Unum et Pluribus: Walt Whitman's Philosophy of Democracy

Open Access
Andrews, Jason Scott
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 06, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Thomas Walter Benson, Dissertation Advisor
  • Christopher Lyle Johnstone, Committee Member
  • Stephen Howard Browne, Committee Member
  • Vincent M Colapietro, Committee Member
  • Whitman
  • democracy
  • ideology
  • ontology
  • synecdoche
  • trope
  • One and many
At the heart of the American experience is a twin ideology—strong nationalism and strong individualism. Walt Whitman, an ardent devotee of both, may be taken as a representative American ideologue. From that position, he is susceptible to, but also levels his own ideology critique. In so doing, Whitman illustrates a new sort of critique, not by hegemonic wrangling or deconstruction of the One on behalf of the many, but by an ongoing effort to reconstruct our ideal nation more in keeping with the national motto, “from many, One.” Close readers will discern in Democratic Vistas and other of his works a Whitman who is capable of both assimilating differences toward his ideal One, and accommodating differences on behalf of every individual in celebration of the many. As a matter of language, he anticipates Kenneth Burke’s terminological politics of inclusion (merger) as an alternative to the politics of exclusion (division). Conceiving of the term “the People” in such varied modalities means that as Whitman reconstructs the relationships which make up the American experience—he reconstructs, as part of his larger philosophical project, its dynamic social ontology. Characterizing in detail the body politic (not to mention his own body and his body of work), Whitman offers a terminology that recommends new relationships for the People. Whitman argues—contra many sociological thinkers—on behalf of, and in so doing He recommends an organic (part-whole) view toward people of each and every conceivable class (species-genus). To borrow a contemporary term from biology, each entity is a “microbiome,” a hybrid of organicism and atomism that avoids the potential dangers of both worldviews taken singly. Whitman then applies his “microbiomic” treatment to the individual, thereby developing in full an original axiology, Personalism. Not a single, overarching morality, in this ethic each individual is a synecdochic representation for the nation (if not the universe), and the way he or she should approach any other is as the same. If “each and all” were taken as divine in their own right, our critical disagreements would surely defer to “comradeship,” “adhesiveness,” or love. Democratic Vistas teaches us that when Whitman thinks of himself as “universal,” as a “Kosmos,” “enfolding” all, he intends that each American eclectically do the same. He thus brings an entirely new meaning to the national motto: to paraphrase the framers of the nation, “from many diverse identities, One complete person.” From a sustained engagement with Whitman’s “corpus,” one emerges with: • An affirmative answer to the question, “Is there a philosophy of an idea as dynamic as democracy?” • An illustration of rhetoric—“an art of emphasis embodying an order of desire”—at the intersection of politics and literature, where conception implies creation. • A nuanced understanding of the pivotal term “the People”—as essentially synecdochic, capable of being intended and interpreted both atomistically (as a genus collective of species) and organically (as a whole composed of parts). The People, that is, can be assimilated and accommodated, embodying the Whitmanian ideals of romantic organicism and cultural pluralism. • A sustained treatment of the rhetorical work of synecdoche, heretofore overlooked in studies of metaphor and irony. • A strengthening of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, insofar as Whitman’s social reconstruction implies a new ontology and axiology and occurs in language (forms and terms). • The fundamental suggestion that one should know a structure (ontologically) to change that structure (axiologically). • A renewed understanding of democracy and democratic “citizenship,” where both are taken to be as much dispositional as institutional. • An alternative to “ideology critique”—namely, a circumferential critique in the spirit of “both-and” toward the inclusive end of the reconstruction of the many, not a polar critique in the spirit of “either-or” toward the exclusive end of the deconstruction of the (hegemonic) One. • A potential answer to the problem of the One and Many in an increasingly globalized world, particularly in the context of growing migration and increasing demands for minority rights. Fomenting the sense of belonging and social cohesion in diverse, sometimes fragmented societies remains an existential project of integration, inclusion, interrelation, and understanding, each of which Whitman takes to be communicative work.