U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Re-Surveying the Via Media

Many of those who read this blog are likely familiar with James Kloppenberg’s magisterial Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and America Thought, 1870-1920, from 1986. (If not, you can catch up with it via Andrew Hartman’s two-part retrospective on the book here and here.) Kloppenberg’s characterization of a disparate group of philosophers and political actors as belonging to a broad via media of social thought has been widely influential, and for good reason. Not only did that concept of the via media make sense of many individual facets of numerous significant thinkers not usually treated together, it also demonstrated a remarkable transatlantic convergence of four separate national contexts and traditions toward a single highly distinctive mode (or mood) of thinking, broadening out the via media into a common ground.

Yet I may not be the first reader to have found the term “via media” more evocative than precise in terms of how it constructs the nature of the philosophical and social thought that Kloppenberg’s cast of intellectuals created. The term can suggest a couple of different processes—finding a path that avoids two extremes by touching neither; finding a path that is the product of two extremes by tacking back and forth, absorbing influences from each; or finding a path that binds compatible elements from both extremes and synthesizes them into a tertium quid. Kloppenberg’s meaning is probably a bit of all three, and to be fair, the source of his metaphor—a John Dewey eulogy for William James—is just as nebulous when it comes to the mechanics of surveying and constructing the via media. But immediately after he quoted Dewey hailing James as the philosopher of the via media, he also quoted James himself, with what I feel is a much more revealing metaphor. Here’s James:

the fact remains that from such opposite poles minds are moving towards a common centre, that old compartments and divisions are breaking down, and that a very inclusive new school may be formed. Once admit that experience is a river which made the channel that now, in part, but only in part, confines it, and it seems to me that all sorts of realities and completenesses are possible in philosophy, hitherto stiffened and cramped by the silly littlenesses of the upper and lower dogmatisms, alternating their petty rationalistic and naturalistic idols of the shop.

I’ll return to James’s metaphors in a moment, but I want to compare this quote briefly with Kloppenberg’s closest attempt at a definition (well, the closest that I’ve been able to find scanning back through the book—it is a long one!). He writes, “The philosophers of the via media carefully avoided fruitless attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable; they tried instead to jostle philosophy into a productive confrontation with doubt” (27). What strikes me as notable about Kloppenberg’s sentence and the passage from James is how tonally far apart they are; while James had quite a career with doubt, in this instance, “a productive confrontation” with it is not on the cards. Rather, James is buoyant in his affirmation of the power of this new “common centre” to realize and complete a dissolution of merely formal and petty dogmatisms, even to the point, perhaps, of effecting that act of “reconcil[ing] the irreconcilable” that Kloppenberg regards as a task that the philosophers of the via media (rightly) eschewed.

It is certainly unfair to be so selective in opposing this single passage of James against the voluminous evidence Kloppenberg has piled up to justify his characterization of the via media. But it does, I think, suggest an opening in which we can begin to see one filament in the via media that was perhaps less oriented toward uncertainty than Kloppenberg’s account would suggest was possible, that was perhaps far more confident and assertive of its ability to unify “opposite poles” and not just “jostle philosophy into a productive confrontation with doubt.”

I say this as a response to a quite different book that I’ve been reading just now, Jonathan Rose’s The Edwardian Temperament, 1895-1919, which happens to have been published the same year as Uncertain Victory: 1986. Rose is probably better known among intellectual historians for his monumental 2001 study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, but The Edwardian Temperament offers numerous pleasures as well, handling a massive cast of characters deftly and a set of well-defined themes confidently and with both nuance and elegance. But it is also the kind of book that Kloppenberg disavowed as his intention for Uncertain Victory:

Among the dangers of intellectual history is the tendency to generalize beyond the limits of the evidence. Although I scan the larger contours of politics and ideas during this period, I am not trying to erect such overarching analytical constructs as the “Social Democratic Mind,” the “Progressive Temper,” or anything of that sort. As political theories and political movements, the American and European varieties of social democracy and progressivism were too multifaceted and dynamic to be contained neatly within generalizations drawn from twenty or even several hundred individuals. Nor do I claim that these thinkers were representative of the “American mind” or the “European mind,” which I consider similarly seductive but misleading fantasies. (10)

Mark Greif, for what it’s worth, makes a very similar caveat in The Age of the Crisis of Man but, like Uncertain Victory, it is likely to be read beyond these cautions, and extrapolated into just that kind of “mind” or “temper” book both Greif and Kloppenberg find suspect.

At any rate, what I really wanted to write about was this paragraph in Rose’s book, but it can honestly stand on its own: my point was merely to note the distance between it and Kloppenberg’s version of the via media. For, while these two books do not share much in the way of personnel, they do seem to me both to have roughly the same subject: the post-Victorian accounting of the intellectual and emotional costs and casualties of the drawn-out conflict between science and religion. For Kloppenberg, this survey produced a deliberate decision to sidestep the intractable residues of this conflict; for H. Stuart Hughes and Carl Schorske, the result was a plunge into the unconscious and the irrational; for Andrew Jewett, a new grounding and definition of science itself was the result; and for Jonathan Rose… well, you can see for yourself:

[The Edwardians’] effort to reunite the world and the spirit had one particularly important byproduct. In reconciling their theological difficulties, a great many Edwardians developed a reconciling turn of mind. They fell into the general habit of eliminating conflicts—conflicts between ideas, individuals, and social classes—through neat syntheses of opposites. This period produced a remarkable crop of omnibus philosophies harnessing different points of view and conceiving all things as one thing. When we read Edwardian literature for its clichés, we discover that divided, split, shattered disintegration, dissolution, and in separate compartments [I told you that James quote would be useful!] are the overworked pejoratives. Unity, oneness, wholeness, bonds, synthesis, relation, and connection are cardinal virtues. The attitudes of an entire generation cannot be reduced to a slogan, but E. M. Forster’s commandment “Only connect” was a dominating theme in Edwardian thought. Once, Christianity had provided a sense of universal connectedness: all things were created, related, and rendered coherent by God. Without God the Edwardians were forced to reknit the fabric of the cosmos on their own, uniting worldly realities and otherworldly aspirations to form a harmonious system of belief. (3)

Perhaps there is room in the via media for this “reknitting,” too?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy,

    Thanks for this really interesting post.

    I think that the main issue with Kloppenberg’s Via Media thesis is that it makes doubt into a cover for practicality. Skepticism, the philosophical problem of doubt par excellence is at the heart of modern philosophy, and not just in its now oft derided Cartesian guise. But for thinkers like Dewey (too a lesser extent, James) the perennial problem of skepticism was a pseudo-problem to be subordinated to the pressing issues at hand, political or otherwise. The same was true for the British Ordinary Language philosophers of mid-century.

    On a related note, one of Kloppenberg’s main contributions in Uncertain Victory, as I read it, is to emphasize the centrality of history and historical consciousness to the ideas of the Via Media thinkers. But there was just as much fervent debate over the skeptical implications of historicism among European thinkers during the time period Kloppenberg covers. Of course, he was and is perfectly aware of that fact, as his knowledge of the history of philosophy is expansive. This is no flaw, but it raises a question that I think hasn’t been fully addressed by intellectual historians–the skeptical tensions, and the metaphysical problems that arise when trying to think in terms of the irrational, the contingent, or the practical. Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty seems to address the emotional dimensions of this issue, in that she focus on the pain and torture of attempting to stare Truth in the face in light of crushing uncertainty and irrationality. This is a line of inquiry that, it seems to me, should be furthered in future explorations of American thought.

  2. Andy: I haven’t read either book. Is it possible that Kloppenberg was using a different set of English/UK intellectuals from which to make his point? Or is there considerable crossover in terms of evidence? Was Rose focused on a set of “middling” thinkers that Kloppenberg missed, such that UK is a peculiar exception? …Aside: There’s an irenic/ironic pun in here that I can’t quite pull together. – TL

  3. Tim,
    That’s a really important consideration. Most if not all of the British intellectuals that Kloppenberg treats in UV are present and discussed in Rose, but the nature of the two books is very different: Rose glides through a roster of dozens of intellectuals and really gives no one the kind of patient, in-depth, brilliantly reconstructive treatment that Kloppenberg gives to his primary figures. So the angle of vision is very different, but I’m not sure that alone accounts for the different emphases/interpretations of the two books.

    Thanks so much for your comment, and for bringing Ann Douglas in here as well, who is a great interlocutor, as much in her earlier Feminization of American Culture. I’m not sure I completely understand your argument, though: that Kloppenberg (like Douglas) urges us to confront the problem of (and the existential angst of) skepticism within US intellectual history more squarely, or that Kloppenberg does not give skepticism its due, but rather presents it as a sort of veneer overlaying his thinkers’ truer devotion to practicality?

Comments are closed.