Other minds, other worlds: pragmatism, hermeneutics, and constructive modernism, 1890-1942
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Increasing dissatisfaction with a postmodern politics of identity during the 1990s has sparked a critical reconsideration of the nature of identity and difference, specifically as they are constituted within a modern liberal state. The virulent particularisms of identity-based social movements have persuaded many leftist critics that some kind of universalism is politically necessary to advance beyond the recognition of pure difference. As leftist critics take up the project of reconceiving the role of the universal within a framework of radical democracy, they have acknowledged uneasily liberalism’s staying power as a seemingly necessary set of ideas, while also objecting to its essentialist pretensions. Notions of an autonomous and free subject of rights does not fit easily with poststructuralist assumptions, a disparity which has generated significant discussion regarding whether liberalism’s thoroughgoing individualism can be reconstructed to support collective identities and their pluralist participation in a radical democratic society. Liberalism’s defining terms have not functioned unequivocally, however, as the essentialist concepts many leftist critics now figure them to be. This dissertation describes the efforts of “constructive modernists” in the U.S. to problematize liberal models of the self as founded on natural foundations. These efforts resulted in new representations of the self and society not as natural, given entities but as interdependent centers of discursive activity. In his experiential psychology, William James conceives of the self as a dynamic, coordinating center of interest and activity within the stream of consciousness. John Dewey expands James’s model to examine how individuals and society interdependently conceive, articulate, sustain, and modify these subjective formations through cultural expressions. Progressive intellectuals Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann promote a discourse model of the public sphere, where self and society reciprocally define one another through democratic participation, cultural expression, and a pragmatist verification of truth. Other constructive modernists—including W. E. B. Du Bois, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner—explore the implications of a modern, discursive self, showing how relations of power, compulsion, habit, and regressive cultural narratives constrain our efforts to write individual narratives of self-development into the historical, cultural narrative of the nation.