Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison

Synopsis

America has a love-hate relationship with individualism. In Reconstructing Individualism, James Albrecht argues that our conceptions of individualism have remained trapped within the assumptions of classic liberalism. He traces an alternative genealogy of individualist ethics in four major American thinkers - Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, and Ralph Ellison. These writers' shared commitments to pluralism (metaphysical and cultural), experimentalism, and a melioristic stance toward value and reform led them to describe the self as inherently relational. Accordingly, they articulate models of selfhood that are socially engaged and ethically responsible,and they argue that a reconceived - or, in Dewey's term, "reconstructed" - individualism is not merely compatible with but necessary to democratic community. Conceiving selfhood and community as interrelated processes, they call for an ongoing reform of social conditions so as to educate andliberate individuality, and, conversely, they affirm the essential role individuality plays in vitalizing communal efforts at reform.

Excerpt

America has a love-hate relationship with individualism. Many view individualism as morally and politically suspect, as a corrosive force that undermines democracy and is the source of many of our social ills. Such indictments usually focus on two main issues. First, that individualism precludes meaningful political change and is inescapably complicit with the liberal-capitalist status quo. Any ethics that asserts the morality of individualized activity risks being co-opted by the capitalist doctrine that rationalizes the pursuit of individualized wealth as a primary—and perhaps sufficient—means to the general good. Similarly, through an exaggerated emphasis on individual merit and responsibility, individualism can ignore or minimize social conditions that perpetuate inequalities of wealth and opportunity while, in political terms, engraining a laissez-faire bias against public efforts at reform that might create the conditions for a more widespread individual liberty. If individualism is seen as too complicit with the dominant capitalist beliefs of our culture, it is by the same token distrusted for challenging other opposing—and also widely held—beliefs that equate morality with altruistic self-sacrifice. Such concerns underlie the second major critique . . .

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