Full name: Henry Greenwood Bugbee, Jr. Father’s occupation: surgeon Schools

  • Hotchkiss School: preparatory academy in Connecticut Nearly died of appendicitis in his first year at Princeton During summer, rode freight trains to take harvest jobs in Wyoming and Iowa

1915: Born in New York 1936: Brought his Princeton philosophy degree to the University of California for graduate studies. 1942: Left the University of California to join the United States Navy. He commanded a minesweeper in the Pacific Theater 1946: Returned to University of California to study and start writing his dissertation. 1948–1953: Left Berkeley to teach at Harvard but was denied tenure because of “publish or perish” mindset that privileged shallow discursive production over contemplation Relocated to Missoula. Joined the University of Montana to build a strong philosophy department, but was not supported by administration 1961: Resigned from University of Montana and went to Penn State 1967: Returned to Missoula without formal employment offer from the University of Montana 1977: Retired and stayed in Missoula for two decades 1999: December 18, death

Became a professor at:

  • the University of Nevada at Reno
  • Stanford
  • Harvard
  • Chatham College
  • Penn State
  • University of Montana

Developed a distinct American existential philosophy.

Bugbee’s friends and admirers:

  • William Van Orman Quine - “the ultimate exemplar of the examined life”
  • Gabriel Marcel
  • C.I. Lewis
  • Albert Borgmann
  • Stanley Cavell

The Inward Morning

The Inward Morning—written not as a monograph, but a philosophical exercise conducted through 15 months of journal entries.

The Inward Morning 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 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.” (Inward Morning, 33)

==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. -> (A description mimicking forest garden of the mind).

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.

Fly-fishing and mountain-climbing

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.

Fishing, like walking and writing, became an occasion for contemplation.

Bugbee and walking

“My philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place.” (Inward Morning, 139)

Doing and writing philosophy

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.” (Inward Morning, 10)

“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)

Indeed, at the heart of Bugbee’s philosophy stands the primacy of the question.

“Creation is inexpungably mysterious and can only be understood through participation in it.” (Inward Morning, 233)

==Philosophical writing, for Bugbee, becomes a kind of cartography: the drawing of a map while finding a way through the wilderness of reflection.

“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.” (Inward Morning, 79)

perplexity itself is not the goal

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.

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.

Using literature in philosophy

Bugbee didn’t limit himself from a philosophical canon. He read and used in his writing: Herman Melville, Charles M. Doughty, Franz Kafka, Sophocles, Faulkner

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.


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,

“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.”


this reconceptualization of certainty and experience proves to be preparatory work for finding a new foundation for ethics.

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 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.” (Inward Morning, 70)

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.

Religious nature of his work

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.


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.


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 is the place of meeting with the lives of persons, yes, even with one’s own life.” (Inward Morning, 40)

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.


Joseph Keegin. (2020, July 29). Henry Bugbee: Thinker, Wanderer, Fly-Fisherman. Athwart.