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  • Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism by Alexander Livingston
  • Shannon Sullivan
Alexander Livingston
Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 264 pp.

I admit that when I think of pragmatism’s contributions to political philosophy, I primarily think of Jane Addams and John Dewey. Their contributions to democratic theory and practice have been extremely important in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, so much so that “pragmatist politics” and “Deweyan democracy” are virtually [End Page 209] synonymous. I also think of W.E.B. Du Bois’s criticisms of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in the United States and across the globe. In any case, my first instincts have never been to turn to William James for political inspiration or insight. (To be fair, I’d say the same thing about other classical pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce.) I’m not alone in thinking and feeling this way. Cornel West (1989: 60), for example, once claimed that “James was preoccupied with the state of his and others’ souls, not the social conditions of their lives…. In regard to politics, James has nothing profound or even provocative to say.” Even James himself claimed in 1899 that his “political philosophy evidently belongs to the future; certainly not to the past or present” (epigram in Livingston 2016). For all I knew before reading Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism (2016), the “damn” in Alexander Livingston’s title might have been an adjective rather than a verb, conveying James’s enthusiasm for rather than his condemnation of large imperial nations.

But a verb it is, and with an exclamation mark from James to boot. Livingston’s remarkably refreshing book has written a new chapter in the story of what pragmatism has to contribute to political philosophy, and it has changed my thinking about the value of James’s philosophy for political purposes. As important as the concept of democracy is, it is not the only or the final word on how pragmatists might approach political theory and action. James’s contribution is not merely to insert individuality into democracy (cf. Rondel 2017), a reading of James that has value but which still seems to assume that the topic of democracy exhausts his political insights. On Livingston’s account, James instead provides an anti-imperialist critique of modern nations that is shaped by its “anarchist edges” (George Cotkin, quoted in Livingston 2016: 9). Rather than a full-blown Anarchist (capital “A”) ideology, what we find in James is an anarchist (lowercase “a”) criticism of what he called “bigness,” which led him to oppose empire building. Eloquently elaborated by Livingston and read with an “anarchist squint” (Scott 2012), James’s political vision becomes both apparent and appealing.

James’s political philosophy is found primarily in his Nachlass, the notes, letters, and editorials that James wrote especially in the last ten years of his life (from 1899–1900). These were the years after the 1898 Spanish-American War, which as Livingston argues (2016: 2), triggered a kind of political awakening for James. While James has been understood variously—and somewhat inconsistently—as “an apolitical scholar, a harbinger of fascism, or a proto-Deweyan democrat” (2016: 7), Livingston convincingly demonstrates that James instead should be considered an anti-authoritarian, anti-imperialist thinker. In Livingston’s view, James’s most significant contribution to pragmatist political philosophy is to “reorient[t] political thought towards the problem of empire as a way of life” (2016: 7, emphasis in original). [End Page 210]

Chapter 1 of Damn Great Empires! demonstrates how James’s former student, Ralph Barton Perry, significantly shaped the reception of James’s political thought. Perry was a liberal who advocated individualism, toleration, and democracy, and he used James’s philosophy to advance American liberalism in the twentieth-century era of the two World Wars. In doing so, Perry was combatting an emerging interpretation of James’s philosophy as proto-fascist. In the 1920s, James’s pragmatism became aligned with the anti-intellectualism in Europe that fed into Italian fascism. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini even infamously claimed...


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