Page 11


Frontier Philosophers Continued from Cover was to become a central figure at Harvard during the classical period of American philosophy. The American classical period, as we shall call it, began about 1877 with the publication of Charles S. Peirce’s essay, “The Fixation of Belief” and ended about 1938 when John Dewey produced in voluminous detail his book, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. From magazine musings to imponderable tome, such is the course of literary history. For his efforts, Peirce was rewarded with an old age of neglect; for his, Dewey lived to see the whole field of thought shift from underneath the influence of the American classical period, away from Pragmatism, as it was called. Anyway, the path from Peirce’s article to Dewey’s volume runs onto the campus at Harvard where Santayana’s quick eye was snitching little treats for his acerbic tongue. One recalls, for instance, how Santayana observed the American penchant for certain rites of masochism: “They love committees and commissions; they love public dinners with .after-dinner speeches, those stammering compounds of facetiousness, platitude, and business. How distressing such speeches usually are, and how helplessly prolonged, does not escape anybody; yet everyone demands them notwithstanding, because in pumping them up or sitting through them he feels he is leading the political life. A public man must show himself in public, even if not to advantage.” Following Saatkamp’s welcome, the podium waits for John McDermott, distinguished professor and holder of the recently established Abell Chair in Liberal Arts at A&M, head of the Department of Humanities at the A&M medical college, and past Department. Today he wears his boots to work, shrouded in blue pinstripe. At the podium he lowers his glasses to gaze at the audience. A thick accent still attests to McDermott’s days as a boy in New York City and professor at Queen’s College. “It’s impossible for me to say how Greg Moses, who spent five years as a broadcast journalist in College Station, holds a degree in philosophy from Texas A&M and is continuing his study of philosophy in Austin. pleased and happy I am to welcome you here,” says McDermott, looking toward colleagues with whom he has shared decades. Most of them will know how the past year has been one of the worst for McDermott \(as he faced the death of his Texas A&M can now claim to be a major center of study in the American classical field still growling in the face of it all. Many in attendance are active members of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, a rump brigade which for the past 20 years has been working to keep texts of the American classical period in circulation as serious philosophical contributions. In a special way, then, this is McDermott’s audience and he is chief host. McDermott reminds us how it was to arrive here a dozen years ago in midsummer, trailing family and worldly goods behind him, recalling the words of Gertrude Stein who, considering Oakland, said, “There is no there there.” Others have confirmed McDermott’s first observation, saying, “John, you’re nowhere.” So this will be an occasion to reassess. “As you now know,” says McDermott, “there is a there here.” Any of the popular accounts of contemporary philosophy are sure to mention the strategic rift between analysts and pluralists, so it will be possible to get away with only a few words on the topic. Keepers of the American classical period are to be counted emphatically among the pluralists, and their efforts over the past decades seem poised for renewed fruition, especially here in College Station. Since McDermott’s arrival here the philosophy department has been gradually gaining expertise in the classical period, to the point where today one could make the claim that College Station is a major center of scholarly activity in the field. McDermott himself recently won funding for a scholarly edition of the correspondence of William James, brother to Henry, and the figure around whom all the stars of the classical period revolve. With regard to James scholarship, McDermott’s reputation is international, and one imagines on top of it all that McDermott is temperamentally suited to James, for whom life must be strenuous if it’s life at all. It was James who brought us the “stream of consciousness” in his Psychology of 1890, and it was James who made the term “Pragmatism” the philosophical by-word of the American classical period. From McDermott’s skillfully edited selections of James’s writing, I offer the following: “The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but alas! are not.” The legacy of James, as master of metaphysical prose, is fittingly inherited by McDermott who today tells us, “With regard to the deepest human questions the goal of clarity is a sham.” And this is how McDermott, the pluralist, levels his sights across the analytic bow. I can think of no better example to give an idea of the stakes at risk here than the advice given me a few years ago by an analytic philosopher who had learned of my studies in literature. “You know we are doing something different from literature here,” he said as he set his face into the mode of high solemnity, “because, as you know, in literature there is no concern for the truth.” Of course there are profound ontologies in fiction, and literature at large is produced under the urgencies of truth. And today McDermott will press into the edges of the pluralist challenge by reading a prose poem composed for the occasion. This scholar will not argue, he will exhort, not head to head, nor heart to heart, but body to body. The effect of it pounds against your chest, and when you rise, it’s there, just behind the knees. Clarity, go diddle yourself. When McDermott is finished there is grit in the air, sting in the eye. The honorific myths of the wagon train have been rendered ambiguous again, no longer quaint, against poignant echoes of slaughter, greed, and THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11