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  • Jane Addams's Evolutionary Theorizing: Constructing "Democracy and Social Ethics" by Marilyn FischerEditor's Introduction
  • Aaron Pratt Shepherd

on the morning of friday, 6 March 2020, an "Author Meets Critics" session took place in the Sor Juana room of the Hacienda Santa Clara to discuss Marilyn Fischer's Jane Addams's Evolutionary Theorizing. Chaired by Barbara Lowe, the dialogue yielded opportunities to both praise Fischer's scholarship and reassess the nature and meaning of Jane Addams's canonical work of American philosophy, Democracy and Social Ethics (hereafter DSE). The discussion proved significant enough that the editors of The Pluralist sought to reproduce it in these pages.

In Jane Addams's Evolutionary Theorizing, Fischer provides an "archaeological" and "architectural" treatment of DSE, delving into the source material: Addams's own lectures in the 1890s that were later adapted into the book, as well as the intellectual milieu of the time. Unlike previous studies that have focused upon pragmatism, activism, and the social gospel as key to Addams's thinking at this time (including Fischer's own prior publication in this very journal1), the focus of this archaeological "dig" is the evolutionary social science of the late nineteenth century, which shines through in phrases that crop up in DSE, but which are often overlooked or dismissed as purely rhetorical flourishes. Fischer's research reveals that behind the paraphrases and uncited quotations Addams employed in her book lays a much wider world of theorizing than philosophers and intellectual historians have previously acknowledged. Fischer uncovers the "penumbras of association" of words like "democracy" and "evolution," associations that readers and academics of the early twentieth century would understand, but that may elude those of the early twenty-first. As Fischer puts it, "[t]his was a world in which social reformers were theorists, intellectuals were activists, scientists were storytellers, artists were scientifically attuned, and scientists and artists alike understood that working for human betterment was an integral requirement of their [End Page 104] calling" (18–19). Digging down through the intellectual strata accumulated over the past century, Fischer reveals new "geographical and historical axes" upon which the argumentative infrastructure of DSE may be reconstructed.

In chapter 1, Fischer explains the connection between Addams's arguments on the "Subjective Necessity of Settlement Work" (first delivered as a lecture in 1892) and "three major strands of Victorian evolutionary thought": namely, the evolution of society toward democracy, of biology toward complexity, and of religion toward authentic philanthropy. Chapter 2 explores Addams's use of the "imaginative history" characteristic of Darwinian evolutionary theorizing and the novels of George Eliot "to foster sympathetic understanding in her readers" (65). This was the method by which Addams made the moral case for settlement work and greater social change. In chapter 3, Fischer explores Addams's exploration of the evolution of labor from feudalism to socialism that was derived (at least in part) from the British Fabian Socialists. (Incidentally, this chapter also provides a rich account of other-than-Marxist historical-materialist critiques of capitalism present in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Chapter 4 is perhaps Fischer's most provocative, in which she analyzes two essays often cited as demonstrations of Addams's cultural imperialism, and instead argues that the goal of these essays is in fact "to develop an appreciative account of cultural pluralism" (122). Chapter 5 examines Addams's addresses and essays on education that would form the basis for her chapter on "Educational Methods" in DSE. In chapter 6, Fischer makes her case for understanding Addams not just as a social activist, but as a social scientist, arguing that actively working toward the betterment of society was an essential part of the "penumbra of associations" for "science" at the time. Chapter 7 brings the previous chapters together to show how Addams adapted the material of her work in the 1890s into the final form of DSE, and especially how the intellectual accretions necessary to understand those prior essays were scraped away, the detritus synthesized into an argument for the necessary connection between individual and social ethics that, Fischer concludes, ultimately expresses an evolutionary theory of ethical deliberation and social amelioration.

In the essays that follow, Fischer...


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