Philosopher: Bruce Wilshire

Photo courtesy of Gil Wilshire, MD

There is a street in Omaha, Nebraska where for 72 years they have had a 4th of July parade. My daughter and her family live on that street. The parade is not large or extended but people come from adjacent neighborhoods and chairs line the street. A fire engine, policemen on horseback, a few home-made floats, kids on bikes, middle school bands, local politicians running for office.

When the parade is over, the street turns into a block party. As my wife and I walked back from the park where prizes were awarded for “best float”, “best looking pet”, etc., we stopped to visit with a young man, perhaps in his forties, running for the office of Douglas County Attorney.  In the course of our brief visit, I asked him where he was from. Originally, New Jersey. Where did you go to school? For undergraduate school, I went to Rutgers. How interesting! There was a professor at Rutgers whose work has meant a great deal to me. His name was Bruce Wilshire. You’re kidding! I took a class from him: Existentialism & Phenomenology. It was one of my favorite classes. Maybe two hundred students in the class. He was charismatic and brilliant.

Sprinkled throughout this website are quotes from the philosopher, Bruce Wilshire. He is the writer and thinker in recent years who has moved me most with the power of his thought and the beauty of his writing.

I never met Dr. Wilshire, nor did I have any correspondence or exchange with him. I know him only through his books. Truthfully, had I met him I’m not sure what I would have said other than “Thank you”.

Here is a brief overview: Bruce Wilshire taught in the Philosophy Department at Rutgers University. He was a phenomenologist, the author of several books (see below) and in 2001, the recipient of the Herbert Schneider Award for his contributions to American Philosophy, awarded by the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. Following his retirement from Rutgers in 2009, he moved with his wife, Donna, to Columbia, Missouri where he remained until his death in 2013.


Reading Dr. Wilshire’s books has been an education for me, and a joy. On page after page, I would wonder: Who is the man who wrote this? Who is Bruce Wilshire? And then, periodically: What is his core concern? What is behind the insightful examination of so many topics?

From various internet sources I learned that Bruce and Donna Wilshire had two children, Gilbert and Rebekah. Thanks to Google, I discovered a Gil Wilshire in Columbia, Missouri, a physician with a practice in Reproductive Endocrinology. I wrote Dr. Wilshire on his Clinic’s Facebook page: By any chance, are you Bruce Wilshire’s son? If so, I would love to visit with you. Your father’s work has had a profound impact on me and I would love to know more about this remarkable man.

Gil wrote back almost immediately: Yes, Bruce was my dad.  A great man he was! …I am very happy to talk about him and his work.

A few days later we spoke for over an hour on the phone. Two days later, thanks to Gil, I spoke with Bruce’s best friend and colleague, philosopher Glen Mazis.

Gil: Truthfully, my father was larger than life… He was 6’4”, handsome, athletic in his youth and he loved the theater. In public, he was outgoing, charming, witty…. At home and in private, he was reflective, steeped in thought, always taking notes on whatever scrap of paper was available.

 Glen: Bruce had a theatrical presence. For renewal, he turned to nature. Not infrequently, he would call: “How you doin’, Ace? Let’s meet on Eagle Mountain.”

 Gil: My father’s life was punctuated with joy. I would want that said. And it’s the truth. However, with the death of my sister—Rebekah was a promising opera singer and prior to a scheduled European tour she was killed in a horseback riding incident… with this tragedy in our family, as you might imagine, his life was also punctuated with deep sadness.

 Glen: Did he feel satisfied with the impact of his work? Well, certainly, he was respected on a national level by any number of colleagues and associates. However, he engaged in a nearly thirty-year battle with what is currently the dominant school in academic philosophy, Analytic philosophy. His feeling was that Analytic philosophy squeezed the life out of philosophy, that it eliminated ways of knowing that are essential to the human experience. So, he had his adversaries. (See Postscript One.)

 Gil: Speaking of the impact of his work… Years ago, I was in a university bookstore and in the bin of price-cut books I found my dad’s book on Metaphysics. I had forgotten that it was dedicated to me. That was a touching moment for me. Occasionally, I get a note from one of his publishers indicating that over the past quarter, for example, only three books sold. That’s always tough to read. I know what went into those books, their caliber.

 Glen: “Circular power returning unto itself” – Emerson’s line was one of Bruce’s favorite quotes. You couldn’t be with him for any length of time without hearing that quote about the regenerative universe..


I am not a philosopher. I have never known what is meant by the term phenomenology or what it means to be a phenomenologist. I only know now, as a result of reading Dr. Wilshire’s books, that to be engaged as he was in the practice of what he called phenomenology is to be engaged in a noble pursuit.

Here is the way Bruce Wilshire defines phenomenology:

“…phenomenology is the attempt to see clearly what is typically taken totally for granted, what we feel we can ignore. In other words, it is the attempt to see the primal and the pragmatic: the meaning of being selves that are bodies, selves ineluctably in situations or circumstances, selves ecstatic or depressed, gripped with responsibilities and enlivened thereby or wayward and listless; selves very often different from moment to moment, yet ones who remember what they’ve been through, and what they’ve promised, and know they will die.” The Primal Roots of American Philosophy [138]

To be a phenomenologist, in Wilshire’s view, is to pursue “ways of thinking (that) aim to see deeper into the life we actually lead…” [139] and this so as not to miss the meaning and experience of one’s own life.

The Art of Life

I do not think that Bruce Wilshire’s books are widely read. I hope I’m wrong about that. They should be read, and read with care. They sharpen the mind and they insist on a more generous outlook. That is my experience. They can be challenging, yes, but the effort to read them is always rewarded. In my opinion, his books are works of art.

Perhaps this brings us back to the question posed earlier: What is the fundamental interest Dr. Wilshire pursues and attempts to serve behind his exploration of so many topics? He writes about music, theater, science, the body-self, loss, freedom, man’s inhumanity, art in general, the writings of William James, Charles Peirce, Dewey, Black Elk and others—what is he after?

Again, philosopher I am not. I could be wrong about this remarkable thinker’s core pursuit, about what moved him to examine with depth so many topics that touch our daily lives. Still, I offer the following and believe it reason enough for the reader to turn to Bruce Wilshire’s books for what they offer: I believe that throughout his career, Dr. Wilshire’s principal concern was the art of life, the highest of arts and on everyone’s mind when relaxed enough to consider their situation, their involvements. Across his many books, this is what comes through to me: A concern for how to fully, creatively, and most meaningfully inhabit the world… with increases in gratefulness and awe key among the measures of progress.  

Brief Excerpts

Here are brief excerpts picked nearly at random from Bruce Wilshire’s books. I offer only one per book (hardly fair to the book), a taste of his style, manner and depth of thought.

Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theater as Metaphor — 1982

I want to say that Role Playing and Identity is a mountain of a book. And it is. But so are the rest of Wilshire’s books. The view he makes available in each book is rich with detail while at the same time, expansive and far-seeing.

“One of the greatest joys and most powerful motivations to act is ontological and Apollonian: to be, to be most vitally one’s own individual self. The body is individual and conscious and hungers after an ever-sharper sense of its particular significance. But perhaps the greatest fear is that one will be excluded from the company of other persons, because one has become so unusual that one has ceased to be comprehensible to them and confirmable by them. Hence the opposing motivation to act and the opposing ontological joy, the Dionysian: to lose this fear by losing one’s individual identity in the corporate identity of the powerful mass of persons. Many are torn between these joys and many are brought to a psychical standstill between them. Only the artist, and only the person committed to the development of the art-like in his life, can synthesize the joys and tolerate the fears.” [228]

Wild Hunger: The Primal Roots of Modern Addiction — 1998

 When addiction confronted a loved one, Bruce Wilshire turned his attention to an examination of the “roots of modern addiction.”

“Not all awe involves shrinking terror. Some is akin to love and delight. Though fear may be present, it does not drag one down. Buoyed effervescingly in the Whole, we delight to be a tiny yet vital part of it. Ourselves and our desires are completely our own because we are at home in the world that formed us. The ultimate need is satisfied: to be fully and significantly. Ultimate satisfaction is the ultimate in value: the greatest individuality within the greatest coherence and unity. Or, again, it is the greatest sacrament: the childish need of the ego-self for gratification now is gladly sacrificed for the gratification over time of the need to be myself.” [256]

Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy — 2002

This book addresses Dr. Wilshire’s view of the limitations of Analytic philosophy with the quote that follows focusing on education.

“I have written centrally about the degeneration of academic (i.e., analytic) philosophy in the university. But this is a bellweather discipline: mandarinism and vitiation here reflect hyper-specialization, frivolousness, and flaccidness across the culture. A necessary condition for recovery is to place as much emphasis on rebuilding education and educators as was placed on rebuilding Japan and Germany after World War II. …We should send a vast Peace Corps into the public schools, reward persons with compassionate hearts and good minds and the toughness of Green Berets, and give master teachers their economic and social due. We should pay the tired, weary, and demoralized—tired, weary, demoralized for good reason—to retire early. The present situation is an insult to us all.” [43]

Get ‘Em All! Kill ‘Em!: Genocide, Terrorism, Righteous Communities — 2004

This book was written following the sudden death of Bruce’s daughter, Rebekah. According to Gil Wilshire in the Afterword to The Much-at-Once: “[My father] stated that only by studying a subject more horrible than the death of a child could he eke out a modicum of solace and probity.”

“At times I feel surrounded and sustained by a kind of effulgence. It is a feeling of total health. It is more suggested and divined than comprehended. It is always and everywhere, except where I’m looking. It is the answer to everything, except to the question I am asking. It is background that never becomes foreground. It besets me, before and behind. It stays me.

“Is it enough to go on? Is this strange buoyancy and childlike wonder enough to go on, to grope with?

“Ah, reader, what do you think?” [178]

The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology and Native American Thought — 2000

Wilshire’s “quest to bring American philosophy back to its roots, connecting the thinking of Thoreau, Emerson, Dewey, William James and others to Black Elk and indigenous thought.” — from the back cover of the book

“To live in the present moment is to be alert to what is fresh and new within it, able to distinguish this from what is dead—deadly repetitious—in one’s life. To live in the present moment is not to be cut off from the past—only obsessively linear thought would think so. But it is to be released from what the Buddha seems to have meant by attachment: the blind, and blindly repetitive, response to something in the past. Or it is to be redirected from the bad road of dependency, lethargy, and degeneration to the good road of connectivity, creativity, risk, and aliveness—as Black Elk limns the difference.” [100]

The Much-At-Once: Music, Science, Ecstasy, the Body — 2016

This book was 98% complete at the time of Dr. Wilshire’s death. Much is owed to his son, Gil, for seeing to it that this remarkable book was published.

“The first need is to awaken. …Great artists have always tried to awaken themselves and others. …More and more palpably the trance of the American Dream is broken into by a generalized restlessness—at least for those who still feel anything. The spell of the commercial, secular, technological trance is unsettled and disrupted for quite a few. Just finding a true alternative to the sprawling, routine, gray state—some enlivening variety, some depth in being alive—is imperative. Once again, to quote Felicitas Goodman, we cannot long tolerate ecstasy deprivation.” [180-181]


 Postscript One

The philosopher Edward S. Casey wrote the Foreword to The Much-at-Once. In it, Casey discusses the impact Bruce Wilshire had on the American Philosophical Association.

“…(Bruce) became the acknowledged leader of the most significant rebellious action in the history of the American Philosophical Association: the “pluralist movement.” Initiated in the early 1970s this was a group of philosophers of several stripes—continental, metaphysical, and pragmatic—who were outraged at the way in which their work was routinely regarded as second-rate by the reigning Analytical establishment, finding little if any place on the programs of APA. In dramatic confrontations at business meetings of the Eastern APA in the 1970s Wilshire eloquently argued for open programs in which all varieties of philosophy were welcome. This met with skepticism and aggressive opposition at first, but by 1980 all three branches of the APA—Eastern, Central, and Pacific—featured “group meetings” as a regularly scheduled feature; these meetings were occasions for philosophers with nonmainstream concerns and interests to meet and talk. Most important, the APA was set permanently on a course that gave recognition to the contributions of racial and ethnic minorities as well as full recognition to women in philosophy. Bruce Wilshire put in motion nothing less than the radical democratization of American philosophy at a critical turning point in its history.”

Postscript Two

Bruce Wilshire is the one person in the Gallery that I did not know. It’s an honor to include him. As indicated above, his principal concern, or so I believe, was with the art of life and one of the purposes of the Gallery is to allude to “art of life” concerns.

There is one aspect of Wilshire’s examination of the art of life that I want to emphasize in closing. It is his interest in what must be among the most profound and primal of human experiences, the seamless sense of connectedness with the whole of Nature and Life, the ecstasy or effulgence available through contact with the Much-at-Once.

Why this interest? Because this is the experience that dissolves the disease that Owen Barfield called cutoffness, the disease, one could argue, at the heart of our ecological crisis, at the heart, as well, perhaps, of our alienation and despair. With the periodic experience of the Much-at-Once, one is by degree healed or renewed or otherwise reminded of the obligation and responsibility one has to life overall, and this so we can continue, perhaps glimpsing (if ever possible) where the mystery of existence is capable of taking us.

It is with this line of thought and concern that Wilshire connects American philosophy with Native American ritual and thought. “Circular power returning unto itself,” permitting a return to “the good road of connectivity, creativity, risk, and aliveness.”


David Thomas, PhD