The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture

The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture

Edited by Douglas R. Anderson
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture
    Book Description:

    This book traces the trajectory of John J. McDermott's philosophical career through a selection of his essays. Many were originally occasional pieces and address specific issues in American thought and culture. Together they constitute a mosaic of McDermott's philosophy, showing its roots in an American conception of experience. Though he draws heavily on the thought of William James and the pragmatists, McDermott has his own unique perspective on philosophy and American life. He presents this to the reader in exquisitely crafted prose. Drawing inspiration from American history, from existentialist themes, and from personal experiences, he offers a dramatic consideration of our culture's failures and successes.McDermott crosses disciplinary boundaries to draw on whatever works to help make sense of theissues with which he is dealing-issues rooted in medical practice, political events, pedagogical habits, and the worlds of the arts. His work thus resists simple categorization. It is precisely this that makes his vibrant prose appealing to so many both inside and outside the world of American philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4774-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-4)
    Douglas Anderson

    Editing a book requires an economy of judgment and patience. This is especially true when, as in the present instance, the pool of essays from which one is selecting runs rich and deep. As editing goes, this has certainly been the most rewarding endeavor in my career. John J. McDermott’s presence is not captured by the numerous titles, professional awards, and teaching citations he has earned over the years; nevertheless, these titles, awards, and citations serve as signs of that presence. They tell us to investigate further what this McDermott thing is about. Teacher, philosopher, historian, editor,teacher, social critic,...

    (pp. 5-8)

    I try to live and teach on behalf of the democratic maxim that everyone is educable. More, I believe that each person who comes to me in a pedagogical setting has the ability to turn their experimental history into an abiding nutritional resource such that they can live on behalf of a reflective intelligence, an aesthetic sensibility, and a commitment to the well-being of the commonweal. In this setting, my task, my responsibility as a teacher is crystal clear—to help. Since my first day of teaching in January 1953, I have not wavered in my conviction that pedagogy is...

  6. Prescript
    (pp. 9-12)
    John J. McDermott

    I am privileged to have these essays published once again, this time in a volume which brings some coherence to my work over the last fifty years. Surely, I and my editors are aware of the difficulties extant in the presentation of material from the past, especially as our cultural situation moves with increasing speed sufficient to convince some among us that only recent reflections have purchase or merit.

    As a help to the reading of these essays, I offer here four areas of adumbration. The first has to do with the noxious virus of obsolescence as a destructive touchstone...

  7. Part 1: An American Angle of Vision

    • Poem: Roots/Edges
      (pp. 15-22)
    • ONE THREADBARE CRAPE: Reflections on the American Strand
      (pp. 23-36)

      For my head-text, I take a passage from Hobbes’sLeviathan. At the end of the last chapter of part 2, “Of Commonwealth,” Hobbes writes as follows:

      I recover some hope, that at one time or other, this writing of mine may fall into the hands of a sovereign, who will consider it himself (for it is short, and I think clear) without the help of any interested, or envious interpreter, and by the exercise of entire sovereignty, in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation, into the utility of practice.¹

      The admonishing word is practice. No...

      (pp. 37-59)

      It is of singular importance that within the past half decade, two massive institutional structures, the Roman Catholic Church and the United States of America, have raised, under the aegis of charismatic leadership, the question of renewal. In both instances, there has arisen strong opposition, although the reasoning behind this has differed. In the case of the church, opposition has proceeded from a reading of the historical past to the conclusion of institutional immutability. The opposition on the American scene, however, while claiming historical antecedents, derives its strength far more from an analysis of the dangers in our contemporary situation....

      (pp. 60-88)

      In the case of America, to which Santayana’s text primarily refers, the stakes are somewhat higher than that of an intellectual drama. For better or worse, the American perspective is engaged with other major cultures in formulating the dominant metaphors for world culture.¹ As with all massive cultural formulations, we find in America the perils and fruits of original attitudes not institutionalized elsewhere. Having already sketched some of the historical and methodological factors pertinent to the analysis of American culture,² we turn now to the major philosophical assumptions and implications of this tradition. Naturally, there can be no exhaustive treatment...

    • FOUR SPIRES OF INFLUENCE: The Importance of Emerson for Classical American Philosophy
      (pp. 89-105)

      Perhaps the title of this chapter should be “Why Emerson?” as that would better reflect how I came to write this piece. It is not so much that I have had to become convinced of the singular importance of the thought of Emerson, for the writing and teaching of Joseph Blau,¹ as well as that of Robert C. Pollock,² long ago made that clear to me. Rather the query about “Why Emerson?” proceeds from my study of the classic American philosophers, especially William James, Josiah Royce, and John Dewey. Despite their differences and disagreements, often extreme in both personal style...

    • FIVE JOSIAH ROYCE’S PHILOSOPHY OF THE COMMUNITY: Danger of the Detached Individual
      (pp. 106-130)

      It is fitting that the Royal Institute of Philosophy series on American philosophy include a session on the thought of Josiah Royce, for his most formidable philosophical work,The World and the Individual,¹ was a result of his Gifford lectures in the not-too-distant city of Aberdeen in 1899 and 1900. The invitation to offer the Gifford lectures was somewhat happenstance, for it was extended originally to William James, who pleaded, as he often did in his convenient neurasthenic way, to postpone for a year on behalf of his unsettled nerves. James repaired himself to the Swiss home of Theodore Flournoy,...

    • SIX POSSIBILITY OR ELSE! The Philosophy of William James
      (pp. 131-140)

      I am pleased and privileged to be a guest at Blinn College, which is doing fine work in the educating of many persons here in the Brazos Valley and central Texas. Now, speaking for myself, I have trouble getting through the day, while maintaining some semblance of personalequilibrium. If this is also your wont, your need, I have a suggestion: read and reflect on the philosophy of William James. You could try Camus and be happy as the rock of your life rolls down the hill once again, infinitely. Or Freud, where you could spend your day wary of...

  8. Part 2: Environing

    • Poem: The Professional Tin Cup
      (pp. 143-144)
    • SEVEN A RELATIONAL WORLD: The Significance of the Thought of William James and John Dewey for Global Culture
      (pp. 145-166)

      One can say with confidence, alas, that systemic intractability, ethnic and religious self-righteousness, and wholesale hubris are now endemic to global society. We have only to witness contemporary Lebanon in order to realize how a people can become victimized by the hanging on of ancient rivalries, hates, and jealousies, especially when these are combined with more recent ideological conflicts as sponsored within, as well as by scavenging neighbors from without. Like instances abound, east and west, north and south. Lamentably, no end to this strife seems to be in sight, and conflicts like it distract us from the truly awesome...

      (pp. 167-184)

      Generalizations about national cultures are notoriously inexact, for exceptions abound. The judgments of a single perceiver, however imaginative, are often narrowing. This is especially true of interpretations of a culture as vast and complex as America. Nonetheless, cultures often subsequently live out these generalizations, for they are frequently articulations of deeply held images, projected onto the stream of history. In many instances, whatever the paucity of facts at the origin of the generalization, its power soon engenders the sustaining empirical support.¹ So true is this of analyses of American culture that one recent commentator, Daniel Boorstin, can hold that we...

    • NINE SPACE, TIME, AND TOUCH: Philosophical Dimensions of Urban Consciousness
      (pp. 185-203)

      Urban experience is a vast and complex process of interwoven institutions, events, and perceptions. It can be subjected to analysis only from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines, each of them limping in turn from an unavoidable narrowness, although each providing necessary data and, hopefully, vision. Urban studies, itself a comparatively new endeavor, seems to have no methodological uniqueness or consistency, borrowing from one or another of the social and applied natural sciences. In this present essay, we do not attempt to resolve that difficulty in any detail, although our approach hints at the direction such a methodology would...

    • TEN GLASS WITHOUT FEET: Dimensions of Urban Aesthetics
      (pp. 204-218)

      Some time last year, I made my way to the area adjoining the Galleria in the imposing new outer city of Houston. Entering one of the more formidable glass towers so as to experience its inside, I was stopped by a security guard, who asked me if I had an appointment with anyone in the building. I replied that my appointment was with the building—to see if it had a soul and was open to the presence of personal space. He tossed me out. I went looking for a newspaper, a sandwich, a personal opening to these jutting edifices...

  9. Part 3: Turning

    • Poem: WAITING
      (pp. 221-222)
    • ELEVEN WHY BOTHER: Is Life Worth Living? Experience as Pedagogical
      (pp. 223-235)

      We must beware of our penchant to dismiss the cliché phrase, especially posed as a seemingly trite rhetorical question. At first glance, the query as to whether life is worth living strikes us as somewhat routinely jocular, a sort of throwaway question to which one would not expect a reply, let alone an answer. Nonetheless, if we take the question at dead reckoning (pun intended, for the inquiry, after all, is about death—that is, my death) then its seriousness leaps to the fore.

      So, let us ask ourselves, each in turn, is my life worth living? Surely, we must...

    • TWELVE ILL-AT-EASE: The Natural Travail of Ontological Disconnectedness
      (pp. 236-261)

      I am grateful for the honor and privilege of delivering the Annual Patrick Romanell Address. One accepts the invitation with alacrity and then, faced with the task of beginning to compose a text for such an auspicious occasion, insecurity sets in. One soon becomes, as it were, “ill-at-ease.” Perhaps, taking a leaf from Kierkegaard, I should address my listener, herewith my reader,der Einzelner, directly. Given that I have to say something, do I tell you a story, as in “Grandpa, tell us a story.” Which story, little ones? There are so many stories to tell. Tell us the one...

    • THIRTEEN “TURNING” BACKWARD: The Erosion of Moral Sensibility
      (pp. 262-277)

      I have to say that I am aware that my presentation of a stand-up, belt-it-out-in-public lecture at this time has the odor of a troglodyte. We seem to be caught between two depressing “stools” (the pun is intended); the first features the glitz of pop culture, showboat sports, and preening politicians. The second features the dreary databases of academic analyses and in-house jargonic puff. In the first, eros has degenerated into ahistorical sleaze, and, in the second, eros has disappeared. For those among us who believe in intellectual passion rather than settling for intellectual inquiry, I say that we are...

    • FOURTEEN THE INEVITABILITY OF OUR OWN DEATH: The Celebration of Time as a Prelude to Disaster
      (pp. 278-290)

      How strange, how singular, how unusual is our understanding of death! Each of us claims to know of death, yet our experience is necessarily indirect, vicarious, and at a distance. It is always someone else’s death that we experience. Yet the power of that experience of the death of an other is such as to suffuse our very being with an intimacy of awareness, virtually equivalent to our own death. No reader of this chapter has died. Nonetheless, we speak of death as though we knew of which we speak. I do not contravene or even doubt such an assumption....

    • FIFTEEN ISOLATION AS STARVATION: John Dewey and a Philosophy of the Handicapped
      (pp. 291-304)

      As to the word “handicapped,” never has a historical definition, as found in our great dictionaries,¹ been so out of touch with the contemporary meaning. Originally defined as a “capping of the hands” that would provide equity between the superior and inferior in sport and games, the word only later became associated with disabilities, physical and emotional. In our time, however, the word has undergone a profound transformation. It now refers to a situation different but not necessarily inferior. Indeed, there is now a political aura to the term “handicapped,” one which connotes growing power and respect. This development is...

  10. Part 4: Bequeathing

    • Poem: DEADLINES
      (pp. 307-308)
      (pp. 309-317)

      I am deeply grateful to Professor Pat Alexander for her invitation to address this distinguished gathering. Gratitude is offered, also, to my two former doctoral students at Texas A&M, who will offer a panel discussion on the significance of philosophical perspectives for educational psychology. Preambling still, I appear here to offer some potential help for those whose life-mission is to help others. For my take, such is the irreducible and ever-present calling of all inquiry and pedagogy. The question before me, if I am to be of service, is, in what way can I be of help? First, the diagnosis....

      (pp. 318-344)

      The history of philosophy in Western civilization is a vast intellectual map characterized by periods of speculative explosions followed by larger periods of absorption and redress. If we accept the common wisdom that Western civilization began with the Greeks, then the paramount role of philosophy is obvious, for philosophical speculation was the formative dimension of Greek civilization. Philosophy is the mother of most of the intellectual and academic disciplines as we now know them. Rhetoric, logic, the sciences, the social sciences, economics, and politics all trace their lineage to philosophy. And Western theology would be bare-bones if it were not...

    • EIGHTEEN TO BE HUMAN IS TO HUMANIZE: A Radically Empirical Aesthetic
      (pp. 345-371)

      Two themes occupy us in the present essay. First, we contend that modern art works a revolution in man’s view of himself; it broadens the ways in which he relates to the world and the ways by which he is informed.¹ Second, we hold that the most fruitful philosophical statement of the meaning of modern art is to be found in the thought of William James and John Dewey, interpreted as a radically empirical philosophy of experience. From the time of the nineteenth-century impressionists to the Second World War, these two themes were historically and imaginatively interwoven. We want to...

    • NINETEEN EXPERIENCE GROWS BY ITS EDGES: A Phenomenology of Relations in an American Philosophical Vein
      (pp. 372-389)

      It is to take a precarious and even treacherous path to begin an essay on philosophy with an acknowledgment of one’s “own particular view.” Foundationalism, in either its Cartesian or contemporary analytic formulation, forbids such an allegedly subjective point of departure. Yet it is precisely here that phenomenology and classical American philosophy share both assumptions and endeavor. And both traditions can resonate to the description of phenomenology by Merleau-Ponty: “The opinion of the responsible philosopher must be thatphenomenology can be practiced and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at...

      (pp. 390-402)

      Traditionally, we think of ourselves as “in the world,” as a button is in a box, a marble in a hole, a coin in a pocket, a spoon in a drawer; in, alwaysinsomething or other. And yet, to the contrary, I seem to carry myself, to lead myself, to have myself hang around, furtive of nose, eye, and hand, all the while spending and wasting, eating and fouling, minding and drifting, engaging in activities more descriptive of a permeable membrane than of a box. To feel is to be felt. To be in the world is to “world”...

  11. Part 5: Teaching

    • Poem: lurking
      (pp. 405-406)
      John J. McDermott
    • TWENTY-ONE THE GAMBLE FOR EXCELLENCE: John Dewey’s Pedagogy of Experience
      (pp. 407-426)

      In 1977, Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey published a stunning work of historical exposition and commentary on the development of American philosophy. The task of writing the long, detailed chapter on the thought of John Dewey fell to Elizabeth Flower, who for decades has been celebrated in philosophical circles for her analytic acumen, capacity for trenchant critique, and wise, informed grasp of the swirling currents in American thought. (Parenthetically, I recall, vividly, some years ago, her brilliant defense of the St. Louis Hegelians against some wags who knew nothing of their importance or the seriousness of their endeavor.)


      (pp. 427-448)

      Unfortunately, except when it is centered on a notable and precocious performance here or there, the media’s attention to children is generally focused on the heinous crime of child abuse. For those of us for whom children are a sacred trust, the increase of such abuse is bewildering. Part of the cause of such social violence is that as a society, we have not sufficiently articulated both the fragility and the potentialities of the child. The moguls of national education seem to be of little help in this matter, for they concentrate on quantitative scores in their evaluation of children,...

      (pp. 449-457)

      The jeremiad is rooted in wisdom literature and has many variations. Nominally, in this chapter I use that which has come to us courtesy of the prophet Jeremiah—neither a full lamentation nor a Cassandra-like prophecy of doom, but rather a DEW line, an early-warning system, or the ever present and ever dangerous “tipping phenomenon.”

      In modern times, the jeremiad is an American cultural staple, first appearing in the election sermon of Samuel Danforth in 1670. Two recent major jeremiads have to do with the subject at hand: high technology—that is, electronic technology, or more directly, with the potential...

    • TWENTY-FOUR CULTURAL LITERACY: A Time for a New Curriculum
      (pp. 458-475)

      In our time and in our nation, public precollegiate education is in serious disarray. It is now a nationally observed phenomenon that despite good intentions on the part of teachers and despite generally intelligent students, even those students who proceed to colleges and universities seem culturally deprived. They exhibit a staggering ignorance of history and letters, and their symbolic resources for imaginative reconstruction seem bankrupt. It is as if the soul has disappeared, leaving only a more or less satisfactory standardized test as the approach to learning.

      The reasons for this state of affairs are complex and obviously not amenable...

      (pp. 476-492)

      John J. McDermott is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University. Professor McDermott is one of the leading scholars of American philosophy and a renowned educator. A riveting, animated speaker, John McDermott demonstrates a vast knowledge of the history of philosophy from Plato to Dewey and the remarkable ability to apply these great thinkers to a modern context. He is interviewed below by host Michael Malone.

      Michael Malone (MM): Okay, John, I’ve been wanting to ask you a question. I’ve been waiting for you to come on to ask you this, because you’re the great pragmatist. Here we are...

  12. Finis
    (pp. 493-494)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 495-556)
  14. Index
    (pp. 557-564)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 565-566)