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  • “That hippopotamus the American people”: Livingston’s Damn Great Empires!
  • Jennifer Pitts (bio)
Alexander Livingston, Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism. Oxford University Press. 164pp. [240 total] $24.95 (pbk) $99.00 (hc) ISBN: 9780190237165

On leaving the idyllic bourgeois retreat of Chautauqua, the American philosopher William James later reported, he was astonished “to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: ‘Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate.”1 For all the self-mockery of the anecdote, James’ worry that the “whole world” was coming to resemble the dully well-meaning, tidy, and prosperous retreat—that the age required heroism, intensity and danger, “human nature in extremis”—betrays a striking insularity from the violence of the late nineteenth-century world, both inside and beyond the United States. When, a few years later, the US conquered the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War, James was “heart-sick over the infamy” of American conduct, seeing the war as a decisive break from America’s history as a benevolent power.2 The “savage and pirate passion” for conquest, he lamented, “should have been kept chained by a native wisdom nourished assiduously for a century on opposite ideals.”3 That James, for all the fervor and eloquence of his critique of American imperial violence at the turn of the twentieth century, could see the Philippine conquest as a betrayal of America’s noble past, just as he could see the great menace facing modern America as the danger that “correctness, fairness, and compromise for every small advantage are crowding out all other qualities,” indicates something of the limits of his social and political critique.

Alexander Livingston begins to address some of these limitations in a suggestive section at the end of Damn Great Empires!, through a contrast with the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois. This line of argument might have been incorporated throughout, for James’ frequent suggestion that America had represented beneficence in the world until the supposedly unexpected eruption of imperial violence in 1899 arguably [End Page 861] indicates more profound lacunae in his thought than Livingston suggests, shortcomings that he shared with many American and European thinkers and that were powerfully illuminated by Du Bois. In arguing that James’ pragmatist philosophy entailed significant political commitments, and that James’ anti-imperial writings are not peripheral but rather essential to his philosophically informed politics, Livingston has challenged several well-worn maxims of James scholarship. These include the idea that James was an apolitical philosopher or, in Cornel West’s words, that “James had nothing profound or even provocative to say” about politics; and that James’ life, and especially his psychobiography, is the key to his thought.4 Livingston thus resists the narrative and explanatory temptation to psychologize James’ thought in the manner, for instance, of Louis Menand’s engaging intellectual biography of four major pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club. Whereas Menand roots James’ philosophical commitment to reconciling antitheses in his personal indecisiveness—noting that James fretted for years over whether to enlist in the Union army during the Civil War, took two years to court his first wife despite her evident inclination to marry him, and changed the name of his youngest child several times over a number of years—Livingston offers an account of James’ pragmatism as a searching and theoretically coherent “practice of anti-authoritarianism.” James, he argues compellingly, took as his central conundrum the problem of “empire as a way of life” (11) and mounted a complex resistance to the craving for authority, stability, and efficacy that he saw as underlying its attractions for so many.

The difficulties in making such a case, as Livingston recognizes, include pragmatism’s participation in the cult of American exceptionalism and the apparent affinities between pragmatism’s veneration of action—and James’ particular attraction to masculinist expressions—and muscular ideologies from fascism to American hegemony in the name of humanitarian values. Livingston deftly traces the complex relationships in the public debates of James’ day among American exceptionalism...