Serviceable selves: Antislavery, autobiography, and the postidealist critique of moral reform, 1841--1901
Hooper, Michael Clay
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"Serviceable Selves: Antislavery, Autobiography, and the Postidealist Critique of Moral Reform, 1841-1901," examines writers who were engaged in a double-edged attempt to advance the work of racial justice while challenging the perfectionist politics that shaped the antislavery movement. Premised on the Scottish Common Sense idea that social harmony extends from the freedom of individuals to act upon innate moral knowledge, nineteenth-century perfectionism tended to marginalize those forms of cultural agency that reference social experience rather than moral certitude. Working against the race and gender prejudices inherent within this idealist epistemology, writers like Harriet Wilson, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Booker T. Washington crafted autobiographical selves designed to function within reform efforts conceived as finite in scope and subject to revision based on the input of social experience. In doing so, these writers and others examined in "Serviceable Selves" anticipated and contributed to the emergence of a postidealist humanitarian tradition in which the object of reform was not moral conversion but the empowerment of underprivileged individuals and groups to operate experimentally within and upon the conditions of their existence. This fallibilist and radically democratic rejection of moral certitude as the basis of reform was most explicitly articulated within philosophical pragmatism, but "Serviceable Selves" argues that its roots lie within the earlier struggles of those whose social experience was devalued as a source of moral knowledge within the Common Sense idealism of nineteenth-century reform. In making this argument, "Serviceable Selves" suggests that the recovery of this hidden strand of American intellectual history is important not just for revising the historical record but also for more thoroughly historicizing and therefore enriching current pragmatist-inspired theories and practices of radical democracy.