- The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy’s Formation and “Postmodern” Thought: The First Twenty-Five Years
The year 1961 seems like an age ago. In that year President Ike Eisenhower seemed old and tired. He spoke prophetically, however, in his farewell address when he introduced the phrase “military-industrial complex.” It named what he considered to be a major threat for a new dimension of corruption of the political and governmental processes in this country. He also predicted that universities in the United States would lose a significant measure of their academic freedom if they accepted federal funds for government-initiated research. John F. Kennedy, in 1961, took the oath of office as this country’s thirty-fifth president. He was a figure of hope and a new generation of dynamic leaders, and in his inaugural address he spoke eloquently of freeing the oppressed people of the world but seemed oblivious to issues of oppression and social justice in this country.
In that year three states did not allow women to serve on juries, and the idea of women CEOs of large corporations seemed absurd in the popular imagination. In that imagination the proper place for them was in the home as wives and mothers, hospitals as nurses, primary and secondary schools as teachers, or libraries. The minimum wage increased by fifteen cents to $1.15 an hour. Algeria, Kenya, Angola, and many other countries were colonies, although major anticolonial movements took place around the world as Western colonial power crumbled. In May of that year the Freedom Rides and the extreme violence that went with them took place in the deep South and worked a largely unexpected revolution for interstate public transportation and for the standing and influence of the [End Page 308] civil rights movement. Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Homes entered the University of Georgia under heavy guard and brought the beginning of the end to segregation in that university. “Acid rain” first became a recognized concept in this country in 1961.
Michel Foucault’s Folie et déraison was published in that year. Jacques Derrida had not completed any of his major works. Gilles Deleuze had published only his Empirisme et subjectivité, but it was largely unknown in this country. A significant academic discussion that focused on a complex structural approach to language and culture called structuralism had a heavy impact on the human sciences, literature, and Marxism in the decade before 1961 that continued through the 1960s. Insofar as structuralist thought, however, was posed in opposition to existential and phenomenological thought, with their emphasis on consciousness and subjectivity, the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), in its initial conception, might be considered a poststructuralist movement even in the absence of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Kristeva, and Cixous. Its momentum took a direction that would sidestep or later absorb and transform some aspects of structuralist methodology and intention. French existentialism and especially Sartre held the spotlight as the archetype of post–World War II French literature and philosophy in 1961. Nietzsche (whom many philosophers considered irrelevant to serious philosophical thought) and Heidegger were often identified as existential philosophers. At that time neither had significant impact in North American, academic philosophy. Further, only a very few philosophers in the United States had even an introductory knowledge of Husserl’s work.
And in 1961 SPEP was conceived as an organization that was strictly academic. Its paternity is clear, although its maternity is shrouded in darkness. John Wild had left Harvard and joined the Northwestern Philosophy Department. He, Calvin Schrag from Purdue, James Edie and William Earle from Northwestern, and George Schrader from Yale constituted the founders who drew up the plans in the seminar room of Brentano Hall at Northwestern for the organization of SPEP and the preliminary plans for its first meeting in 1962 at Northwestern.
In 1961 the relatively few philosophers in the United States who were interested in phenomenological and existentialist thought had few occasions to teach it or to work together professionally. Most philosophers in the tradition of positivism or that of what came to be known as analytic [End Page 309] philosophy did not consider either phenomenology or existentialism...