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James and the early Laski: the ambiguous legacy of pragmatism

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This essay considers the intricate relationship between the thought of William James and the political theory of Harold J. Laski mainly in the years 1915 to 1930. I suggest James's arguments and vocabulary have a greater presence in Laski's work than has been previously detailed. The links between James's and Laski's thought are apparent in Laski's accounts of the self and his descriptions of the nature and structure of social experience; each of these in some way derives from James's psychology, empiricist metaphysics and pragmatic method. The links are demonstrated by Laski's explicit references to James's ideas in his books and letters as well as in his adoption of Jamesian terms, phrases and motifs. This essay also shows that in applying James's ideas to political life Laski brought to light the equivocal nature of James's philosophy. Equally however, reading Laski against the background of James's intellectual legacy helps us understand more clearly some of the ambiguities and tensions in Laski's work; for instance how he could move with apparent ease from advocating political pluralism to supporting centralized planning. Finally, this paper illustrates the complex relationship between political theory and metaphysics.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of New South Wales

Publication date: January 1, 1998


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