- 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 Parts I through III of the book encompass selections of Bugbee's student writings, published works, and unpublished works, respectively.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...