U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Varieties of Cosmopolitanism: Rethinking Hollinger’s Postethnic America

This is the version I'm reading, published in 2000.

This is the version I’m reading, published in 2000.

In a happy accident relative to last week’s post by David Hollinger, “Reconsidering Perry Miller’s Errand Into the Wilderness,” I have been reading Hollinger’s Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism for the first time.

Today’s reflection is not the first rodeo on Postethnic at the blog. Andrew Hartman has written extensively here about the book, particularly in these three posts: (1) “Hollinger’s ‘Affiliation by Revocable Consent’: From Postdiscipline to Postethnic to Obama” (Dec. 3, 2009); (2) “Widening the Circle of “We” in the Age of Fracture” (Mar. 25, 2011), and (3) “Post-Civil Rights Intellectual Ferment” (Dec. 6, 2011). The first is especially useful for basics on Postethnic, but the second contains important points too. And don’t forget the comments when you read those posts.

Thanks to Hartman’s spade work and analysis, I’m free to move the discussion in new directions without rehashing Postethnic‘s fundamentals. But what could possibly be left to discuss? Today I want to extend the conversation on cosmopolitanism: its varieties, continuities, and applications. Andrew covered this somewhat, but there’s room for expansion. I must immediately beg the pardon of those, like Andrew, who have read Hollinger’s Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity: Studies in Ethnoracial, Religious, and Professional Affiliation in the United States. I have not, yet. Some of what follows may change when I fully engage that work. But I’m willing to risk this post and subsequent conversation without having done so.

But before diving into the topic of cosmopolitanism, allow me a few brief and general comments on Postethnic. I read the 2000 edition with Hollinger’s long postscript addressing his critics and reviewers. Unlike Hartman, I never had the good fortune of an early encounter with the book. It’s a shame I was never assigned Postethnic in a graduate history course. I’ll go out on a limb and argue that this is an excellent book that holds up surprisingly well in 2015. I love it when historians use their expertise and analytical skills to make interventions in the present world of ideas. Hollinger’s assertions, in straight-forward prose, about the dangers of ethnocentrism and pluralism, as well as on the varieties of cosmopolitanism and the necessity of voluntary affiliation, make sense both today and historically. The true test for me, however, in relation to his historical examples and thinking, was how well it meshed with my own archival work and reading on midcentury cosmopolitan intellectuals, and their species-centered discourse (e.g. MJ Adler, RM Hutchins, Jacques Maritain, etc.). Indeed, after reading Postethnic I can’t wait to read Greif’s *The Age of the Crisis of Man* with Hollinger’s analysis fresh in mind.

Why am I reading Postethnic now in relation to cosmopolitanism? For my current book project I’m integrating intellectual discourse about cosmopolitanism with elements of cosmopolitan thinking I’ve seen in the works of great books promoters. I’m convinced that viewing those promoters in that mental framework fundamentally changes both the historical and present-day discussion about the great books idea.

“Postethnic” is Hollinger’s term for a necessary yet historically-situated kind of cosmopolitanism appropriate for the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. To repeat, Hollinger is invoking, and advocating for, a special kind of cosmopolitanism relevant to our historical moment (from 1995, when Postethnic was published to the present). Based on the principle of “affiliation by revocable consent” (pp. 13, 118, 188), it is his way of “widening the circle of we” (p. 68) in an age rife—although Hartman argues is now mostly history—with identity crises and culture wars based on identity politics and multiculturalism. Indeed, at the writing of Postethnic, Hollinger himself called multiculturalism a “shibboleth” due to the “variety of persuasions and counterpersuasions it concealed” (p. 82)

Hollinger explicitly stated in his text the direction of his idea, ‘postethnic’, corresponded with a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” For the latter he cited pieces by Mitchell Cohen (Dissent, 1992) and Bruce Ackerman (Ethics, 1994). By linking the postethnic perspective with rooted cosmopolitanism, Hollinger attempts to split divide between those cosmopolitans who see too little value in the nation state (for better and worse reasons), and those who overvalue their pluralist solidarities. Hartman covers this in his discussion of how Hollinger works to salvage the project of America as a workable community and site for legitimate solidarity.

For my own project, I mildly reworked Hollinger’s conceptualization of cosmopolitanism. He sets up three nodes. Cosmopolitanism is against, or separate, from pluralism (that kind reworked or respected Horace Kallen) and the older (and later mid-century) universalist, species-homogenizing projects. Why? For both historical accuracy and, I think, his interest in legitimizing the postethnic perspective under the umbrellas of cosmopolitanism.

Writers in the early twentieth century, and after World War I especially, were cosmopolitans who, in the words of Timothy Brennan, modeled “themselves on a nostalgia for ‘democracy’ as a vision of pluralist inclusion, a diversity in unity, [and] a global progress based on the Enlightenment.” For them cosmopolitanism provided “a way of talking and seeing, unanchored and flexible.” Invoking the spirit of Raymond Williams, Brennan reminds us that the terms ‘intellectual’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ were nearly equivalent in this period of thoughtful anti-provincialism and reflection on America’s multitudes.[1] Those intellectuals included Horace Kallen, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Louis Brandeis, and Randolph Bourne.

That group held forth an intellectual diversity in relation to cosmopolitanism. Kallen’s “cultural pluralism” placed him, according to Hollinger, at the “protoseparatist extreme of cultural pluralism” even while “his celebration of group differences appealed to [those]…opposed to forced assimilation.” Kallen roughly fit into Hollinger’s cosmopolitan schema, which included pluralists at one end of a continuum (my insertion) that excluded extreme multiculturalism. At the other end was an individualist, voluntary affiliation-oriented cosmopolitanism “suspicious…[of] conformist pressures within communities celebrated by pluralists.” This latter group, while still willing to “engage human diversity,” also had an affinity for universalist arguments about common grounds, as well as shared interests and ideals. Hollinger’s distinctions between universalists, pluralists, and cosmopolitans will loom larger as the twentieth century moves along.

Going with Hollinger’s narrative, Kallen inspired Randolph Bourne’s celebration of cosmopolitanism in the latter’s 1916 essay, “Trans-National America.” To Bourne, the mixing that occurred in the United States created a superior society that inculcated strength, resilience, and deep character. Bourne’s America resisted provincial tastes and parochialism, as well as, in Hollinger’s words, “forced assimilation and Anglo-Saxon cultural arrogance.” Bourne’s “cosmopolitan spirit” appropriated Kallen’s respect for diversity while also celebrating, as Hollinger saw it, a “dynamic mixing” or “cross-fertilization” not present in Kallen. Bourne’s ideal desired “cultural difference” without “parochial form.” His cosmopolitans were willing to risk change “through the sympathetic but critical scrutiny of other cultures.”[3]

Hollinger does not utilize the notion of a ‘cosmopolitan continuum’ indicated herein. But it is clear that Kallen and Bourne existed within a community of discourse where the ideal of cosmopolitanism inspired both, as well as contemporaries, I argue, who developed a great books sensibility. I like my view of cosmopolitanism as on a continuum between pluralists and provincialists (i.e. “little platoons” and nationalists), on the one hand, and the universalists on the other, who Hollinger calls “extravagant universalists” at one point (p. 54). A continuum construct allows me to work, later, with global politics (one-world government types) and religion (e.g. Catholic subsidiarity ideologues).

But is there some sense of cosmopolitanism I’m missing by working with this dichotomous continuum? Is it a false dichotomy? Am I not allowing for all the varieties of cosmopolitanism? – TL


[1] Timothy Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 18, 37-38. Brennan cites Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformity (New York: Verso, 1989).
[2] David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, rev. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 84-86, 92-93.
[3] Hollinger, 85, 93-95; David A. Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 58-59, 65.