William James on Democratic Individuality by Stephen S. Bush
Contrary to quietistic readings, Stephen Bush argues in William James on Democratic Individuality that the role of individualism in James’s view of religion [End Page 77] is very much political—and not just generally political, but specifically so. Jamesian individualism is a democratic individualism; “No one doubts that James is committed to individualism,” Bush writes at the outset, “but the key thing is to figure out what his individualism involves” (3). To this end, this book asks the perennial question of philosophical entailment.
From the introduction, we learn that James’s philosophy, theology, politics, and ethics are not externally related elements for Bush. The integrality of each of these elements challenges the clear-cut ethical categories by which one might attempt to label James’s position and so miss his originality. James is not merely a virtue theorist, existentialist, deontologist, natural law theorist, nor (despite popular depictions) a utilitarian. Bush points out that the hope of democracy lies, for James, in individual “habits and attitudes” because institutions have “inherent tendencies” that “foreclose individuality” (3, 4). This inherent tendency of human organizations preys on the natural human inclination to conform to the group. Jamesian individualism insists on regarding the distinctness of each person as a positive value, not as a situation to be mitigated (a point directly addressed in chapter six with respect to James’s notion of toleration). He is careful to acknowledge the ways Jamesian individualism evades the various (especially feminist) critiques of individualism.
The remainder of the book is dedicated to further detailing precisely how and why the cultivation of this sense of responsibility ought to occur, proceeding by four themes constitutive of James’s individualism: (1) responsibility; (2) sensitivity to strangers; (3) meliorism; and (4) religiousness. We might alternatively call these themes the four democratic virtues of Jamesian individualism. Chapter 1 surveys the literature on James, with particular focus on readings that have casted him a quietist. Bush claims that focusing on James’s democratic individualism helps to understand how he can otherwise be categorized; namely, as a “republican, democrat, reformer, anti-imperialist, pluralist” but not an “anarchist, communitarian, liberal” (16–17). Chapters 2 through 5 focus on responsibility—collective, individual, and the intersection thereof. It is refreshing to see someone complicate surface-level reading of James as a strict utilitarian, a service that chapter 3 provides. The main work of these chapters is to situate James in contemporary conversations. Bush’s method to this end is a combination of what Richard Rorty described as “rational” and “historical reconstruction,” insofar as Bush sees the work of situating James and his texts in his original context as necessary precursors to demonstrating his relevance (19).
The work in chapter 4, titled “Moral Objectivity,” is exciting. Here, Bush attends to the role James assigns to God in grounding moral values, placing his moral philosophy in conversation with Elizabeth Anderson, Stephen Darwall, [End Page 78] and Alasdair MacIntyre. According to Bush, the fact that, for James, “moral values originate in particular contexts does not mean that they cannot apply universally” (91). Although moral goods arise according to actual demands in a particular place and time, and are therefore context-dependent in origination, Bush points out that goods nevertheless stand in “causal and conceptual relationships to other goods” (92). How this relationship of causality works is not a matter of opinion, we are told; it is a matter of fact. This means that, for James, the question of priority with respect to moral goods—the question of “what goods depend on what other goods for with achievement”—is nonrelative (92).
This being the case, Bush argues, when it comes to adjudicating between competing demands, James instructs us to “find a ‘more inclusive’ good” (93). Anticipating immediate objections to what will strike most readers as a presumptuous claim, Bush acknowledges the likelihood of disagreement on just such a “higher good.” He writes, “One of the significant and original features of James’s moral and political philosophy is the way he calls for human creative activity to institute new goods when the existing goods cannot be organized in relation to an already agreed upon higher good” (94). What is unclear is how this call to institute new goods could speak to those who disagree not on what the higher good could be, but that there is or ought to be such a thing. Put differently, one might ask about who gets to name the more inclusive arrangement if, despite insisting on the objectivity of the causal and conceptual relations, disagreement (as it inevitably will) persists. What cannot be taken for granted in contemporary conversations is the shared sensitivity to evidence and valid argument, even if we insist on these intellectual virtues for the survival of democracy itself.
Neither can one simply prescribe belief in God on the basis of a practical need. But this prescription seems to be the inevitable result of James’s theological postulates. Whereas the objectivity in James’s moral philosophy does not depend upon his theology, without God—without the postulation of God—the moral philosopher would lack “the motivation necessary to live a life of moral and political activism” (96). The postulation of God “serves only to let loose in us the strenuous mood” that is needed to develop the “total attitude toward an ultimate reality” that is “serious, not ironic or disinterested” (96, 209). However, whether one might prove this need to one who claims otherwise is unclear.
Still, John Dewey’s naturalism in A Common Faith provides a foil. Bush notes in chapter 9, “Religion and Motivation,” that, unlike Dewey, James does not take the postulate of God to enervate human agency but to supply it with the requisite hope to persist in the face of tragedy (206). For James, argues Bush, evil is not just a practical problem—it is an existential one. In a sense, then, [End Page 79] James recognizes something that Dewey does not: the value of being a witness to another’s suffering. Those affected by despair are often “beyond the reach of critical intelligence” such that to “hear [their] account and respond strictly with a problem-solving frame of mind is to misapprehend [the person’s] value and the significance of [their] misery” (209). Religion is the only thing, according to James, that allows us to apprehend the world “in all its gory awfulness, when there is no other reason to do so”—only by reaching toward transcendent grounds that may or may not exist can we carry on after bearing witness “to mass graves, to auction blocks, to scars and burns and scattered limbs, to gritted teeth, hunger, scratches, and bruises, to rape, lynchings, and bombs” (209). Melioristic hope is “a matter of attention and perception, as much as it is anything” (205). Again, how one can understand this demand to reach toward transcendence despite recognizing the need to do so lacks account here.
What Bush does provide, nevertheless, is James’s answer to how we can cultivate the attention and perception required for melioristic hope. In chapter 8, “Heroes and Citizens,” Bush addresses the responsibility of educators and institutions to cultivate the democratic virtues that organize the book as a whole. The urgency of this task of cultivation derives from the fact that “incapacity to appreciate greatness leads to an intellectually and morally shallow culture that is susceptible to manipulation” (183). Closely relating the skills acquired in education to the possibility of fulfilling individual and societal responsibility, Bush elucidates how members of the general population can only take responsibility for oneself by “critically evaluating their beliefs, values, and conduct” if they have the skills to discriminate degrees of excellence (5). Only when “one can discern good leaders from bad ones, good ideas from bad ones” can one deploy these standards of excellence in their assessment of their leaders (184). In succinct form, Bush communicates James’s point with his own statement that the single greatest service of a college education is “that it should help you to know a good man when you see him” (original emphasis, 183).
It is clear throughout the entirety of this book that democracy is, indeed, “still upon its trial.” (224) Bush admonishes us in his conclusion to recognize that democracy “continuously exists on the verge of its demise,” always failing in some ways even while it succeeds in others (218). Speaking of democracy as a regulative ideal that is only ever “partially realized” is sure to make those who share Derrida’s resistance to such an architectonic uncomfortable. I would have liked to see more discussion on this point. Still, for those who remain comfortable with the language of regulative ideals, the claim that democracy is “always as much aspiration as achievement” will likely recall the words of Dewey in “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us” depicting democracy not as a mechanism that operates regardless of how we instantiate its ideals, [End Page 80] but as a moral faith and mode of being. And yet, Bush shows us, this moral faith is not enough for James; democratic commitment requires nothing less than religious faith. What precisely this religiousness adds is a sort of endurance of which Dewey’s is allegedly incapable. And, insofar as “our commitment to democracy must outrun the available evidence for its attainability,” it is necessary (221). Again, this insistence upon transcendence is guaranteed to exclude many who lack any plausibility structure for such transcendence. Bush admits as much, but, despite a passing acknowledgment, he makes regrettably little effort to reconcile this fact with the welter of examples that contest the claim that transcendence is necessary for democratic hope.
While I had hoped he would say more about the nature, not just the need, of this transcendence, Bush makes admirable strides in his effort to rationally reconstruct James for a contemporary audience. His breadth of understanding makes him not only an adept writer but also a patient teacher who anticipates a reader’s suspicions and promptly assuages them. This is an experience that many readers are sure to share, and one that will come as no surprise to those familiar with Bush’s scholarship.