The Legacy of William James
Joshua I. Miller
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.
“A welcome addition to the revival of American pragmatism. Miller has performed a genuine service for those who would enlist James in the cause of participatory democracy.”
—American Political Science Review
“Miller’s study is a refreshing and thoughtful rebuttal to the many who have patronized James as a romantic individualist innocent of the hard facts of modernity.”
—Journal of American History
“Thoughtful, personal, and quirky.”
—Review of Politics
“A beautifully written and argued book about a major, and remarkably neglected, American thinker. The book also stands as an exemplary exercise in the very virtues Miller finds in William James—tolerance, mutual respect, nonviolence.”
—Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Democracy on Trial
“Miller’s main concern is to address some hard contemporary questions about democracy and the meaning of citizen-action. He has retained the openness, verve, and directness of James, as well as James's delight in human differences and impatience with pretense. A reader who enjoys watching theory at work on questions which are both serious and immediate will greatly profit from these pages.”
—Sheldon Wolin, author of Politics and Vision and The Presence of the Past
“A sustained and spirited engagement with James’s thought, temperament, and style that demonstrates James’s relevance to present-day political theory and public politics. Thanks to Miller, James may now walk alongside John Dewey as an exemplar of American democracy.”
—George Cotkin, author of William James, Public Philosopher
“As Miller shows, it would be good if more people read James as a political and social thinker who is good for our times.”
—Gerald Myers, author of William James: His Life and Thought
“A convincing and engaging portrait.”
—R. J. Lustig, author of Corporate Liberalism: The Origins of Modern Amercan Political Theory, 1890–1920See fewer reviews...
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.