The Primal Roots of American Philosophy

The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought

Bruce Wilshire
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Primal Roots of American Philosophy
    Book Description:

    Continuing his quest to bring American philosophy back to its roots, Bruce Wilshire connects the work of such thinkers as Thoreau, Emerson, Dewey, and James with Native American beliefs and practices. His search is not for exact parallels, but rather for fundamental affinities between the equally "organismic" thought systems of indigenous peoples and classic American philosophers. Wilshire gives particular emphasis to the affinities between Black Elk’s view of the hoop of the world and Emerson’s notion of horizon, and also between a shaman’s healing practices and James’s ideas of pure experience, willingness to believe, and a pluralistic universe. As these connections come into focus, the book shows how European phenomenology was inspired and influenced by the classic American philosophers, whose own work reveals the inspiration and influence of indigenous thought. Wilshire’s book also reveals how artificial are the walls that separate the sciences and the humanities in academia, and that separate Continental from Anglo-American thought within the single discipline of philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05436-0
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword The Return of the Native in American Philosophy
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Edward S. Casey

    For a very long time American philosophers have found themselves in a situation of extreme futility. Wanting to be independent thinkers—wanting to articulate an authenticallyAmericanphilosophy—they have all too often fallen into epigonic roles and mimetic posturings. This is above all true of twentieth-century American philosophy after World War I, when academic philosophy has been successively positivist, neo-positivist, Wittgensteinian, Austinian, on the one hand, and (after World War II) existential, phenomenological, structuralist, poststructuralist, Heideggerian, Derridean, on the other hand. For all their manifest differences, the two great strands of “analytical” and “continental” philosophy have this much in...

  4. I Reclaiming Sources and Possibilities
    • 1 Looking Forward to the First Day
      (pp. 3-14)

      Europeans crossing the Atlantic in the sixteenth century could smell the New World before they could see it: vegetation’s freshness wafted far across the waters. The “classic” American thinkers—Thoreau, Emerson, Peirce, William James, Royce, Dewey—could still smell it, in a real sense. Emerson told us to work out for ourselves an original relation to the universe. Among the connotations of “original” is “origins,” and origins not limited to the European past—Greek, Roman, or Hebrew and Christian traditions. This admonition sets Emerson at a critical distance from Europe, the Old World, with its tired conflicts, castes, creeds—itemized...

    • 2 Black Elk, Thoreau, Emerson, and Their Aura
      (pp. 15-32)

      I realize the position I take up in this book is radical. It goes against entrenched invidious distinctions—that set Europe and progress over the indigenous and the primal, for a prime example. In the usual way of presenting pragmatic thought, its emphasis on possibility and futurity is focused. Look from roots to fruits—one of William James’s aphorisms. But we will find that there are plenty of roots to be exposed as well. Indeed, we find that exposing roots reveals manifold enlivening possibilities for us today: ancient residua spring to new life. Let us survey the territory with its...

    • 3 William James, Black Elk, and the Healing Act
      (pp. 33-44)

      These are tumultuous times for the institution of medicine. Natural sciences make spectacular strides that impact our deepest conceptions of self, body, health—discoveries in genetics and in the neurotransmitters of the brain, to take two examples. At the same time, the wildest-seeming nostrums from the New Age begin to invade the medical establishment, sometimes backed by M.D.s themselves—I mean prayer therapy or the use of visual imagery in combating cancer, to take but two examples.

      As long as we stay ensnared in hoary dualistic conceptions that oppose mind or spirit to body, there is no hope for a...

    • 4 James: “Wild Beasts of the Philosophic Desert”
      (pp. 45-66)

      Between the burgeoning of Emerson’s writings in the 1830s to the 1850s and William James’s in the period 1890–1910, there stands a world-historical divide: Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories of evolution and the evidence for them. Nature comes to be conceptualized in its scientifically focusable aspects, and its earlier “romantic” construal tends to be dismissed.

      James’s only degree was M.D., his first teaching position instructor in Physiology, and he went as a young man with Louis Agassiz to study the biology of the Amazon. He planned his massiveThe Principles of Psychologyto be a scientific study. Perhaps the greatest...

    • 5 James on Truth: The Preeminence of Body and World
      (pp. 67-88)

      James on truth may seem to be a worn-out topic. At least the epistemological aspect of James’s thought has been thoroughly covered, has it not? Don’t we know that James committed the howling error of confusing truth and confirmation of truth?

      But I think this critical judgment on James has been passed within presuppositions foreign to James’s own; his thought on truth has typically been misunderstood. We cannot look at James through the lenses of Descartes’ dualism and mentalism and expect to see what’s there. To get a clear view of what James believed, we cannot think there is a...

  5. II Further Reclamations
    • 6 John Dewey: Philosopher and Poet of Nature
      (pp. 91-120)

      Following Charles Darwin, and his own instincts and perceptions, John Dewey believes that experience can have integrity because it is integral with Nature. Yes, for better or worse, experience stretches beyond what Nature could provide without us, but its integrity requires recognition of its ineluctable rootedness in Nature. Fruitful experience digs back into its ground as it stretches toward its possibilities. It is primal and pragmatic.

      Dewey died in 1952. Now we live at the cusp of millennia, and are vividly aware of the destruction of Nature. Many feel alone, bored, or disempowered, painfully aware of our loss of kindred...

    • 7 Body-Mind and Subconsciousness: Dewey and Tragedy
      (pp. 121-136)

      It is not easy to think of John Dewey as a tragic figure. There are too many photos of his kind grandfatherly face, of his dandling schoolchildren on his knee, or of his meeting notables. He achieved influence fairly early, and ultimately fame comparable to that of Emerson or James. He lived to a very old age, active and honored practically to the end.

      But there is another side to the picture. Before World War I, two of his children died quite young, and the advent of the war itself was profoundly shocking. Its gruesome absurdities shook Dewey’s optimism, and...

    • 8 Passion for Meaning: William Ernest Hocking’s Religious-Philosophical Views
      (pp. 137-152)

      William Ernest Hocking is a major thinker unjustly forgotten. The reasons for this neglect are several, and throw light on our current situation: His addresses and publications, spanning the first years of this century to the 1960s, are of great subtlety, complexity, and variety; we live in the age of the fast read. We are as much driven as our European ancestors who colonized this continent and who—compulsive, acquisitive—disgusted and terrified indigenous people.

      If one were forced to play the labels game, one might call Hocking a rationalist and a mystic and a genuine public servant. With the...

    • 9 Henry Bugbee: The Inward Morning
      (pp. 153-160)

      Of all the ringing, luminous, consummatory expressions Henry Bugbee delivers inThe Inward Morning, the above is the one I have settled on for epigraph. It summons each of us to discover what is most fulfilling—to discover what would explain each of us to our own selves, whether the explanation would impress the scientific researcher or not.

      I was tempted, however, to use another bright patch of his words:

      There is this bathing in fluent reality which resolves mental fixations and suggests that our manner of taking things has been staggeringly a matter of habituation. Metaphysical thinking must arise...

  6. III Taking Stock
    • 10 Ways of Knowing
      (pp. 163-174)

      To think of knowledge today is to think mainly of scientific knowledge, and of this as distinctly Western or European science. Many centuries ago, the Chinese made important scientific discoveries: chemical, to produce gunpowder; astronomical and technical, to produce navigational instruments, and the like. Around 3000 B.C., astronomer-priests or priestesses in what is now called England and Ireland set up vast mounds and temple-observatories to precisely determine the turning points of the yearly cycle, winter solstice, spring equinox, and so on. In a great feat of observation and calculation, the irregular cycles of sun and moon were discovered to conform...

    • 11 Pragmatism, Neopragmatism, and Phenomenology: The Richard Rorty Phenomenon
      (pp. 175-190)

      Traditionally, the chief function of every civilization has been to orient its members in the world. Time-proven ways of getting about and surviving are imparted ritualistically, ways of avoiding confusion, damage, disaster, ways perchance of flourishing. Revolutions of all sorts in the last four hundred years have relentlessly disrupted or destroyed nearly all traditional maps of the world and modes of orientation. The very meaning of “civilization” has become problematical. As has “reason” and “reasonable.”

      To understand the emergence of pragmatic modes of thinking in the last half of the nineteenth century requires an understanding of the groundswell of crisis...

    • 12 William James’s Prophetic Grasp of the Failures of Academic Professionalism
      (pp. 191-206)

      Nearly a hundred years ago, William James was ahead of most of us. In “The Ph.D. Octopus” (1903), he foresaw the existential crisis into which the professionalization of disciplines and the segmentation and bureaucratization of the university were leading us. “America is . . . rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate. It seems to me high time to rouse ourselves to consciousness, and to...

    • 13 Charles Peirce on the Pre-Rational Ground of Reason
      (pp. 207-218)

      Probably many have noticed what may appear to be a contradiction in Charles Peirce’s early “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” The heading for the fourth incapacity reads: “We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable.” Yet just a few pages later we find “the Immediate (and therefore in itself unsusceptible of mediation—the Unanalyzable, the Inexplicable, the Unintellectual) runs in a continuous stream through our lives.”¹

      But a little digging reveals that this is not a contradiction. Rather, distinctions are being made that open up a vast vista of phenomena. Already Peirce clues us: We have noconceptionof the...

    • 14 Shamanism, Love, Regeneration
      (pp. 219-236)

      In delighted regard Blake opens to the bird, flows with it, is buoyed by it. He opens ecstatically to its world of delight.

      Ecstasy withers if Blake regards the classic five senses—his sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell—as merely inner sensations stimulated by five sorts of exteroceptor organs located on his body’s surface. Trying to get to inner experience by objectifying the body is self-defeating. It is to detach in one stroke from the bird and from one’s own surging, continuous, spiritual life.

      In the previous essay we saw detachment’s ill effects in the work of Steven Pinker: he...

  7. Index
    (pp. 237-241)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 242-242)