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  • The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture
  • John J. Kaag
John J. McDermott. The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture. Edited by Douglas Anderson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007, 555 pp., Index: 557–564.

As a youngster, I hated repetition. I regarded the repetition of chores, lessons and games as a personal and cruel affront to my budding intelligence. Only more recently have I come to understand that certain things are meant to be repeated. I do not grumble when I take a second look at Cézanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire, or moan while re-reading Leaves of Grass, or mutter through yet another performance of the same bluegrass band. I do not roll my eyes at the stories that my grandfather has told, and retold, for twenty-five years. These moments of artistry, meticulously crafted, carefully performed, and emotionally laden, open us to worlds that cannot be explored in a single run-through. At their best, works of art re-acquaint us with experience, that complex medium in which we find meaningful possibility—and ourselves.

At the beginning of The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture, John McDermott acknowledges that many essays from this collection have appeared elsewhere and have been read many times, but assures his reader that he is “aware of the difficulties extant in the presentation of material from the past” (9). There are difficulties, but also advantages. McDermott comes from—and leads—an American intellectual tradition that has not given up on the idea that philosophy ought to be done aesthetically, in the Deweyian sense, and ought to be primarily concerned with “diagnosing experience.” The reprinting of these essays and poems, the signs of a personal and philosophic drama that spans more than fifty years, is a powerful reminder that this idea can still be entertained in a meaningful way. Once again, McDermott demonstrates that philosophers are not necessarily defined by the narrow, an-aesthetic debates that currently define their professional discipline. [End Page 244] Our task, as philosophers, is not found in the writing and publishing of increasingly arcane articles and tomes. Instead, in McDermott’s words, “our task is to think deeply about the most quixotic of all cosmic events—namely, the utterly transparent yet powerful existence of a human life” (341).

These essays are divided topically into five sections, which serve as touchstones for academic philosophers in America, reorienting them to the abiding concerns of the tradition. To say that the volume can readjust the focus of contemporary philosophy, however, is not to say that the volume is written for philosophers. The Drama of Possibility is written for people, not professionals. In the spirit of Emerson’s “American Scholar” and “Divinity School Address,” McDermott’s essays were initially given as public lectures, as life lessons. They were not written to fill an unexplored niche in some barren philosophical wasteland, but rather tailored to fit a variety of living occasions. McDermott highlights the educational mission of Maria Montessori in a closing chapter of the volume, and it is clear that he has made this mission his own. Philosophical lessons, like the teaching of young children, should be organized to reflect the actual potentialities of an audience rather than the superimposed standards of the professionalized world (432). The particularity of the occasion determines the particularity of the lesson. This fact begins to explain the distinct qualities of McDermott’s chapters, but also their accessibility and breadth. Douglas Anderson’s reorganization and editing of the collection successfully maintains the uniqueness of the given lessons while loosely tying them into a coherent whole.

The final section of the volume is entitled “Teaching,” but a desire to teach motivates the Drama of Possibility in its entirety. McDermott takes his cues from Continental and American philosophers—Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, William James, and John Dewey—who regarded philosophy as being inextricably bound to the “aims of education.” He believes, along with Alfred North Whitehead, that these aims have been sorely neglected, a fact that results in “educational experiences (that are) repetitive, dull, insouciant, and paradigmatically boring” (409). This belief belies another, namely that our education mirrors and reinforces...


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