed as to what possibilities were left for philosophy. A silence fell over the classroom. The professor quickly filled the void by offering the example of a philosopher who “moved to Montana and took up fly-fishing.” Wanting to know more, I approached my professor after class. At that moment, I became acquainted with the name Henry Bugbee.

Bugbee’s thought defies any form of easy categorization. Calvin O. Schrag characterized Bugbee as “one of the more marginalized philosophers of the twentieth century,” and Willard Van Orman Quine described him as “the ultimate exemplar of the examined life” (See Shrag and Quine vii). His major work, The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form, is a series of journal entries. Bugbee’s writing transcends the academic register in terms of rational economy and disciplinary focus. Already aware of the limitations of formal philosophical writing as an undergraduate, he acknowledges that “[c]ertainly anyone who throws his entire personality into his work must to some extent adopt an aesthetic attitude and medium” (In Demonstration 83).

“Finding one’s own voice” is not a matter of simply identifying an approach that fits one’s preference—it is engaging in the act of being receptive to that which defies categorical predetermination: “Fluency is the stylistic counterpart of the way present experience is invaded with authentic meaning. Basic [End Page 18] meanings are not anticipated; they dawn on one (Bugbee, Inward Morning 34). Western philosophy has a long history of pursuing its quest for knowledge within what Heidegger refers to as der bestimmende Vorgriff, or “determining pre-conception” through which the results of reflection are attenuated in advance. The imposition of a determining framework results in a rigid separation between pre-philosophical and “philosophical” knowledge—the latter attainable only after a high degree of professional propaedeutic. An ontological bifurcation results because reality often reveals itself to us as such precisely at those moments where it surpasses all of our forms of representation. As Bugbee says:

Since [my] earliest days of philosophic study, I have remained concerned with the works of philosophers, not in themselves, but as helps to the understanding of experience. I study the works of philosophers out of an interest which subordinates theory to understanding. . . . It will be ever important to me to give attention to technical philosophy but I will never be able to take technical philosophy as the ultimate phase of a reflective life.

The story of Bugbee’s important place in American philosophy is beginning to be told. His undergraduate thesis and doctoral dissertation—documents yet to be accessible to the wider philosophical community—are excellent places to begin.1 Here we are able to witness the unfolding of classic Bugbeean themes. The experiential nature of reflection, the absolute dimension of experience, and the intensive nature of being are proffered in a highly original manner—rich indications of things to come.

The Princeton Years: In Demonstration of the Spirit

Every time I retrace the course of my reflections since ‘their beginning’ in my undergraduate years I discern as central this preoccupation with [the] ‘somewhat absolute’ in experience.


Bugbee’s propensity for concreteness and originality can be traced back to his youth. The son of a successful physician, Bugbee grew up in Manhattan, where he cultivated a deep appreciation of classical music, art, and jazz. It is rumored that...