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Passionate Tolerance

William James' democratic temperament offers a link between the life of the mind and the real world

By Paul Henry Rosenberg

WILLIAM JAMES is the Rodney Dangerfield of philosophy. In a field where brilliance is routinely equated with impenetrability (Kant, Heidegger, Derrida), transcendental self-importance (Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard) or dogmatic certainty (Descartes, the Vienna Circle), James is simply too clear, too approachable, too willing to confess his own doubts to be taken seriously as the philosopher he actually is. Which is precisely why he deserves our attention.

William James (1842­1909), the eldest brother of novelist Henry James, lived in an age surprisingly similar to our own--torn by racial backlash, fears of immigration and prolonged battles over the status of women, destabilized by swift technological change and rapidly expanding corporate power, and ill-served by a two-party system offering little real choice--yet he managed to articulate a hopeful, intelligent, committed, but nondogmatic response to such contentious issues.

This remarkable accomplishment is explored and illuminated in a lucidly Jamesian manner in Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James, by Joshua Miller. A community organizer before he entered academia, Miller shares James' sense of the deep connection between the life of the mind and the real world.

As Miller himself says, "At the heart of the book is James's description of the democratic temperament, which I take to be a healthy corrective to the distemper that characterizes so much of politics today. The democratic temperament includes a willingness to act, placing the public good ahead of private comfort, generosity toward one's opponents, and a nearly universal respect--which for James included women, African Americans, workers, inhabitants of the Third World, and even white members of the middle and upper classes."

James' relevance to political philosophy has long been overlooked. As Miller explains, James appears to have little to say on the subject. Certainly he neglected its traditional concerns--he never came near a theory of the state. What's more, he was intensely individualistic. But for James, the individual is inherently social, so bound up in the great questions of existence--moral, religious, social and political--that the term "private individual" is almost meaningless.

A seamless web unites all forms of action contributing to the public good. According to Miller, "James saw the achievement of a personal goal, such as giving up drinking, as a form of action. James said, 'To keep out of the gutter is for us here no part of consciousness at all, yet for many of our brethren it is the most legitimately engrossing of ideals.' "

As this example shows, James had a remarkable ability to dissolve the kinds of abstract distinctions hallowed by philosophers down through the ages. It was characteristically American of him, and characteristically pragmatic. Indeed, the insistence on looking at the real-world "cash-value" of ideas, distinctions and whole systems is crucial to the philosophy of pragmatism as James defined it.

THERE WAS a remarkable continuity of thought from James' psychology to his philosophy to his active political involvements, even though this was as much a continuity of themes in tension as it was one of settled answers.

For all his ability to dissolve false dichotomies, James was equally remarkable in restraining the philosopher's impulse (and the demagogue's) to erase all particulars in some vast universal. Indeed, that very tension, that very openness--that directed indeterminacy--lies at the heart of James' democratic temperament. He truly was a man who could believe passionately--and yet passionately believe in the need to always consider another's point of view.

Although his father, Henry James Sr., a philosopher in his own right, was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson's, James' own philosophy had the earthier immediacy of Walt Whitman's claims--"I am vast, I contain multitudes" and "I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself!"--even if he always remained very much the Victorian gentleman. Wisely, Miller directs most of his attention to the tensions in James' thought, for James' greatest gift to us is not answers to our questions but an example of how questions ought to be wrestled with.

The first such tension Miller confronts is that between action taken by men of genius and the actions of the masses. On the one hand, as already noted, James saw public virtue even in the struggle to stop drinking; on the other hand, he pointed out the role of visionary leadership in producing fundamental change, emphasizing the need for exertion, commitment and extraordinary insight.

In some of his writings, James himself works to undermine this dichotomy, while elsewhere he builds it up. Miller admirably explores the contradictory tendencies as well as several different forms of rapprochement in James' writing.

Miller also sketches out some connections--and differences--between James' ideas on leadership and action and the legacy of the modern civil rights and feminist movements, citing Ella Baker, Bob Moses and Starhawk, all addressing the necessities and dangers of leadership in building democratic movements.

FORTUNATELY, MILLER quotes generously from James' own writing, for this is the only way to really absorb the spirit of his philosophy. James doesn't offer us any final answers, because our continuing struggle to find answers for ourselves is at the very core of what he sees as valuable in human life. Yet at the same time, he counsels us on how to avoid being gullible or foolishly indulgent.

In an age when the mantle of citizen activism has been taken up by the lowest form of rabble-rousers--and most common form of hypocrites--it's heartening indeed to spend a few precious hours in the presence of such a reasonable, charitable and tolerant advocate of the power of individual action to achieve public good.


Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James by Joshua Miller; University Press of Kansas; $29.95 cloth.

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From the July 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro.

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