A Pragmatist Response to Death:  Jane Addams on the Permanent and the Transient

(Traditional Paper)





On the face of it, permanence and excellence seem antitheses of the pragmatist emphasis on the transitoriness of life and its processes, and goods as multiple, conflicting, and remediable.  I defend Jane Addams's use of the terms in the title of her book of ten memorial addresses called The Excellent Becomes the Permanent.  She uses the occasion to confront the growing indifference of her generation to personal immortality.  I show how she defends the belief in personal immortality without undermining the pragmatist commitment to naturalism.  Ironically, she does so by bringing immortality down to earth.  The focus of the paper is Addams's searching meditation on death as the horizon of life.



The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932) is an odd title for a book by a pragmatist thinker like Jane Addams.  Pragmatists argue that social and political improvement must be gradual and consensual if it is to be lasting.  They believe that the best solution is often the enemy of the better or reachable end-in-view.  In praising 'the excellent' rather than the gradual increments of good that may gradually sum themselves into the best possible, Addams seems to be reaching back to an idealist foundation for her beliefs and actions.  Permanence is also a problematic goal for pragmatists.  Process and continuous reconstruction foreclose any resting in a permanent state.  States of affairs consist of both goods attained and evils not yet overcome.  Their unrealized possibilities call for further effort, not for setting in stone.  What, then, does Addams mean by using the phrase–the excellent becomes the permanent–to tie together a series of memorial addresses she gave at various services for departed friends and benefactors of the Hull House settlement?

            Katherine Joslin gives a possible source for Addams’s title in George Eliot’s definition of ‘reality’ for writers in A Room of One’s Own.  Eliot says that reality is found even in the fleeting moments of life and in the most trivial incidents, as “something very erratic, very undependable,” and “sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is.  But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent.  That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates.”1  Addams quoted Woolf verbatim in The Second Twenty Years at Hull House, but when she utilized the idea again in The Excellent Becomes the Permanent, it is not the waywardness of impressions that she emphasizes, but only the very best and highest aspects of living, that which is realized as excellent in lives of unselfish service.2  She is no longer emphasizing the mind living “in a world of myriad impressions,” as Joslin describes Woolf’s impressionistic, stream of consciousness approach, but valorizing instead only the uplifting, ideal moments of people’s lives.

            Another possible source for the idealism expressed in the book is Josiah Royce’s Studies of Good and Evil, a book that was also in Addams's personal library3  One essay in it especially stands out because it is tied to a particular time and place and tries to draw an idealist moral from a rather shabby episode in the founding of the state of California.  In “An Episode of Early California Life:  The Squatter Riot of 1850 in Sacramento,” Royce says that the incidents he relates “may seem petty, local, transient, accidental, but their meaning is permanent, and they will recur, over and over, and perhaps on a constantly grander and grander scale, as long as our national history lasts.”  Addams would have had no trouble agreeing with him that “the solution of the most practical problems of the daily life of a community may involve” in miniature “a process of universal meaning.”4  But while Royce is drawing on an incident full of depravity to point a higher meaning, Addams intends to valorize lives that are already exemplary.  Both, however, agree that however transient everyday life is, it can also be a source of insight into values that pass the test of time.

            In any case, Addams, like all good writers, transforms her sources into her unique voice and issues.  She even notes the discrepancy between her funeral oration rhetoric and her pragmatist philosophy.  After all, the source of belief in immortality may simply be that those one loves not be forgotten.  Despite widespread beliefs by followers of many religions in an afterlife, such beliefs themselves also fluctuate and adaptations to the flux and complexity of modern life occur.  Such changes may reflect the conviction of many contemporaries to base their beliefs on understanding the actual state of the world.  According to Addams: “They are stoutly convinced that there is no avenue of truth . . . save through observation or experiment.  Ideals are ‘true’ in the definition of William James in that they have been ‘assimilated, validated, corroborated, and verified in experience,’ that they are fruits for life.”  For those who live up to this conviction, “the culmination of man’s search for the highest values does not lead to a house of dreams,” but to something more substantial and no less beautiful (6).

            Addams is expressing basic insights of  pragmatist philosophy, as her citation of James attests.  Even ideals, far from being pre-existing or self-evident, cannot just be imposed on experience but must themselves evolve from and be verified in experience.  Merely imagined ideals of future states of being, no matter how attractively seductive, pale in comparison with ideals that are the actual outcome of working through difficult situations and perceiving a future, no matter how distant, which would be the ideal transformation if present efforts would be continued and desired outcomes realized.  But for those for whom it is unthinkable that any rational person would reject the personal immortality promised by established religions for a merely finite development of earthly ideals, Addams tells an anecdote to show that "the same spirit of realism which urges us to know life as it is lived all about us continues even in the awe-inspiring presence of death” (6-7).  She describes a badly burned woman who had lost her children in a fire, but did not want to hear platitudes about an after-life where she would be reunited with her children.  The woman could not “endure any more empty words.”  She seemed to Addams to exemplify a refusal “to be content with a mere mechanism of escape from reality, which she suspected to have been made to the order of man’s desires" (7). 

            Addams argued that another source of modern indifference to individual survival may have arisen from the preoccupation of her generation (7) with social conditions and the overwhelming desire to better them.  The social relationships shattered by the First World War, the brutalities and self-serving it both revealed and fostered, and the discouraging failure to remake relations among people and nations on better lines, left little patience for dreams of personal immortality.  There might even be a secret fear that energy given to otherworldly thoughts would rob people of their moral energy to work for betterment in the here and now.  But Addams thinks that neither the bleak despair of the mother who lost her children nor the loss of faith in post-war reformers should simply obliterate the age-old demand for personal immortality.  They bear testimony, rather, to the bankruptcy of transcendental and other-worldly ways of conceiving it.  Addams reminds us that what has been forgotten in simply rejecting, on realist grounds, the whole idea of immortality as hopelessly muddled and idealistic is that ‘a store of ideas, born of the need to make tolerable the helplessness of many and built out of the material offered by memories of helplessness of his own childhood and the 'childhood of the race’ are discoveries as valuable as any others to be found in a whole-hearted search for truth” (8).

            But Addams notes that only a transfigured few can live up to such an austere formula.  For most, ready-made ideals, with their promise of unquestioned superiority and rectitude, are needed to overcome deep-seated insecurities and the painful circumstances of life.  “This desire for the fulfillment of frustrated hopes, the old wishful remaking of reality to suit the human heart, is almost universal” (4).  There’s a natural and touching determination to link together lives on earth with others out of time.  Addams is carefully picking her way between a bleak naturalism which refuses to recognize deeply human needs and naive religious assertions of an afterlife in golden palaces in the sky.  Both alternatives are inadequate, and she expresses the hope that what she has written "may prove of interest when, in the mood so natural to our generation with its insistence upon the scientific method, we become impatient of the incertitude and sentimentalities; or when our absorption in great causes tends to belittle the importance of individual survival.” (9)

            Dewey points out that "[i]t is an old story that 'eternal' is an ambiguous word.  It means both irrelevancy to time and enduring through all time."5  Addams seems fully cognizant of this difference and carefully picks her way between her audience's assumption of the eternal as beyond and irrelevant to time and the more pragmatic meaning of worthiness to endure through time. 

            Does she also, like James, vacillate between the pragmatic toughness of outlook that needs no extraneous support and the weakness of the sick soul who must rest occasionally in the eternal springs of absolute ideals and transcendent deities?6  Addams seems to opt for the realist approach that does not blink at the merely temporal sources of comfort available to us.  Her words of consolation, spoken for the immediate benefit of grieving friends and relatives, often soar into the heavens, but on reflection, she rather excuses these flights of fancy as just that–comforting words at a time of great sorrow.  The desire to have our hopes fulfilled, our cherished desires realized, is one of the oldest and most enduring needs of human beings facing death, and it longs to be assuaged by some sense of the continued presence of those who have passed beyond earthly life.  Words of eternity are symbols of the continued importance of those we cherish in our lives and the intention to keep their memory alive. 

            The memorial assemblage is sub species [a]eternitatis; the gathering takes place in public recognition  of the finality of death, of the dead as having entered into a trans-temporal or eternal state, and in contemplating such finality, Addams wants to gather from this most extreme of our experiences a renewed incentive to continue the work they devoted their lives to.  They are not unquestionably immortal, but can be made so by us, the survivors, in so far as we immortalize their lives and work in our own (10).  Addams alludes to the only sense in which pragmatists speak of concrete universals; namely, something becomes universal to the extent that it is found to arise out of and resolve not only a present situation, but an ever-wider circle of experiences.  Insofar as the principles, beliefs, or values continue to be affirmed in new situations, they become universalized just to that extent.  It is in this growing sense of making universals rather than finding or applying them, that she hopes to express qualities “sufficiently universal to be of interest to those beyond the range of acquaintance” (10).

            In seeking to learn through intelligently acting on our beliefs and considering the cogency and desirability of the outcome, experience becomes experimental.  Addams admired in others and strove in her own life “to retain and utilize past experiences” as a means of growth.7   Inquiry and action in the world are transactive, as Addams emphasizes in Twenty Years at Hull-House, where she  links the subjective necessity of bringing one’s own beliefs and actions into harmony with the objectivity necessity of creating the conditions required for the advancement and improvement of all levels of society.8  In fact, in “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” an essay written nearly forty years earlier and incorporated in  Twenty Years at Hull House, she had already explained that human accomplishments become permanent only to the extent that they are universalized by being shared with everyone.9

            We both affect and transform the situations in which we are involved at the same time that they affect and transform us.  In Democracy and Social Ethics Addams explains the pivotal role of perplexities as privileged moments when we either embrace the personal repercussions of the transactive effects of our actions or turn away and refuse the personal growth exacted of us as a corollary of the effective resolution of social problems.10  Addams knows that her memorial words do not just pay tribute to the dead but also reveal and challenge her own self-understanding.   She therefore explains how she was transformed over time as she continued to experience the loss of those she loved and strove to come to terms with such deeply felt losses.

            Her meditations on death began early, which is not surprising for someone who grew up in the shadow of the Civil War and who lost her mother in early childhood and her father shortly after graduating from Rockford female seminary.  When writing Twenty Years at Hull House, she sought to recapture exactly what disturbed her most about death as a child.  Although later in the book, the fear of dying is uppermost in her account, an earlier story emphasizes its inexplicableness, which left a deep sense of the tragic in her life.  In the first chapter, after telling of hearing about and paying tribute to the civil war dead when she was a child, Addams tells the story of an old couple, who lived near her and her siblings, who had lost four of their five sons in the war, only to lose the last one in a hunting accident.  She comments that “our young hearts swelled in rebellion against that which Walter Pater calls ‘the inexplicable shortcomings or misadventure on the part of life itself,’” her mature self finding in literature the words to express what the young girl had probably not put into words or had put into words  long-forgotten.  She explains further: “we were overwhelmingly oppressed by that grief of things as they are, so much more mysterious and intolerable than those griefs which we think dimly to trace to man’s own wrongdoing.”11 

            In accordance with her method of learning from experience, she continues: “It was well perhaps that life thus early gave me a hint of one of her most obstinate and insoluble riddles, for I have sorely needed the sense of universality thus imparted to that mysterious injustice, the burden of which we are all forced to bear and with which I have become only too familiar.”12  The need to feel that she was not alone in her rebellion against undeserved but implacable death, expressed as a universal fate that bound her to all of humanity, is a minor chord that was probably intuited by those of other classes and ethnicities that she moved among, to modulate the major chord of her benevolence, which reflected her need to be of use in the world.  In any case, Addams was not only deliberately chipping away at the barriers society had erected between classes, genders, and ethnicities, but she was overcoming her own sense of isolation and existential angst "in a desperate revolt against the destruction of the visible man" (152).

            Death can be conceived of as a limit-concept for the deliberately earth-bound philosophy of pragmatism and its ultimate test.  As a philosophy of naturalism, it is committed to reflecting within the limits of experience and relinquishes the temptation of foreclosing inquiry by imagining higher powers who can make right what mere mortals have messed up; it cannot resolve problems by taking a leap of faith into unknown and unproven facts or states of affairs or by appealing to transcendent beings.13  The process of living requires the continuity of the production of later organisms from earlier ones, and in this process some species perish, others stay the same, and still others change over time into different species.  Coming into being and perishing occurs at the level of groups of beings and cultures as well as species, and most poignantly of all for human beings, in our own lives and those around us.  Can pragmatist philosophy continue to be a satisfactory choice in regard to these extreme experiences; namely when experience itself ceases to be?

            Addams seems to be asking herself this question and testing her own commitment to a philosophical perspective that has served her well, but which has seemed to fail her in regard to two deeply felt situations.  One is her consistent pacifism, no matter what the external circumstances, and the other is in facing death, the final end of the possibility of future experience.  It is significant that she concludes not one, but two books with the same personal meditation on death.14  It is especially significant because in both cases she recognizes that the final chapter breaks the pattern of the earlier chapters and so is not an obvious choice for ending the books. 

            Why, then, does Addams include her own meditation on death in both books?  Why does she, in Joslin’s provocative phrase, place herself in the company of the dead in The Excellent Becomes the Permanent?15  I think she does so because her essay is a meditation on death, not a pre-emptive move to write her own obituary, as Joslin intimates.   Addams sees a thematic unity in the earlier material of both books and her autobiographical essay.  Its inclusion becomes more understandable in light of Addams’s theory of reciprocity.  In the first case, other women have shared their memories with her, thereby enabling her to develop a theory of the transformative power of memory in women’s lives.  She shares her own memories, in turn, for whatever they be worth for others.  Similarly in the present case, Addams has been honoring the lives of friends and benefactors in light of their death, and reciprocates this gift of their shared lives by sharing her thoughts on her own death.  On a more prosaic level, since memory plays such a large role in commemorations of the deaths of others, it is not surprising that Addams was reminded of her earlier essay on the themes of death and memory written sixteen years before and decided to include it.

            It is this larger theme of death that Addams wants to call attention to.  It is a theme that has provided a shadowy background to a life lived to the full and one to which Addams attributes her ability to resonate with the sorrows of other people’s lives, no matter of what class or ethnicity, without self-consciousness or hypocrisy.  Despite the upbeat title, The Excellent Becomes the Permanent is intended as a meditation on death and attitudes toward the afterlife, and it was not simply put together as a memorial volume in honor of some people involved with the early years of Hull House.  Insight into her state of mind can be gathered from the fact that she was very upset that her book was classified as religious and distributed in the religious book division of Macmillan and that it was advertised as a series of tributes to individual persons.16  Since these two publishing approaches seem to accurately describe the content of the book, Addams’s sharp rejection of them underlines her concern that her life’s work not be seen as one religious project among many others of the time and that the worth of the book not depend on recognition of the lives memorialized, but on the worth of the philosophical outlook it expresses.

            This rejection of religious consolation in the face of death is already expressed in Twenty Years at Hull House, where Addams says that in the dark days after her father died, she was consoled by a visit from Professor Blaisdell of Beloit College, but repelled by the Christian doctrine of resignation which he brought.  She explained to him that she drew comfort from merging her familiar surroundings into the wider universe and her particular grief was easier to bear “with the realization of sorrow as the common lot, of death as the universal experience” (52).  In response, Blaisdell stopped talking of the Greek New Testament and spoke instead of the Platonic view of death and gave her a copy of The Crito.  Addams says that “this was the first time I had ever heard Plato’s sonorous argument for the permanence of the excellent.”  Her title and the meaning she attributes to it, therefore, are based on Plato, although they may well have been amplified by other readings, including George Eliot.  LikeAddams’s Egyptian experience, Plato’s message is older than Christianity’s and more encompassing.

            Addams explains that she ends The Excellent Becomes the Permanent with a chapter on her meditations on death while traveling in Egypt because she cannot neglect “the history of man’s most cherished doctrine [of immortality] and his unceasing endeavor to penetrate into the unseen (9).”  She recognized that she thereby incurred “a certain risk of breaking continuity” with the form and content of the earlier chapters but does so anyway to encourage “the tolerant temper supposed to be induced by the historic perspective" (9-10).  What she wants us to be tolerant of are the alien experiences and bizarre religious expressions of supposedly  'primitive' people long dead.  With Plato, she has intimations of another life, but unlike Plato, she interprets her experience as a manifestation of a new humanism which can recognize our continuity with the beliefs, oracles, and myths of earlier generations.  The very fact that these ancients found in them a means of bearing and mitigating the terrors of death should endear them to us, the survivors.




1. Katherine Joslin, Jane Addams: A Writer's Life (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 207-8.

2. Addams, The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (New York: Macmillan, 1930), 81.

3. Josiah Royce, Studies of Good and Evil: A Series of Essays Upon Problems of Philosophy and of Life (New York: D. Appleton, 1898).

4.  Addams would not go along with Royce in claiming that such incidents “involve the ultimate issues of an idealistic philosophy, . . . the Study of Good and Evil” (299).  In fact, Royce uses his historical narrative “to enable us to distinguish the good from the evil tendencies of the popular mind, and to feel the difference between healthy and diseased states of social activity” (304).  One would be hard pressed to find Addams making such absolute judgments or so starkly recounting the “Anglo-Saxon methods” which revealed the extent to which the native-born “despised the [Mexican] natives” (308).  Not for her the language of “the rapacity of American settlers,” “land-titles buried under an almost universal predatory disregard of them,” “the legalized meanness that was to take the place of open rebellion,” and “our national bigotry in dealing with Spanish-Americans” (309, 310, 311).  Since Addams was encountering similar animosities between Anglo-Saxons and foreign immigrants, one can wonder how her deliberate avoidance of charged language and negative assessments of the national character affected the outcomes of her experiments in social change, especially since Royce, like Addams, also rejoices in incidents that show “us what, amid all our folly and weakness, is the real strength of our national character, and the real ground for trust in its higher future development” (311).  Royce, Studies of Good and Evil.

5. John Dewey,  "Reply to Some Criticisms" Later Works Volume 5:1929-1930, Ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988),  215.


7.  Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 23.

8. Addams, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” in Hull-House, 67-76.

9. Ibid., 92.  Originally published in Philanthropy and Social Progress (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1893).


11. Twenty Years, 35.

12. Ibid., 35-36.


14. The other is The Long Road of Woman’s Memory.  There she shortened it by deleting many passages developing the earlier emphasis on memory, which had already been covered earlier in the book.  It also appeared under the title, “The Unexpected Reactions of a Traveler in Egypt,” in Atlantic Monthly, 113(February, 1914), 178-86.

15. Joslin, Jane Addams, 239.

16.  Addams wrote to L. H. Titterton, the editor of the religious book department at Macmillan, who was responsible for advertising The Excellent Becomes the Permanent, complaining that it was advertised by listing the names of those eulogized.  She said:  “It seems to be a real mistake not to emphasize the theme of the book, rather than the personalities who illustrate it.”  She then supplied the theme; namely, that “the book attempts, through various personalities who have been connected with Hull-House, to answer the reiterated question: ‘What is your attitude toward the future life?”  Most indicative of her pragmatist or ‘new humanist’ (Long Road, 79) agenda is the fact that she was upset that the book was being classified as a study in religion. Joslin, Jane Addams, 239.