primal roots

Bruce Wilshire is a distinguished philosopher from Rutgers University. We’re sampling his Primal Roots of American Philosophy today in NW, to get a feel for what he considers the natural affinity between philosophy in the American grain and, well, the native American grain.

Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, James, Dewey, Royce… these classic American philosophers were meliorists devoted to making things progressively better. But their “progress” did not sunder mind from body, matter from spirit, subject from object. With Black Elk they sought Spirit under the big sky, on this planet, here and now. That, after all, is where we are.  America has “evaded” philosophy, said Cornel West. But that’s a good thing, when what’s being evaded is an unsustainable “modern” schism between humans and the life-world.

I’d never considered William James a Shaman, but maybe that is the right word for those whose own good words and examples help to cure some of us of our inveterate, debilitating habits of mediation and insulation from direct and immediate experience of our world. James urged receptivity to whatever might be present to absorb one’s “life-currents,” to the purity of “pure experience,” to the sufficiency of the present moment. Future fulfillments, so much the focal center of pragmatic philosophy, depend upon our successful attending to the now. Like Ed, of Cicely (“could be you’ve been called…”):

The best text in James I know to convey the lure of the primal and indigenous is this, from On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings“:

…we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life’s more elementary and general goods and joys.

The remedy under such conditions is to descend to a more profound and primitive level. To be imprisoned or shipwrecked or forced into the army would permanently show the good of life to many an over-educated pessimist. Living in the open air and on the ground, the lop-sided beam of the balance slowly rises to the level line; and the over-sensibilities and insensibilities even themselves out. The good of all the artificial schemes and fevers fades and pales; and that of seeing, smelling, tasting, sleeping, and daring and doing with one’s body, grows and grows. The savages and children of nature, to whom we deem ourselves so much superior, certainly are alive where we are often dead, along these lines; and, could they write as glibly as we do, they would read us impressive lectures on our impatience for improvement and on our blindness to the fundamental static goods of life. “Ali! my brother,” said a chieftain to his white guest, “thou wilt never know the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing. This, next to sleep, is the most enchanting of all things. Thus we were before our birth, and thus we shall be after death. Thy people. . . . when they have finished reaping one field, they begin to plough another; and, if the day were not enough, I have seen them plough by moonlight. What is their life to ours,—the life that is as naught to them? Blind that they are, they lose it all! But we live in the present.”

We too often fail to live in the present, and thus fail to be present to our very lives. We lack the quality of experience that John Dewey revered as natural piety, “a sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts… marked by intelligence and purpose [and] a capacity to strive by their aid to bring conditions into greater consonance with what is humanly desirable.” A Common Faith

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