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Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing

Constructing “Democracy and Social Ethics”

In Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing, Marilyn Fischer advances the bold and original claim that Addams’s reasoning in her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics, is thoroughly evolutionary. While Democracy and Social Ethics, a foundational text of classical American pragmatism, is praised for advancing a sensitive and sophisticated method of ethical deliberation, Fischer is the first to explore its intellectual roots.
Examining essays Addams wrote in the 1890s and showing how they were revised for Democracy and Social Ethics, Fischer draws from philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, and more to uncover the array of social evolutionary thought Addams engaged with in her texts—from British socialist writings on the evolution of democracy to British and German anthropological accounts of the evolution of morality. By excavating Addams’s evolutionary reasoning and rhetorical strategies, Fischer reveals the depth, subtlety, and richness of Addams’s thought.

264 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy: American Philosophy

Rhetoric and Communication


"An accessible and engaging account of social and moral problems—most of which are equally relevant today—as Addams saw them. . . . Fischer’s chief achievement is to show how important evolutionary science and debates were to pragmatism in general and to Addams in particular. . . . This book is evidence of the powerful ramifications of evolutionary science and hence its reflections on the human condition. Addams’s philosophy should thus be of interest to anyone seeking to understand the importance of evolution to pragmatism. Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing is a book well worth reading."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"We are living in the golden age of Jane Addams’s scholarship, and Marilyn Fischer’s Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing moves to the top of the list of contemporary books on Addams’s thinking and philosophy. . . . Through meticulous research and analysis into Addams’s references, themes, and nuances of thought, Marilyn Fischer brings us the closest glimpse yet into the mind of Addams. Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing is an extraordinary intellectual project that only someone with the philosophical training and scrupulous scholarship of Fischer could accomplish. . . . Her magnum opus. . . . This comprehensive study could only be improved by bringing Jane Addams back to life. From this point forward, Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing is essential reading for anyone studying Jane Addams."

Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

"Fischer, like an inspired and dogged detective, goes behind the scenes and traces the historical, theoretical lineage of this landmark book. Her discoveries are innovative and penetrating. . . . Fischer’s book represents new territory for those studying Addams’s ideas. . . . As someone who has studied Addams and her contributions for over 15 years, I found Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing eye-opening. I often found myself simultaneously filled with perplexity and energy. Best of all, when I recently picked up Democracy and Social Ethics, it spoke to me differently. It was as if an imperceptible fog had lifted. The material was more accessible."

American Political Thought

"A study that at once resituates Addams's conception of democracy and ethics outside the present world and raises concerns about the resulting view. . . . An excellent illustration of how a philosopher can engage both the science and social problems of her day and generate a transformative philosophy. . . . Essential reading for those studying late nineteenth-century North American and British philosophers. Fischer's model engagement with the intellectual context of the day changes how these thinkers are understood and enables readers to think again about the relevance and promise of past work in the face of a troubled future. . . . Fischer's book is important for feminist scholars and activists who approach today's problems as intersectional. Understanding Addams's work as Fischer frames it gives her practical efforts at Hull House, in politics, and in peace activism new and even more relevant meaning in the present world."


“[Fischer’s] approach helps to reconstruct the intellectual and social atmosphere in which Addams developed her organic understanding of society and of social progress as she elaborated her own method of ethical deliberation. . . . To those like me who are not native English speakers, Fischer’s remarks on Addams’s rhetorics are particularly useful. If you have been reading Jane Addams for some time, you may have realized how passionate her writing style is, but you may lack the linguistic resources to express what makes her style so peculiar. Fischer helps you to understand these idiomatic subtleties, which are sometimes very difficult to identify while reading a classic pragmatist work. . . . [Fischer] provides an example of how doing history of philosophy should aim at the accurate reflection of the original conversations that an author maintained with others in seeking to respond to the challenges of her or his time. Approaching philosophy in this manner makes it as enriching as it is exciting.”

Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy

"Prominent Progressive Era social activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams was also an intellectual of the first order. In this groundbreaking book, Marilyn Fischer probes deeply Addams's contributions to a central debate of her day: What implications did Darwin’s theory of evolution have for social theory? Fischer deftly traces the influence of contemporary debates on the development of Addams’s original social evolutionary theory. As Fischer brilliantly argues, in 1902, Adams presented that theory to the world in her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics."

Louise W. Knight, author of Jane Addams: Spirit in Action

"Fischer's beautifully written book is a model of scholarship, offering an unparalleled view into the scientific and literary contexts of Addams’s early work. In demonstrating that Democracy and Social Ethics must be read against the background of evolutionary theories of social change, Fischer has fundamentally transformed our understanding of this book and its inception."

Trevor Pearce, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

"Marilyn Fischer serves as a time-traveling tour guide who takes us on a journey that reveals the genesis and meaning behind Jane Addams’s first monograph. Fischer’s detective work, tracking Addams’ allusions, paraphrases, and quotes, reveals her connection to the wider world of social evolutionary theory and helps us better understand and appreciate the work as a historical text. Her erudite study of Addams’s prose and its connection to other theorists of the time help us decode the lost meanings of Addams’s work. You’ll never read Democracy and Social Ethics the same way again."

Cathy Moran Hajo, director, The Jane Addams Papers Project

"An interdisciplinary piece of scholarship... [Fischer] presents a fresh interpretive approach that will serve as a valuable model for future scholars."

Educational Theory

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 An Evolving Democracy
2 An Evolutionary Method of Ethical Deliberation
3 From Feudalism to Association
4 The City’s Moral Geology
5 Educating Immigrants
6 Science and the Social Settlement
7 Constructing Democracy and Social Ethics

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