Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison
    Book Description:

    America has a love-hate relationship with individualism. In Reconstructing Individualism, James Albrecht argues that our conceptions of individualism have remained trapped within the assumptions of classic liberalism. He traces an alternative genealogy of individualist ethics in four major American thinkers-Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, and Ralph Ellison. These writers' shared commitments to pluralism (metaphysical and cultural), experimentalism, and a melioristic stance toward value and reform led them to describe the self as inherently relational. Accordingly, they articulate models of selfhood that are socially engaged and ethically responsible, and they argue that a reconceived-or, in Dewey's term, "reconstructed"-individualism is not merely compatible with but necessary to democratic community. Conceiving selfhood and community as interrelated processes, they call for an ongoing reform of social conditions so as to educate and liberate individuality, and, conversely, they affirm the essential role individuality plays in vitalizing communal efforts at reform.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4659-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-22)

    America has a love-hate relationship with individualism.¹ Many view individualism as morally and politically suspect, as a corrosive force that undermines democracy and is the source of many of our social ills. Such indictments usually focus on two main issues. First, that individualism precludes meaningful political change and is inescapably complicit with the liberal-capitalist status quo. Any ethics that asserts the morality of individualized activity risks being co-opted by the capitalist doctrine that rationalizes the pursuit of individualized wealth as a primary—and perhaps sufficient—means to the general good. Similarly, through an exaggerated emphasis on individual merit and responsibility,...

  5. Part I. Emerson
      (pp. 25-52)

      In the opening lines ofPragmatism, William James approvingly quotes G. K. Chesterton’s claim that “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe”—in other words, his philosophy. In the broadest and most meaningful terms, James asserts that philosophy is “not a technical matter” but rather describes each person’s “sense,” consciously articulated or not, “of what life honestly and deeply means.”¹ A philosophy, pragmatists such as James and Dewey argue, is in essence a belief, an attempt to describe reality and orient ourselves toward it in a manner that satisfies fundamental human...

    • TWO “LET US HAVE WORSE COTTON AND BETTER MEN”: Emerson’s Ethics of Self-Culture
      (pp. 53-124)

      Pragmatism, as noted in my introduction, rejects absolutism in favor of an experimental and melioristic approach to inquiry and conduct. Relinquishing the notion of truth as providing any absolute certainty, and rejecting simplistic notions that truth provides an objective account of an unchanging reality, pragmatism views ideas as limited human constructs—hypotheses or tools whose truth resides in their ability to guide our actions to beneficial results. By extension, all such results must in turn be treated as only provisional ends, and most importantly as means to further action. It is worth while here to cite again William James’s claim...

  6. Part II. Pragmatism:: James and Dewey
    • THREE MOMENTS IN THE WORLD’S SALVATION: James’s Pragmatic Individualism
      (pp. 127-190)

      They don’t make intellectuals like William James anymore.¹ James forged a career whose remarkable breadth seems unimaginable in the academic and popular cultures of today. He traversed and blended several disciplines, writing pioneering works in psychology and religion in addition to the work for which he is most famous—providing one of the founding articulations of pragmatism, the most distinctive and influential school in American philosophy. Moreover, James was a true public intellectual²: he was an expert contributing to his discipline at the highest level, writing texts that continue to challenge and inspire professional philosophers, but he also translated his...

    • FOUR CHARACTER AND COMMUNITY: Dewey’s Model of Moral Selfhood
      (pp. 191-243)

      The writings of John Dewey occupy a pivotal position in the genealogy of pragmatic individualism charted in this study.¹ Spanning the era from the Civil War to the Cold War (1859–1952), Dewey’s life is remarkable for the sheer scope of social changes he witnessed and participated in, and the breadth of these changes is reflected in his prodigious range and output as a philosopher. WhenDemocracy and Educationwas published in 1916, Dewey, at age fifty-seven, had already achieved a notable career as a philosopher of pragmatism and a pioneer of progressive educational reform.² In the subsequent decades, well...

    • FIVE “THE LOCAL IS THE ULTIMATE UNIVERSAL”: Dewey on Reconstructing Individuality and Community
      (pp. 244-278)

      In 1926, when John Dewey delivered and revised the series of lectures that would be published asThe Public and Its Problems, the future of individualism in American culture weighed heavily on his mind. In “William James in Nineteen Twenty-Six,” he wondered aloud about James’s melioristic ethic of individualized vocation—as typified in James’s vision in “Pragmatism and Religion”—of individuals willing to stake themselves in the uncertain struggle to realize ideals in “the parts of the world to which [they] are closest”:¹ had James described “an abiding, an indestructible, possession of American life,” or merely “summed up an age,...

  7. Part III. A Tragicomic Ethics in the Emersonian Vein:: Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison
    • SIX SAYING YES AND SAYING NO: Individualist Ethics in Ellison and Burke
      (pp. 281-310)

      The writings of Ralph Ellison constitute one of American literature’s most sophisticated explorations of the doubleness that W. E. B. Du Bois described as central to African-American identity. While Du Bois testified to the African-American’s “longing” to overcome the social and psychic divisions imposed by American society, to “merge his double self into a better and truer self,” he envisioned that “truer” self as one in which the doubleness of African and American elements would coexist: “In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 311-370)
  9. Index
    (pp. 371-376)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 377-378)