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  • Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing. Constructing “Democracy and Social Ethics” by Marilyn Fischer
  • Núria Sara Miras Boronat
Marilyn Fischer
Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing. Constructing “Democracy and Social Ethics”
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019. 263 pp., incl. index.

Much has been done to establish a body of scholarly work on women pragmatists since Mary Jo Deegan (1990) and Charlene Haddock Seigfried (1996) first stressed the importance of the contribution of Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Anna Julia Cooper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others to the foundations of the pragmatist tradition of thought. Nevertheless, it took decades to fully correct the gender and race bias of the genealogies: that is, to overcome the temptation of reducing pragmatism to the writings of a few white male professional philosophers living in the areas of Boston or Chicago a century ago. The reconstruction of pragmatism might also require a rethinking of the philosophical canon itself, the ways in which it writes philosophy and communicate with the public, as Maurice Hamington (2009) suggests in his introduction to Jane Addams’s social philosophy. Similar statements are made by Karen Warren (2009) in trying to bring male and women philosophers into conversation, making their reciprocal influences visible and suggesting that philosophy may be less a static, monolithic and self-sufficient endeavor than an ongoing conversation between friends.

Marilyn Fischer’s book is based on the results of those different criticisms and represents a mature and yet necessary step in the consolidation of a more comprehensive account of pragmatism and its roots. For too long the “work division” between John Dewey and Jane Addams in the foundation of progressive social philosophy has been taken for granted: he was the thinker, she was the doer; he was the theorist, she the activist. Their friendship and complicity went much further than this very simple dualism. As we discover the internal process of composition of Addams’s Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) we are confronted with the coming-of-age of an extraordinary thinker in her own right. The method of textual analysis proposed by Fischer involves shifting “Addams’s position from sole author of a text to that of a participant in a vast, international conversation about the day’s most pressing social problems” (15). This approach helps to reconstruct the intellectual and social atmosphere in which Addams developed her organic understanding of society and of social progress as she elaborated her own method of ethical deliberation. [End Page 114]

How much does this method owe to Addams’s acquaintance with the evolutionist framework set in place by biologists, sociologists and anthropologists of the nineteenth century? This is the question Fischer tries to answer throughout the book. She points out that these were not the only influences on Addams, since she intertwined those analyses with literary references and socially progressive inspirations. Addams’s method is more likely to be compared to a musical theme than to linear deductive thought—a method that was being constantly refined and elaborated as she wrote the essays that made up Democracy and Social Ethics, and some others that are quoted here to mark the variations, the elisions and corrections added in the different strata of the final text. Fischer describes her approach to Addams’s work as partly “archeological” (1). She was able to identify the paraphrased material by Addams using JSTOR and other electronic databases; she also had access to the 82 reels of the Jane Addams Papers, 1860–1960. The digitization of all these materials by the team at Ramapo College (janeaddams.rampo. edu) is excellent news for scholars of Addams and of pragmatism in general, as they allow free and unlimited access to nineteenth century sources using the tools of the twenty-first.

As Fischer demonstrates, Addams’s omissions and paraphrases in Democracy and Social Ethics are not accidental but deliberate. She was following the practices of other writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois in producing “popular literature” (14). Fischer introduces Addams’s texts chronologically and examines them in a way that sheds light both on her preferred dimension of analysis (geographical or topological, historical, sociological) and on the strategy she uses to...


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pp. 114-118
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