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Democratic Temperament: The Legacy of William James

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Nineteenth-century psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James is rarely considered a political theorist. Renowned as the author of The Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience, James is often viewed as a radical individualist with no interest in politics; yet he was a critic of imperialism and absolutism and an advocate of tolerance, and his writing includes a penetrating analysis of political psychology.

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Overview

Nineteenth-century psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James is rarely considered a political theorist. Renowned as the author of The Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience, James is often viewed as a radical individualist with no interest in politics; yet he was a critic of imperialism and absolutism and an advocate of tolerance, and his writing includes a penetrating analysis of political psychology.

This first book by a political theorist devoted exclusively to James's theory argues that political concerns were in fact central to his intellectual work. Joshua Miller links James to the contemporary public dialogue by treating him as a theorist of action and exploring the complexities of that theory. He also relates the philosopher's thought to his own political experiences and observations and-by explicating, criticizing, and meditating on James-develops provocative new ideas about issues facing democracy today.

At the heart of the book is James's description of the "democratic temperament," which comprises a willingness to act, the placing of public good ahead of private comfort, generosity toward one's opponents, and mutual respect among citizens of different viewpoints, races, genders, classes, and religions. Miller sees this temperament as a healthy corrective to the mean-spiritedness that characterizes so much current political discourse, which is precisely what makes James's insights so relevant to today's political environment. By revealing how James speaks to the paradoxical condition of modern political existence-withdrawal from public life combined with fanatical action-Miller shows how James's views apply to the possibility and problems of reviving participatory democracy in our era.

Scholars who have never considered the political aspects of James's work will find in this study a new way of approaching him and of reconsidering radical democracy, while readers unfamiliar with James will find it a highly accessible introduction to a significant aspect of his thought. Democratic Temperament clearly shows that James deserves to be read not only for his recognized genius but also for his fresh and unexpected insights into the possibilities and paradoxes of American democratic political consciousness.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this brief work of political theory, Miller calls attention to the political dimension of William James's philosophical thought, an endeavor which he suggests has previously been overlooked by James's scholars. Miller writes that in the process of being a philosopher, psychologist and teacher, James embodied a `democratic temperament' which, if embraced by the contemporary world, could serve as a "healthy corrective to the distemper that characterizes so much of politics today." Situating James in the company of political theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, and the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, Miller poses Jamesian theories of pluralism and pragmatism as valuable, though often neglected, "tools" for democratic citizens. In James's emphasis on the "strenuous" or "significant" lifethat is, dedication to public service, rejection of materialism, self-doubt, and the willingness to respect others regardless of their differencesMiller finds a model for political action and tolerance. Moreover, he contends that James articulated this model in a context not much different from our own: "flashpoints for hostility then and now include race, religion, region, gender, sexuality, and ideology". Though a provocative piece, this work is ultimately less revealing of James's political inclinations than it is of the author's. In part this is due to the vast amount of information that is alluded or relegated to the copious footnotes, which themselves account for a quarter of the book. Inclusion of this material would not only flesh out Miller's argument, which is by turns skeletal and contradictory, but it would enable his essay to stand alone as a work of Jamesian scholarship. May
Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
In this brief work of political theory, Miller calls attention to the political dimension of William James's philosophical thought, an endeavor which he suggests has previously been overlooked by James's scholars. Miller writes that in the process of being a philosopher, psychologist and teacher, James embodied a 'democratic temperament' which, if embraced by the contemporary world, could serve as a "healthy corrective to the distemper that characterizes so much of politics today." Situating James in the company of political theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, and the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, Miller poses Jamesian theories of pluralism and pragmatism as valuable, though often neglected, "tools" for democratic citizens. In James's emphasis on the "strenuous" or "significant" life-that is, dedication to public service, rejection of materialism, self-doubt, and the willingness to respect others regardless of their differences-Miller finds a model for political action and tolerance. Moreover, he contends that James articulated this model in a context not much different from our own: "flashpoints for hostility then and now include race, religion, region, gender, sexuality, and ideology". Though a provocative piece, this work is ultimately less revealing of James's political inclinations than it is of the author's. In part this is due to the vast amount of information that is alluded or relegated to the copious footnotes, which themselves account for a quarter of the book. Inclusion of this material would not only flesh out Miller's argument, which is by turns skeletal and contradictory, but it would enable his essay to stand alone as a work of Jamesian scholarship.
Booknews
American psychologist and pragmatist philosopher James (1842- 1910) is generally considered too individualistic to have had any interest in politics, but Miller argues that political concerns were in fact central to his intellectual work. He finds in James a theorist of action, explores the complexities of his theory, and related his thought to Miller's own experience as a political activist and scholar. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700608317
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Series: American Political Thought Series
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Sheldon Wolin

Preface

Introduction

1. Models of Action

2. James and Gender

3. Sources of Respect

4. Faith and Doubt: Action's Wellsprings

5. Democratic Teaching

Conclusion

Notes

Suggested Reading

Index

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