Author Meets Critics: A Community of Inquiry: Conversations Between American Philosophy and American Literature, by Patrick Dooley (Kent State UP, March 2008)
Patrick Dooley states that his thesis in this book is that “a cluster of elements normally identified as the signature components of classical American philosophy, most famously articulated by the pragmatist William James, is prominent in influential works of the American literary realists and naturalists. Other classical American philosophers, given less emphasis, are also examined in relation to turn-of-the-(last)-century literary works. Finally, working from the other direction, several novels dramatizing the contested and shifting borderline between moral and heroic actions are used to critique representative nineteenth (nonpragmatic) American philosophers influence by the Scottish common sense school and selected twentieth-century philosophers.” The breadth of this book is impressive, extending from Stephen Crane to Teddy Roosevelt, from Jack London to Norman Mclean and Steinbeck. The proposal for an “Author meets critics” session seeks to develop several of these themes for participants of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. This attention is warranted by the depth of insight Dooley brings to these literary works, but also because the significance of literary treatment and expansion of ideas and themes central to American pragmatism has been under appreciated by scholars and philosophers.
The proposed panel will focus on three primary elements of this treatment; the metaphysical musings of Stephen Crane, philosophical inquiry as an organic feature of experience, and the role of epic tale in the search for a philosophical platform. The panelists are Pat Shade, David O’Hara, and Roger Ward. Pat Shade is chosen because of his familiarity with Dooley’s text and a recent review he has written of the book. David O’Hara has written on the connection between philosophy and literature, especially American literature. Roger Ward was chosen because of his interest in early American thinkers and writers, and especially the theological context of American thought and literature.
David L. O’Hara
"Could the sound of a fish leaping to a fly at dawn suffice?"
Edward Mooney, in his introduction to Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning, recalls a question Heidegger asked Bugbee in August of 1955: 'What occasion prompts philosophical reflection?' Mooney writes that no doubt Heidegger 'anticipated a flat American response. Yet he found his question returned in a Socratic reversal. Bugbee simply asked, echoing a Basho haiku, 'Could the sound of a fish leaping at a fly at dawn suffice?' It is from within reflection on this question that I consider Patrick Dooley's new book.
Patrick Dooley suggests that the age-old quarrel between philosophy and poetry has been overhyped. While some philosophical texts and some narrative texts are in fact quite distant from one another, this distance is not so much an absolute difference as it is a distance measured on a spectrum. Those who emphasize this difference often do so by intentionally neglecting the great number of texts that occupy the great range of middle space between the extremes. It is, of course, tellingly ironic that the locus classicus of this quarrel is in Plato, who was apparently unwilling to offer philosophy in abstraction from the narratives in which it is thoroughly quickened.
My response to Dooley’s book is to pursue its trajectory even further, to test his thesis, as it were, on some other related texts. I begin with his chapter on Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Dooley’s interest is in the philosophically aware novel, in this case a novel about brotherhood, friendship, community, religion, and fishing. All of these themes appear in several other important late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth century writing as well, notably John Burroughs’s sketches of his fishing trips in the Catskill mountains and Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods. Beginning with them, I discuss how Dooley’s thesis applies to their personal narratives as another genre of literature that shares the middle space between abstract argumentation and descriptive narration. From there I turn briefly to Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning, Ian Fraser’s In The Fish’s Eye and David James Duncan’s The River Why and River Teeth. In all this I am attempting to examine certain narratives of trout-fishing—in the light of Dooley’s thesis—as one of the places where American writers narratively pursue philosophy.
Patrick Dooley's new book offers us an invaluable prompt for finding productive intersections between great American literary works and significant philosophical questions and issues. In particular, this essay will examine Dooley’s evaluation of Crane’s thought with an eye on his metaphysical commitments regarding the structure of experienced reality, epistemological stances on the nature of truth and the limitations of human knowledge, a philosophical anthropology that celebrates human freedom and the significance of individual and joint actions in an indifferent world. This platform of philosophical thought seeks to ground moral actions in order to discriminate between heroic and foolish conduct.
Dooley’s treatment of Steinbeck in this book focuses on the “dovetailing” between fictional narrative of community building and Josiah Royce’s abstract theorizing of community. In this essay I challenge Dooley’s response to Steinbeck by pointing to the epic character of books such as Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden as a way to extend the idea of a form of narrative as a compliment to an abstract philosophical problem. For example, the interplay between Steinbeck’s use of troubled family history as a prompt for character development concretizes the question of ethical formulations that remain abstract formulations. Similarly, the interplay between religious conviction and the interpretation of human freedom in East of Eden but also The Winter of Our Discontent are ways to extend Dooley’s treatment of epic story for philosophical influence.
Patrick Dooley will respond to these essays.