Varieties of Presence
The Fire Next Time

"How shall all citizens be best helped to realize their political nature?"


The fifth focal character in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy is Thomas Davidson, with whom I was unfamiliar.  He was a writer and educator of the turn of the last century, a friend of William James, whom she picks as typical of the liberal response to growing industrialization, as Davidson's work included a focus on the working classes. One theme which appears in this chapter and continues in later ones is that American liberals were rarely tempted by socialism even as they developed a progressive response to industrialization. 

By this time the movement was less clearly religious, having grown beyond the confines of New England Congregationalism. Davidson was a Scottish immigrant who had lived and worked in a number of countries, paradigmatic of the growing globalism of liberalism.  But the originally religious impulse that liberty rests upon the development of moral virtue, remained.

Kittelstrom summarizes Davidson's ideas:

he believed that everyone must work out their own operative truths by careful deliberation, that these truths become meaningful when they manifest in practical action, and that the only rule for common morality is love, treating others as impartially and benevolently as a truly good God would.

With Davidson she introduces what she will call the "liberal paradox." 

Liberals were to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe; and by expressing their convictions forthrightly, without regard for reputation. . . . Yet liberals were also to engage in mutual criticism, which meant listening to contrary views and exercising upon them the same analytical powers and discriminating faculties they used to develop their own views.  This often led to more disagreements than agreements, more splintering than unity, and competition between personalities rather than cooperation among them.

Another aspect of the paradox was that while they believed everyone deserved an education and thus they worked to educate all types of people, they also could discuss things in such a refined way that they excluded some of the very people they were trying to include.  She writes that sometimes liberals were talking more to each other than the wider culture.  I think of a similar paradox--the liberal church which greatly values inclusivity and multiculturalism yet is overwhelmingly white, a common occurrence.

In the late 19th century, and in response to industrialization, liberalism began to advocate for more governmental action.  She writes that "Davidson believed that the function of the state was the protection of individual rights and freedom."  Davidson wrote, "How shall all citizens be best helped to realize their political nature, with all that that implies in the way of intelligence, sympathy, and helpfulness?"  The political virtues would also be developed through the state, which is similar to a point Michael Sandel makes near the end of his book Justice.  

On a point relevant to our recent election, Kittelstrom summarizes Davidson:

Since he believed that reaching for perfection was the goal of human life and that the state exists "for no other purpose but to put a stop to the action of the sub-human, Darwinian law of the survival of the strongest and the tyranny of the most cunning," he believed state intervention was justified.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)