William James on Democratic Individuality

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Stephen S. Bush
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is well known that William James had a constructive moral vision. That his philosophy by and large championed individualism, and that American philosophy in general often links individuality and democracy, is also well known. But did James have a political philosophy? According to Stephen S. Bush and a growing number of historians and political philosophers, political ideas suffuse James’s writings, even if there are few explicit discussions of politics in his writings.

Describing James’s political vision as one of “democratic individuality,” Bush finds this vision in four themes that recur throughout James’s writings: responsibility, sensitivity to strangers, meliorism, (aim for improvement, not for perfection), and religiousness. As a scholar of religion, Bush brings special attunement to the fourth theme. His integration of James’s philosophy of (non-conventional) religion with the nuances of political theory yields fresh insight into each. 

The issue of motivation for the moral and political life comes to the fore in chapter 9, and Bush is quite clear that James viewed religion normatively rather than empirically as supplying—rather than as sapping—motivation for social activism. Unlike Dewey, James thought religion to be the only thing that makes it possible for one to recognize the full extent of evil, loss, and suffering while still mustering commitment to act. Bush summarizes James’s humanistic position on religion sympathetically: “If you unreservedly expose yourself to tears, to those who begged for mercy, to derisive laughter, to torture, to abandonment, to mass graves, to auction blocks, to scars and burns and scattered limbs, to gritted teeth, hunger, scratches, and bruises, to rape, lynchings, and bombs, and to disappearances… If you do that, then you’ll have to reach for transcendent grounds—not to escape from the hell of it all, but to find the bearings to carry on in the midst. Or if you somehow manage to find your way through the hell by other means, you won’t begrudge those whose way is religious” (209).

Bush registers his own view that James was simply mistaken in thinking that religion (whether the messy kind found “on the ground,” or James’s idealized kind that is individualistic, fallible, and humanist) is uniquely motivating for moral and political action. His disagreement is based on the fact that following James’s lead “would foster a public culture in which only the religious would be understood to possess the capacity for long-term political activism” (215).

In addition to religion, every other important topic that James addressed finds integrated treatment in this briskly and clearly written study. Bush is especially good on James’s pragmatism and the missteps he makes in developing a conception of truth, as well as the plausibility of certain aspects of his account of objectivity. Even so, Bush skimps a bit on the social nature of the self, a topic that James expounded from the time of his Principles of Psychology to Pluralistic Universe. The “field” concept of the self found in Varieties of Religious Experience and the importance of “relations,” both internal and external, to James’s radical empiricism yield something far more profound than continental phenomenology’s gesture toward dasein-mit. Surely the notion of the self as emergent from its constitutive relations qualifies and balances James’s understanding of individuality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Frankenberry is John Phillips Professor of Religion Emeritus at Dartmouth College.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen S. Bush is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, Rhode Island. His publications include Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (2014).


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