- A Pragmatist Response to Death:Jane Addams on the Permanent and the Transient
The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932) is an odd title for a book by a pragmatist thinker like Jane Addams. Pragmatists argue that social and political improvement must be gradual and consensual if it is to be lasting. They believe that the best solution is often the enemy of the better or reachable end-in-view. In praising "the excellent" rather than the gradual increments of good that may gradually sum themselves into the best possible, Addams seems to be reaching back to an idealist foundation for her beliefs and actions. Permanence is also a problematic goal for pragmatists. Process and continuous reconstruction foreclose any resting in a permanent state. States of affairs consist of both goods attained and evils not yet overcome. Their unrealized possibilities call for further effort, not for setting it in stone. What, then, does Addams mean by using the phrase "the excellent becomes the permanent" to tie together a series of memorial addresses she gave at various services for departed friends and benefactors of the Hull House settlement?
Katherine Joslin gives a possible source for Addams's title in Virginia Woolf's definition of "reality" for writers in A Room of One's Own. Woolf says that reality is found even in the fleeting moments of life and in the most trivial incidents, as "something very erratic, very undependable," and "sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates" (2004, 207–8). Addams quoted Woolf verbatim in The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House, but when she utilized the idea again in The Excellent Becomes the Permanent, it is not the waywardness of impressions that she emphasizes, but only the very best and highest aspects of living, that which is realized as excellent in lives of unselfish service (1930, 81). She is no longer emphasizing the mind living "in a world of myriad impressions," as Joslin describes Woolf's impressionistic, stream of consciousness approach, but valorizing instead only the uplifting, ideal moments of people's lives.
Another possible source for the idealism expressed in the book is Josiah Royce's Studies of Good and Evil (1898), a book that was also in Addams's personal [End Page 133] library. One essay in it especially stands out because it is tied to a particular time and place and tries to draw an idealist moral from a rather shabby episode in the founding of the state of California. In "An Episode of Early California Life: The Squatter Riot of 1850 in Sacramento," Royce says the incidents he relates "may seem petty, local, transient, accidental, but their meaning is permanent, and they will recur, over and over, and perhaps on a constantly grander and grander scale, as long as our national history lasts." Addams would have no trouble agreeing with him that "the solution of the most practical problems of the daily life of a community may involve" in miniature "a process of universal meaning."1 But while Royce is drawing on an incident full of depravity to point a higher meaning, Addams intends to valorize altruistic lives. Yet both agree that however transient everyday life is, it can also be a source of insight into values that pass the test of time.
In any case, Addams, like all good writers, transforms her sources into her unique voice and issues. She even notes the discrepancy between her funeral oration rhetoric and her pragmatist philosophy. After all, the source of belief in immortality may simply be that those one loves not be forgotten. Despite widespread beliefs by followers of many religions in an afterlife, such beliefs themselves also fluctuate and adaptations to the flux and complexity of modern life occur. Such changes may reflect the conviction of many contemporaries to base their beliefs on understanding the actual state of the world. According to...