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Between 1870 and 1920, two generations of European and American intellectuals created a transatlantic community of philosophical and political discourse. Uncertain Victory, the first comparative study of ideas and politics in France, Germany, the U.S., and Great Britain during these fifty years, demonstrates how a number of thinkers from different traditions converged to c Between 1870 and 1920, two generations of European and American intellectuals created a transatlantic community of philosophical and political discourse. Uncertain Victory, the first comparative study of ideas and politics in France, Germany, the U.S., and Great Britain during these fifty years, demonstrates how a number of thinkers from different traditions converged to create the theoretical foundations for new programs of social democracy and progressivism. Kloppenberg studies a wide range of pivotal theorists and activists--including philosophers such as William James, Wilhelm Dilthey, and T. H. Green, democratic socialists such as Jean Jaures, Walter Rauschenbusch, Eduard Bernstein, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and social theorists such as John Dewey and Max Weber--as he establishes the connection between the philosophers' challenges to the traditions of empiricism and idealism and the activists' opposition to the traditions of laissez-faire liberalism and revolutionary socialism. By demonstrating a link between a philosophy of self-conscious uncertainty and a politics of continuing democratic experimentation, and by highlighting previously unrecognized similarities among a number of prominent 19th- and 20th-century thinkers, Uncertain Victory is sure to spur a reassessment of the relationship between ideas and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.


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Between 1870 and 1920, two generations of European and American intellectuals created a transatlantic community of philosophical and political discourse. Uncertain Victory, the first comparative study of ideas and politics in France, Germany, the U.S., and Great Britain during these fifty years, demonstrates how a number of thinkers from different traditions converged to c Between 1870 and 1920, two generations of European and American intellectuals created a transatlantic community of philosophical and political discourse. Uncertain Victory, the first comparative study of ideas and politics in France, Germany, the U.S., and Great Britain during these fifty years, demonstrates how a number of thinkers from different traditions converged to create the theoretical foundations for new programs of social democracy and progressivism. Kloppenberg studies a wide range of pivotal theorists and activists--including philosophers such as William James, Wilhelm Dilthey, and T. H. Green, democratic socialists such as Jean Jaures, Walter Rauschenbusch, Eduard Bernstein, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and social theorists such as John Dewey and Max Weber--as he establishes the connection between the philosophers' challenges to the traditions of empiricism and idealism and the activists' opposition to the traditions of laissez-faire liberalism and revolutionary socialism. By demonstrating a link between a philosophy of self-conscious uncertainty and a politics of continuing democratic experimentation, and by highlighting previously unrecognized similarities among a number of prominent 19th- and 20th-century thinkers, Uncertain Victory is sure to spur a reassessment of the relationship between ideas and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

30 review for Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lance

    It meets the criteria of a classic: dense, hard to understand and nobody has read it. Tough writing style but he tackles intellectual thought in the progressive era and gives a sense of its fractured nature.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jork

    Fuck this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    When an intellectual history tries to prove a synchronicity of ideas across diverse thinkers, it faces the danger of tediousness. By elaborating the same ideas across different thinkers again and again, this book is an extreme example of that danger. Any reader's eyes can glaze over at the umpteenth mention that John Dewey (or Leon Bourgeois or Leonard Hobhouse or Wilhelm Dilthey) considered all thought a social activity or believed that individual fulfillment was best gained through harmonizing When an intellectual history tries to prove a synchronicity of ideas across diverse thinkers, it faces the danger of tediousness. By elaborating the same ideas across different thinkers again and again, this book is an extreme example of that danger. Any reader's eyes can glaze over at the umpteenth mention that John Dewey (or Leon Bourgeois or Leonard Hobhouse or Wilhelm Dilthey) considered all thought a social activity or believed that individual fulfillment was best gained through harmonizing society. But the fact that the author can indeed trace intellectual continuities between pragmatist philosophers and social democratic politicians in the US, Britain, France, and Germany, across fifty years is an impressive feat. In fact, a surprising number of practical politicians were philosophers in this period, and a number of philosophers had real political heft. Hobhouse was an Oxford don who wrote books on the "The Theory of Knowledge" (1896) and "The Mind and Evolution" (1906), before he became a journalist and then the first British professor of sociology, where he articulated the basis of the "new liberalism" that underlie modern British politics. Jean Jaures taught philosophy and wrote books on "The Reality of the Sensible World" before organizing the French Federation of Socialist Workers and leading the party in the Chamber of Deputies for years. Eduard Bernstein, the moderate, non-revolutionary leader of the German Social Democratic Party, in his "Evolutionary Socialism" tried to explain why experience was the only basis of knowledge, and why that meant that orthodox Marxist beliefs in determinism were futile. Walter Lippman frequented philosophers William James's and Josiah Royce's houses at Harvard, and wrote about the impossibility of certain knowledge, before becoming the foremost proponent of progressivism at the magazine The New Republic. Again and again, the author finds serious people taking epistemology seriously in this era. The basic epistemology of all of the featured thinkers was pragmatist, meaning they believed in radical uncertainty, the indissoluble unity of thought and action (or fact and value), and the value of a thought as measured by its use to real people. The author shows that this epistemology translated into a sort of evolutionary social democracy, which eschewed both utilitarian laissez-faire and Marxist positivism. All of these thinkers were profound believers in "democracy" as a kind of continual experiment in explaining people's desires, which would gradually push the world in the direction of harmonized social interests. This final leap of logic led to profound disillusionment for many after the First World War, where democracy seemed tied to jingoism and conservative reaction as much as progressivism. Some, like John Dewey, retreated to a belief in pervasive and socializing education as the only hope for democracy. Others, like Max Weber, longed for a charismatic politician to break through the boundaries of bureaucratized modernity. The author demonstrates a clear love for these thinkers, and they do have much to say about politics and philosophy that we should heed. Yet their fundamental belief that rational self-interest would only be expressed in furthering the public interest was a fatal flaw, which meant their hope for an semi-inevitable evolutionary socialism was doomed. Nonetheless, the modern social democracies, which include basically every developed nation, were based in their ideas, as abstract and as seemingly abstruse as they are, and we are still living with their consequences. We should be grateful for the author for explaining their history to us.

  4. 4 out of 5

    John David

    There are many books that provide a systematic history of a certain subject (Menand’s “Metaphysical Club,” for example, looks at the birth of philosophical pragmatism in the United States), but it’s much rarer to find a book that starts with a philosophical foundation, and then goes on beyond it and reaches into another field. That is precisely what Kloppenberg does here, focusing on much the same subject that Menand discusses in his book. The project is impressive in its scope: starting with th There are many books that provide a systematic history of a certain subject (Menand’s “Metaphysical Club,” for example, looks at the birth of philosophical pragmatism in the United States), but it’s much rarer to find a book that starts with a philosophical foundation, and then goes on beyond it and reaches into another field. That is precisely what Kloppenberg does here, focusing on much the same subject that Menand discusses in his book. The project is impressive in its scope: starting with the birth of American pragmatism and European historicism, he argues that many of the great liberal and progressive social reformers of this time period, unimpressed with the various dualisms that had dominated philosophy since the time of Descartes, used pragmatism and the ideals of philosophical liberalism to undergird their social programs and ideas. During the first third of the book, Kloppenberg details why previous philosophical ideas proved unable to deal with complex social and philosophical problems, and why this dissatisfaction necessitated the birth of pragmatism. He focuses here on six thinkers and their critiques of previous ideas: they are William James, Alfred Fouillee, Wilhelm Dilthey, T. H. Green, Henry Sidgwick, and John Dewey. The general criticism they level against previous philosophical thought was its interaction between subject and object (or, in the language of psychology, stimulus and response), which assumed they could be separated and thought of as different entities. Dewey especially takes this idea to task, calling for experience to be understood as a unified whole, instead of a series of subjects understanding different objects. He said that we need to think of experience as a “reflex circuit instead of an arc,” i.e., not one-way, but something more resembling a simultaneously feedback loop. James, whose early career was just as much involved in psychology as it was in philosophy, elaborated on these points, creating what is in effect a uniquely American epistemology focusing on the wholeness of lived experience instead of abstract, theoretical interactions between the mind and reality. The Europeans of the group, especially Fouillee and Dilthey, tried to correct for the ahistorical trends that were prevalent in a lot of philosophy. Descartes and Kant had conceived of knowledge has happening in the utterly disconnected brain, unconditioned by culture or society. To even study one person in a specific context is pointless, since, according to Dilthey, “the connection of the individual with humanity is a reality … The starting point lies in my consciousness so far as it contains a coherence of knowledge which is in agreement with other consciousnesses perceived by me – a coherence therefore which extends beyond my own consciousness.” Here, Dilthey gives what is, more or less, a pragmatist theory of truth – one that emphasizes coherence more than correspondence with reality. Disenfranchised by both philosophical idealism and empiricism, these thinkers opted for history as the source of immanent critique and the basis for all foundational judgments. Kloppenberg then makes the move away from these radicals’ (he’s always calling them “radicals” or “renegades”) critique of epistemology and toward their critique of ethics. Previous systems – and he discusses especially Benthamite utilitarianism – provided a final, lasting system of ethical principles. As Fouillee noted in “The Psychology of Idees-Forces,” while the dualism of pleasure and pain “may constitute the dominant quality of original sensations,” it is hardly the sole content of human consciousness. By failing to differentiate between among experiences, he argues that Bentham’s calculus of happiness ultimately proves inadequate. There was also a growing acknowledgement between public (the commonweal) and private interests (which Kloppenberg terms “prudence,” but might more appropriately be called “self-interest”). Sidgwick, Dilthey, and James especially doubted that tragic collisions between self-interest and the requirements of justice could ever be prevented. All six thought that politics was ultimately reducible to philosophical questions over values, about which there can be no final answers. While the first half of the book focuses on the history of philosophical tradition and a critique thereof, the second half considers how contemporaries expressed similar ideals, though they sought to locate them in the action of social reform and progressivism. Again, he presents six representative thinkers: Eduard Bernstein, Richard T. Ely, Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb, Jean Jaures, and Walter Rauschenbusch. Kloppenberg claims that “there is a distinctive continuity between the two groups’ philosophical and political ideas.” The similarity here seems to be mostly in their respective views of history. Only Bernstein spoke of a “critique of socialist reason,” but all of them thought that socialism should let go of its scientific pretense. The pretense to science is just a smug confidence “in the inevitable triumph of the proletariat.” Instead, they argued for a radically empiricist approach to historical understanding, approaching knowledge as a “conscious process of truth testing and its recognition of the historical and qualitative dimensions of understanding.” In the last few chapters, another set of six (yes, a third set!) are considered in the context of mostly European power politics. Those thinkers are Leon Bourgeois, Leonhard T. Hobhouse, Max Weber, Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey (again). The second half of the book begins to flirt with something Susan Haack once referred to in a New Criterion article as “vulgar Rortyism.” As I mentioned above, these thinkers criticized Marxist conceptions of history for their scientism, but Kloppenberg almost leads the reader to believe that pragmatism should be in the service of democratic politics. He also manages to turn pragmatism – a relatively well-defined, mostly American, philosophical tradition – into something smacking of mushy relativism. Granted, the author never includes pragmatists like Peirce who emphasize the role of logic and science in any of the 17 people that he examines, this strand of thought seems to get lost – a dubious trait in what seems to be a book about the historical development of pragmatism and Anglo-European historicism. While I found the intellectual connections in the first part of the book fascinating, Kloppenberg fails when trying to show that those same ideas influenced the second and third groups of six. He just flatly claims that the philosophers influenced the social reformers and progressives, but never connects the threads for the reader, which is a serious fault in a book of intellectual history. And none of this is helped by the fact that Kloppenberg insists on covering the contributions of so many people. In parts, it seems like a rush to list all the contributions and name the important books associated with one of the above. For sheer ambition and breadth, I think this is an interesting book to look into, especially if you’re excited by Kloppenberg’s interdisciplinarity. But for being included on so many graduate-level European and American intellectual history syllabi, I was surprised to find the book has the weaknesses that it does.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Howard

    Kloppenberg delivers a rich intellectual history that connects together three "generations" of thinkers from the late 19th century to the early 20th century: philosophers of the via media, socialist theorists, and social democrats/progressives. With the large cabal of thinkers, it can be quite difficult to hold them straight in one's head, especially with Kloppenberg dropping primary quotes from multiple figures in a single paragraph. The fact that these intellectual giants are international (Ge Kloppenberg delivers a rich intellectual history that connects together three "generations" of thinkers from the late 19th century to the early 20th century: philosophers of the via media, socialist theorists, and social democrats/progressives. With the large cabal of thinkers, it can be quite difficult to hold them straight in one's head, especially with Kloppenberg dropping primary quotes from multiple figures in a single paragraph. The fact that these intellectual giants are international (Germany, France, Britain, the US), adds more difficulty to the task. Nonetheless, it's an incredibly satisfying read. I deeply appreciate Kloppenberg introducing me to a new range of thinkers that are adjacent to some who have already been wildly impactful on my own thinking. With the amount of dogmatism that I frequently encounter among contemporary progressives and social democrats, it was refreshing and surprising to examine both traditions as a politics of uncertainty. I wish more activists and thinkers held uncertainty as one of the primary values of their political worldviews. Definitely adding Kloppenberg near the top of my list of favorite historians of intellectual history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dan Gorman

    Flat-out brilliant analysis of pragmatic philosophers and Social Democrats at the turn of the twentieth century, but the technical language and knotty syntax makes it a difficult read. The pragmatists' message of moderation, of abandoning a conceptual division between mind and experience, and creating a pluralistic, gradual approach to reform is inspiring. Flat-out brilliant analysis of pragmatic philosophers and Social Democrats at the turn of the twentieth century, but the technical language and knotty syntax makes it a difficult read. The pragmatists' message of moderation, of abandoning a conceptual division between mind and experience, and creating a pluralistic, gradual approach to reform is inspiring.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ben

    Kloppenberg engages with who he terms the "via media" thinkers - via media representing "a radical uncertainty," a rejection of permanent categories and systems and an acceptance of the impossibility of a system of philosophy (and later of politics) that was purely empirical or purely rational. - Thinkers who found a midpoint between idealism and empiricism, an attempt to reconcile subject-object dualities, and later the dualities between the individual and society. A departure from Marxism and Kloppenberg engages with who he terms the "via media" thinkers - via media representing "a radical uncertainty," a rejection of permanent categories and systems and an acceptance of the impossibility of a system of philosophy (and later of politics) that was purely empirical or purely rational. - Thinkers who found a midpoint between idealism and empiricism, an attempt to reconcile subject-object dualities, and later the dualities between the individual and society. A departure from Marxism and Liberalism, and from empiricism and idealism, all is not determined rationally, all is not material, knowledge is in constant flux and is the process of experience, lived history, no separating or giving precedence to material or the idea. This means that everything is contingent and relative, knowledge is not absolute but changes based on the needs of society, this allows for progressivism, reform, etc. in politics. The via media thinkers are "those who acknowledged the importance of subjectivity and the limits of rationality, without turning to philosophies of force or succumbing to despair” (10)

  8. 5 out of 5

    E Weber

  9. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Linton

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mandeep Kalra

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alex Smith

  12. 5 out of 5

    Wesley Bishop

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ben Brandenburg

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rob Keener

  16. 5 out of 5

    bibliophile04

  17. 4 out of 5

    Graeme

  18. 4 out of 5

    Richard

  19. 4 out of 5

    Todd

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michael DAlto

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rob Townsend

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn Godfrey

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lilian

  24. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Baughman

  25. 5 out of 5

    Holly

  26. 5 out of 5

    Hugh MacNab

  27. 4 out of 5

    N. N.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kristi

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ward

  30. 4 out of 5

    Waco Sinker

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