Complete Story

Stob, Paul

Spring, 44:1, pages 26-45

The Rhetoric of Individualism and the Creation of Community: A View from William James’s ‘‘The Will to Believe’

Abstract: In this essay I explore the paradoxical operation of the rhetoric of individualism. While individualism suggests the demarcation of liberal subjects and even opposition to communities, groups, and collectives, its rhetorical deployment can call people together in powerful ways, offering them a common identity and a shared perspective. In short, the rhetoric of individualism can be used to create community. To illustrate the paradoxical operation of the rhetoric of individualism, I analyze William James’s popular lecture ‘‘The Will to Believe,’’ which deployed individualism as a response to various social, political, and intellectual shifts at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular, James’s individualist rhetoric helped foster a community of religious believers ready to oppose the evidentiary demands of modern science. Although ‘‘The Will to Believe’’ represents only one instance of the rhetoric of individualism, it suggests that community building may be a natural function of individualism’s rhetorical deployment.

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