AMERICA A CENTURY ago was startlingly similar to America today. There was a widespread populist revolt against the two parties, grown captive in the service of corporate interests, a growing racial backlash against the progress made in the 1860s, an influx of immigrants seen as radically different in race, culture, and religion from the "native" population, and a strong women's movement facing entrenched opposition. There was also a livelier political debate than we now have, and William James--America's first world-renowned psychologist and philosopher, and cofounder of the pragmatist school of philosophy--was right in the thick of it.
Because he didn't do the classical kind of political philosophy, James's political thought is generally overlooked. But in Democratic Temperament, Joshua Miller, a former community activist and current professor of Law and Government, argues that James used the public world to enlarge a sense of the individual. His views on the importance of individual action speak directly to the grassroots progressive tradition that flowered in the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and environmental movements. Yet his thinking, in Miller's telling, held strong tensions between elitist and populist tendencies--tensions that plagued those movements as well.
If there's a single theme uniting all others in this lucidly written, almost conversational book, it's the value of strengthening our appreciation of opposites and an ability to tolerate them. Drawing primarily on James's essays, with supporting references to his speeches, letters, and his full-length books, Miller explores James's treatment of the dichotomies of his day: Faith and doubt, grassroots and elite models of action, Victorian gendered discourse and a pro-feminist sensibility. Where other philosophers offer us answers with an air of authority meant to quell all doubt, James dignifies our questions by making them more consequential, more fully alive, and thus more difficult.
And this is James's central gift: the lesson that passion, commitment, and action--"the strenuous life"--needn't depend on dogmatic certainty; that Yeats's prophetic lines, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity," needn't describe the coming century merely because they described so much of the last. (Paul Rosenberg)