Philosophy Faculty Publications

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2013

Publication Source

The Pluralist


There is a Disciplinary divide between philosophers and historians in how they read Addams’s first book, Democracy and Social Ethics. Philosophers identify Addams primarily as a pragmatist. They often compare and contrast her thinking with that of James and Dewey, and find her a fruitful resource for contemporary discussions about gender, social justice, and peace. Much of this scholarship gives central place to Addams’s Democracy and Social Ethics. Except for nods to her 1892 essay “The Subjective Necessity of Settlements,” philosophers rarely discuss whether her religious sensibilities influenced her theorizing.1 While historians debate Addams’s religious identity, many locate her within the social gospel movement (Dorrien 175–85; Stebner 102–103; Edwards 151–57). Intellectual historian Gary Dorrien, one of the most highly regarded scholars in his field, fully acknowledges Addams’s pragmatism. Yet he maintains that in Democracy and Social Ethics, “Addams held fast to a social gospel rendering of the good” (Dorrien 176). He places her in “the secularizing stream of the social gospel” (185).

Here I will explore, not whether Addams herself was a social gospeler, but whether, following Dorrien’s claim, Democracy and Social Ethics can plausibly be read as a social gospel text. While Dorrien gives a summary of the text (175–77), he does not provide a close textual analysis. To develop such an analysis, I will place Democracy and Social Ethics within a social gospel community of discourse, and note where it shares conceptual structures and rhetorical tropes with other social gospel texts. In 1899, Addams gave a series of lectures as a University of Chicago extension course and based Democracy and Social Ethics on those lectures. She provided a reading list of recommended books to accompany the lectures (Addams, “Bibliography”). Using this list, I will construct a reading of Democracy and Social Ethics that someone in the social gospel community of discourse could have made in 1902, when the book was published.2 I compare this reading with the reading Charlene Haddock Seigfried gives in the “Introduction” to the University of Illinois reprint edition of the text. Her reading is a thoroughly pragmatist, sophisticated, and secular analysis.

This study will show that a social gospel reading of Democracy and Social Ethics is highly plausible. While the two readings overlap, the social gospel reading challenges current pragmatist readings in two respects. First, it identifies evolutionary idealism as the structuring theory of the text. Second, this use of evolutionary idealism gives a structural—and troubling—explanation for how and why Addams uses what some scholars consider to be racist language in the text. Pragmatist interpretations have not addressed these issues in a detailed way.

Addams uses little explicitly religious language in Democracy and Social Ethics, but what she does use goes to the heart of social gospel theology. After a brief description of the social gospel movement, I will organize the paper using three passages where Addams employs religious language. I will explain how social gospelers would understand the significance of these passages and how they would use them to explicate key organizing concepts, specifically individual morality and social morality, experience, and perplexities.

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Johns Hopkins University Press





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