Damn Great Empires!

William James and the Politics of Pragmatism

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Alexander Livingston
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his 1897 speech, Oration upon the Unveiling of the Shaw Monument (in honor of Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment) William James instructed his audience, “The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders.” This warning, given in the twilight of the 19th century, serves as a succinct summary of Alexander Livingston’s impressive study of James in Damn Great Empires! William James and the Politics of Pragmatism. Livingston cautions his readers that we must turn upon ourselves—our personal drives, motivations, and habits—in order to create a Jamesian political theory. The value of James’s political vision, for Livingston, arises from the subjective elements of his philosophical and psychological writings: personal letters from James, and the imperialist desires of American politicians during the height of the Gilded Age.

In contrast to popular interpretations criticizing James for lacking a coherent political theory, Livingston claims that James was, without a doubt, “an important and innovative theorist of politics” (4). Livingston contends that James’s political vision serves as an apt critique of “empire as a way of life,” the ideas and motives of imperial expansion deeply ingrained in American political culture. To construct this anti-imperialist portrait of James, Livingston uses James’s Nachlass—a collection of papers, essays, and correspondences written during the final decade of James’s life—as a springboard. Nachlass features James’s reactions to the Spanish-American War of 1898, along with his fears and concerns for the United States’ imperialistic motivations. Livingston strongly suggests that James’s anti-imperialist writings should be taken “seriously as a lens for rethinking the meaning of his pluralistic pragmatism” (7).

Livingston’s contextualization of James and the United States of the Gilded Age stands out in this study. In an interesting maneuver, Livingston, using psychoanalysis, diagnoses the United States at the turn of the 20th century as a nation with “a whole host of lost love objects: the yeoman agrarian economy, paternal authority in the family, Anglo-Saxon ethnic homogeneity, fantasies of free-market infallibility in the Panic of 1893, and so on” (80). This dreary and uncertain portrait of the United States, Livingston argues, hung heavy on the minds of many Americans of the era.

In chapter 3, Livingston describes Theodore Roosevelt’s praise of “manly striving” in his 1899 speech, “The Strenuous Life,” as a prime example of the alluring rhetoric that helped alleviate the insecurities of Gilded Age Americans about the quickly evolving world around them. Roosevelt articulates “the heroic fantasy of sovereign mastery”: national success, like individual success, must come through labor, toil, and effort (78). That rhetoric, Livingston suggests, likens the moral superiority of Roosevelt’s strenuous life to the United States’ imperialist policies and efforts. In Nachlass and other personal writings, however, Livingston finds that James holds nothing but contempt for this rhetoric of “bigness” and success.

Indeed, the political picture of James that Livingston constructs flies in the face of Roosevelt’s imperial man. Through the character of Colonel Robert Shaw, Livingston provides a counter example to Roosevelt. James does not highlight Shaw’s ironclad conviction but rather his “lonely courage of self-reliance” (116). This courage is found in one’s own habits, in the “slow, stuttering forms of repetition,” which produce moral action through (sometimes tragic) trial and error—not just the presumptuous power of moral principles alone (121). The idea of “stuttering,” which Livingston borrows from Gilles Deleuze, finds a voice in chapter 5 when Livingston’s attention turns toward W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks. In Souls, Livingston finds a “powerful example of meliorist faith” that grounds a stuttering democratic faith in the trials of the world and not in the “triumphalism of exceptionalist myth” often found in the rhetoric of empire (130). Hope for the world informed by tragedy and trial-and-error keeps us humble and well-directed; imperialism feeds hubris.

Given that critics like George Sabine and Bertrand Russell have claimed that James utterly failed to offer a systematic political vision, Livingston has undoubtedly provided the best counter to such charges leveled against James and pragmatism, in general, over the years. Still, despite Livingston’s efforts, it is difficult to let go of the gap between James’s personal political writings and his established philosophical and psychological views which, as Livingston notes, do not explicitly address politics. Yet this is by no fault or lack of effort on Livingston’s part: he displays a deep mastery of and familiarity with the breadth of James’s writings. The thematic and literary ground he covers is remarkable. Livingston not only provides a respectable foundation for constructing a Jamesian-based political vision, but he also creates a valuable resource for uncovering links between James’s earliest writings, his later writings, and even his personal writings.

Politics should not be left to the excesses of “bigness,” but rather, as Livingston’s book artfully shows, can and should be found within the very bounds of our ever-changing experience—our habits, temperaments, and personalities. To see the world anew and to orient oneself in a world of domination, crisis, and contingency are the themes that undergird Livingston’s study on the psychology and philosophy of James’s political theory. For James, the landscape of the Gilded Age was one of disorientation and uncertainty—be it the “bigness” of imperial conquest, the malaise of republican melancholia, or the uncertainty of moral choices. This very uncertainty shows itself in the political resonances of his pragmatism—a mighty maneuver within the uncertainty of the Gilded Age, the uncertainty of the present day, and for uncertainty surely to come in the future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tyler Jones is a graduate research assistant at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Livingston is Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University.



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