The Life and Thought of Henry Bugbee
“If one works out the thoughts, the perceptions that press upon him with the demand for completion, as they lead to one another, in time the actual themes of his philosophy may have a chance to define themselves. Such a philosophy will not be set up like the solution of a puzzle, worked out with all the pieces lying there before the eyes. It will be more like the clarification of what we know in our bones.” — Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning
In 1946, Henry Bugbee stepped off the deck of the United States Navy minesweeper he’d commanded in the Pacific Theater and walked back into the classroom at the University of California, Berkeley that he’d left four years earlier. In 1936 he carried his Princeton philosophy degree westward and began his graduate studies, only to have them interrupted in 1942 with the outbreak of the war and his obligatory call to service. Back in Berkeley—newly humbled by his time at sea, and with the problem of the universe swirling in his head—Bugbee sat down to write his dissertation. What he produced there—and what he would develop over the course of the subsequent decades in professorships at the University of Nevada at Reno, Stanford, Harvard, Chatham College, Penn State, and finally the University of Montana—would become the seeds of a new, distinctly American existential philosophy.
Throughout the course of his career, Henry Bugbee attracted a diverse collection of friends and defenders. William Van Orman Quine, who chaired Harvard’s philosophy department during Bugbee’s tenure there, once referred to him as “the ultimate exemplar of the examined life.” He befriended the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who in the 1950s joined Bugbee and D. T. Suzuki in a series of conversations with Martin Heidegger, and who wrote in an introduction Bugbee’s single published monograph The Inward Morning that “Bugbee and I inhabit the same land. . . [that] is benefitted by a certain climate, or better still, is illuminated by a light of its own. The American philosopher and I attempt to orient ourselves by that light.” C. I. Lewis, the founder of conceptual pragmatism and one of Bugbee’s colleagues at Harvard, wrote of one of his essays that “it bespeaks and expresses that elevation of mind which has made philosophy philosophy in past ages, and the complete absence of which at present makes this period in philosophy contemptible.” And Albert Borgmann, German philosopher and theorist of technology and Bugbee’s colleague in Missoula, recalls of him: “There is only one person of genius I have known and learned from personally; I mean Henry, of course.” Bugbee participated in seminars with Hans-Georg Gadamer in Syracuse in the 1970s, was the subject of a lecture series that included Alasdair MacIntyre, Hubert Dreyfus, and Hilary Putnam, and was a teacher of Stanley Cavell, who would go on to become the twentieth century’s foremost philosopher in the American personalist tradition, following Thoreau, Emerson, and Bugbee himself.
And yet, after this rather illustrious and public career, Bugbee drifted into obscurity. His single published book, The Inward Morning—written not as a monograph, but a philosophical exercise conducted through 15 months of journal entries—was met with a flurry of positive reviews around the time of its publication in 1958, but then almost immediately dwindled to the status of cult object for environmentalists, philosophers with a penchant for the obscure, and nature mystics. These decades of obscurity constitute a genuine tragedy. Our age’s frantic obsession with glimmering machinery and transcending natural limitations through technology—and our simplistic quasi-scientific ideology that reduces the complexity of the world to a handful of counterintuitive propositions—find a balm in Bugbee, whose patient work is to reorient our vision to the proximate, unassuming, and seemingly mundane world around us and show us that it has always been charmed.
Henry Greenwood Bugbee, Jr. was born in New York in 1915. Little is known about his early life: his father was a surgeon; he had two sisters. At age 6, he escaped his parents’ Manhattan apartment and was discovered observing fish in a local pool. He was educated at the Hotchkiss School, a preparatory academy in Connecticut of impressive WASP pedigree. In his freshman year at Princeton, he nearly died of appendicitis; during his summers there, he hopped freight trains to work harvest jobs in Wyoming and Iowa. Harvard plucked him from Berkeley to teach from 1948 to 1953, but he was ultimately denied tenure—an early casualty of the university’s newfound “publish or perish” mindset, which privileged sheer discursive production over teaching or contemplation. He relocated to Missoula. There, he writes, he hoped to “build a strong Philosophy department” at the University of Montana, “but a change of the university administration did not support this understanding.” He resigned in 1961 and moved back east to teach at Penn State, but finally returned to Missoula in 1967—without any formal offer of employment from the university. Retiring in 1977, he would remain there for the next two decades. On December 18, 1999, Henry Bugbee died.
Bugbee devoted as much time to fly-fishing and mountain-climbing as he did to philosophy. Indeed, he lived by the principle that no division exists between philosophical meditation and meditative activity: “My philosophy took shape mainly on foot,” he writes in the preface to The Inward Morning: “It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place.” Fishing, too, was an occasion for the same deliberate thoughtfulness that marked walking and writing. “He fished with the same eloquence he lived,” his obituary records. “No fly-line could be cast with greater grace; no one could acquire a more studied knowledge of the streams and lakes and the fish that finned there; no one could have a more reflective understanding and appreciation of the fullness of the moment when a fish breaks water.” Philosophy, for Bugbee, was first and foremost rooted in the concrete, granular details of life as it is lived, and in the process of decision-making that shapes it: “For meditation is the thoughtful reckoning of the will with its own life: Its concern is that of truth underlying human decision. . . My task has been that of overcoming such abstraction, to accommodate the life of spirit with all the mind.”
“He was a kind of quiet, unassuming genius,” says Edward F. Mooney, professor of philosophy and religion at Syracuse University and author of several books about Bugbee. “If philosophy is a personal search for the quick, the soul of personal life and the unknown wilderness in which we trek, then Bugbee’s is one of the few philosophers you can read as exemplifying this search. Where most philosophers focus in a detached way on abstract arguments for this or that, Bugbee dares you to immerse your soul in the wonders of nature.” Mooney befriended Bugbee shortly after his departure from Harvard, shortly after his relocation to Missoula. “I just showed up at his office,” he relates, “where he was smoking his pipe and dressed—all handsome 6’2” of him—in Western jeans. I stammered incoherently. He politely chatted. I was smitten.” After their meeting, Mooney—along with Bugbee’s colleagues in Missoula, especially Albert Borgmann—would become instrumental in assembling and publishing Bugbee’s written manuscripts and establishing his legacy. “Every few years after I’d visit him again,” Mooney relates, “and I organized a ‘party’ for him where contributors to an essay collection devoted to his writing gathered. I attended his funeral two years later.”
The Inward Morning—for which Mooney’s essay “Philosophy in Wilderness” serves as a beautiful introduction—wanders through styles and subjects like a mountain hiker through altitudinal biomes. Conceptual analysis gives way to meditations on the writings of Gabriel Marcel and Meister Eckhart, which then flow into impressionistic depictions of memories drawn from early childhood, his years as a champion rower, and his time at sea. All the while, however, Bugbee refuses the declarative register of professional academic philosophy in favor of a ruminative, questioning, almost confessional tone: “I have yet to discover,” he confides in his first entry, “how to say what moves me to the endless search and research, the reflective turning over in my mind of experience. The turning over is all so much tilling.” The work that follows is Bugbee’s record of the tilling and cultivation of his mental garden, and the results—like beans dried on the vine, pumpkins forgotten in the field—constantly supply him with seeds for new questions and investigations.
Indeed, at the heart of Bugbee’s philosophy stands the primacy of the question. The thinker revealed in the course of the book is a perpetual wonderer caught in perplexity, for whom reality arrives as an inexhaustible mystery—one that is deciphered not by weaving elaborate tapestries of philosophical language, but through the action of daily living. “Creation is inexpungably mysterious,” Bugbee writes, “and can only be understood through participation in it.” The act of explanation, which professional philosophers cherish, is “an endless business”, a never-exhaustive attempt at discovering what’s solid within the fluctuating substance of thought. Philosophical writing, for Bugbee, becomes a kind of cartography: the drawing of a map while finding a way through the wilderness of reflection. He writes:
"My task has been to learn to write in a vein compatible with what I can honestly say in the act of trying to discover what I must say. It has been a precarious business. I have found myself thinking quite differently from the majority of men who are setting the style and the standard of philosophy worth doing. . . Often I do not know what I am trying to say."
But of course, perplexity itself is not the goal. Like Socrates before him, for whom perplexity is an opening for learning and “wonder is the only beginning of philosophy,” Bugbee’s confusion quickly resolves into a reverence for the overabundant, miraculous nature of our experience of things. Wonder stirs us to openness—to a receptive, inquisitive comportment toward the world—which then proves to be the true source of the certainty so desired by philosophers. Certainty, in Bugbee’s reading, comes not from developing a logically watertight, systematic doctrine that answers the fundamental questions that nag us—the meaning of life, the existence of God, and so forth—but rather from reflection upon experience. But for Bugbee, experience is always shot through with wonder, understood as “a tissue of meaning…permeated with meaning by invasion,” contrary to the empiricist belief in experience as sensory data “from which we are removed to the capacity of observers” and “from which we are in a position to make assured reports.” Against the dogma of empiricism, Bugbee insists upon a richer, deeper, and altogether more basic understanding of experience—one that recognizes the genuine philosophical potential of our otherwise mundane daily comings and goings. “The mystery of each thing,” no matter how commonplace, “is the mystery of all things; and this—not generalization or the broadening of our scope of attention to wider and wider complexes of things, is the foundation of the idea of universe: the omnirelevance of the experience of something as sacred.”
Ultimately, this reconceptualization of certainty and experience proves to be preparatory work for finding a new foundation for ethics. Unlike Heidegger, whose silence on ethical matters famously motivated the career of his student Emmanuel Levinas, Bugbee’s existentialism directly confronts the question of how to act well. Against modern moral philosophy’s emphasis on choice—that ethics has to do with devising a rational system that dictates how an individual should choose one action over another—Bugbee is interested in how the conditions we find ourselves in on a day-to-day level are already a source of “pre-ethical” phenomena that, if properly understood, guide our activity toward the good: before conducting any abstract rational speculation about actions we should or should not take, we already find our lives marked by obligation, commitment, hope, and faith. Proper reflection upon our situation will reveal that our decisions are never conducted as abstract choices between one rationally correct thing or another, but are themselves part of the “tissue of meaning” in which we are always entangled. “The practical importance of ethical thought,” he writes, “lies not in its yielding a blueprint on which we might construct our lives and model our actions, but in the possibility it may afford of immediate clarification with regard to a foundation of life that is absolutely genuine (as opposed to optional, arbitrary, or conditional), and utterly beyond artifice or manipulation.” Action is genuine or it is nothing. It is concrete or it is nothing. An act emerges only from the texture of day-to-day life, from a place; to consider an act abstractly is interesting only inasmuch as it actually happens. But its ultimate source is life, not thought—and any investigation into how good action is possible will have to begin from within the texture of a life.
What, then, does Bugbee have to offer us today? What does a solitary peripatetic and fly fisherman have to say about the problems facing twenty-first century America? Nothing directly, of course: his project has no concern for history, no sense for timeliness or contemporary issues. Instead, his work attempts to lead us like Virgil out of some of the foundational problems of modernity: the loss of transcendence, the siloing of “philosophy” into an increasingly narrow and professionalized discipline, and the obliteration of meaning that follows from the transformation of place into space.
Bugbee’s corpus offers an utterly undogmatic approach to thinking that weaves a fabric between philosophy and religion. Nowhere in his writing does he ever insist upon the truth of a particular religious creed—there’s no evidence he was ever a religious practitioner—but his work is written in an unmistakably theological register. Indeed, the picture of life and thought he gives is shot through with a religious character: “Except as ethical reflection is undertaken in what I must call the spirit of prayer—an utmost form of commitment which cannot be simulated or induced—it cannot be freed from arbitrariness.” Faith becomes constitutive for understanding, an attitude undergirding every engagement with the world; to live presupposes faith in the grounds of one’s living, a ground that is never fully comprehensible and that which we can never master. His few surviving essays include one on the Book of Job and understanding as “a relation of mutual address” between being and the one seeking to understand it. And in an essay on the concept of creation, Bugbee concludes: “Creation uniquely involves us as agents of creation in what necessarily comes to pass. . . It is simply and eternally to be done.”
Nor did Bugbee limit himself only to drawing from a “philosophical” canon. Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and Kant make their appearances—but so too do Herman Melville, Charles M. Doughty, Franz Kafka, Sophocles, Faulkner. At his first meeting with his new students and faculty colleagues at Harvard, Bugbee gave a short speech on awe and terror drawn from a passage in Melville; and the first journal entry in The Inward Morning begins with a quotation from the autobiography of William Carlos Williams. “Moby Dick seems to me an articulate introduction into the presence of things in their finality,” he writes, beginning an inquiry into “things exist[ing] in their own right.” Literature, it seems, can have just as much a philosophical character as canonical, written philosophy. And in his engagement with Buddhist thought in his friendship with D. T. Suzuki, Bugbee demonstrated the universality of his approach, drawing eagerly from a source deemed alien to the Western tradition of philosophy beginning with Plato and Aristotle.
But perhaps the most significant and lasting characteristic of Bugbee’s reflective philosophy is the importance of place. Philosophy, for Bugbee, is inextricable from life, and life is always lived somewhere: among specific people in a specific landscape, in which one walks and performs specific activities. “This day”—any day, the sunup to sundown in which philosophizing takes place—”is the place of meeting with the lives of persons, yes, even with one’s own life.” We cannot ever achieve complete control over the place we inhabit in the world of things: rather we are placed, we already inhabit an environment, and our philosophizing must begin here. Philosophy is reflection on place, and upon ourselves in place: we think where we are, about where we are, and about what surrounds us—and as place informs our thinking, so too does our thinking reciprocally inform the world in which we move. As Mooney describes it in his introduction: “The place we live will continually be completed by our responsiveness: it is not some static dot on an abstract map, but depends for its profile on our responsiveness, a life undertaken with others in a creation that is emerging, that is underway.”
Our age is defined by pointless chatter, restless busyness, the constant low hum of anxiety. Children are trained from grade school to seek positions in elite colleges, or they are forgotten and left to fall into the degrading morass of drugs, crime, and institutional life-support schemes. The coronavirus pandemic has universalized the isolation and malaise that once characterized suburban existence, submerging every environment for collective living in America in suspicion, fear, and feverish neuroticism. “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers,” George Orwell wrote in 1946—and seven decades later, our situation is not much different. But even in the grim gray fog of postwar Britain, there was room for hope: “the earth,” of course, “is still going round the sun.” And so too for us. The wilderness of Being awaits, if we only dare to encounter it as such. And like our lonely planet whirling endlessly around the proximate star, Bugbee shows us that the possibility of philosophizing never ends, that there is always truth to be found in quiet and calm—and that it’s available not just to aristocrats or the quick-witted, but to anyone with eyes to see, a few memories, and an honest heart.
Edward Mooney, “Philosophy in Wilderness,” introduction to Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), xix. ↩︎
Gabriel Marcel, introduction to The Inward Morning, 18. ↩︎
Henry Bugbee, “Vita,” in Wilderness in America (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 179. ↩︎
Bugbee, The Inward Morning, 139. ↩︎
Bugbee, The Inward Morning, 10. ↩︎
Ibid., 33. ↩︎
Ibid., 233. ↩︎
Ibid., 39. ↩︎
Ibid., 79. ↩︎
Ibid., 41. ↩︎
Ibid., 209. ↩︎
Ibid., 70. ↩︎
Ibid., 64. ↩︎
Henry Bugbee, “A Way of Reading the Book of Job,” in Wilderness in America, 126. ↩︎
Henry Bugbee, “Thoughts on Creation,” in Wilderness in America, 82. ↩︎
Bugbee, The Inward Morning, 163. ↩︎
Ibid., 164. ↩︎
Ibid., 40. ↩︎
Mooney, Philosophy in Wilderness, xix, ↩︎
Joseph M. Keegin is the Society editor. He is a graduate of the St. John's College Graduate Institute (Annapolis) and former teacher currently working as a bookseller in Chicago. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.