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Jane Addams's Evolutionary Theorizing

Constructing “Democracy and Social Ethics”

In Jane Addams’s Evolutionary Theorizing, Marilyn Fischer advances the bold and original claim that Addams’s reasoning in her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics, is thoroughly evolutionary. While Democracy and Social Ethics, a foundational text of classical American pragmatism, is praised for advancing a sensitive and sophisticated method of ethical deliberation, Fischer is the first to explore its intellectual roots.

Examining essays Addams wrote in the 1890s and showing how they were revised for Democracy and Social Ethics, Fischer draws from philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, and more to uncover the array of social evolutionary thought Addams engaged with in her texts—from British socialist writings on the evolution of democracy to British and German anthropological accounts of the evolution of morality. By excavating Addams’s evolutionary reasoning and rhetorical strategies, Fischer reveals the depth, subtlety, and richness of Addams’s thought.

Author Information

Marilyn Fischer is professor emerita of philosophy at the University of Dayton. She is the author of On Addams and Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising as well as coeditor of Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy and Jane Addams’s Writings on Peace.


"Fischer's beautifully written book is a model of scholarship, offering an unparalleled view into the scientific and literary contexts of Addams’s early work. In demonstrating that Democracy and Social Ethics must be read against the background of evolutionary theories of social change, Fischer has fundamentally transformed our understanding of this book and its inception."
— Trevor Pearce, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

"Prominent Progressive Era social activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams was also an intellectual of the first order. In this groundbreaking book, Marilyn Fischer probes deeply Addams's contributions to a central debate of her day: What implications did Darwin’s theory of evolution have for social theory? Fischer deftly traces the influence of contemporary debates on the development of Addams’soriginal social evolutionary theory. As Fischer brilliantly argues, in 1902, Adams presented that theory to the world in her first book, Democracy and Social Ethics."
— Louise W. Knight, author of Jane Addams: Spirit in Action

"Marilyn Fischer serves as a time-traveling tour guide who takes us on a journey that reveals the genesis and meaning behind Jane Addams’s first monograph. Fischer’s detective work, tracking Addams’ allusions, paraphrases, and quotes, reveals her connection to the wider world of social evolutionary theory and helps us better understand and appreciate the work as a historical text. Her erudite study of Addams’s prose and its connection to other theorists of the time help us decode the lost meanings of Addams’s work. You’ll never read Democracy and Social Ethics the same way again."
— Cathy Moran Hajo, director, The Jane Addams Papers Project

Audience: Professional and scholarly;