- Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison by James M. Albrecht
Lily Furedi’s Subway (1934) is full of individuals. It is a painting of a subway car filled with people on their way home from work. At first, these individuals appear rather isolated, just doing their own thing. But upon closer examination, a viewer notices something rather peculiar, namely that these individuals are surreptitiously, unconsciously, uncontrollably interested in each other. A couple quietly leans in for a kiss; a man watches furtively as a woman applies her make-up; a woman reads over the shoulder of a fellow passenger; and the viewer’s eyes fix on a sleeping man holding a violin case. Furedi places her viewer on this subway and in so doing allows her to catch sight of individualism in its private moments that are anything but private. James Albrecht selected this painting for the front cover of Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison. It is an appropriate choice for a book that attempts to place a reader into tradition which holds that “self-hood is inherently relational: that our individual identities, shaped by the shared social contexts in which we live, are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent” (306). Like Furedi’s Subway, Albrecht remind us—personally and powerfully—that the tenets of individualism must be continually interrogated in order for it to realize its potential. More pointedly, he argues that certain individualism narratives, like that of “classic liberalism,” might actually forestall the growth of [End Page 259] individuals and their communities. Albrecht’s book comes at the right time since this narrative has once again gained traction in the public and private spheres.
The book is written in clear and accessible prose. For Albrecht, like the pragmatic thinkers that he takes up, the possibilities for individualism are not the stuff of arcane philosophy for “ideas gotten from books are of value only to the extent that people can put them to use in their lives” (20). This sentiment concerning the necessary relationship between thinking and doing is one expressed by the four thinkers that ground Albrecht’s account of individualism: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, and Ralph Ellison. Albrecht argues that when taken together, these thinkers provide an effective counter-narrative to the story that “classic liberalism” has told about individualism. Each of them takes aim at the Lockean model of the individual that is based on “the foundational myth of the state of nature in which individuals are inherently endowed with liberty, equality, reason, and the right to private property.” This vision of personhood gave rise to a “restricted political contractarianism in which the only legitimate state is one limited (as far as possible) to protecting the individuals’ preexisting liberty (and property) from artificial social constraints” (130). The pragmatic line of thinking that Albrecht highlights attempts to provide alternatives to this metaphysical, ethical, and political set-up.
The book is divided into three sections that trace out several important points of contact between Emerson’s transcendentalism, the pragmatism of James and Dewey and the tragicomic ethics of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Albrecht clearly identities more than a dozen meaningful affinities between these authors, which I will be forced to condense into what John Dewey might call four “leading ideas.” First, led by Emerson, they hold to a “metaphysical pluralism that analyzes human activity, truth and power as emerging and existing only within and against the limitations of specific conditions” (8). Second, this metaphysical commitment leads them to cultivate an attitude of tragic optimism which acknowledges failures that beset all human projects, but also recognizes the meaningful successes achieved in “remaking a resistant-yet-malleable world” (9). Third, these thinkers criticize liberalism, but maintain its belief that “individuality functions as a necessary means and end within the specific area of morals … so that a pluralistic ethics must respect the desires and ideals of all sentient beings and their communities.” Finally, in the pursuit of this moral objective, pragmatic thinkers affirm the “mutual plasticity...