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Streams of Experience: REFLECTIONS ON THE HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF AMERICAN CULTURE by John J. McDermott (University of Massachusetts: $25; 266 pp.)

January 18, 1987|Irwin C . Lieb | Lieb, whose next book will be "Past, Present and Future," is a university professor of philosophy at USC.

Prof. John McDermott has edited distinguished collections of the writings of William James, Josiah Royce and John Dewey. He often writes and lectures for general audiences about the philosophical and cultural importance of pragmatism. In this collection of his recent work, McDermott says that pragmatism gave a new turn to the perennial questions of human life and that its answers to them are profound.

Charles Sanders Peirce and James and Dewey made the major formulations of pragmatism. Peirce showed how to make ideas clear enough for us to act on them. James went on to explain how true ideas agree with a reality. "Any idea," he said, "that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with the reality or its belongings, that doesn't entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality's whole setting will . . . hold true of that reality." Then the question is--what is the nature of those realities?

Pragmatism's most accessible answer was given by James. He said that, ultimately, reality consists of experiences. We are a stream of experience, constantly changing; physical things are streams of occurrences that have the same organization as experiences. The contents of the streams are related to one another and, in us, the intimacy that is owed to the relations makes the contents of experience ours . We are not under or over or in any way apart from our experience. We are our experience. We are the earlier and the present parts of the experiences we feel that we are forming, and there will, of course, be experiences and occurrences in the future too.

It is in this note about the future that pragmatism finds our moral and religious challenges. The world is unfinished, it is a continuing process; experiences are always formed anew, and since they can be formed in many ways, not everything that will come about is fated to occur. Though there is a massive bearing by the past in all that we ever do, experience originates in every moment. James said that it grows by its edges, that possibilities are real, and that there will always be some novelty in what occurs. It is therefore possible for us to change and to improve things, though there are no guarantees that we will succeed.

Transience, relation, possibility and meliorism--these are the pragmatic themes that McDermott writes about. His fine exposition of James' notion of the self suggests how pragmatism, so clear about an individual's action, can also interpret a social self and a community. He also uses the themes to order his observations about American culture, for example, about how the identity of Americans is formed in our new beginnings, our explorations and our journeys. His other general essays have fine insights too.

The most interesting and most original part of the book is the last part, The Pragmatic Upshot. McDermott leaves historical exposition, leaves his lecture manner, walks the streets, and the voice is entirely his own. McDermott uses pragmatism to measure our experience and to pick his fights. In every essay, he asks what it is to be a human now --even perennial questions come to have new meaning with passing time--and he says that it is the ordinary "not the monumental or the charismatic which provides the clue to the magnificence of being human."

The ordinary is what he celebrates, the places where we live and work, for example: He would celebrate them more if glass towers were made a more "genuinely human home." He also likes our things, even our junk drawers. "We are our things," he says. They are parts in our experience. "They are personal intrusions into the vast, impersonal reach of space. They are functional clots in the flow of time."

What angers McDermott most is our making and doing things without thought and care enough for the human scale. He is pushy, emphatic and impatient--human values are being lost, not enough is being done, and the lost and not achieved are not redeemable. There are, he writes, terrible losses when children in school are not taught to feel a quickening in ideas and in their own minds, when the disabled are isolated from the fuller communities in which they might have larger lives, and when we let our own vigors and imaginations stale.

McDermott says that the usefully valuable in the past has, at every moment, to be shouldered into the present and that we can imagine new possibilities and turn them into prospects. In such important workings, he says that "all philosophy, one way or another, is helpful to us." He thinks, however--and I think he is right--that of all the helpful philosophies, pragmatism can help us most. The only reservation I can think of to this promise is what a wit once said--that, by itself, philosophy changes nothing, it bakes no bread. The oversight in the remark is that, culturally, philosophies are never by themselves, though the remark is somewhat true of those that have taken themselves far from the fullness of experience. It may to some extent be true of pragmatism too. But then McDermott's wonderful final commendation of it is that, whether by itself it bakes or not, pragmatism at least always shows us, among breads, the telling difference between bland white and wholesome rye.

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