- Experience as Philosophy: On the Work of John J. McDermott
Speaking of John Dewey in an early article John McDermott remarks that he "promises little and delivers much."1 True of Dewey, it is even more obviously true of McDermott the teacher and the philosopher. Never portentous, without even being tempted to invoke eternal truths or final theories, he directs us instead to the particulars of our everyday experience, to what comes to be in our day to day living, and to the meanings and relations to be found in life's ongoing, though eventually terminal, passage. He forces us to see and he urges us to take good account of what we, with his help, find. He never promises the way things must look from a god's eye perspective, but only what we see from our own. Yet the riches he shares with those who pay attention are so many and so diverse and so often specifically focused that they cannot be compassed in any collection of essays such as make up this celebratory volume. It is too much even to hope for such a thing. Nevertheless, the presentations given at a conference in his honor at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale and collected in this volume, together with McDermott's remarkable "Afterword," provide an opening to the man and his work, the philosopher and the teacher, that is as good as one has any right to expect. More important, they serve well as an encouragement to the reader to go to the source and read McDermott's own words.2
The nine essays about McDermott in this volume can be grouped into three divisions according to their focus. The first two, "Locality in American Culture and the American Experience" and "The Pragmatic Scholar and the History of American Philosophy" by William J. Gavin and James Campbell, respectively, serve, as the editors state in their Introduction, "to situate McDermott's thought broadly within two contexts: American culture and experience and the historical evolution of American philosophy." That the American angle of vision is explicitly acknowledged by McDermott is obvious from even a cursory reading of his writings. In good Deweyan fashion he insists that we not only philosophize, unavoidably, in the context in which we live, but we have [End Page 787] a philosophical responsibility to recognize it and come to terms with it. To do so is not to glorify our own culture or to hold it as flawless or superior to any other. McDermott wants to be straightforward about this. "I carry on within the exhilarating, frustrating, and deeply pockmarked cultural context, known to me as America."3
In his own development as a philosopher, from his doctoral dissertation to and throughout his subsequent thought, it was the central role of experience in the development of American thought, particularly as championed and elaborated by Emerson, James, Royce, and Dewey, that became the cornerstone of his thought. Gavin reminds us that this turn to experience is not for McDermott an avowal of pragmatism as such. As often as he has been labeled a pragmatist, he has not so labeled himself and that's an observation worth noting.
However, it is not Gavin's only concern in his essay to describe McDermott's appeal to his American context. He also alludes to his subject's apparent "worry" about the deterioration of the American spirit today and about its future and the need for a critical transformation or reconstruction of it. For Gavin this raises the issue of McDermott's apparently own slow slide into something akin to cynicism regarding the worth of life. As McDermott sees his American context fragmenting and turning sour and the possibilities of a broader social amelioration of his experience becoming less hopeful, the worth of his own journey through life becomes more questionable and the achievement of its nectar more perilous. Gavin quotes McDermott's declaration in one of his latest essays that, "For what it is worth, and that, too...