Jane Addams and the Foundationalist Fallacy: Coming to Voice at Rockford Female Seminary

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Katherine Joslin

Second Advisor

Dr. Thomas Kent

Third Advisor

Dr. Jonathan Bush

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Wendy Sharer


Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams attended Rockford Female Seminary from 1877-1881. As a student writer at the seminary, Addams engaged in an ongoing four-year struggle over language and meaning, a modern manifestation of the ancient conflict between philosophy and rhetoric. This study weaves the history of Addams's conflict with Principal Anna Peck Sill, the conservative element, the priests of accumulated knowledge, and the “dogmatic minds” in control of the seminary. The foundationalists at the seminary viewed knowledge as based on eternal unchanging truths; while Addams, an antifoundationalist, viewed knowledge as created by communal inquiry. The agon or conflict between foundationalist and antifoundationalist thought recorded on the pages of Jane Addams's college essays, class notebooks, letters, and newspaper editorials manifested itself through various acts of rhetorical resistance, which are examined in this study.

I contend Addams not only developed critical sensibility by questioning authority at the seminary, but her sustained resistance to foundationalist thought created her interactive rather than instrumentalist orientation toward language from which her practical social ethics evolved. By engaging in the agon with absolutism at the seminary, she taught herself the interpretive skills she needed to use language, not as a tool or weapon, but as shared inquiry to create effect in the world. As a seminarian, she was expected to surrender her life to evangelicalism, and, “Let Him Have His Way With Thee;” Jane Addams decided, instead, to live Henley's Invictus .

This antifoundationalist reading of Addams with its focus on the construction of language and meaning connects Addams not with classical nineteenth or twentieth century pragmatism, but with neopragmatism. In her preference for dialogism over argument and her refusal to privilege any one discourse over another, Addams is a forerunner of contemporary thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and Lyotard who eschew foundationalist systems for open, fluid, exchanges. Unlike the pragmatists of her day who focused on experience, mind, and the scientific method, Addams was vitally interested in language.

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Jun 5 2017

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