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  • The Relevance of Addams's Democracy and Social Ethics
  • Scott L. Pratt

marilyn fischer's book Jane Addams's Evolutionary Theorizing sets a new standard for reading the central works of American philosophy. By situating Addams's Democracy and Social Ethics in the context of late nineteenth-century evolutionary theory, the text takes on meanings different from some that have become canonical. Context, in this case, is not simply historical context, but also the intellectual context in which Addams's work was written and read. Fischer argues that the meanings of terms such as "evolution," "democracy," "sympathy," and "social ethics" cannot be taken at today's face value, but rather must be understood in light of the ideas and theories with which they were associated in Addams's day—what Fischer calls, following William James in Principles of Psychology, their "penumbra of associations" (Fischer 3). Addams's reasoning, Fischer seeks to demonstrate, follows the connections familiar at the time and, once these connections among ideas are clear, Addams's ideas of democracy and social ethics "take on deeper meanings, while being transformed in sometimes jarring ways" (Fischer 3).

While many scholars simply "ignore Addams's occasional references to evolutionary thought or pass them off as instances of outdated vocabulary," Fischer argues that "if one wants to claim that Addams was an intellectual, then one needs to explore the full range of intellectual resources with which she in fact engaged" (9). Fischer's reading of Addams consequently engages a full range of intellectual resources available to Addams and identified (usually indirectly) in her texts. As a result, "[w]hile Addams in this study may seem distant and strange," once one understands her terms in their context, "she also emerges as a creative and sophisticated theorist and literary artist, working with her era's full panoply of intellectual resources" (Fischer 10).

While Fischer's method is a powerful tool, it also raises some important questions both for Addams's philosophy and for the American philosophical [End Page 128] tradition in general. The key question I want to raise is about the status of the theories offered by Addams and the implications of using Addams's work to address the pressing social problems of today. This question is not limited to Addams; the relation of any philosopher to the received views of their day is at once key to understanding their work, and potentially problematic when it comes to adopting those insights for new action in a different day. Aristotle's physics, Descartes's theology, John Locke's investments, and Heidegger's politics all occasion the same worry. To what extent do these philosophies depend on theories and assumptions of the day, and to what extent do these assumptions determine what we can (and cannot) do with these philosophies in our present world?

The problem is heightened in the case of Jane Addams. Fischer writes: "Addams and her fellow pragmatists think of theories as tools. Theories do not represent the structure of the world as it really is; they do not mirror reality. They give patterns of thought helpful for critique and with which to suggest new hypotheses and imagine potential resolutions" (99). Pragmatist theories from Fischer's perspective are, at their best, tools, "ways of thinking," meant to bring about social change by changing "her readers' moral sensibilities and stretch[ing] their moral imaginations" (11) and are not meant to give an account of how the world "really is." Philosophies born of the theories of the day produce tools whose value is in relation to the results one seeks to obtain. If a philosophy, as a guideline for action, is unmoored from the world and framed entirely by its end-in-view, its origins and implications beyond its present use can easily drop from sight.

Fischer's reading of Addams's work (in this case, Addams's 1902 Democracy and Social Ethics) within the intellectual discourse of the day raises, as Fischer observes, "troubling questions." She continues: "The historiography the discourse assumed and the science it relied on are now outdated. Most of the theorists who worked within the paradigm are ignored today and with good reason. The voices we remember most...


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pp. 128-136
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