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  • William James on Democratic Individuality by Stephen S. Bush
  • Lisa Landoe Hedrick
William James on Democratic Individuality. Stephen S. Bush. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 248 pp. £75.00 cloth.

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...


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pp. 77-81
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