Dr. John J. McDermott passed away Sunday at age 86. (Texas A&M Marketing & Communications)
Dr. John J. McDermott, a Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy who passed away Sunday at age 86, was celebrated by school leaders and longtime colleagues this week as “the academic soul of the university” while being honored for his more than 60 years of teaching service, more than 40 of which were at Texas A&M.
Texas A&M President Michael K. Young sent an email to faculty, students and staff late Sunday evening, announcing McDermott’s passing with a “sense of undeniable loss and inevitable sorrow.”
“For me, he was an inspiration and a friend,” Young wrote, adding that the esteemed professor was among the first to reach out when he moved to Aggieland. “He believed in the centrality of the humanities as a means to a great education because it defines what it means to be human. John McDermott never lost sight of our core mission of teaching what it means to live a good life and how to live it, the very heart of Aggies and indeed of all humanity.”
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said: “A really big tree has fallen in the Aggie forest this weekend. John McDermott is irreplaceable. He was the academic soul of Texas A&M University and a dear friend. Our prayers are with him and Patricia.”
McDermott was rated one of the most influential living philosophers in the world in 2016 for his work “on the philosophy of culture, specifically American literature and philosophy” and “exploring and advancing the ideas of James and Dewey in relation to American culture, as well as his examination of American culture through philosophy.” In response to the honor, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents recognized McDermott with a resolution for his outstanding dedication to Texas A&M.
“I am deeply pleased by this designation,” McDermott said upon receiving the recognition in 2016. “Also, I accept it on behalf of my university colleagues in the Humanities, who also do splendid and influential work.”
His research over the course of his more than six-decade career included classical American philosophy, philosophy of culture, philosophy of medicine and existentialism.
American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia marked McDermott’s two key contributions to American philosophy as first, his efforts to help Americans “better understand the figures in classical American philosophy,” and second, to have written extensively about how philosophers “interested in the larger questions of existence should deal.”
McDermott arrived at Texas A&M in 1977 to take over as the head of the Department of Philosophy and Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts, a position he served in until 1981. He also founded the Department of Humanities in Medicine in the College of Medicine, where he served as the department’s head from 1983 to 1990.
McDermott’s teaching and research prestige helped gain national attention for a then-fledgling philosophy department. He commented on the growth of the humanities at Texas A&M 10 years after his arrival to campus for a 1987 Washington Post feature.
“What’s happening here is incredible, astonishing,” McDermott told the Post. “In the last year or so, I’ve noticed a palpable shift in what students want for their education. Before they were too literal. They lacked what I call a symbolic bank. Now they seem about fed up with narrowness.”
McDermott remained active in the classroom this semester, teaching an upper-level contemporary philosophy course once per week in the evenings in the YMCA building.
He was named a Regents Professor in 2009.
He served as president of the following prestigious organizations: Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy as one of its five founding members, the Texas A&M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the William James Society and the Josiah Royce Society.
College of Liberal Arts Dean Pamela R. Matthews has known McDermott for 40 years and said he has been the heartbeat of the department.
“He kept us focused on some of the most important lessons of a liberal arts education: Understanding our humanity, focusing on our students and taking care of one another as colleagues and co-workers,” she said. “Our college will not be the same without him.”
His contributions to Texas A&M extended beyond the classroom in his efforts to strengthen the bond between university faculty members. In 1983, McDermott called the first faculty meeting, which laid the groundwork for what would become the Faculty Senate. He served as charter speaker of the Faculty Senate and continued service on the Senate until 1986.
B. Don Russell, vice chair of the Executive Committee of University Distinguished Professors and said his longtime friend played a crucial role within the organization as its longest serving member of the executive committee.
“John was the conscience and institutional memory for the distinguished professors,” Russell said. “John never let us forget that our role was to protect and promote the faculty who are the substance of the university.”
In 2011, he became the founding director of the Community of Faculty retirees at Texas A&M.
Prior to Texas A&M, McDermott, a New York City native, taught philosophy at Queens College, CUNY from 1956 to 1977.
McDermott earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Francis College in 1953, his M.A. from Fordham University in 1954 and his Ph.D. from Fordham University in 1959.
Funeral services are pending.