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O n t o lo g y vs. E p is te m o lo g y : T h e P h ilo s o p h ic a l D y n a m ic D riv in g E d w a r d A b b e y ’s D e s e r t S o l it a ir e R u s s e l l B u r r o w s Desert Solitaire (1968), Edward Abbey’s most important piece of exposition, has usually been approached from perspectives that are either rhetorical/literary or more specifically ecological. But Abbey’s remarkable book is seldom studied in what would seem a natural con­ text: philosophy. The tendency has been to skip Abbey’s considerable background in philosophy as an incidental to his career as a nature essayist and an econovelist.1 One of Abbey’s famous personality quirks was his ambivalence for academics, and yet he had been enough of a philosophy/English major at the University of New Mexico to have won a Fulbright scholarship to Edinburgh, Scotland, and, on returning to Albuquerque, to have completed Anarchism and the Morality ofViolence (1956) for the master’s requirement (McCann 7). The premise of my essay is that Abbey made excellent use of his formal training and that he wrote Desert Solitaire by steering off the philosophical polestars of ontology and epistemology. These primary branches of philosophy manifest themselves in complementary, back-and-forth exchanges John Nichols. WATER-SNAKE SKELETON. 1982. R u s s e l l B u r r o w s 2 8 5 (they actually establish the chapter divisions) that give Desert Solitaire its dynamic structure. Ontology and epistemology need not daunt. Ontology has conventionally been framed with the question, What do we mean when we say that we live or that we are? Ontology, in other words, is that specialization which delves into the puzzle of our existence. A classic utterance of ontology is René Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum,” or “I think; therefore, I am.” This lends itself with just slight modification to Abbey. Instead of cognition as the basis of existence, Abbey would have substituted the earth, so the change reads, “I am of the earth; therefore, I am.” We might take further liberty with the line and have Abbey say, “I run rivers; therefore, I am.” This is not just the river runner’s play on words, one we’re tickled with on our bumper stickers. Abbey uses a river run in his most intensely ontological chapter, “Down the River,” to make plain the primacy of the earth. From deep within a Colorado River wilderness, Abbey’s persona speaks of the earth as that which “bore us and sustains us” (167). Rejecting the possibility of anything metaphysical , Abbey insists that the earth is “the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need” (167). Close behind this, Abbey drives his ontology still harder, “I am not an atheist but an earthiest. Be true to the earth” (184). But there is also the other of Desert Solitaire’s Janus faces: its epistemology . Epistemology has conventionally been framed with the question, How do we know what we know? A classic instance of epistemology is John Locke’s supposition of the tabula rasa, or the mind as a “blank slate.” As is well known in philosophical circles, Locke held that we have no innate ideas nor spiritual promptings and that we know the world only by what enters through the senses. Locke’s philosophy happens also to have been Abbey’s— that is, in the half of Desert Solitaire in which he assumed his epistemological persona. As an educated man, and also as a modem man, Abbey strove to stay within the bounds of Locke’s careful, rational empiricism. This implies that the Abbey persona would have been something of an experimenter, which in his epistemological gear he certainly is. Abbey often and exuberantly details what he is pleased to call his “experiments.” Many of these are fair ones, but a certain number of oth­ ers maniacally push the bounds of what is lawful. Moreover...


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