- "So much has been destroyed":Genocide and American Philosophy
i am humbled by the opportunity to address you today as the President of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. From my first experience at the annual meeting in Boston in 1995 to this meeting more than two decades later, SAAP has been my philosophical home. Here I have come to know many of the philosophers who have most influenced me: John Lachs, Peter Hare, John Ryder, Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Jim Campbell, Marilyn Fischer, Erin McKenna, and John McDermott, whose work, in particular, helped me find my philosophical voice by inspiring both the research that led to my first book and my approach to teaching American philosophy. It was McDermott, the second president of this society, who delivered the first SAAP Presidential Address thirty-eight years ago on 29 February 1980. The address, titled "Transiency and Amelioration: An American Bequest for a New Millennium," rejected the idea of an America dedicated to some definite end in favor of something rarer—"a multitude" devoted "to a cause whose message was the celebrating of the finite, the generational, and especially, sheer transiency" (McDermott 63). Today, I take McDermott's first presidential address as my starting point, adding my own transient voice to this tradition of addressing the cause of advancing American philosophy.
The "head text" McDermott selected for his talk was taken from Adrienne Rich's Dream of a Common Language and the poem titled "Natural Resources": "I have to cast my lot with those / who age after age, perversely / with no extraordinary power, / reconstitute the world" (Rich 67). For McDermott, the work of reconstituting the world is a labor of ordinary people—for Rich, of ordinary women who dream "a universe of humble things—/ and without these, no memory / no faithfulness, no purpose for the future / no honor to the past" (Rich 66). As McDermott puts it, "the religious and metaphysical originality of America is strapped to its belief in the sacredness of time, its [End Page 1] celebration of journey and transiency, and its aversion to ideology, eschatology, and final solutions" (64). The risk is that such originality may become self-satisfied or self-righteous. "Both of these tendencies," originality and self-satisfaction, McDermott concludes, "have lurked at the extremes of our culture, but they have been held at bay by a vibrant, pluralistic center that, however unwittingly, invoked the maxims of C. S. Peirce, always fallibilism, always chance, and those of Emerson and Dewey, always possibility, always a new day" (64). Understood in this context, American progress is not the inevitable march to a manifest destiny, but progress only—a "bumptious, homely" term that "affirms growth while denying the existence of an ultimate goal" (McDermott 65). For those tempted to say that McDermott leaves progress off the hook for the evils that have been done in America's name, he stipulates that the work of reconstituting the world is also a struggle against America's "first-rate offenses": "the devastation of the American Indian; the slavery of black Americans; the repression of religious, racial, and ethnic minorities; [and] the vulgarity of American corporate capitalism" (Mc Dermott 64).
The philosophical bequest to the new millennium, Mc Dermott argues, is a set of "warranted assumptions of our cultural history" that can be presented as five commitments "[w]orthy of detailed analysis": pluralism, provincialism, interrelatedness, transience, and anti-eschatology. This bequest he calls "native wisdom" (67) and declares that our best strategy to realize these commitments "is to trim our sails and think in earth terms, albeit with cosmic horizons." He continues: "In so meeting the expectation of the land . . . we should not forget the American experience and expect too much" (75). McDermott's final word is taken from another poet, T. S. Eliot, a student of Royce and James: "There is only the fight to recover / what has been lost / And found and lost again and again; / and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious. But perhaps / neither gain nor loss. / For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business" (qtd. in McDermott 75).
But McDermott's message was, like the philosophical bequest it...