Chapter 3: Thomas Davidson’s Push for Philosophical Community

[Read up on Thomas Davidson here]

At the time, it was the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. Newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe crowded into small, stuffy tenement rooms, hoping to eke out a meager living. But the neighborhood was not built to accommodate the ever-increasing number of bodies, and the result was a public-health nightmare. One settlement worker described the squalid conditions she witnessed daily:

Every window opens into a room crowded with scantily clothed, dull-faced men and women sewing upon heavy woolen coats and trousers. They pant for air, the perspiration that drops from their foreheads is like life-blood, but they toil on steadily, wearily, except when now and again one, crazed by heat, hangs himself to a door-jamb.

This was New York’s Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century.

It was emblematic of industrialism’s human toll—people crammed into small spaces, desperate for work, under constant threat of disease and violence, unable to meet the basic needs of personal, let alone familial, survival. “On a single block in New York’s East Side,” writes one historian, “39 tenements provided housing space for 2,871 persons. There was not a single bath in the entire block, and only 40 of the apartments had hot water. The tenements in New York’s Lower East Side had one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Thousands died from a variety of common diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria, and tuberculosis.”

In this overcrowded, disease-filled, tenement-lined neighborhood, the sometimes-congenial, often-arrogant, but undeniably brilliant philosopher Thomas Davidson delivered a series of public lectures in 1898. The venue for the lectures was a cooperative settlement known as the Educational Alliance, and it put Davidson in touch with a group of people whose existence was worlds away from his own. Most of them were first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants who toiled upward of twelve hours per day in sweatshops, factories, and tenement rooms. They were not the typical audience for abstract, philosophical discussions. Nevertheless, on December 7, 1898, Davidson mounted the rostrum, laid his manuscript on the lectern, and offered a bold salutation to his 250 listeners: “Fellow Workmen!”

For Davidson to lump himself in with “workmen” was not only inaccurate but also potentially offensive. They toiled in sweatshops and tenements; he wrote analytic philosophy. Yet his aim was not to represent his actual station in life but to imagine with those before him a future of cooperative intellectual labor. In a few months, this future would come to pass, resulting in one of the most striking educational experiments of the Progressive Era—the Breadwinners’ College. This “college” would help poor, Jewish immigrants exercise their intellectual muscle and, at the same time, transform the Lower East Side into a place of philosophy, rhetoric, populism, and spiritual development.

The Breadwinners’ College represented the culmination of Davidson’s thirty-year career as an intellectual community builder. On both sides of the Atlantic he created spaces where people could gather, eat, sleep, work, play, and think together. More importantly, in these spaces people could push back against the intellectual status quo, especially academic philosophy. His early adventures in fostering alternative philosophical communities included the Aristotelean Society, the Fellowship of the New Life, the Fabian Society, and the Concord School of Philosophy. Later in his career Davidson created the Glenmore Institute, which served as a philosophical retreat for middle- and upper-class northeasterners who wanted to participate in rigorous inquiry while living in a rustic camp in the Adirondack Mountains. Then came the Breadwinners’ College, which represented a dramatic shift in Davidson’s community- building efforts. He found new energy and purpose by turning to the educational needs and challenges of working-class immigrants. In conjunction with the downtrodden on the Lower East Side, Davidson discovered the dynamics for a populist uprising that he had been trying to foment for decades.

Intellectual populism is a discursive effort to align individuals against established modes of inquiry to resist, combat, or circumvent the intellectual status quo. As the previous chapters have shown, the discourse of intellectual populism allows individuals to sublimate their particular grievances into a larger chain, joining others in a unified front against the established order. This happened with Robert Ingersoll’s audiences, as believers, nonbelievers, and those in between came to see their particular problems with organized religion as part of the anti- institutionalism Ingersoll so eloquently proffered. This also happened with the early Christian Science church, as Mary Baker Eddy and her lecturers drew ordinary people into a movement against medical professionalism and for the healing power of Divine Science. In both cases, the formation of a populist frontier happened in a lecture hall and in the “imagined community” that resulted from discourse circulating across geographic spaces. Through populist appeals, lecture-goers in one town united imaginatively with lecture-goers in another town, and together they constituted a community undefined by geographic coordinates. Thomas Davidson’s work demonstrates a different aspect of populist coalition building. Specifically, his efforts show the importance of space and place relative to intellectual-populist speech. While Davidson forged imagined communities through his lectures, essays, and books, he also built actual communities—purposefully constructed spaces for inquiry that he believed necessary for intellectual transformation.

The story of Davidson’s populist community-building efforts, then, is the story of his experimentation with different combinations of people, places, ideas, and discourses. Bringing together various groups in different locations, Davidson hoped to find the most effective way of reorienting modern thought after academic professionalism had confused it. In the end, he found what he was looking for on the Lower East Side of New York. Among the tenements, Davidson forged a novel juxtaposition of philosophical speech and industrial space, expanding the borders of philosophical inquiry to include new voices, new debates, and new participants in the world of thought. On the Lower East Side, Davidson grasped Doreen Massey’s apt insight about space: “Social change and spatial change are integral to each other.” To foment a populist countermovement in the world of philosophy, Davidson discovered that he needed to create a community attuned to the rhythms of Progressive Era America.