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Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 255–276 | Cite as

Stuttering Conviction: Commitment and Hesitation in William James’ Oration to Robert Gould Shaw

  • Alexander Livingston
Article

Abstract

This article reconstructs a pragmatist conception of political conviction from the works of William James. Pragmatism is often criticized for failing to account for the force of moral convictions to motivate risky and confrontational political action. This article argues that such criticisms presume a conception of conviction as an experience of moral command that pragmatism rejects. In its place, pragmatism portrays the experience of conviction as acting on faith. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the stutter, I argue that this experience of faith is neither a deliberative justification nor a form of decisionism but rather a style of moral deliberation that is experimental, social and affective. I consider the sole piece of political oratory in James’ corpus, his 1897 oration to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, as a significant example of stuttering conviction. James’ oration seeks to demonstrate the ways that convictions can take hold of actors without relying on deep philosophical foundations or justifications. Although James places his argument squarely within the context of the politics of race, he himself does not attend to the ways his celebration of Shaw obscures the moral experiences of the African–American soldiers of the 54th. In response to this blindness, the final section considers whether or not the martyrdom of John Brown provides a more appropriate conception of conviction than James’ Shaw.

Keywords

William James Robert Gould Shaw pragmatism race affect 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Jane Bennett, Samuel Chambers, Simone Chambers, William Connolly, Nathan Gies, Duncan Ivison, Desmond Jagmohan, Isaac Kamola, Peggy Kohn, Colin Koopman, Inder Marwah, Mihaela Mihai, Andrew Murphy, David Rondel, Melissa Williams and two anonymous reviewers at Contemporary Political Theory for their invaluable comments and criticisms of earlier versions of this article. Financial support for this research was provided through a fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alexander Livingston
    • 1
  1. 1.Cornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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