Experience as Philosophy: On the Work of John J. McDermott. Edited by James Campbell and Richard E. Hart

Book Review

Experience as Philosophy: On the Work of John J. McDermott. Edited by James Campbell and Richard E. Hart. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007. Pp. ix, 322. $60.00.
    This book is a much deserved celebration and exploration of the work of John J. McDermott. The essays in the book were originally presented at a conference at Southern Illinois University—a celebration of McDermott’s seventy years of living and fifty years of teaching. I had the honor of attending this conference and witnessing first hand the love, admiration, and respect expressed by the many people whose lives McDermott has challenged and influenced—including my own.
    The editors of this volume provide a very useful introduction that serves to situate McDermott’s work in the rich tradition of American philosophy. This means, in part, that it is a philosophy that is “open and growing,” seeks “cultural renewal and transformation,” and recognizes the “sacred task of pedagogy” (2). They point to the influence of Emerson, James, Royce, Dewey, Peirce, Whitehead, Santayana, and Mead on McDermott’s thought. Some of the central ideas taken from their thinking include a focus on our embodiment, our relationality, and our ongoing attempts to make meaning in a changing world. These themes are developed and expanded in the various essays in this volume, including a very provocative afterward by McDermott himself. The result is a volume that will be very useful to students of American philosophy and existentialism. It is a treat for those interested in McDermott himself—as a scholar, a teacher, and an interesting human being. Specific essays could easily be used in specific courses such as medical ethics (Kegley), ethics (Thompson), existentialism (Allen), aesthetics (Hart) and pragmatism and/or American philosophy (Gavin, Campbell, Fontinell).
     The editors provide a nice summary of each essay at the end of their introduction, so I see no need to repeat that here. Their summaries serve as a nice guide to anyone wishing to dip into specific aspects of McDermott’s thought and to those looking for essays to supplement specific course material. I will try, instead, to give a few general impressions of the collection.
    For me, one of the most important impressions I came away with was of a gifted and passionate teacher. As Lothstein so colorfully expresses it, “John McDermott, the Johnny Appleseed of philosophers, manures his classes with this most un-postmodernist Yeatsian wisdom, as if his teaching were a kind of gardening, and as if his students were clipped buds desperately in need of recultivation. My own experience persuades me of the cogency of the gardening metaphor, having found myself repeatedly seeded, mulched, composted, weeded, irrigated and greened by his teaching” (18). He is able to convince his students that the questions and problems really do matter to them. He participates with his students in the process of creating a meaningful relationship with the universe. As Ryder suggests, he is so powerful in his pedagogy because of his commitment to meliorism and his “faith in the capacity of people to examine their circumstances, explore possible alternatives, and take the action, individual or collective, to recreate their lives, to reconstruct their individual and social circumstances in ways that better meet the needs and more adequately supply the condition necessary for rich and satisfactory life” (212). This commitment and faith is an important antidote in a world too easily seduced by simple and totalizing approaches that can engender a passivity of mind and body. I take inspiration from pictures drawn of McDermott’s continuing battle to live out the teaching of philosophy as a personal and world transforming activity. I hope others will as well. 4
    This picture of a passionate teacher carries over to a second general impression from the book—that of a scholar committed to exploring the problem of being an individual who lives with commitment and purpose in a world that may have no purpose of its own. As many of the authors point out, McDermott addressed the very important question of how to live as a self-consciously terminal creature. Refusing to deny death, taking pleasure in the journey itself, and making relations as own goes are all part of his response to the human situation. But, as Gavin points out “the nectar seems to be in the journey. But in some texts, the nectar seems to be in danger of turning sour” (26). Or as Allen puts it “From the side of pragmatism, his thought takes seriously the notions of situation and meliorism, while his existentialist sensibility stresses tragedy and courage. As a result, McDermott’s philosophy is characterized by two core concepts, what I will call “situational tragedy” and “courageous meliorism.” (86). Further, as Campbell makes clear, McDermott takes seriously Dewey’s “metaphysics of transiency” and concludes that “(i)n such a world, it should be obvious that there is no ultimate salvation nor need there be despair” (51). And here we return to education as a key to living with purpose instead of despair. 5
    The two most critical essays belong to Kegley and Fontinell and they offer some interesting critiques of McDermott on this issue of death and hope. Kegley thinks McDermott may be too pessimistic about death and dying and challenges him to see more possibility for amelioration here. In contrast, Fontinell notes that while McDermott stresses that “(t)here is no one, “nothing,” other than ourselves and other members of the human community who can help us to render life meaningful, who can participate with us in the struggle to achieve “salvation” (127) he responds with a call for democratic nihilism. “He hopes for an increasingly wider participation in the creation of the human community. Unlike Nietzsche, he hopes for a mode(s) of living available to more than a few isolated, idiosyncratic, and heroic individuals. The participants in the kind of creative activity desired by McDermott will live consciously and fully in the present while hoping that at the same time and thereby they are contributing to an ever richer community” (128). Fontinell suggests, however, that McDermott at times loses faith in this possibility and wonders if in fact nothingness may loom before us.
    McDermott’s afterward not only responds to each essay in turn, but also further explores the general themes raised throughout the book. In doing so he notes that “(h)uman creatures are an androcentric intrusion on a cosmic ecosystem that is innocent of our aspirations” (241). This means “I am encumbered to provide a grounding for both meaning and action” (244). Again, one of the most important ways to do this is to teach. “To teach is to help others move through the vestibule and into the feast. The generational continuum of teacher and student is an ennobling lifeline and perhaps, at times, a lifeboat on a fractured, contentious planet earth” (271).
Erin McKenna
Department of Philosophy
Pacific Lutheran University

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