Wilderness in America: Philosophical Writings by Henry Bugbee
Henry Bugbee (1915–1999) was an American philosopher whose name is probably less familiar than other twentieth-century thinkers, yet his small volume of writings is deeply appreciated by those who have read him. A fondness for the man and his thought shines through the pages of this new collection edited by David Rodick, who hopes to introduce Bugbee to a new generation and to make him "more accessible to the wider public" (2). This is a worthy goal, given the delightful idiosyncrasy of Bugbee's writing.
The introduction includes a short biographical sketch, attributing the denial of tenure at Harvard to Bugbee's preference for "experiential reflection" over formal writing; this "fateful event" led to the production and publication of his main philosophical work, Inward Morning, an eclectic set of reflections offered in journal form (3). Parts I through III of the book encompass selections of Bugbee's student writings, published works, and unpublished works, respectively. Part IV, a total of thirty pages, is devoted to an interview with the aged Bugbee and is also almost entirely biographical in its focus. This is followed by a set of appendixes that are mostly honorific tributes. Bugbee is celebrated as a literal "trailblazer" and for his agility in fly-fishing (189). While this material does not shed much light on Bugbee's philosophy, it underscores his impact on his colleagues at the University of Montana (including Albert Borgmann) and others who came into contact with him. Gary Whited, one of Bugbee's students, recalls that what was most significant about his teacher was his "capacity simply to be present, and out of that presence to allow whatever the world was offering to unfold in action, in spoken word or in silence" (194). This description of the man is an apt summation of the impression one is left with after reading through Wilderness in America.
Bugbee's uneasy relationship to the discipline of philosophy, an element that Rodick highlights, can be found as early as his undergraduate thesis, "In Demonstration of the Spirit" (1936), where he takes an aesthetic approach, exploring imagination and intuition and insisting on the need to "get into the spirit of personal, moral, religious, or aesthetic value experience" (27). If philosophy is understood in a narrow way and precludes such exploration, the fledgling philosopher announces that he will have to "break the confines of the medium, for images and a full conscious life beckon me more than their purified reflections—ideas" (18). Rodick describes Bugbee's philosophy as a [End Page 89] nonreductionist and experiential naturalism, one that succeeds in avoiding the unfortunate tendency in modern philosophy "to balkanize 'ought' from 'is'" (7). Bugbee's is a philosophy that centers on presence and participation, akin to that of Gabriel Marcel (a relationship that Rodick has written about elsewhere). The experiential reflection that Bugbee practiced and espoused is also crucially peripatetic—it requires movement, specifically walking (in a pace conducive to reflection). In Inward Morning, Bugbee described his philosophy as taking place "mainly on foot":
It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. I weighed everything by the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the sound of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated by the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality.(Quoted in Wilderness in America, 7)
The peripatetic quality is less obvious in the writings collected here, and Rodick is right to remind us of it.
The natural world was paramount for Bugbee's philosophical approach; this is clear as early as 1947 in the dissertation, "The Sense and Conception of Being," excerpted here. Because "we are normally concerned with the particular definiteness of any situation," Bugbee argues, we usually are not attuned to "the sense of being," which operates as a kind of "monotonous undertone" (41). We tend to approach the world with a "narrow practicality … a species of myopia dictated by the particularity and the urgency of … our needs" and this yields an anthropocentric attitude and approach, and therefore an egocentric world (43). An intense and sustained experience of/in nature induces a shift from an egocentric to a cosmocentric point of view, a view that "inevitably places man as but a child in the universe, introducing a humility and a receptiveness into his position" (45). Bugbee continues, "It is through the sense of being that we come to apprehend the earnestness, the self-sufficiency, the ultimacy, and the finality of reality. Looking deep and again into the eyes of things, do we not read there of wholeness and poise, the plenitude of being?" (51).
The previously published writings reprinted here include "A Venture in the Open," a response to a diverse gathering of professionals interested in Eastern and Western thought that occurred in Belgium in 1958. It is a strange piece, yet the question highlighted by Bugbee—"How can reflective life … be consonant with the urgencies of our practical situation, especially in so far as reflection … is not primarily directed to the solution of practical problems?"—remains timely. "Thoughts on Creation," written in 1962, is quintessential Bugbee, [End Page 90] jumping between Meister Eckhart, Lao Tzu, Heidegger, Whitehead, and Kierkegaard (with Spinoza unnamed but lurking in the background). "The story of creation is an ontological one," Bugbee writes,
indeed, the ontological one. … The disclosure of being … presupposes radical and willing acceptance of creatureliness on our part. … Perhaps the blessing of mortality consists in this, that as mortality grows upon us it strengthens in us the intimation of what is demanded of us—no more and no less than ourselves. … In so far as … we are led, trapped, surprised into moments of unconditional assent and free consent in a mortal existence, we begin to discover the meaning of creation and of coming into the world as men; and the possibility of our part in this, as agents of creation, dialectically insinuates itself into the human will.(81)
A majority of the essay reads like a Heideggerian rumination on the nature of Care, but one that ends quoting Thoreau by way of Kierkegaard: "To will one thing is being patient of creation, to be willing to be with all creatures as creatures, even as the most creaturely of creatures oneself" (81).
The essay from which Rodick borrowed the title for this anthology, "Wilderness in America," was published in 1974 and is in part based on Bugbee's participation in hearings regarding the conservation of areas and rivers in the Northwest that might still be construed as wild:
Wilderness, to the extent that it will not permit one to take one's surroundings for granted, is a place which will not let one off the metaphysical hook. … How does nature speak to our concern? That is the question. And the relationship is one of participation in what occurs, the presencing of heaven-and-earth and all that abounds therein. One is brought to realize that one is held within the embrace of what is proffered in its being proffered. No behind or beyond the things themselves.(91)
Bugbee wrote of a "radical reckoning," placing his hope in the younger generation: "They speak almost univocally of places and creatures having claim upon us to be recognized in their own right. Their plea is … given us in a manner appropriate to it, with gratitude, with forbearance, with respect, in a more liberal frame of mind akin to sacrifice" (91).
The previously unpublished writings included here make for fertile ground, not just for readers already keen on Bugbee, but for anyone interested in American forms of existentialism, process thought, or unusual interpretations of The Book of Job. For it is Job who turns out to be the hero of this assemblage of philosophical musings, appearing not just in the essay that bears his name but throughout the book and especially in these four unpublished pieces. Job represents the epitome of the "decisive mode of appreciation." Following his [End Page 91] encounter with the Voice from the Whirlwind, Job has experienced "an awakening, a quickening of the person in his relationship with things into a placing of himself with them in reality" (99). In his prefatory note to Bugbee's "A Way of Reading the Book of Job," Rodick suggests that "the lesson to be learned from the story of Job is the need to step outside quotidian understanding, remaining open to the absolute source of things. The openness embraced by Job leads to a sense of grace, recalling us to our senses" (116, Rodick's emphasis).
Portions of the introduction (and the prefaces to the early student material) duplicate Rodick's discussion in a 2011 essay in The Pluralist, which is disappointing but perhaps explains the occasionally disjointed nature of the editorial notes. The subsection entitled "Situating Bugbee within the American Tradition" does not deliver on what it promises. This is also unfortunate, and perhaps stems from the slightly hagiographic quality of Rodick's treatment of Bugbee. But these are minor criticisms. A variety of readers will find this collection worth their while, and it is not difficult to imagine using it in a classroom setting. Paired with selections from Inward Morning, this book will offer a new generation the chance to encounter the offbeat mind of Henry Bugbee, whose ideas continue to be fresh and provocative.