Book Profile: The Archaeology of American Thought

Bruce Wilshire, The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 241 pages. ISBN: 0-271-02026-1. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

William Dean
Iliff School of Theology

    After 300 years, that great majority of philosophers who have regularly dismantled traditions of wisdom now seem like a rather predictable group. By those standards, today's true philosophical radicals are those who risk their reputations by affirming these traditions. Even so, it is still implicitly believed that good philosophers judiciously destroy, leaving judiciously, construction to the bad ones. Thus, for example, when Richard Rorty wrote Achieving Our Country to endorse just one of America's traditions (the liberal political tradition) . . . well, this was slightly embarrassing.

  1. Given these terms, Bruce Wilshire's intriguing The Primal Roots of American Philosophy is truly radical and slightly embarrassing. He uncovers the primal roots of American philosophy not to logic-chop, but to transplant those roots at the headwaters of today's American philosophy. Further, he seeks to defend not just one tradition but an entire set of ideas implicit in classical pragmatism, as well as in much Native American thought and Continental phenomenology. If academic philosophy has been the revenge of the intellect on traditions of wisdom, Wilshire's book is the revenge of a particular traditional wisdom on academic philosophy.

  2. Wilshire has written a somewhat personal description of how classical pragmatism (hereafter called "urpragmatism") overcame Enlightenment dualisms (mind-body, self-world, sacred-secular, cognition-emotion, objective-subjective, human-animal, epistemological-ontological, conscious-unconscious, psychological-parapsychological, necessary-contingent, etc.). His description is not uncontroversial, for it emphasizes the more metaphysical and religious ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, William Ernest Hocking, and Henry Bugbee--just those ideas that have been so adroitly set aside by today's neo-pragmatists.

  3. This all comes to a head in his praise and excoriation of Richard Rorty, noting where he extends the urpragmatic approach and where, hardly noting the fact, he conveniently drops some of its major motifs. After having put Rorty on the run, Wilshire diplomatically refuses to make it a route. This is about as exciting as contemporary philosophy gets, which may not seem like much but, at Wilshire's hands, is quite a bit.

  4. In addition to defending and extending the motifs of unpragmatism, Wilshire claims that, in its anti-dualisms, it has great affinities with what he calls "Native American thought." Hence, the book's subtitle: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought. In part, this points the way to what one day might be defended as not only "primal roots" but as a "primal American philosophy" itself. Some readers, however, might be puzzled by how Wilshire could speak of "Native American thought" when he looks carefully at only one speech by Black Elk and then allows that to stand for all such thought.

  5. Wilshire finds highly suggestive anomalies and mutual borrowings between phenomenology and American pragmatism but does not adequately explain how Continental European phenomenology could be part of what he calls a primal American philosophy.

  6. Wilshire closes this book with a suggestive and painful story from his own life, and thereby practices just that philosophical honesty, directness, and anti-professionalism that he preaches. The story is too remarkable and too delicate to be properly represented here, but its vividness rewards the reader.

  7. My only serious criticism seems slightly unfair to an author whose work is so impressively interdisciplinary and multi-faceted. Nevertheless, it should be noted that he neglects the fact that hundreds of theologians and philosophers of religion for fifty years have been attempting to accomplish a renewal of a pragmatic, radically empirical, and organismic perspective much like his own. I refer to most process, empirical, and pragmatic religious thinkers directly or indirectly affected by James, Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead, many of whom came out of the University of Chicago--thinkers such as Henry Nelson Wieman, Charles Hartshorne (in part), Bernard Meland, and Bernard Loomer, and their numerous academic and ministerial successors today.

  8. This is an excellent text for anyone who wants to recover the capacious earlier American philosophical project in ways congenial to emerging trends of thought. It is a seminal and daring book for anyone who wants to distinguish American from European philosophy and to shape it in indigenous ways--particularly, in conversation with Native Americans.

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