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  • Celebrating Fifty Years of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
  • Calvin O. Schrag

We are gathered this evening to begin the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). The Executive Committee of the society has presented our plenary panel with a quite formidable challenge to kick off our celebration. The members of the panel are charged to highlight their “own contributions to Continental philosophy and to SPEP in particular.” This involves to a large extent a telling of the story of SPEP from its origins to the present. Plainly enough with this challenge and charge the Executive Committee projects a veritable profile of courage, however one that is accompanied with a measure of risk in relying on the collective memory of a panel of aging senior citizens. I hope that we can rise to the occasion and meet the challenge with an appropriate response.

We are called to recollect, to remember, to reminisce on our past as a philosophical society, duly mindful that the past as remembered is not isomorphic with the past as it actually occurred, yet knowing that it is in and through our recollecting, remembering, and reminiscing that the MEANING of the past is constituted, reclaimed, and revisited time and again. A celebration is an event of remembering, recalling names, places, [End Page 86] and episodes that are markers of critical turning points in the history of that which provides the occasion for celebration. It is important, however, to remind one that such an event of remembering is never that of a demarcated, individually isolated, ego-centered remembering. It is always a remembering with other remembering selves. It is a collective memory, an intersubjective recollection, a shared reminiscence.

The consequence of such a collective, intersubjective, and shared recall in a celebratory event is that one is dealing with a variety of profiles of meaning offered by those who have lived through the twists and turns of a developing story. These profiles of meaning travel with ensconced interpretations that at times converge and at times conflict. We all have our stories to tell. Our hope is that given such a plurality of profiles and possible conflicts of interpretation in our telling of the story of SPEP we will be able to exhibit something like a Gadamerian “fusion of horizons.”

I will begin with my recollection of certain historical events relating to the origin and development of SPEP and then briefly highlight what I consider to be two distinctive contributions that SPEP has made to the life of philosophical discourse over the last fifty years. The inaugural meeting of the society took place at Northwestern University on October 26–27, 1962. The records of the initial meeting are a bit skimpy. My recollection is that there were some thirty or so attendees present. I suspect, however, that Bob Scharff and Ed Casey, who were graduate students at Northwestern at the time, might be able to provide us with more specific information on the number of attendees. I also recall that some special invitations were sent to faculty members at several institutions who at the time were offering courses on Continental philosophy. In any event, it is interesting to compare the size of the group and the number of presenters at the first meeting with that of our fiftieth anniversary presenters and attendees: a two-page program in 1962 and a sixty-nine-page booklet in 2011. Quite remarkable indeed!

So we have a historical marker for the beginning of SPEP, but “beginnings” as we all know never come with clear and distinct datable demarcations. Clearly, the principal founding member, the person who came up with the idea of such a society, was John Daniel Wild, who resigned his post as senior member of the Harvard Philosophy Department to come to Northwestern University to build a premier Graduate Program in Continental Philosophy. But already at Harvard he had designs for a specific society to deal with Continental thought, which he discussed with [End Page 87] both his graduate students and some interested faculty colleagues. But he received little encouragement from the greater share of his fellow faculty members. This was the fifties...


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