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  • A Pluralistic Universe in Twenty Years
  • Marilyn Fischer

placed side by side, james’s A Pluralistic Universe and Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House seem to have little in common. James’s critique of absolute idealism is written for intellectuals comfortable with philosophical abstractions. Twenty Years is full of stories about the lives of poor people and immigrants. Yet, sometime after April 1909, when A Pluralistic Universe appeared, and before November 1910, when Twenty Years was published, Addams inserted a few telling quotations into her manuscript. I will give a reading of Twenty Years as a presentation in real time of James’s pluralistic universe, with both form and contents conveying the “essential provisionality” of experience in James’s “strung-along” universe.1 I will then show how sympathy and memory serve as wires upon which the universe is strung.

Addams and James appreciated each other’s work. James wrote her thank-you notes. He thought Democracy and Social Ethics was “one of the great books of our time.” Of Newer Ideals of Peace, James wrote: “I find it hard to express the good it has done me in opening new points of view and annihilating old ones.” He offered to send a copy to George Bernard Shaw. After reading Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, he stated simply: “You inhabit reality.”2 Addams complimented James by dropping his phrases and sentences into her writings. Few are attributed; some lack quotation marks.3

I have seen no evidence that Addams first read James (or Peirce or Dewey) and then “became” a pragmatist. In “Charity and Social Justice,” her 1909 Presidential Address to the National Conference of Charities and Correction, Addams tells how charity workers and social reformers had worked out their own pragmatist philosophy through practical activity. She couldn’t resist adding a bit of Jamesian vocabulary; truth to them was “that in which all their ‘experiences most profitably combined,’” and they found that “truth’s final test was its ‘propitious reaction’ upon the poor.”4 Walter Pater’s description of [End Page 1] Renaissance figures applies to James and Addams just as well: “They partake indeed of a common character, and unconsciously illustrate each other. … [They] breathe a common air, and catch light and heat from each other’s thoughts.”5

Biographer Louise W. Knight calls Twenty Years a memoir. In the preface to Twenty Years, Addams borrows a phrase from that great memoirist, St. Augustine, to describe how, at Hull House, she was “launched deep into the stormy intercourse of human life.”6 Augustine gives a dramatic account of his inner turmoil as he resisted God’s call, until he could resist no more. Substitute concrete experience for the divine, and we could read Twenty Years as Addams’s “confession.” Perhaps this is what Addams means when she writes: “This volume endeavors to trace the experiences through which various conclusions were forced upon me.”7

Essential Provisionality

The clue to reading Twenty Years as a pluralistic universe comes at the end of the chapter on economic discussion in the 1890s. Reflecting back from 1910, Addams writes: “So far as I have been able to reproduce this earlier period, it must reflect the essential provisionality of everything; ‘the perpetual moving on to something future which shall supersede the present,’ that paramount impression of life itself, which affords us at one and the same time, ground for despair and for endless and varied anticipation.”8 Critiquing Hegel, James writes that the above inset quotation “is the Hegelian intuition of the essential provisionality, and consequent unreality, of everything empirical and finite.” James thinks that Hegel got the provisionality part right.9 Hegel’s mistake was in attributing “consequent unreality” to the empirical and finite, thus transporting concrete experiences out of the empirical and into the purely rational realm. James calls this a move of “vicious intellectualism.”10

Essential provisionality is a suitable hinge on which to swing between A Pluralistic Universe and Twenty Years. This notion of constant movement and change expresses the dynamism of evolution. Darwin showed how organic species emerged within history, and could change and disappear out of history. James thinks philosophers need to adopt an...


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