- Personal Reflections on Studying Royce after Curry
I studied Royce a bit as an undergraduate, and in graduate school, I took a course that included readings from Race Questions. Memory was, and is, an abiding interest of mine, and so I focused on that element of Royce’s thought—specifically, the community of memory and of hope in his Problem of Christianity. I suppose I had a naïve sense of Royce’s racism at the time—something along these lines: “Of course, a nineteenth-century white man was racist, but he was not a bad racist.” However, I was a Peirce scholar at heart, and so set Royce aside for years, except for pairing Philosophy of Loyalty with Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince in an ethical leadership course that I taught twice.
In the interim, I moved to a suburb of Baltimore and starting teaching at Morgan State University, an HBCU (a historically Black college or university) a few miles northeast of Johns Hopkins. For years, I commuted by bus, traveling through West Baltimore into downtown and then up to Morgan. Riding and walking through the streets in those twilight hours gave me a sense, however limited by the particulars of my embodiment, of life in a hypersegregated city.
Around this time, I returned to Royce, inspired by my accidental rediscovery of his 1914 War and Insurance, a work so peculiar that I wanted to understand why Royce considered it to be a natural extension of The Problem of Christianity. This interest in insurance led to a few presentations and a publication in The Pluralist (Brunson, “Insuring the Community”). It also drew the attention of the Josiah Royce Society, which drew me further into Roycean scholarship, such as editing a special issue of Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 2016 honoring the centennial of Royce’s death. [End Page 30]
My department hosts a biennial Philosophy and HBCUs conference, and, in 2016, the theme was “Imagining Social Justice in Urban Environments.” This was a year after the 2015 Baltimore Protests subsequent to the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. Some of my personal and philosophical commitments include attending to history and place. Furthermore, I try to stay cognizant of being a white man working to introduce mostly Black students to concepts and tools to help understand their lived experiences. So I was eager to contribute to this conference but wondered what Peircean semiotics could possibly add to social justice. This is not to say that it could, or has, added nothing, but I did not see how to direct my particular background in that direction. On the other hand, I was reading more and more by and about Royce. Around this time, I read an article on the history of lead poisoning in Baltimore and its direct impact on Freddie Gray’s troubled life. Lead poisoning and the ongoing water crisis in Flint led me to thoughts about environmental pragmatism, and I decided that adapting a presentation I had made the previous year on Roycean sustainability might be interesting for this new conference.
The invited keynote speaker was Tommy J. Curry, whom I knew at the time mostly by reputation. I had been dimly aware of the 2009 issue of The Pluralist in which Curry and Dwayne Tunstall argued against interpretations of Royce as an anti-racist thinker, but at that earlier time, I had still been dissertating on Peirce. Six years later, I knew that if I wanted to use Royce to think through social justice in urban environments at a conference with Curry as an invited guest, I’d better do my homework. What I learned from Curry and Tunstall is that I nearly fell into a trap.
II. Royce’s “Wise” Provincialism
In 1908, Royce published Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other American Problems, a collection of earlier presentations not included in his Philosophy of Loyalty, but serving in the development of that work. Royce offers his “wise” provincialism as an antidote to four social evils: sectarianism or (violent) patriotism, the failed assimilation of strangers, the “leveling tendencies” of modern life, and the “mob-spirit.” Here...