Panel Discussion Submission: Addams on Interpretation

Three presenters

(panel abstract length: 562 words, excluding the citations)


Panel Abstract

            Addams often described a social settlement’s function in terms of interpretation. In 1892 Addams stated that one of her motives in founding Hull-House was “to interpret democracy in social terms,” adding in 1899 that a social settlement’s “most valuable function as yet, lies along the line of interpretation and synthesis.” [i] In these and similar passages “interpretation” includes, but goes beyond making American institutions accessible to immigrants, and explaining immigrant customs and experiences to non-immigrant Americans. Interpretation was central to Addams’s pragmatist method of social transformation, through which she aimed to encourage sympathetic understanding among disparate groups and thereby foster growth toward social democracy.

            This panel will explore interpretation as having a central role in Addams’s pragmatist methodology, one that has been largely overlooked by philosophers.[ii] The panel’s first paper traces the development of Addams’s conception of interpretation throughout her adult life; the second gives a close examination of Addams’s use of interpretation in a specific historical crisis, and the third shows how Addams’s use of interpretation is a resource for contemporary feminist epistemology and activism.

            The first paper, “Jane Addams:  Interpretation as Conduit or Filter?,” explores how Addams’s understanding of her role as interpreter develops and changes over time. At first, Addams saw no conflict between her intention to transparently convey to a wider public the opinions, values, and beliefs of her immigrant neighbors and her belief that even well-intentioned persons bring their own moral and epistemological biases to encounters with others.  Her understanding of herself as an interpreter suited both her harmonizing temperament and her interest in mediation.  Later, her public vilification for remaining true to her pacifist principles after the United States entered World War I made her realize how difficult it can be to make oneself understood.  It also led her to re-examine and question her ability to understand and interpret the situations and beliefs of others.

            The second paper, “Interpreting Lazarus Averbuch: Reading Addams through Mead,” explores Addams’s defense and demonstration of interpretation in her 1908 essay, “The Chicago Settlements and Social Unrest.”[iii] Here Addams defends her interventions on behalf of  alleged anarchist Lazarus Averbuch, claiming that settlement workers have a professional obligation to engage in interpretation. The author sets out the interpretive moves Addams makes in the essay, noting how for Addams, the interpreter’s role is not that of a neutral, third-party mediator, but at times interpretation takes the form of deliberate, active interventions. The author then reads Addams’s presentation of interpretation through Mead’s account of social transformation.  Doing so illuminates Addams’s thinking as well as Mead’s, and provides a way to respond to concerns raised throughout the paper.

            The third paper, “Charitable Interpretations: Addams's Charity Visitor and Contemporary Advocacy,” examines how Addams's work contributes to contemporary feminist attempts to undermine the myth that individuals can interpret experience in isolation. By juxtaposing Lorraine Code's support of third party advocacy as a tool of interpretation in Ecological Thinking with Addams's description of the charity visitor in Democracy and Social Ethics, the author highlights the harms created when individuals with privileges attempt to assist those without them from a distance. Thus, the author concludes that, in order for Code's contentions about advocacy's interpretive value to be realized, potential advocates must join the communities that they wish to serve and begin the process of fostering mutual recognition with the citizens of those communities.


Paper 1: Jane Addams: Interpretation as Conduit or Filter?


In her early explanations of why she founded the Hull House Settlement, Addams saw no conflict between her intention to accurately convey to a wider public the opinions, values, and beliefs of her immigrant neighbors and her belief that even well-intentioned persons bring their own moral and epistemological biases to encounters with others.  Her understanding of herself as an interpreter suited both her harmonizing temperament and her interest in mediation.  Later, her public vilification for remaining true to her pacifist principles after the United States entered World War I made her realize how difficult it can be to make oneself understood.  It also led her to re-examine and question her ability to understand and interpret the situations and beliefs of others.  In exploring how her understanding of her role as interpreter develops and changes over time, I hope to highlight Addams’s contributions to the role of interpretation in pragmatist methodology.  

      Addams did not assume that she was simply a magnifying instrument through which others made their case to a wider public.  She was self-reflexively aware that her efforts at interpreting the motives and intentions of others, at which she worked so hard, were contaminated by her own perspectives.[iv]  But she defends the approach, nonetheless.  I clarify how an interpretation can both be perspectival and yet faithfully communicate the intentions and beliefs of someone else.  One clue is that Addams clearly sees herself as an agent of change and not just of reportage.  Addams has a very palpable sense of the pragmatist method of developing ideals or workable solutions out of present experiences.  Using the example of Tolstoy’s call for passive resistance to militarism, she argues that what makes it a matter of practice and not just theory is that it is grounded in the actual agrarian conditions of the Russian peasant.  The outcome is not deductively inevitable based on some theoretical formula, but an experimental effort to “speed up” a process already in operation.[v]  While suggesting that Tolstoy is merely revealing the deeper recesses of the moral life of Russian peasants, she also contends that his impassioned formulation of a higher ideal of moral conduct is calculated to bring about what it asserts.

      Addams reflects on how the insights of personal experience can be rendered legitimate at a time when the social sciences were developing a scientific methodology that emphasized detached objectivity.  Her insights were severely tried by years of silencing as retribution over her pacifism during the time when America was engaged in “the European War.”  The dynamic relationships among experience, practice, experimentation and warranted beliefs also continued to ground her right to speak out even when under attack, as she explains in her post-war remarks.  But the distortions of her positions by means of the constant barrage of war propaganda, the virulent attacks on her pacifism, and her inability to find a public forum in which to defend her opinions, profoundly affected Addams.  She was no longer confident that by means of careful listening and dialogue alone she could understand and interpret the attitudes of those who–because of language, culture, or class–had trouble speaking for themselves.  She declares in the Preface to Peace and Bread in Time of War:  “I found myself so increasingly reluctant to interpret the motives of other people that at length I confined all analysis of motives to my own.”[vi]  

      Despite these misgivings, she continued to rely on interpretation as a valuable tool for progressive social reform.   Not only is this a defensible position, it requires a more nuanced and useful understanding of interpretation.  Interpretation becomes impossible during times of war or profound repression when liberalism, understood as the freedom to speak the truth despite its unpopularity, is shoved aside.[vii]

      Interpretation requires the good will of all participants and an atmosphere of trust.  “The marked ability to interpret and understand” their fellow citizens, which great pacifist leaders possessed, was disregarded in times of war and its aftermath, with all their attendant maladjustments and alienation.[viii] Interpretation fails when freedom of speech fails to be honored. 

      Such was the situation in wartime America and in the repressive 1920s when the Justice Department carried out raids on immigrants suspected because of their nationality and on trades unionists suspected of sedition because they protested against unfair labor conditions.  It was precisely because of this social crisis, exhibited in a widespread “dread and fear of discussion,” that Addams urged a re-commitment to the earlier settlement belief “that the opportunity to live close to the people would enable the residents to know intimately how simple people felt upon fundamental issues” and that armed with this belief, they “would stand fast to that knowledge in the midst of a social crisis where an interpreter would be valuable.”[ix] Despite the suspicions and misinterpretations that pacifists like Addams continued to suffer from after the war, she did not lose her belief in the need for and the value of interpretation.  The very real possibility of misunderstanding in interpreting the needs, values, and beliefs of others never disappears, but attitudes and practices can be developed to constantly address this possibility.


Paper II: Interpreting Lazarus Averbuch: Reading Addams Through Mead

            On March 2, 1908, Chicago Police Chief George Shippy shot and killed Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Russian Jewish immigrant. Shippy claimed the young man was an anarchist, intent on assassinating him, and so he acted in self-defense. The City administration accepted his story and declared that an investigation was not necessary. The press and the public responded with anti-anarchist, xenophobic hysteria. Addams and Hull-House became involved, defending the Russian Jewish immigrant community and seeking a thorough investigation. Addams begins her analysis in “Chicago Settlements and Social Unrest” by stating her professional obligation to interpret this event, and gives her long involvement with immigrant communities as her credentials.

            As interpreter, Addams does not locate herself as a neutral, third party, mediating among the other parties. Instead, her location moves seamlessly from identifying with and conveying specific information to the general public, to making broad, pointed, and very strong social critiques. Using a variety of narrative voices, Addams conveys to the audience how recent Russian Jewish immigrants had survived pogroms, and so had a well-earned sensitivity to repressive police tactics. Action, she claims, is a particularly potent form of interpretation. Through their repressive actions, both the Czar’s agents in Russia and the police in Chicago interpreted the meaning of government. Addams presents her own interventions on Averbuch’s behalf as her interpretation of Constitutionally protected rights and due process.  Addams’s interpretation becomes expansive as she compares state terrorism in Russia to lynching in the U.S.

            We can raise several concerns about Addams’s account of interpretation in this essay. Where is the interpreter located? Does Addams’s use of narrative voices have a philosophical function, as well as being rhetorically interesting? In what sense are actions forms of interpretation, particularly actions that are clearly on behalf of one of the parties? Finally, how far does interpretation extend? Can broad social critiques be considered part of interpretation?

            I use Mead’s theory of social transformation as a frame in which to place Addams’s use of interpretation, and as a frame through which to respond to these concerns. After hearing Addams deliver a version of the essay, Mead wrote to her that he was “completely filled with the multitude of impressions which you succeeded in making, and the human response which you called out from so many unexpected points of view.” [x] The principal themes from Mead that I use are his conceptions of the social self, the generalized other, and social change agents; and his understanding of how thinking and intelligence function. Using Mead, we can understand “interpretation” as those processes and activities that bring about personal and social transformation toward a more adequate generalized other, and thus a more well-functioning community.

            For Mead, self and society are intimately intertwined.[xi] One comes to be a self, and to know oneself as a self by acting with others, and by coming to view oneself through the perspectives of the others. When one adopts the perspective of the community in general, one takes on “the attitude of the generalized other.” Socially problematic situations indicate that the structure of the generalized other is inadequately formed. Resolving the problematic situation calls for selves to enlarge and for the generalized other to be reconstructed.[xii] Mead considers thinking and intelligence as critical tools for reconstructing self and society. He defines thinking as “the internalized conversation of gestures,” and as “taking the attitude of the generalized other toward himself.”[xiii]

            Addams’s various interpretive moves can be understood as efforts to enable members of the public to develop enlarged selves and thus to reconstruct the generalized other. For Mead, social change agents are people “of great mind and great character” who strongly embody principles and values that are already present in the community, but only partially expressed in institutions and in other people’s actions.[xiv] Addams’s credentials as an interpreter are based on her “wide self,” formed through long engagement with a vast array of Chicago’s social groups. The community did value Constitutional rights and due process, although these were poorly expressed. Addams’s interventions on Averbuch’s behalf were made in the spirit of concretely enacting her vision of civil liberties and due process, a vision based on her multiple involvements in multiple social groups. Her actions thus contributed to revising the generalized other and to social transformation.


Paper 3: Charitable Interpretations:

Addams's Charity Visitor and Contemporary Advocacy

            In Ecological Thinking, Lorraine Code claims that, in order to overcome the traditionally harmful liberal democratic view of epistemic autonomy, we need to accept advocacy as an important element of epistemology. Advocacy not only gives the knowledge of oppressed peoples a more prominent stage but also helps to craft the knowledge itself. This, Code claims, can undercut the oppressive myth that individuals gain knowledge in isolation, away from the influence of other people, environments, and emotions.

            Here, Code elaborates upon a common theme in contemporary feminist epistemology: knowing is not isolated. It is situated in communities and environments, and the structures of oppression prevent most people—those who live without the privileges of race, gender, geography, or economic status—from getting those in power to accept their knowledges as true knowing. However, Code provides a unique assessment when she concludes that these knowledges ought to be advocated by those who are in situations of greater power and privilege, whether it be a nurse's advocacy of his patient's claims about her pain or a lawyer's advocacy of her client's claims within an oftentimes incomprehensible legal system.

            Although I accept Code's call for undoing myths of autonomous knowing and agree with her claim that advocacy can help us interpret experiences, I maintain that even this promising account in contemporary feminism is incomplete without due consideration of Jane Addams's work. In “Democracy and Social Ethics,” Addams explains common pitfalls in the structures of advocacy, in which a person of greater privilege attempts to interpret the experiences of the oppressed. She describes the failings of the “charity visitor,” the young woman, fresh from college, who attempts to answer the call of social ethics by visiting her poor neighbors in Chicago. The charity visitor is incapable of interpreting the experiences and needs of her poor neighbors as long as she stands in a position of authority.

            The families' mistrust of her, alongside her growing bitterness and frustration, evinces the charity visitor's inability to interpret the experiences of the impoverished. This marks “the difference between the emotional kindness with which relief is given by one poor neighbor to another poor neighbor, and the guarded care with which relief is given by a charity visitor to a charity recipient.”[xv] Addams provides concrete examples of this discrepancy when she describes the charity visitor's temperance lectures and the charity recipient's idea of the saloon as the site of a free meal or other acts of kindness. While the charity visitor offers aid in accordance with abstract ideals of moral living, the kindness of neighbors, according to Addams, stems from deeply felt natural inclinations, which require a sense of recognition. Thus, in order for a privileged advocate to truly help oppressed individuals, she must first join the community that she wishes to serve and begin the process of fostering mutual recognition.

            The model of advocacy that Code proposes has the ability to fit in either the role of the well-intentioned but inadequate care of the charity visitor or the genuine understanding of the neighbor. The description of the charity visitor highlights the harms created by a top-down model of advocacy, in which, spurned by real but grandiose ideas of moving beyond patriarchy and racism, individuals of privilege attempt to assist those without it. No matter how good the intentions of the lawyer, nurse, or activist are, interpreting the experiences and needs of others requires a relationship with trust and recognition. Addams's work reveals how emphasizing community and shared responsibility helps to create this relationship.





[i] Jane Addams, [1892], “The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements,” in The Jane Addams Reader, ed. Jean Bethke Elshtain (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 25; Jane Addams, [1899],  “A Function of the Social Settlement,” in Jane Addams on Education, ed. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (Teachers College Press, 1985), 96.

[ii] Interpretation is a major conceptual category for Peirce and Royce, however, philosophers have not developed interpretation as a major conceptual category for Addams. Some sociologists and historians place Addams’s construction of social knowledge in the interpretive tradition of sociology, blending Weberian verstehen with symbolic interactionism. See Patricia Madoo Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley, eds., The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory 1830-1930 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 84, 75; and Dorothy Ross, “Gendered Social Knowledge: Domestic Discourse, Jane Addams, and the Possibilities of Social Science,” Gender and American Social Science: The Formative Years, Ed. Helene Silverberg (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 250, 253.

[iii] Jane Addams, 1908, “The Chicago Settlement and Social Unrest.” Charities and the Commons 20 (May 2): 155-66. JAPM 46:1692-1704.

[iv] See women’s war stories in Jane Addams, [1916], The Long Road of Women’s Memories (Urbana and Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 2002), Chapter 5.

[v] Jane Addams, [1907], Newer Ideals of Peace (Urbana and Chicago:  University of Illinois Press, 2007), 128-29.

[vi] Jane Addams, [1922],  Peace and Bread in Time of War (Urbana and Chicago:  University of Illinois Press,2002), 1.

[vii] Addams, Peace and Bread, 104.

[viii] Ibid., 85.

[ix] Ibid., 107.

[x] Letter from G.H. Mead to Jane Addams, April 12, 1908, (JAPM 5:368).

[xi] G.H. Mead, [1934], Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), 1962, 144.

[xii] Ibid., 386.

[xiii] G. H. Mead, [1899], “The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform,” in Mead: Selected Writings. Ed. Andrew J. Reck (New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1964), 5; Mead, Mind, Self, and Society,156.

[xiv] Mead, Mind, Self, and Society, 216-217.

[xv]Jane Addams, [1902], Democracy and Social Ethics. Ed. Charlene Haddock Seigfried, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 13.