Narrative philosophy and religion could clarify and intensify our attitude about ourselves and the world

Philosophy and religion can intensify or clarify a stance toward oneself, others, and the world. Narratives are often the vehicle.

What Ed Mooney is looking for

In the foreword of his book, Living Philosophy, edward mooney shares what kind of writers and writings he made as his life work. He prefers authors that mixed philosophy, religion, and literature. Authors who value action and “a yielding soul.” Authors like:

He then identifies the kinds of writings from these authors that he thinks are interesting. He particularly focuses on narratives. These are the criteria he is looking for:

  • Narratives that present deep thoughtfulness
  • Narratives that veer towards the religious
  • Narratives that are tuned to the moment
  • Dramatic
  • Episodic
  • Conversational
  • Exposes felt-realities
  • Delivers a tang of life
  • Moments of passionate speech
  • Circus identity
  • Self and soul
  • Acting and receiving
  • Thought and passion

Mooney contrasts these with assured knowing or structured philosophy.

For Mooney, these accounts go beyond psychological, sociological and commonsensical ways of understanding. They are received by what he calls the soul. Furthermore, these accounts counter a self that seeks mastery.

The essays that Mooney wrote in response to these accounts were not a research project. He described them as “essays along paths that only gradually revealed their interweaving.”

Narrative passages from these writers present deep thoughtfulness, veering toward the religious, and tuned to the moment. They are not pronouncements from eternity or timelessly valid demonstrations. They’re dramatic, episodic and conversational, exposing felt-realities.

I consider writing that delivers a tang of life and moments of passionate speech, that displays the nature of circus identity. I take up matters of self and soul, acting and receiving, thought and passion.

These accounts of grave and exuberant matters bring us beyond psychological, sociological, or commonsensical ways of understanding. They come to inhabit the soul. A soul is at the receiving end of things, a site of imaginative mulling and yielding, of listening that counters a self that seeks mastery.

Literary philosophers like Montaigne, Thoreau, Nietzsche or Cavell seek episodic felt-realities. What unfolds is not assured knowing or a philosophical system but the exaltation or terror of an open sea.

This is not the outcome of a research project but essays along paths that only gradually revealed their interweaving. For me, this traces a life’s work.

Living philosophy, after Mooney

I like this word “living philosophy” by Mooney. He uses it to refer to philosophy in two ways:

  1. Philosophy as a dramatic living narrative.
  2. Philosophy as something lived by people in various ways.

“Living Philosophy” in my title has a double sense. We have philosophy that’s conveyed as a dramatic living narrative. And second, we have a spectrum of persons who in various ways are living out their philosophies.

Passionate speech: Improvisations in the disorders of desire

Excessive secularization has hindered us from expressing our full selves

Excessive secularization have prevented us from seeing mystery (Mysteries I believe in). Poetry aims to help us recover that sense of mystery.

Jolley, K. D. (2017). Stony Lonesome (1st edition). Summerfield Publishing/New Plains Press.

We have become secular people, partial people; we no longer believe in, much less live in the interpenetration of the natural and the supernatural: we have lost that sense of mystery that creates ceremony, that reveals to us the garden of the world we live in. In our loss of that sense of mystery, we have lost what galvanizes us against sloth, prevents our souls from growing woolly and fungous … Blind to the seasons’ gifts, numb to nature … careless of ourselves and of others, bored alike by damnation and salvation, we become graceless by inaction. It is one (one) aim of poetry to recover that sense of mystery, to beckon us from sloth.

Soul vs self, after Mooney

Ed Mooney differentiates between the self and the soul. He does not provide a clear explanation of the difference. But he just points out that they are different. The self is critical, rational, and controlling. It aspires to overcome obstacles and has a “just do it” attitude. To take care of it is to surrender to its control. Taking care of the soul, on the other hand, involves opening oneself to one’s deepest passions and values even those that are irrational. Mooney associates the soul to that part of us which is untamed and irresolvable because it is filled with conflicts. Is there available terminology in psychology to capture this difference?

Here’s another way to explain the difference. The self desires control. It will create structures, make sense of the world around it, and attempt mastery to protect itself. But nature and the universe is indifferent to the self’s well-being. It kills the self. Everyone eventually dies. The self’s failure to beat death should lead to awe, astonishment, and later reverence, all other emotions.

Perhaps it is metaphysically incorrect to take these two words and get the two to go against each other. But the contradicting attitudes that the two represent definitely exist and we understand them.

Care for the soul moves in different terrain than care for the self. The self takes on executive initiatives, has critical and rational drives, and has a will to take charge of life and master its obstructions—“just do it.” Care for the soul is something else again. To value the soul is to be open to one’s deepest passion, its capacity to value.

It is to yield to and care for the untamed, the irresolvable or intractable, the realm of conflicting shadows.

The majestic and sublime can be supremely indifferent to my well-being, despite the self’s will-to-mastery. A sharp reminder of finitude, the failure of mastery in death, calls me to a piety I’ve abandoned. It addresses me in an idiom not solely secular.

The avoidance of passionate speech in mainstream philosophy deprives us of an essential resource

Ed Mooney questions the academe’s avoidance of passionate speech, like piety, in favor of critical thinking. For him, excluding piety from the humanities is excluding an important part of being human. Piety counterbalances relentless self-assertive critique. In his teaching, Mooney integrates piety with intellectual work. Not doing so makes an education partial. We are not taught feeling attentively and engaging with our passions responsibly.

If I were asked collegially what piety and soul were doing in a secular classroom, I could ask in return why I should stick with a valorization of the secular that excludes evocations of piety.

And I could ask why in this age of dark woods and horrors, questioning the limits of the executive self violates the aims of the humanities.

Literature, philosophy, art, religion, and music—the humanities—are portals to all things human, and piety is one of those things. There’s truth in piety’s reticence, patience, and listening. It’s relief from relentless self-assertive critique. In teaching, I move naturally from a mountain-trail CAUTION or a poem of Emily Dickinson to contemplative activities, such as reading, writing, thinking quietly, focused on texts tilted toward the religious.

Mainstream philosophers have by and large disowned passionate speech. We teach critical thinking but not feeling attentively; we teach rational decision theory but not responsible passions.

Our blindness to the varied registers of biblical narration, ballet, and biology is both bad logic and stunted passion. Seeing better and feeling with more subtlety can mark metamorphosis of spirit. The worst of passions can be deflated by rational critique, but defeating the worst is not attaining the best.

Passionate speech, by Cavell

Passionate speech, per Cavell, is not purely descriptive and performative. It is an expression of subjectivity. Passionate speech or utterances live when we receive them; they die when we refuse them, i.e., through applying analysis. That said, there are utterances whose effect are immediate and does not need interpretation (“there is no space between words and their impacts”). In these speech and utterances “presence leaps from the page.”

Passionate utterances are “invitations to improvisation in the disorder of desire.”

Cavell links passionate speech to “redemptive writing” and “redemptive reading.”

We can find witness to “passionate speech,” witness to souls in dark woods, in the epigraph to Cavell’s signal 1962 article, “The Availability of the Philosophy of the Later Wittgenstein.”

“passionate utterance” is speech neither purely descriptive nor the ceremonial or quasi-legal domain of performative utterance.

not only informative but also a pleading and warning. It’s urgently uttered from the heart, meant to impact my heart, realign my desires.

If I head back rather than continue, it’s due to its elegant improvisation, not to overt threat or coercion or ceremonial effectiveness.

Passionate utterance invokes shapes of passion and desire, of imagination and sensibility, prompting the responsiveness Kierkegaard calls our subjectivity. Arcing words can lift us—or leave us indifferent. They live or die as we receive or refuse them.

They are proposals—invitational, intimate universals. They are lifelines—to grasp or not.

We work in the dark reading certain passages from Melville or Kierkegaard. We wonder if we sense what they sense and wonder if it can illuminate our own dark woods. We submit to the madness, the slight mitigation, of art. There are moments in passionate writing when interpretation does not “go all the way down,” where there is no space between words and their impacts. Presence leaps from the page the way wonders leap from the world, leaving enormous room for love of the world, for ongoing revelation, for suspension of doubts. Here is a taste of brie, a wince at sudden light, the flight of an ethereal hawk. At such moments digressive interpretations will miss the grounding tenors of life.

The poet’s unclouded lyrical eye gives us presence. Glaring styles of representation and analysis, or those that take flight only at dusk, muffle the eloquent presence and passionate speech that calls philosophy, poetry, and religion into being.

How to read lyrical philosophy

Understand what is said, how it is said, and how it affects your own sensibilities.

I listen to what is said, how it is said, and how it elicits my own sensibilities and soul. What is said could be a simple declaration “Be yourself.” We get the dictionary meaning of each word if not a message. How it is said begins to fill in meaning beyond mere recitation of sounds. It might be rebuking (“Stop playing the clown!” Or, encouraging. “Just relax, you’ll do fine!”). Third, I might register my existential response. As I hear, “Be Yourself!” I might ask if I personally avoid—or embrace or am just baffled by “Be Yourself!”

We wonder if we sense what they sense

Philosophy needs passion and song

Philosophy needs passion because it is love, no friendship, of wisdom, and that friendship involves passion. Seen this way, argumentation, analysis, and debates in philosophy become secondary, not primary. This kind of philosophy involves not just the training of the mind to think and anlyze but the training of the senses

If philosophy infiltrates my passions, commitments, or desires—if it evokes passionate speech improvising in my soul—then it will not be lawyer-like argument, or analysis of social contracts, or debate about sense and reference. The exemplars of this wider sort of writing would include Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Kierkegaard’s The Point of View of My Work as an Author, and Montaigne’s Essays. Philosophy needs passion and song, for it is, after all, a love story. Love of wisdom means attention to the fine textures of lives. It means love of a form of life suited to oneself and to others, in the light of the good, in the light of a love and life one can affirm in passionate speech.

dull vision or numbness toward ordinary life is imprisoning. Salvation is better seeing, imagining, and feeling. If we opened to revelations of “quite ordinary” reality, we’d die on the spot from the sublime roar. Ethics can tell us what might release the good as well as tell us how to restrain the bad. A vision of the “frequency” of life might do this.

The very tang of life: Lyrical jesting in Kierkegaard’s Postscript title

A complete philosophical account helps us understand and moves us

Ed Mooney quotes Heidegger: “Philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.” In other words, philosophy lies amidst the literary and the religious.

Mooney then argues that the philosopher’s task is “to write the drama of life as it is.” To do this successfully, the philosopher must be able to communicate what actors “say, think, and feel, but also what they are expressing.” A successful philosophical account should provide a complete picture of life, different from the “incompleteness” of academic philosophy, which avoids discussion of passionate utterances. A complete philosophical account includes an answer to why, explains so the reader can understand, and the reader would be able to “feel the very tang of life itself.”

Reading a full account of the drama of life should make us “feel the very tang of life itself.” A philosopher who demonstrates this theatrical style of philosophical writing is Kierkegaard.

“Philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.”

If the beautiful and the holy are part of the drama of life, we could say of a philosopher that he is trying to write the drama of life as it is, with all the stage directions, to express, not only what the actors do, say, think, and feel, but also what they are expressing. If one could succeed, the result would be life itself, completely known. We would see why, we would understand—and also, we would feel the very tang of life itself.

Much of Kierkegaard’s writing is a kind of theater. He tries “to express, not only what [his] actors do, say, think, and feel, but also what they are expressing in that doing, saying, thinking, and feeling.”

Lyrical philosophy stirs through message and medium

Ed says that lyrical philosophy has two effects: the bare message itself (the presence of words) piques our emotions but also the medium or the way the message was delivered (the presence of delivery) . Not all philosophers write this way, but if they do, their work lives in what Wittgenstein refers to as the inexplicit spirit of writing. Writers who moves readers through both the presence of words and their delivery include Schopenhauer, Plato, Kierkegaard, and Montaigne.

(To do: Go back to the podcast interview about Stanley Cavell in the Philosopher’s Zone).

I can be stirred by the presence of what actors “do, say, think, and feel”—and by their presence in saying, doing, thinking, or feeing.

The words of love have a presence as words alone—as bare words. And in speaking, my tone of voice, its rhythm and timbre, and my bodily rigidity or slackness, can express a presence—fear, say, or hesitation or wholeheartedness. A court stenographer takes down words of a tearful witness. The bare words, and these alone, read later, can have a tearful presence. But the stenographer can’t convey the presence of delivery: the face of the witness; the tone, volume, and emotive modulations of the voice; the tightness of limbs betraying fear, excitement, or awkwardness. It’s like hearing subtleties beyond notes in musical phrasing.

words from my philosophy text can stir at two levels. I look for arguments and concepts relevant to an upcoming report and find myself sometimes moved by their eloquence. And occasionally these words (say, in Plato’s dialogues) can have a nearly voiced tangible weight, impact, pitch, rhythm—even overtones, bite, softness, or volume. Not all philosophers want to have their words come alive in diction or delivery.

To accept and convey both the presence of words and the presence of delivery is to live in what Wittgenstein calls the inexplicit “spirit” of writing.

Wittgenstein writes, “[The] Spirit of a book has to be evident in the Book itself, and can’t be described. It is a Great Temptation to try to make the Spirit Explicit,” in Culture and Value (New York: Blackwell, 1984), 6. By the book’s “spirit” he means the book’s presence.

Schopenhauer or Plato, Kierkegaard or Montaigne, convey presence and spirit.

Lyrical philosophy suspends opinions and arguments to give way to the presence of words and their delivery

Opinions and arguments are important but so is the presence of words and their delivery.

I ask you to let Kierkegaard’s opinions and arguments be teleologically suspended, as it were. This lets the presence of words and of their delivery take center stage. We then access their “tang of life.” The presence of words and delivery is not more important than questions, concepts, or arguments. Nevertheless, it can be strikingly important.

Like whispers or cries, an exclusively cognitive tracking of sentences recedes to let new vistas arise.

Live completely by letting go of the need to completely understand

Complete knowledge is impossible. The tang of life is not a piece of knowledge. To fixate in the quest for knowledge narrows down life. We become alive because of the things we don’t know.

To aim for complete understanding and knowledge is to aim for an unbecoming mirage rather than “the radiance of what is beautiful and … the throes of what is holy.” To aim for complete knowledge forestalls being swept up in terror or exaltation. “The tang of life itself” is not a piece of knowledge or understanding.

To fixate on the quest for knowledge narrows being alive (in more than a medical sense). To be vibrantly alive is to be animated by the unknown. Sports fans and players are alive because the outcome of a good match, or the outcome of the present pitch, is radically unknown.

Knowing how to live your life completely is impossible

We learn to live while we are living. If life is a project, the greatest work of art, it is a project, an art work that is only finished in death. As the artist is alive, fully knowing how to live is impossible. majority of life is subjective experiences.

Life is unfinished, poised on the cusp of the new. No picture of completely known life can be drawn for it would necessarily leave out the living artist doing the drawing—whose life proceeds forward, outside the picture.

We can appreciate art without analysis


A product of creativity possesses an inherent mystery. When faced with one, we don’t know what it is. We don’t have to look for this mystery. It is evident in the surface. There are two ways of engaging with this mystery: (1) We analyze it and treat it as a problem to solve or (2) we linger with it to see if it could have an unspoken effect on us. The former is an active engagement with the work, while the latter is a passive way of being with a work. If we are moved by it, we won’t choose it.

When faced with an image, a poem, or a prose, it might be helpful to allow yourself to enjoy it without the pressure to analyze. Analysis is paralyzing and could get in the way of really enjoying or even truly understanding a work. I remember DIY MFA, which mentioned that you need to analyze works of art you want to emulate but not all and not every element. So, when engaging with a work, let yourself be present with it, take note of things that jump to you. Return, but only analyze if truly called for. Otherwise, let the initial resonance suffice.

But this attitude can be applied not just in creations but in facts about the world or philosophical insights. Whenever we are struck by the wondrous surface of things (words, music, facts, truth), that moment of wonder is enough and the need to explain further may be unnecessary.


Mooney claims that a work can have an effect on us, or we can engage with it, without analysis (i.e., despite not knowing about the biography of its creator or its history). In fact, to be truly present with the work, we might need to intentionally let go of analysis. Mooney says “the mysteries of creation lie on the surface,” you don’t have to get deep to witness them. Mooney seems to suggest that a work of art presents with it a particular “mystery.” This is obvious. When we encounter a work of art the first time, we know nothing about it. Mooney says you don’t have to search for this mystery, it is evidently there on the surface. And the mystery is not something to be sold, it is something you linger into. Mooney clarifies that letting mystery take over does not mean being ignorant or shutting down questioning. It is giving space to wonder. An example of this in nature is that one does not need to learn about the name of the star to be affected by seeing its light.

To do

  • Connect James Klagge’s discussion on Wittgenstein’s idea that biography is important in philosophy.

In a museum, a landscape painting catches my eye. To take in more of it, I won’t rush to determine the painter’ dates or a critic’s view of technique.

In my attention to the presence or radiance of words I suspend biography and history.

Creative power is evident despite our often knowing next to nothing about individuals responsible for a striking “tang of life.” The mysteries of creation lie on the surface.

the unfolding presence of a work doesn’t raise questions of provenance

Unsigned bundles of words washed up on the beach, even if subsequently shown to be Kierkegaard’s, are as radiant before being linked to a Danish author as they are afterward.

The mystery of creation-underway is a presence to linger with, not a problem to solve. Taking up a problem is often optional

But being taken by a thrilling musical phrase, or seduced by the jest of a title, is not a matter of choice.

We can hear music without knowing the composer. If signed texts and pseudonymous ones are equally revelatory, we can stop with the revelations.

Mystery here is not simple ignorance nor a ploy to shut down questioning. It’s holding our breath in wonder or awe or fear, and not disposed of or overcome by better knowledge.

Five mysteries that give us the eff of the ineffable

There are five mysteries that gives the eff of the ineffable per Mooney.

  1. Act of love
  2. Birth of a baby
  3. Contemplation of great art
  4. Being in the presence of death or disaster
  5. Hearing the human voice lifted in song

Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden; an eff of the ineffable.

Experience first explain later

Similar to Show, don’t tell in writing, we can do something similar in philosophy or in much of living in general.

See above We can appreciate art without analysis.

If you want other people to appreciate what you appreciate, be a facilitator by leading them to it and letting them experience it first rather than explaining it only.

The things that move us do not have to be explained. Explanations are available but things can move us even without explanations.

Having said this, what use then is art criticism? Even what Mooney himself is doing, commenting and explaining, or providing context to works of art and philosophy that moves him—what use are they?

A more balanced approach is to let the work move people first, then only provide an explanation when asked or in the rarest of circumstances. Or, balance the two: provide the initial opportunity for human impact, then provide an explanation next.

How to apply this while walking? Be present. Try to be as present as you can. Allow yourself the opportunity to be moved by surface appearance. Only go deeper when necessary. But when is it necessary? And what does going deeper look like?

For a friend unmoved by what stuns me, descriptions or explanations are no substitute for direct access. I put her in the path of the ineffable rather than give her a tedious speech.

Fact-seeking or analytical frames of mind shut the door on presence and are only part of life-underway. I don’t need explanations for why I fall in love (though they might be available).

Explaining is a digression from experiential impact. Moving too quickly to explain breaks the spell and risks explaining away.

not that explanations can’t or shouldn’t be offered, but radiant impacts survive well enough without them.

Kierkegaard’s distain, in Postscript for “assistant professors,” is distain for those who stick to analysis or explanation and forget human impact.

Present explanations that do not diminish experience

After experiencing, explanations are welcome. Take note: explanations, not explanation. Per Mooney, presenting multiple angles of the experience rather than skepticism or committing to a single perspective could help avoid the destruction of explanation.

The moment of wonder might be followed by a deferential desire for elaborations. They needn’t destroy the moment. They can lay out second or third angles of vision—giving what Wittgenstein calls “perspicuous representations.” He learned from Kierkegaard—among other things—how one could give multiple pictures of the lay of the land, shuffling them rather than fixating on a single picture. This is better than submitting to skepticism (“too many angles defeat knowledge”) and better than grasping one angle as surely correct.

While in the process of being a medium to creation, we forget about ourselves. Our importance is diminished, even removed. Recollection might trigger feelings of awe on the self, which encountered what flowed. There are three ways of seeing one’s creative work:

  1. The medium of a world flowing.
  2. The source and creator of a world flowing.
  3. The co-creator of a world flowing (some of it comes from nowhere; some comes from me).

Per Mooney, if you take the first position, you the author becomes inessential.

At first appearance, it seems like Mooney is of the second position. However, he agrees that artists and writers create (i.e., they have agency to all or at least some of what they help bring forth).

Undergoing the immediate impact of creation-underway can displace my importance. Now, as I write, I defer to the majesty of something appearing, apparently, from nowhere. On the other hand, looking back on my work, I might be in awe: it is I who encounter a sentence of my making. It’s my creation. Well, which is it? Am I a world-creator (as I write)—or, as I write, am I overcome by the majesty of a world? Focusing on the majesty of a world-written-out can make actual historical authors seem inessential.

Authorial disappearance is the flip side of boastful self-assertion. We shift between the writer as hero, as god-like in world-creation, and a world so magnificent the author disappears.

Attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’” Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 249.

Artists and writers are generative centers of worlds they create. The world is made for them because they make it.

Yet writers also undergo self-abnegation. Kierkegaard keeps walking offstage to let his figures and pseudonyms speak on their own. He thinks, “The world was made for me,” and then, “I am dust and ashes.” He is the epitome of self-assertion and the epitome of self-emptying self-sacrifice.

In a sense it’s a miracle that you and I are here at all—that we exist! We matter, and that puts us one by one at the center of the universe. We know simultaneously that each of us can also seem as nothing


Kierkegaard wants to bypass objectivist philosophy by restoring a sense of the presence of words, selves, and the world. This is part of the broad project of romantic re-enchantment. For a wonderful discussion, see Antony Rudd, “Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Romantic Modernists,” in Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. Egan et. al. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).

“Kierkegaard created [his novel] position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting the noumenal), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories.”

From Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

[H]ere as everywhere else in genuine philosophy—[the inner form] is not an addition which is meant for the literary connoisseur. Nor is the question that of literary decoration or of stylistic talent. Rather, its inner form [what I—EFM—call “presence”] is the inner necessity of the issue itself.

For philosophy is, like art and religion, a human-superhuman affair of primary and ultimate significance. Clearly separated from both art and religion and yet equally primary with both of them, philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.

Existentialism: Hardly navel-gazing

History of existentialism

From being a vehicle to explore the meaning of life, personal morality, and faith during the postwar 1950s, existentialism became an angry mood of public protest in the 1960s.

In the 1950s, existentialism was a hot topic of cultured conversations.

Existentialism was a mood as much as a philosophy, feeding on the ennui of the postwar years.

By the mid-1960s, however, the mood was shifting from quiet desperation to public protest.

As a cultural presence, existentialism was now overrun by the anger stirred by the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, and Black Power; it was then that the Weather Underground came into existence. The cachet of existentialism also declined in Europe, for parallel reasons: “deconstruction” advanced, and Emmanuel Levinas replaced Camus as the cultural figurehead. Dallying with meaning in life, personal morality, or faith was now a pastime for the effete.

Gordon Marino’s brilliant The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age

The personal is richly existential

Personal experience is fundamental. In writing existentialist text, you need to give witness to your own rich personal history.

The personal may be the political, as activists claim, but it is also the richly existential, and it is fundamental in its own terms. It is hardly navel-gazing or a preoccupation of the clinically depressed.

As important for an existential account of the subject, Marino honors its deeply personal appeals, and he is adept at giving witness to fragments from his own rich personal history.

existentialism is also literary

Existentialism’s champions, per Marino

Kierkegaard Nietzsche Camus Sartre

Erich Fromm Rollo May Erik Erikson

To have anxiety shows you take your life seriously

Kierkegaard identified anxiety as central to any identity worth the name. It rises to a high pitch when we ask: “How can I be the person I truly am and should be?” To have anxiety here shows I take my life seriously.

Existentialism is personal

Classes in existentialism and existential psychology are popular because, apart from vocational promises, they offer a personal relevance all too absent in lectures devoted solely to impersonal facts and techniques.

Always integrate your moods and feelings to your self-understanding

there’s an existential inescapability of faith-as-trust, theistic or otherwise, that survives despite declines in church membership and the polemics of “the New Atheists.” Faith is a passion, not a litany of facts, and we can credit existentialists with the insight that eliminating moods and feelings from our self-understandings will also eliminate courage, hope, a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of personal resolution.

Sharpen sensibilities not systematic analysis

Per Mooney, a full existentialist life is not devoting oneself to systematically understanding the existential dimensions of life. It is about “sharpening our sensibilities” to these dimensions. Use philosophy, music, art, and literature to sharpen these sensibilities.

A full life I can call my own is not derivative, and it will ferry dark moods and also celebrations and loves, moral courage and kindness. If there’s a place for anger and moral outrage, there’s also a place for good-heartedness and neighbor-love. Attention to existential dimensions of living, and full incorporation of them, is not a devotion to systematic knowledge and technical analysis. It’s acknowledging and sharpening our sensibilities to the moods and agitations we live with willy-nilly. We get a feel for them through philosophy, music, art, and literature. They stretch and refine our sensibilities. To acknowledge the varieties and vagaries of anxiety and meaning, of courage, authenticity, and compassion, is at the heart of any existentialist portrait of what it means to be human

Henry Bugbee, religious philosopher

Bugbee is relatively unknown. Like Thoreau before him, he was always more than a scholar and teacher. He was committed to living a spiritual-philosophical life. For him, philosophy is not a technical research discipline but an unending exploration of life—of his life and its place among other lives and among beings of nature. Professional prominence mattered little. Paramount was living philosophically—even religiously. His writing is often lyrical, letting life sing its multiple sufferings and joys. In many ways Bugbee is Thoreauvian. This happy intermingling of thought, living, and writing is in stark contrast with the Anglophone philosophical style that began to dominate the post–Second World War era: something dryly professional, technical, and irrelevant to the spiritual and personal lives of its practitioners or others.

Born February 19, 1915, in New York City, Bugbee received his BA in philosophy from Princeton in 1936.

“In Demonstration of the Spirit” as an honors thesis

He started graduate work in philosophy in California at Berkeley, where he intended to study aesthetics.

His writing always engaged literary narratives, including scriptural narratives. For him, reason-only expositions were secondary.

His graduate work was interrupted by Pearl Harbor. He joined the Navy, serving as captain of a minesweeper in the Pacific.

After the War, Bugbee returned to Berkeley, completing a PhD in 1948 under Jacob Loewenberg. Its fearless title was “The Sense and Conception of Being.” Hired initially by Stanford, he was quickly called to Harvard, where he taught from 1948 to 1954. He was denied tenure. He had no interest in writing strictly professional essays. He took a year off to draft The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form. This was in the tradition of Gabriel Marcel’s Metaphysical Journals and Thoreau’s Journals, two writers he deeply admired.

After leaving Harvard in 1954, he put down roots among Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains where he taught philosophy and humanities at the University of Montana from 1957 to 1977. He died in Missoula in December 1999.

He was at home with the Americans James, Royce, and Hocking, but this era expired after 1945. A new style emerged in the 1950s and 1960s—the British analytical style embodied by Russell, Moore, and Ryle. The new American brand was led by Quine, C. I. Lewis, Carnap, and Putnam. This sort of philosophy aspired to the clarity and decisiveness of math and science. It lacked the reflective, unfinished personal intimacy that Bugbee so valued. For him, philosophy was meditative, a dialogical endeavor rather than argumentative or didactic. He took leads from Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Zen rather than from the logic of Quine, Russell, or Moore. He was unimpressed with competitive intellectual styles. He sought reflective insight, a day at a time.

Over the years Bugbee’s wrote on Marcel, the Book of Job, wilderness, the sublime, love, and education. None of this was of mainstream interest. He sought the sacred and revelatory in texts and wilderness, and sought to embody their lessons.

Bugbee’s undergraduate philosophy thesis from Princeton, “In Demonstration of the Spirit,” takes its title from 1 Corinthians 2:4

Even at this early stage, Bugbee refused to construe philosophy as providing a solely technical, cognitive grip. He rejects what Corinthians disparagingly calls “wise and persuasive words.” He writes from a spiritual calling rather than from academic protocols. Bugbee’s bibliography lists, of all things, the classical recordings that he reports were essential in feeding his spirit. Without this music, he says, the thesis would not have been possible. Even more astonishing, the last word of the thesis is a handwritten “Amen.” Has this been a prayer? Or a sermon? This is no standard undergraduate philosophy thesis.

Bugbee’s handwritten “Amen” seals his anomalous wedding of the philosophical and the religious. He doesn’t argue that prayer and liturgy are deeper than reasoned analysis can ever be. And this is not an undergraduate blunder. The writing is impressively mature. Bugbee knows he is not writing within a seminarian community. He knows he challenges the presumptions of a secular university. His title, benediction, and musical acknowledgments abandon us in an anomalous zone where philosophy and scripture, wisdom and revelation, spirit and reason, intermix. The thesis violates a taboo. Academic philosophy can’t be mixed with confessional, religious meditation. This is a kind of civil disobedience—knowingly breaking a law to make a deep spiritual point. Bugbee’s chapters on art and religion unfold appropriately for academic readers, yet they lie side by side with the closing “Amen,” and with the opening biblical quotation. A taboo is broken in the name of a forgotten spirit in philosophy, a spirit that walked with the Divine.

Decades after his dissertation, Bugbee continues a mix of philosophy and religion. “A Way of Reading the Book of Job” is philosophical reflection and religious meditation. It displays Bugbee’s reflective poetic prose, and his uncanny ability to be simultaneously philosophical, literary, and religious.

Bugbee’s meditative account opens in an unstudied voice—the tone of the tavern storyteller, sharing a yarn with a friend.

This is the idiom and tone of the village. He’s not talking down from an academic or pastoral podium as a member of a learned elite.

Dreams are timeless but require intervals for interpretation to marinate. Philosophical arguments may have timeless validity, but they abandon the ups and downs of the heart. The abstracted writer becomes disincarnate, beyond place, mood, or voice. But Bugbee has heart, mood, and place voiced.

This showing-of-things-happening embodies a patient readiness and receptivity.

He works seamlessly with his text as partners work seamlessly in common tasks with no need for flourishes—only steady attention to the task, and quiet awareness of we who are present.

Dated entries mark a day’s labor. The harvest is sentences, unmistakably his, delivered from a particular life, at a particular time and season, from a particular place. He places us to sense that the voice of things is heard only as we listen from a place of quiet

At the core of personal life there seems to be something inviolately impersonal, akin in our fashion to the mode of being of rose, or rock—known and owned by all weather. It is through this in us that the elements seem most deeply to befriend us—sun and rain, earth and seasons, the constant rivers and the starry night. It is through this that one may “go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” And it is this as well which may ground and fortify both critical reserve and human warmth: something inviolately impersonal.

Understanding does not fulfill philosophy’s promise of secure cognitive grasp but comes to pass “through a glass darkly.” To be by the hearth and see the nearness of snow etched against trees is not philosophical knowledge or explanation but a reception-of-happenings, happenings that deliver revelatory understanding. Philosophy becomes poetic

He wants not just a conception of being but a sense of being peculiar to one’s place.

The Inward Morning delivers wilderness, art, philosophy, and responsive receptivity in journal explorations. Shakespeare and Melville, as well as Plato, Eckhart, and Spinoza, make cameo appearances. The impressive reach of Bugbee’s reading is reminiscent of Stanley Cavell, who held a fellowship at Harvard during Bugbee’s time there. Cavell’s readings of King Lear, Thoreau, Emerson, film, and opera are indicative of a transcendence of disciplinary specialization he shares with Bugbee.

What is an instruction that can’t be told? But it is precisely his unassuming yet profound admission of ignorance that keeps us listening. We can hazard a response he hesitates to utter. He’s caught between knowledge and revelation, between provincial wisdom and sublime Spirit. He has no proposition, adage, or simple counsel to print out. Nevertheless, his definitive appreciation is counsel, teaching. The instruction received is to be receptive to the cry of hawks and presence of rocks

For Bugbee, philosophy is “an approximation to a poem,” wed to the local and individual—a walking meditation that is ineluctably first person.

Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation. Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me. Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems—they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved—in whatever sense they are solved—only by that person. Philosophical problems arise from and are only finally responsive to the living experience of a specific person.

==A disincarnate speaking to all-and-nobody derails the quest for personal meaning that should be the calling of philosophy and, in a wider sense, the calling of a mortal human life.

His is a walking beholding in whom incarnate spirit is addressed by things that themselves incarnate spirit. Each is bound to the other in discrete address. It’s not just humans who speak. Trees speak and bespeak. Thus, philosophy’s musings and reflections come to resemble “a walking meditation of the place.” This is a prayer-like receptivity infinitely responsive to the tissues and fissures of our being in the world.


Mooney, E. F. (2019). Living Philosophy in Kierkegaard, Melville, and Others: Intersections of Literature, Philosophy, and Religion (1st edition). Bloomsbury Academic.