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Reconstructing Individualism

A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

James M. Albrecht

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Series: American Philosophy

Title Page, Copyright

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xii

There are many persons and a few institutions to whom I owe heart- felt thanks for helping me to finish this work. First, to friends and colleagues who have read portions of the study and provided both constructive criticism and necessary encouragement: Lisa Marcus, Erin McKenna...

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Introduction. “Individualism Has Never Been Tried”: Toward a Pragmatic Individualism

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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...

Part 1. Emerson

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1 What’s the Use of Reading Emerson Pragmatically?: The Example of William James

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pp. 25-52

In the opening lines of Pragmatism, 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...

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2 “Let Us Have Worse Cotton and Better Men”: Emerson’s Ethics of Self-Culture

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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...

Part 2. Pragmatism: James and Dewey

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3 Moments in the World’s Salvation: James’s Pragmatic Individualism

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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...

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4 Character and Community: Dewey’s Model of Moral Selfhood

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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...

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5 “The Local Is the Ultimate Universal”: Dewey on Reconstructing Individuality and Community

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pp. 244-278

In 1926, when John Dewey delivered and revised the series of lectures that would be published as The 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...

Part 3 A Tragicomic Ethics in the Emersonian Vein: Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison

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6 Saying Yes and Saying No: Individualist Ethics in Ellison and Burke

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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...


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pp. 311-370


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pp. 371-376

American Philosophy

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pp. 377-378

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246595
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823242092
Print-ISBN-10: 0823242099

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: American Philosophy
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OCLC Number: 830023895
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reconstructing Individualism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Philosophy, American -- 19th century.
  • Philosophy, American -- 20th century.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, -- 1803-1882 -- Philosophy.
  • James, William, 1842-1910 -- Philosophy.
  • Dewey, John, -- 1859-1952 -- Philosophy.
  • Ellison, Ralph -- Philosophy.
  • Literature and society -- United States.
  • Individualism -- United States -- History.
  • Individualism in literature.
  • Pragmatism in literature.
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