The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture. By John J. McDermott

Book Review


The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture. By John J. McDermott. Edited by Douglas R. Anderson. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007. Pp. 416. Cloth, $85.00. Paper, $30
    I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Experience as Philosophy: On the Work of John J. McDermott. This is a collection of essays about McDermott’s writing and teaching. I have now been asked to review The Drama of Possibility: Experience as Philosophy of Culture. This is a collection of essays by McDermott. Reading these two books in the same year has been an interesting and instructive experience. That much McDermott in a relatively brief period of time is pretty intense. This experience was made even more intense by the fact that in that same period of time I suffered the death of several close friends—human and nonhuman—and several friends and family members encountered serious illness. This has colored my reading of The Drama of Possibility since death and illness are major themes in McDermott’s writings. My reading has also been informed by the fact that for the last year and a half I have been in charge of overseeing the process of reviewing and revising the general education requirements at my university. For this reason McDermott’s work on education and pedagogy took on a particular importance this time around. As I said in the review of Experience as Philosophy, I find these two themes to be intricately connected in the work of McDermott. Reading, and in some cases re-reading, the essays presented in The Drama of Possibility just affirmed this judgment. 1
    In the “Afterward” to Experience as Philosophy McDermott notes that humans are not the center of existence, nor do we have any special permanence or transcendence. He says it is because of this that we are called on to live active, meaningful lives. One very important way 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). The essays in The Drama of Possibility bear this out. The editor of the volume, Douglas R. Anderson, says much the same thing. 2
    As one who lives without belief in the supernatural, Professor McDermott also writes about our actual, finite victories and losses, and about the possibilities that these victories and losses suggests for our contingent futures. The moral, the aesthetic, the religious, the political all take place for McDermott as a drama of possibility, and he repeatedly calls our attention to the dynamic interplay of loss and hope this drama presents. Finally, Professor McDermott’s awareness of our precarious setting leads him to a Dewey-like commitment to pedagogy. Only through meaningful transactions across generations and cultures will we remain alive as a people and not resort to social stagnation or fall into cultural chaos. In the end, for McDermott, it all comes down to our willingness to learn and to teach—these are our most elemental existential projects (4). 3
    The Drama of Possibility is an important collection. It includes work published as early as 1965 and 1968 and as recently as 2004. There are also several pieces published here for the first time. This book represents over forty years of work, spanning five decades. While it might be impolite to say, this collection maps exactly onto my own lifespan. I was born in 1965. (This just adds another interesting personal element to my relationship to this work, not to mention that I’m Irish!) A lot has happened in these forty plus years and a lot happens in these pages. 4
    The book is organized into five parts, each containing essays from two or more different decades. Each part begins with a poem by McDermott. While each essay can be productively read, taught, or studied on its own, there is much to be gained by examining the book by its sections. There is also something important to be gained from going beyond the sections and examining the work as a whole. I will briefly do both here. The necessary brevity does not do justice to what is here. 5
    Part 1: An American Angle of Vision contains six essays which very directly address important aspects of the work of classical American philosophers—Emerson, Royce, James, Santayana, Dewey, and others. They also address American experience. This section moves from a certain loss of hope in “Threadbare Crape” to the hopeful pressure of possibility in “Possibility or Else!” In “Threadbare Crape” McDermott notes that the “increasing pressure of estrangement, and ontological, rather than functional, frustration, are of central moment. The issue in question, however, cuts deeper and may presage our having lost the capacity to rework and reconstitute the viability of a pluralistic and mosaic communal fabric which, in truth, is simply quintessential if we are to survive as a nation” (25). This section then begins to marshal resources for precisely this task of survival. In “An American Angle of Vision” we find the resources of a pluralistic, experiential, and experimental approach to amelioration. The essays specifically on Emerson and on Royce provide insights into our ability as individuals and as a community. Imagination helps us deal with risk and instability; it helps us construct possibility. Community helps us stay open to various and mediated interpretations. This mediation is aimed at amelioration. “Possibility or Else!”—an essay published here for the first time—focuses on William James and the idea that “we are not ontologically—that is, utterly—disconnected” (133). We are creative and able; we are always in process. So we (as individuals and communities) had better get busy in the world. The next section of the book tries to explain the activity of the self in the world. 6
    Part 2: Environing, not surprisingly, deals with ways in which we find ourselves in the world and how we experience it. These four essays continue the theme of the reality of an unstable world. McDermott calls for a focus on relationships and pluralism. Further in “A Relational World” we find that if “reality is evolutionary, developmental, and processive rather than static or complete in any way, then it is imperative to realize that positions taken by human diagnosis and human intervention are significantly, although partially, constitutive of the future course of events” (151). Now we have consequences and responsibility—a call to thoughtful action. “If we have the ‘will be believe’ in both our capacity to effect human healing of unnecessary suffering and in our responsibility to do so, then we shall, in time create a human community worthy of the rich human tradition of hope, aspiration, and wisdom” (155). This is done in the face or our impermanence and so day by day.
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    Truly, then, meliorism is a salutary human approach, despite it lacking the drama of either pessimism or optimism. It takes no captives, makes no excessive claims, nor bows out in frustration at the opposition. Dewey evokes the deepest sentiments of human life, too often unsung and too often derided: that the nectar is in the journey, that ultimate goals may be illusory, nay, most likely are but a gossamer wing. Day by day, however, human life triumphs in its ineluctable capacity to hang in and make things better: not perfect, simply better (157-58). 8
    To do this in the present day McDermott argues that we need to rethink space and time. Most specifically things cannot only be improved by relocating, we also need to see staying in place and dealing with limiting space as important opportunities of self-understanding and amelioration. Knowing who and where we are is important as we face up to our own transiency—the topic of the next section. 9
    Part 3: Turning takes on disease, death, suffering, and starvation. These five essays push us to see our inconsequence. “We do not fit into the world as a Lego piece or a Lincoln Log. In fact, I believe that we have no special place in the organic constituency of nature. Our consciousness, so different, so extraordinary, so bizarre, especially in its dream state, is a marvelous and pockmarked perturbation of the conic history of DNA” (256). Our being makes us who we are, provides meaning, and maybe makes the world a better place. But there are no guarantees other than our transiency. For McDermott the question and answer is then “can we experience ourselves as terminal and yet live creative, probing, building lives which, nonetheless, ask for no guarantees and for no ultimate significance to be attributed to our endeavor? I for one, believe that we can live this way; nay, I believe that it is only in this way that we live a distinctively human life” (285). Death isn’t the problem, isolation from experience and lack of growth are what is worrisome. Without connections to our experiences growth is not possible. That kind of living stagnation is what we should seek to avoid. “Our impending death is not the major obstacle to our becoming truly human. The obstacle is found in our running for cover on behalf of our escape from death” (290). One of the most important ways to avoid this kind of stagnation is found in the pedagogical relationship of teacher and student—specifically the student and teacher of philosophy. “Pedagogy becomes, then, the twin effort to integrate the directions of experience with the total needs of the person and to cultivate the ability of an individual to generate new potentialities in his experiencing and to make new relationships so as to foster patterns of growth” (297). This is the human endeavor. Sections 4 and 5 deal with the importance of philosophy for a life of growth and purpose and with the necessity of teaching and learning for making such growth possible for us all—individually and collectively. 10
    Part 4: Bequeathing takes on what philosophy has to offer the world today, and to each of our lives. These five essays show us philosophy as thinking that is willing to confront all ideas and the press of experience; philosophy enriches, deepens, widens, thickens, leads to growth. McDermott contends that the “message of philosophy” is “that there are possibilities ‘not yet in our present sight'” (343). It helps us ask questions and avoid living second-hand lives. Well done, it helps us shake off our “ontological lethargy” (375), helping us to see life as an activity. “The richness of the everyday, had we the will to savor our possibilities, would far exceed our fantasies. Indeed, our penchant for the fantastic is but an indictment of how casual and unreflective has become our daily posture in a world which screeches at us, though we hear not” (378). We need to listen and work to build “a liberating human future” (380). 11
Part 5: Teaching addresses the importance of teaching, provides insights into pedagogy, and highlights some of the problems teachers face today. The focus of these five essays is on teaching us to be human; teaching us to live actively and creatively in the face of uncertainty and death. To do this we need a face-to-face pedagogy that engages the students’ experience in the process. Ambiguity and imagination need a place in the curriculum. Helping people understand and explore their experience is more important than information transfer. And this is the point of his work as a whole. McDermott may say it best in his “Prescription.” Going back to 1976 he reiterates a message that permeates his work. “(D)o not await salvation while the parade passes by. Surprise and mystery lurk in our experiencing the obvious, the ordinary. Salvation may be illusory, but salving experiences can occur day by day” (12).This is a powerful and important message for all of us to confront and wrestle with, whether in our own personal lives or in our lives as teachers and scholars. And wrestle you will. There are contradictions in these pages to be teased out, assumptions to be questioned, and conclusions to be challenged. It a book that calls out an active response from the reader and poses challenges to one’s life. 12
    One drawback to the book is that the bibliography is published in Experience as Philosophy and not repeated here. This is a regrettable choice. So, you need to have both books on your shelf and there is every reason to do so. Whether you are teaching the works of McDermott himself, or anything about American philosophy, existentialism, teaching, death, or life, you will find essays that would work well in your class. If your own writing connects to these themes these will be important volumes to consult. I highly recommend reading The Drama of Possibility. Whether you read it from start to finish, or dip into particular sections and essays, it will provide you with a taste of philosophical writing that connects to our lives in important ways. My copy of the book is already crumpled and worn. It is a book that wears well. 13
Erin McKenna
Department of Philosophy
Pacific Lutheran University
mckenna@plu.edu

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