- Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison by James M. Albrecht
Pragmatism seeks to reconstruct the individual's understanding of herself so that she is better equipped to grow and seek integration in her community. Given radical changes through the modern age and into our contemporary time, the idea of individualism that informs modern philosophy is radically out of step with reality. Pragmatism holds that individuality develops in interaction with an environment and, therefore, there is no originary individual such as moderns like Locke posit that exists antecedent to social life. However, the rejection of modern philosophy's Promethean individual is not a rejection of individuality. Wholesale rejection makes the mistake of reinforcing the individual-society dualism by affirming society instead of dissolving the dichotomy. It is precisely on the point of thoroughgoing dichotomy dissolution where James M. Albrecht's Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison enters the scene. Albrecht, in this work, draws out the rich tradition of pragmatic individualism in American philosophy including Emerson, James, Dewey, and Kenneth Burke. In his conclusion, Albrecht discusses Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, employing this novel as an example of a socially embedded individual and as an imaginative rehearsal of an Emersonian view of individualism.
Albrecht's overall thesis is that "the tradition of American pragmatism . . . constitutes a powerful resource for [the] task of remaking individualism" (3). This "remaking" employs pragmatism's diagnosis of false dichotomies and its suggestion for a "more coherent conceptualization of individualism that might [End Page 116] transform our conduct" (3). In his conclusion, Albrecht forcibly states that "individuality, in its fullest sense, is not simply the sheer fact of personhood, but a quality of selfhood to be achieved—the successful cultivation of a self that realizes an individual's native gifts" (307). The tools of pragmatism are vital to this project. Albrecht particularly focuses on dissolving dichotomies between the individual and society with pragmatism's offer of "a radical alternative to traditional individualism [that] critiques the tendency to treat the metaphysical dualisms . . . as rigidly exclusive" (3). Instead, Albrecht argues for a synthesis of individuality and community that rejects the extremes of Lockean liberalism and communitarianism yet preserves the value of both (15). Preserving individualism and community without metaphysical dualisms results in benefits like a realistic conception of liberty that "is not conceived as an ontological possession . . . but as an exercise of intelligent, self-determining choice and a liberation of individual capacities achieved within the process of communal endeavor" (5).
In Part 1, Albrecht considers Ralph Waldo Emerson's philosophy of individualism and defends against readings of Emerson that hold the ideal individual to be wholly metaphysically free to transcend and ignore a corrupted and inherently meaningless society. Following the lead of William James in the first chapter, entitled "What's the Use of Reading Emerson Pragmatically?" Albrecht suggests that Emerson should be read through a pragmatic lens to see a socially mediated, emergent individualism. Albrecht argues that Emerson's dedication to monism is overstated as there are definite and important pluralistic ideas in Emerson's work. He follows George Kateb in arguing that Emerson's call for an original relationship with the universe justifies us "in translating Emerson, in stressing the pragmatic applications of his ideas that remain alive for us today" (35). Further, Albrecht reads Emerson as a transitional figure from traditional "obsolete idealism" toward an "emerging pragmatism" (35). How Emerson deals with social interaction and the power of the individual in social life give us clues about an Emersonian pluralism. I suspect that Albrecht's interpretation of Emerson will run afoul with some who emphasize Emerson's monism and Platonism. However, on my reading, Albrecht is responsible and true to Emerson insofar as he is conscious of what is being pulled from Emerson, what is being "translated," and what is being left behind. Whatever else one might think of Albrecht's unconventional use of Emerson, the Emerson presented here is one that informs us about the tradition that later thinkers, especially James and Dewey, tap into and work from...