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  • American Continental Philosophy in the Making: The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy’s Early Days
  • Robert C. Scharff

I want to start by seconding what others have already said about how lucky we were to come of philosophical age as the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) was being born. I look back in wonder at how many of the early speakers were in fact primary sources for American Continental philosophy, either present in the flesh or directly represented by their students. By the mid-1960s, I was learning about Husserl from Paul Ricoeur and Aron Gurwitsch, reading Merleau-Ponty backward from some later untranslated work (thanks to advice from James Edie), comparing William J. Richardson’s two Heideggers with Otto Pöggeler’s account of Heidegger’s path (thanks to a tip from Calvin Schrag), listening to Erwin Straus describe lived time and the upright posture and Eugene Gendlin explain “expressive meaning,” hearing about European phenomenology of natural science from Joseph Kockelmans and about Schutz and Scheler from Maurice Natanson, and of course consulting Herbert Spiegelberg on just about everything.1

Yet, as much as the people I met, it was the intellectual atmosphere of those early SPEP conferences that made perhaps the deepest impression on me. As I still remember them now, those meetings were filled with [End Page 108] a sense of experiential enthusiasm and theoretical disorder. A few of us recall, as a highlight of the second business meeting, an impassioned plea from Gurwitsch explaining why our new gathering could not be called the Society for Existential Philosophy and Phenomenology.2 Concocted in haste in order to have a label to use for the original meeting invitations, this title had innocently committed a cosmic mistake. It permitted the adjective existential to modify not just “philosophy” but “phenomenology” as well. Factical Dasein was thus allowed to encroach upon the transcendental ego, and this simply would not do. And so, after much animated discussion, we officially became SPEP instead of SEPP. “Phenomenology” was mercifully liberated from the taint of historicism, psychologism, and the anthropological pull of the natural attitude, and “existential philosophy” now stood properly alone but trailing after what some saw as the truest and deepest of all the sciences—but at least still called “existential philosophy” instead of “existentialism,” as Gurwitsch had initially suggested.

Yet I think I speak for most of the witnesses when I retell this little episode with some affection and amusement, in remembrance of a man who had much more important things to give us than a proper label for what we were trying to do. Moreover—and this is the point I want to stress here—except maybe for William Earle, Gurwitsch’s objection was not treated as ideological or as calling upon us to chose then and there between pure and adulterated phenomenology. Nor did anyone with a primary interest in neo-Marxism, critical social theory, classical pragmatism, or existentialized Thomism see themselves as excluded by either proposed label. And this, I want to say, was typical of SPEP meetings from the very beginning. The stress was on the things themselves—especially those things that the larger philosophical world ignored, distorted, or explained away—and not on their One True Articulation.

Of course, whatever its label, our initial little band of a few dozen was indeed founded in dissent—as a living objection to the oppressive philosophical atmosphere and attitude of the Anglo-American mainstream. Yet historians will have to be careful here. The later accounts of Continental philosophy as antiestablishment, radical, deconstructive, or transgressive all have their place and say something correct. But we were not primarily a group of rebels or critics. Even if our interests made us suspect to the reigning majority, it was not as angry outsiders that we came to SPEP. On this matter, John Wild remains my representative founder. He was for me [End Page 109] a living example of someone who understands that the most empowering source of philosophical issues is lifeworld experience and who refuses to be diverted by dominant fashions into settling for the usual story about such issues.3 Those who are satisfied to think about experience tend...


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