Martin Luther King Jr — his philosophical background

“Peculiar Relations of Affectability”:

Peirce and Royce as resources for the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.

By Marcia Pally

for Telos Journal

special edition on Martin Luther King Jr.

Ken Johnson, editor


This article is about the philosophical and theological groundings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s thought rather than about his extraordinary activism and leadership. In that, it is a relatively boring piece, but I hope it will be of some interest to those curious about what might be called the background story. It begins with the pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce, both of whom held to a social theory of learning. Were they writing today, they might say “ideas have legs.” Instead, Peirce wrote, “Ideas tend to spread continuously and to affect certain others which stand to them in a peculiar relation of affectability.”[1]

Peirce, Royce, and King are a case in point as King’s philosophical and theological framework stood in a “peculiar relation of affectability” to Peirce and Royce’s “continuously spreading” pragmatic epistemology and understanding of the transcendent—their theological pragmatism. Below I’ll sketch out this affectability, in which Peirce and Royce were among the resources for both the Personalism movement that informed King’s thinking and for King himself. Said another way, Peirce and Royce, in writing about their social epistemologies were describing the processes through which their writings would reach King half a century later.

I’ll begin with Pierce and Royce’s epistemologies as a basis for their understanding of society and faith and will then reflect on their influence on Personalism and King. Though my focus is on the grounding for King’s thought, I’ll conclude with a short look at how pragmatist and Personalist influences distinguished his activism from several of his contemporaries.


Charles Sanders Peirce

Peirce was ill much of his life, irascible for more of it, and a non-conformist, divorcing and re-marrying when, among the well-bred of academia, this was not done. He never secured a university position unlike his younger pragmatist colleagues William James and John Dewey, which might be what gave him the time to publish twelve thousand pages and write some eighty thousand more—and to end his life in poverty in spite of starting the American pragmatist school with his 1878 essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.”

Rejecting Descartes’s idea of doubting all till one locates an indubitable idea from which other “clear” ideas” may be deduced, Peirce proposed that we don’t really have ideas. We have beliefs, habits of thinking about the way things occur that lead us to act in certain ways. “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.”[2] Against nominalism, idealism, and correspondence theories of truth, Peirce held that beliefs in aggregate, or knowledge, emerge from the human need to act in order to survive and flourish.

Peirce noted that we also err. Explaining his fallibility principle, he wrote, “The scientific spirit requires a man to be at all times ready to dump his whole cartload of beliefs, the moment experience is against them.”[3] But errors, he also held, show up eventually as the world–as best we detect and measure events–doesn’t act as our beliefs predict. This reliance on worldly evidence is Peirce’s bulwark against relativism. We retain not any beliefs but those that best account for the way the world behaves–until they no longer do (events that a belief cannot explain accumulate) or until a different belief better explains events.

Reasoned thinking on Peirce’s view thus begins with a hypothesis (“fed with facts of observation”[4]) about how things happen–“something which looks as if it might be true and which is capable of verification or refutation by comparison with facts.”[5] A hypothesis is followed by thinking through—deducing–what its consequences would be if people acted as if it were true.[6] And this is followed by empirically testing the actual consequences as best we can measure them. One either confirms the hypothesis into a belief on which one is willing to act, rejects it, or adjusts it till it “fits” events.

Peirce, who never met a neologism he didn’t like, called this process abduction (or retroduction), deduction, and induction—his triadic thought structure. He called “pragmatism” the method of understanding what beliefs mean through the actions one takes on account of believing them. If we knew and could test all the possible outcomes of a belief—all things (and their consequences) that people would do if they believed X–we would know X’s complete meaning. “If one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept.”[7] As we can’t know all possible outcomes, our knowledge is limited and asymptotic.

Even so, knowledge, to account for anything, is not only a single hypothesis confirmed by empirical testing but the interaction among beliefs. In another triptych of “quality, relation, and representation,” Peirce explains that we have beliefs not only about a single thing—the “quality” of “particular suchness”–but also about everything in its context and all the interactions that makes it occur as it does, its “relation.” Each belief serves as a “premiss,” which in combination with new experience, leads to the next hypothesis in a process called “inference.” This too is inductively tested and may yield a “conclusion.” The thinking process by which each belief leads to the next is “the leading principle.” As beliefs and experience yield increasingly complex beliefs, we integrate them and their relations into patterns and abstractions that account for a bit more of reality’s general procedures. These “laws” or “generalizations” are “representative,” as any predictive law/belief represents something of world to ourselves and others. In short, contra Kant, Peirce held that laws/generalizations are not projections of our mental categories but exist in world. The human mind apprehends such laws by repeated observation, hypothesis testing, and belief integration.

This is not done alone. Our knowledge develops as a social effort, “Man’s glassy existence.” In his doctrine of Critical Common Sense-ism, Peirce recognized that not all our beliefs run through the hypothesis-testing process; some we believe “acritically” from acculturation and historically contingent experience. “There is but one state of mind from which you can ‘set out,’ namely, the very state of mind in which you actually find yourself at the time you do ‘set out.’” [8] While this acritical state of mind may play a role in hypothesis-making, it too is subject to testing.

These various (hopefully tested) perspectives, like any hypothesis, serve as “premisses” for other hypotheses, which, in complement and contrast, further knowledge and reciprocally correct error. Against the empiricist tradition, in which an idea is a one-off event of sense-impression and interpretation, Peirce held to the mutual reference among beliefs that forms networks of knowledge among persons. The symbolic, dialogic nature of the mind makes this cumulative, interactive process possible.

So completely was Peirce convinced of this social process that “individuals,” he held, are not separate selves. The continuity among phenomena and beliefs is what Peirce called synechism (in a triptych with tychism and agapism). All beliefs and phenomena, including persons, are along a continuity of the same nature, differing in degree of physicality and spirituality. What is seen as interacting with other things is termed matter; what is experienced internally as the movement of feeling or energy is termed mind. Each person is differently embodied, but we understand self and world through interaction with matter and the minds of others, from whom we are “distinct” but not “separate.” [9] Our distinct but not separate selves inform each other, and so the human effort to know continues dialogically to grasp more of the structure (or harmony) of world.

As the continuity of existence is not determined but tychistic, open to change, what makes banal change into productive growth is agape, the moral commitment to other persons and to the work done towards increasing “reasonableness”—hypothesizing, testing, and integration of knowledge into patterns that account for world. Morality and hypothesis thinking may seem rather different, and Peirce himself held that morality should be guided by traditional “sentiments” (fairness, benevolence, etc.), by the “beautiful,” what is admirable in itself (loving one’s neighbor), our highest ideals, and self-criticism, including the question of whether practice conforms to ideals. Yet he also held that “reasonable” science and morality bear similarities and are subject to reciprocal influence. Good morals and good reasoning are both a matter of better control. “For reasoning is essentially thought that is under self-control, just as moral conduct is conduct under self-control.”[10] Moreover, one tests both hypotheses and morals by their effects in world (even if one initially believes moral codes “acritically”) and one subjects both to self-criticism, requiring openness to new phenomena, beliefs, and laws/generalizations. To be self-critical is to overcome fear and a priori rejection of the new or different.

In sum, especially in the mature Peirce, reasoning/science does not prevail alone. Peirce, Donald Gelpi notes, “made logic serve aesthetic insight and responsible moral living.”[11] Aesthetics sets out aims, ethics orients actions towards such aims, and logic teaches one to think clearly so that one can pursue aesthetics and ethics. The application of logic/reason to concrete moral conduct is “concrete reasonableness,” and agape is the moral commitment to such reasonableness. Both advance dialogically, and thus persons develop in distinction but not separation from this larger dialogic effort, indeed, in interaction with it.

In his mature essay, “The Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” Peirce argues that, given the human experience of the transcendent, God’s existence is a hypothesis whose consequences to moral living must be deduced and then inductively tested by living out the moral life. Jesus’ teachings and our beliefs about God’s relation to world are understood when we understand the consequences that flow from them. Just as we test our hypotheses about nature’s laws that we cannot see so we may test our notions of God, who goes equally unseen. “The discoveries of science, their enabling us to predict what will be the course of nature, is proof conclusive that, though we cannot think any thought of God’s, we can catch a fragment of His Thought, as it were.”[12]

This too is not done alone, consistent with Peirce’s continuum ontology and social epistemology. On one hand, along with Emerson, Peirce acknowledged the intuitive, non-rational aspects of hypothesis formation, including hypotheses about the divine.[13] On the other, against James’s description of faith as the a-rational “will to believe,” Peirce subjected all intuition to testing as he had subjected all (fallible) hypotheses. Just as the work of many minds helps to avoid and correct error in science so it does in matters of faith. This was Peirce’s hope for religion: through the shared, reasoned inquiry of many believers, the sectarianism and “superstitions” of churches could be overcome to form a universal church.

Peirce did not think humanity was doing very well in thinking about God or society. He saw Darwinism as tychistic–chance-driven. This, Peirce held, can explain only where “we find men’s thought taking by imperceptible degrees a turn contrary to the purposes which animate them, in spite of their highest impulses, there, we may safely conclude, there has been a tychastic action.”[14] But small, random change contrary to the species’ purposes is not, Peirce held, how evolution proceeds. Worse was social Darwinism’s congruence with a “philosophy of greed.”

Political economy has its formula of redemption, too. It is this: Intelligence in the service of greed ensures the justest prices, the fairest contracts, tracts, the most enlightened conduct of all the dealings between men, and leads to the summum bonum, food in plenty and perfect comfort. Food for whom? Why for the greedy master of intelligence.[15]

Building on his continuum ontology, dialogic epistemology, and the Johannine theology of God as love, Peirce sallied back,

The gospel of Christ says that progress comes from every individual merging his individuality in sympathy with his neighbors. On the other side, the conviction of the nineteenth century is that progress takes place by virtue of every individual’s striving for himself with all his might and trampling his neighbor under foot whenever he gets a chance to do so. This may accurately be called the Gospel of Greed.[16]


Josiah Royce

Royce had an on-off relationship with Peirce, who, on reading Royce’s The World and the Individual, told the younger scholar to study logic because “you need it so much.”[17] The result was a study of Peirce that accented Royce’s work for the rest of his life, notably in his social epistemology and in the importance of community and faith. I’ll start, as with Peirce, with a sketch of Royce’s epistemology as a ground for his work on community and religion.

Peirce had held that beliefs are habits of thought on which one is willing to act. For Royce, ideas too involve proposed action, “at least the partial expression of a single conscious purpose.”[18] Purposes absent plans are longings, and we have many of these. But once plans begin to form, we have an idea. Ideas are plans for a purpose. The purpose is the idea’s “internal meaning”; “external meanings” are those not referring to the plan itself. In Royce’s example, when people count boats on the water, fulfillment of the purpose to count is the internal meaning of the idea while the boats are the external meaning. A complete understanding of the internal meaning/purpose encompasses all the external meanings. While Peirce and Royce’s epistemologies differ, it’s worth noting two parallels: between Peirce’s goal-directed hypotheses and Royce’s internal purposes, and between Peirce’s testing against external outcomes and Royce’s external meanings.

These parallels can be understood in light of what Royce called his “Peircean insight” that thought is triadic: experience-fed hypotheses, their elaboration by deduction, and testing, all informed by the thoughts of others. Royce, like Peirce, rejected what he saw as the binary epistemologies of William James and Henri Bergson, in which thought is a toggling between concrete perceptions and subjective interpretation. This, Royce held, cannot account for the dialogic nature of thinking or the purposes of symbols/language. Dyadic models may allow us to internally validate internal concepts, but this is not very useful. Triadic notions allow us to exchange (tested) ideas and so for their combination, modification, and reciprocal correction. In the process, ideas move from vagueness to clarity, bringing their meaning into fuller existence, much as an artist brings her plan into existence as she creates her work of art. “What is, or what is real, is as such the complete embodiment, in individual form and in final fulfillment, of the internal meaning of finite ideas.”[19]

As with Peirce’s claim that we integrate beliefs into (real) generalizations, no idea on Royce’s view is solo but is embedded in patterns set in an “absolute system of ideas.” The internal meaning of one idea implies the entire system of plans and purposes. Existence, being itself, is “to express or embody the complete internal meaning of an absolute system of ideas, a system which is genuinely implied in the true internal meaning or purpose of every finite idea, however fragmentary.”[20] The most foundational logical relationship is thus inclusion or the “epsilon relation”:

the universe is a community of interpretation whose life comprises and unifies all the social varieties and all the social communities which, for any reason, we know to be real in the empirical world which our social and historical sciences study. The history of the universe, the whole order of time, is the history and the order and the expression of this Universal Community.[21]

Moreover, there is on Royce’s view an Absolute, in which all particulars in world are enfolded (metaphorically speaking) and which “knows” the meanings of all ideas and their inter-relations. Peircean fallibility, Royce continued, is itself an argument for such an Absolute, for if we judge an idea false, there must be a standard for determining truth even if we approach it only asymptotically. The unity of ideas in an “absolute system” Royce called “the unity of the spirit”:

all finite consciousness, just as it is in us, ignorance, striving, defeat, error, temporality, narrowness, is all present from the Absolute point of view, but is also seen in unity with the solution of the problem, the attainment of the goals, the overcoming of defeats, the correction of errors, the final wholeness of the temporal process, the supplementing of all narrowness.[22]

Though no finite mind can grasp such unity, we are aware of it[23] and strive towards it, as Peirce had said, by testing our religious ideas as we test scientific ones. Religious insights, like any idea, have observable data, intuition, purposes, plans, and reasoning, which must be tested for their effects. This requires seeing the wide range of things, not only particular ideas but generalizations and their inter-connectedness. Roycean idea-testing—including ideas about the Absolute–is “the power to see widely, steadily, and connectedly.”[24] As Peirce’s dialogic belief- integration enables us to grasp more the cosmos’s harmony, Royce’s dialogic idea-testing brings the structure of our thinking closer to the structure of reality.

Recognizing both the finite individual who develops ideas step-by-step and the Absolute, Royce held that each person becomes who she is as a singular expression of the divine unity. Here he recalls Peirce’s notion that persons are differently embodied yet on a continuum of matter and spirit. Persons are not, as Royce thought Hume believed, bundles of disconnected perceptions; neither are we “really” our incorporeal souls. Each is an embodied self with distinct memories, ideas, and awareness of a higher consciousness that moves each person to know more. On one hand, we are social creatures and could not develop ideas absent the values and aims that our contexts bequeath us. On the other, as the higher consciousness itself is unique, each of us reflects that singularity and is unique in relation to others and to the Absolute. Richard Mullin persuasively explains, on Royce’s view, “We all share a common life and derive everything from other lives except our uniqueness. Our uniqueness consists in taking an interest in our interdependence and in our place as part of the whole, and responding to it by our deeds.”[25]

Acting on our interdependence each in her singular way is what Royce called loyalty. Consistent with his notion of ideas as plans towards purpose, Royce held that, though we inherit genetic and cultural influences, we become ourselves by developing purposes and working towards them, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion to a cause.” He continues, “Loyalty is the will to believe in something eternal and to express that belief in the practical life of a human being.” [26] Recognizing our interdependence requires, however, that we do so in respect of other people’s purposes and of the whole of society–indeed, beyond one’s own society to the ideas of other nations and the human community. Given human fallibility and self-interest, life may be conflictual, yet moral reasoning must always be dialogic, accounting for the purposes, loyalties, and moral reasoning of others. It is loyalty to the loyalties of others that secures social living.

Royce’s summum bonum is the movement towards the eternal unity/Absolute, which is the fulfillment of all ideas that provide for individual and community flourishing. Charges against the existence of a unity/Absolute are self-defeating, he held, as they are themselves declarations about the absolute condition.[27] Contra James’s claim of a gap between quotidian thought and the religious experience of the Absolute, Royce saw continuities. He understood religious insight not only as individual experience but also communal, not only in the privacy of the mystical or subconscious but express-able in ordinary speech and replete with worldly experiences. The social nature of religious experience helps (fallible) persons move towards the unity/Absolute as each alone understands the range of human thought only partially and self-interestedly–and grasps the unity/Absolute even more dimly. Social experience gains us the benefit of other perspectives.[28]

Yet the social too is flawed by group-interests. To overcome these, Royce returned to his idea of loyalty—and of forgiving others when they are disloyal to you. Such forgiveness and loyalty to the loyalties of others enables humanity to move towards the spiritual unity of all. This unity, on one hand, is seen in the visible church, in the Pauline writings,[29] and in the shared observance of the crucifixion and resurrection as they inspire hope for the love and unity of all humankind.[30] On the other, Royce’s vision of unity goes beyond the church to all who strive for loyalty towards each other and towards ideas that promote individual development and the flourishing of the human community.

Ultimately however, owing to human finitude and fallibility, loyalty is insufficient to move towards this “Cause of Causes.” One need recognize the need of salvation, of help in understanding the unity of all in world. Such help lies in that unity itself, of which we are aware and which sustains reasonableness (hypothesis-testing, dialogic belief integration) and loyalty in actions towards each other. “No truth is a saving truth–yes, no truth is a truth at all unless it guides and directs life.”[31] This unity/Absolute that guides us to itself is Royce’s Grace.

Royce, like Peirce, did not think humanity was doing very well. The world “is a chaos of needs; and the whole of the social order groans and travails together in pain until now, longing for salvation.” It,

can be saved, as the individual can be saved, only in case there is some way that leads upward, through all our turmoil and our social bickerings, to a realm where that vision of unity and self-possession which our clearest moments bring us becomes not merely vision but fulfillment, where love finds its own, and where the power of the spirit triumphs.[32]


Theological pragmatism as a resource for Personalism and King

Martin Luther King Jr. could have written these words and did write words with similar emphasis on the inter-connectedness of persons, each a unique expression of an ungraspable unity. This understanding of the cosmos and being shaped his thought and activism throughout his career. “In a real sense,” he wrote,

all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”[33]

The influences on King were many–Kant, Hegel, Social Gospel leader Walter Rauschenbusch, Sartre, Niebuhr, and the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren, all of whom King admired and critiqued. He followed Mahatma Gandhi in his strategy of non-violence but relied, as John Ansbro notes, most of all on George Davis (Crozer Theological Seminary, King’s first dissertation advisor) and the Boston Personalists Edgar Brightman and “especially L. Harold DeWolf for his conception of agape.[34] DeWolf included Royce (as he built on Peirce) in his course materials at Boston University School of Theology. He taught King in six courses, supervised King’s dissertation to completion, and after a lifelong friendship, gave the eulogy at Kings’ funeral.

In Stride Towards Freedom,[35] King positioned himself in the Personalist tradition of Brightman and DeWolf, from which he developed foundational principles: the nature of human reason, the imago and value of each person, the sin of violating any person and thus of racism, his ontology of inter-relatedness, and agape. For each, I will highlight where the theological pragmatism at Harvard served as a resource for the Personalism across the river at Boston Theology and how pragmatism/Personalism were resources for King. Though my focus is on the background of King’s thought, my last section briefly looks at their influence on King’s activism.

Following the pragmatist distinction between “acritical” morals or social embeddedness and “reasoned” hypothesis-testing, Brightman held that thought is the continual testing and refining of societal definitions and principles against the standards of reasoned morality and worldly outcomes. His Law of Consequences reads, “All persons ought to consider and, on the whole, approve the foreseeable consequences of each of their choices.”[36] Brightman’s “foresee” draws especially on Peirce’s deduction and then hypothesis-testing to determine whether one “approves” of an idea or holds it to be true. Moreover, Brightman continued in his Law of the Best Possible, one should not only foresee outcomes but improve them, much as the pragmatists thought people do as they compare results of their hypothesis-testing to better their hypotheses. For these pragmatists and Personalists, should a belief, idea, definition, or principle yield poor outcomes in world, it must be improved or abandoned.

Like Peirce, Brightman held that both reason and morality were matters of increasing control and self-criticism (Brightman’s Law of Ideal Control[37]). As with Peirce and Royce, he understood this control as the integration of beliefs, ideas, and values into patterns that account for more of the larger system of nature and value. His Law of the Most Inclusive End[38] hopes, as Peirce and Royce had hoped, that persons use reason to strive towards the greatest understanding of the larger unity or Mind–to live by the most thorough understanding of nature and the highest system of value.

DeWolf agreed, beginning with the idea of belief-integration: the “various kinds and patterns of process are the very being of reality.”[39] From the patterns of logic and math, DeWolf, like the pragmatists, came to the existence of a higher system or Mind that eternally encompasses such patterns. Logical laws, he noted, are unchanging and always there; we discover, not create, them. Their eternal, discoverable existence is embedded (metaphorically) in such a higher system or Mind. Moreover, while the consequences of logical laws are physically represented, the laws themselves are not and yet they are thinkable. “They must then be timelessly thought in a Mind not human, but a Mind after which human thought at its best is patterned.”[40] This, DeWolf held, explains at least how they are discovered by human reason.

Though he held to a divine Mind, DeWolf had no difficulty with evolution, noting only that the laws of natural selection cannot explain their own existence. “The acute problem is not survival but of origin,”[41] which, he held, resides in the very Mind that grounds existence. DeWolf reprised Peirce’s argument against chance as evolution’s sole mechanism, noting that the incremental, arbitrary changes that a chance-process would yield are a too-simple view of the process as Darwin described it.

King built on these ideas in rejecting the platonic view of the transcendent as actus purus, preferring instead a Roycean, DeWolfian God, “a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality.”[42] With Pierce and Royce (and Aquinas), King held that persons are varied in experience, ideas, and purposes and limited in their grasp of the transcendent, which is a unity and unlimited. Thus, humanity need submit its varied, fallible ideas and social mores such as segregation to reality’s “ground and essence,” a God that “placed certain immutable moral principles” like love and reciprocity “within the very structure of the universe.[43] (emphasis mine) Thus, “an unjust law,” King defined, “is a human law that is not rooted in this eternal law and natural law.”[44]

Sounding much like the two pragmatists, King concluded that humanity, because it is finite and fallible, is endowed with reason to test ideas, conventions, and even law against such eternals.[45] Reason “rightly used remains the prize gift of man.”[46] He appreciated the Niebuhrian critique of reason as limited in overcoming self-interest and he was wary of liberal Christianity’s optimism about humanity’s post-lapsarian capacity for reasonableness and goodness. Yet with the pragmatists and Personalists, King maintained faith in reason’s capacity to grasp something of nature’s laws and their transcendent ground–and beyond that, to guide persons to reciprocal regard in their actions towards each other.

This pragmatist/Personalist view of reason was a first building block in King’s charge against racism and oppression. We are, he held, obligated to test these against their outcomes and against the cosmos’s moral system. And we are justified in condemning failures to do so.

Were we to fulfill this obligation, we would note the violation of King’s next building block: the imago. Each person is in the “image of God,” or as Peirce and Royce put it, is a distinct, embodied expression of the continuum of matter and spirit (Peirce) or a singular expression of the whole/unity or larger divine purpose (Royce). Thus, loyalty to one’s vision (Royce) cannot violate the vision of another. Only in this way can persons with their varied purposes and historical circumstances move towards the spiritual unity of all.

On this pragmatist ground, the Personalists and King further developed the imago. Like the pragmatists, DeWolf recognized humanity’s failures but also its goodness,[47] noting that all humanity—an essential point for King–retains a spiritual nature, makes moral distinctions despite fallibility, strives for the Good, and is part of our ultimate spiritual unity. Moreover, DeWolf didn’t see the logic of castigating humanity yet praising God, in whose image humanity is made.

Contra Nygren’s pessimism about post-lapsarian goodness, King, with the pragmatists and DeWolf, saw something of the transcendent in each person. The imago was thus the ne plus ultra in King’s non-violent fight against racism. As all persons are in God’s image and part of God’s purpose, none can be violated or their visions be diminished. In 1965 he wrote,

Our Judeo-Christian tradition refers to this inherent dignity of man in the biblical term the image of God. The innate worth referred to in the phrase, the image of God, is universally shared in equal portions by all men… Every human being has etched in his personality the indelible stamp of the creator… An individual has value because he has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, “Whiteness” and “Blackness” pass away as determinants in a relationship, and “Son” and “Brother” are substituted.”

Consistent with pragmatist/Personalist universalism, King’s imago reached not only to racism’s victims but to its perpetrators, who too are “etched with the indelible stamp of the creator.” “Hate distorts the personality of the hater”; it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates.” His early (1957) understanding of hatred continued to inform two linchpin political positions, coalition-building with whites and rejection of black separatism:

the person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him… No matter what he does, you see God’s image there.[48]

On the pragmatist/Personalist view—contra faith traditions focusing on individual salvation–the imago is not a hermetic but a social situation. It is not each person alone in God’s image but each in God’s image inter-linked with others. While Peirce had held that individuals are not separate selves, Royce and the Personalists less dramatically agreed that each person’s ideas and beliefs contribute to networks of knowledge and purposes among persons. The human effort to understand nature’s laws and larger system of value is a matter of shared (fallible) ideas that cross-influence and reciprocally correct. Survival and flourishing are thus dialogic, a matter of persons-in-communities—or as George Davis held, “God intends human life to achieve solidarity.”[49] DeWolf concurred in his Law of Cooperation, “All persons ought as far as possible to co-operate with other persons in the production and enjoyment of shared values.”[50] In Brightman’s similar iteration, “Co-operation differs from other forms of interaction in that it is interaction consciously directed at the production of values (often of shared values) which contribute to the welfare…of the cooperators.”[51]

As we’ve seen, these Personalist principles of solidarity and cooperation were for King the “inter-related structure of reality.” Humanity, in the image of this grounding structure, has the moral capacity and reason to create such community, “a brotherhood in which all individuals may preserve their dignity, realize their rational potential, and fulfill their destiny.”[52] King later referred to this as the “beloved community.” If such a community cannot be fully realized, DeWolf noted, it is nonetheless normative, a standard against which we may measure institutions, law, and practice.

This particular nexus of reason, imago, persons-in-community and in ultimate spiritual unity was the pragmatist/Personalist stamp. It undergirded, along with other resources, King’s understanding of agape, which guided his activism and to which he returned and wrote about throughout his life. If the imago-in-community is the structure of reality and ground for prohibiting any person’s diminishment and if reason may grasp something of this ground, agape is its method of fulfillment. It is how we see to the imago, the worth of each, and advance her flourishing. Peirce had said that agape commits us to “concrete reasonableness” as a guide to moral action towards others. Royce had spoken of loyalty to the visions of others, without which neither societal living nor a grasp of the higher unity is possible. In DeWolf’s iteration, without the “uniting principle of love,” no grasp of God’s Kingdom is possible.[53] “All persons,” he continued, “ought to devote themselves to serving the best interests of the group and to subordinate personal gain to social gain.”[54]

Drawing on these, King identified agape as the foundation for racial reconciliation and the restoration of justice. Indeed, it is how societies come to be just. It is,

love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.[55]

In his 1964 Nobel Prize lecture, he reprised, “all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace… man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love”.[56]

Agape for King has two aspects. On one hand, contra Nygren’s wariness of self-love as always selfish, the Personalists and King saw a role for proper respect of one’s own sacredness as one honors the sacredness of others. Here one finds echoes of the Royce-ian “idea” as each person’s purpose, to which she is loyal. Present too is Royce’s understanding that, as the higher unity is unique, each person reflects this singularity in the uniqueness of her personality and worth. Brightman too argued for a proper self-respect in his Law of Individualism,[57] without which, he held, each would be unable to guide her own life.

On the other, the Personalists and King agreed, agape also entails the capacity to place others before self. Brightman did not locate this Law of Altruism[58] in conflict with the Law of Individualism but in accommodation to it. The Law of Altruism requires that we support others in developing their individual selves much as Royce’s loyalty requires loyalty to the plans/purposes of others. King in turn developed his principles of “creative altruism,” illustrated through the parable of the Samaritan who endangered himself to help another. Tweaking the story for the twentieth century, King wrote, “He is neither Jew nor Gentile; he is neither Russian nor American; he is neither Negro nor white. He is ‘a certain man’—any needy man—on one of the numerous Jericho roads of life”[59] to whom we must give of ourselves.


Some effects in activism:

The notion of agape-unto-self-endangerment allowed King and his followers to sustain faith in justice and persist through the heckles, violence, and imprisonments of the civil right struggle. It allowed perseverance in the 1966 March Against Fear even after James Meredith was shot and it inspired DeWolf to continue serving as mediator in St. Augustine in spite of threats upon his life. It was King’s specific collective, non-violent form of protest grounded in reason and imago-in-community–his understanding that, as inter-connected, we can solve problems only inter-connectedly.

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality…. In the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life interrelated. … white men often refuse federal aid to education in order to avoid giving the Negro his rights; but because all men are brothers they cannot deny Negro children without harming their own…. If you harm me, you harm yourself.”[60]

Though this piece focuses on the background of King’s thought, I’ll briefly look at the pragmatist/Personalist influence on his activism, notably nonviolence, rejection of separatism, and his linking of the civil rights movement to other instances of imago-in-community such as our economic arrangements and opposition to the war in Vietnam. These inter-connections were for King the big picture though they ran against the advice of friends and cost him supporters. As Peirce had noted, we are distinct but not separate. For Royce, loyalty is precisely acting on our inter-dependence. In King’s iteration, “if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light.”[61]

In embracing nonviolence, King’s preparedness for Gandhi began with the pragmatist/Personalist stamp: imago, the ontology of inter-relatedness, and the ultimate spiritual unity of persons. Following the imago, violence against another is violence against the transcendent. Following inter-relatedness, violence wounds our capacity to address our inter-connected problems and draw closer to ultimate oneness. Royce’s vision of inter-relatedness had included forgiving others when they fail in their loyalty, an act of agape without which humanity cannot move towards spiritual unity. King similarly held that aggression must be forgiven and not allowed to trigger a cycle of violence as that would foreclose on the spiritual oneness and brotherhood of all persons.

As with the pragmatists, this ultimate unity is not a secondary consequence of ontology but the structure of existence. King could not endorse Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, or the Black Power movement for all that he saw their efforts to foster black agency and pride. The violent resistance they proposed abrogated what King understood not only as ethics but as the foundation of being.

For similar reasons, King rejected the separatist strains of his movement. His ontology of inter-relatedness and beloved community was universalist, of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. As separatism’s popularity increased in the late 1960s, King was charged with being “bourgeois,” a man whose movement had moved beyond him. Yet he maintained that injustice is color blind and “spoke out sharply,” Coretta Scott King wrote, “for all the poor in all their hues, for he knew if color made them different, misery and oppression made them the same.”[62]

King went beyond the recognition of white victims. Building on pragmatism’s social epistemology, he believed his community would be impoverished by the exclusion of whites and non-Christians. In 1967 he wrote, “While Negro initiative, courage, and imagination precipitated the Birmingham and Selma confrontations and revealed the harrowing injustice of segregated life, the organized strength of Negroes alone would have been insufficient to move Congress and the administration without the weight of the aroused conscience of white America.”[63] This was no mere strategy. King’s friendships and alliances with whites are much written about (see Dorrien, this volume). Whites were always on staff in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In distinction from the separatist and black power movements, he believed that whites and even enemies–made in God’s image and of humanity’s spiritual unity–would be persuaded by agape.

As the ‘60s progressed, King’s stands on inclusiveness and non-violence cost him among younger blacks and made him vulnerable to the charge—in the movement and media—of “irrelevance.” Yet he held to both positions, “occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. That is what I have found in nonviolence.”[64] Agape and nonviolence do “not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding… the end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of creative non-violence is the creation of the beloved community”[65] inclusive of all races.

Against Niebuhr, King continued, “True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”[66] Again this love was, for King as for the pragmatists and DeWolf, not a derivative ethics but the structure of the world as agapic imago-in-community. When his home in Montgomery was bombed, King told the crowd bent on revenge: “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.… We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us. … We must meet hate with love.”[67] Even after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four children, King insisted,

we must not despair. We must not become bitter nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.[68]

Consistent with his ontology of inter-connectedness and faith in agape, King increasingly linked civil rights to other justice struggles. He understood that black slavery had underpinned the abuse of white workers, whose conditions and wages were depressed as they competed against slave labor and later, against blacks paid even more poorly than whites. “I recognized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro. Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice on our society.”[69] In 1963, he organized the Jobs and Freedom March on Washington, where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, an explicit linkage between civil rights and economic opportunity. Through the decade, he increasingly saw the American challenge as one of economic justice and suggested that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference turn its focus to poverty. He proposed the movement’s name be changed to The Poor People’s Movement and endorsed John Kenneth Galbraith’s idea of a $4000 guaranteed annual income. In 1968, over the objections of Jesse Jackson and others on his staff who saw the links to economics as strategically unwise, King began organizing the Poor People’s March on Washington. After King’s assassination, Ralph Abernathy saw the project to fruition; it became one of the era’s most far-sighted moments of protest.

King linked civil rights movement also to anti-colonial efforts, imagining that American blacks could serve as a bridge between majority-white America and emerging non-white nations. Yet his idea that the Vietnam war was a colonial war by extension and that America should end its involvement met with sustained opposition. The reasons for his anti-war stance were pragmatist/Personalist: the sanctity of each person including one’s enemy; the failure of both reason and imago-in-community in opposing the mistreatment of American blacks but not the Vietnamese; the illogic of using funds to kill rather than improve life conditions; and the mission, echoing Royce, to bring all persons to a unity of spirit. “I have always insisted,” King wrote, “on justice for all the world over, because justice is indivisible, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”[70]

DeWolf and Coretta Scott King supported King’s call for a ceasefire and negotiations with the North Vietnamese. In 1965, King co-founded the inter-faith Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) with Union Theological Seminary president John C. Bennett, Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, Yale’s William Sloane Coffin Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary—among the more prominent acts of King’s racial and religious inclusiveness. But King’s longtime allies Bayard Ruston and Stanley Levison feared an anti-war stance would vitiate support for civil rights from the labor movement, Lyndon Johnson, and other powerful Democrats. King’s 1967 CALCAV speech at New York’s Riverside Church against “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” triggered outcries from NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche, labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and media including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Life magazine. King was accused of having communist advisers.

For the public, the speech was one of the era’s most inspiring calls for a politics of inter-connectedness. King brought into mainstream discourse and activism the idea that, as we are imago-in-community, systems of harm—racism, poverty, colonialism—are inter-linked and violate all even as agape and beloved community redeem.


For King, the use of violence and failure to see the inter-connectedness of persons were not only poor tactics but worked against the structure of the cosmos. This structure was not, as James and Kierkegaard had posited, glimpsed in a moment of extraordinary, mystical experience but evident from quotidian life and reasoned thinking. With Royce and DeWolf, King held that belief in our inter-relatedness and in the eventual realization of God’s “immutable moral principles” was neither an extra-rational moment nor a “leap of faith” but woven into the daily experience of millions. It was certainly for King.


Professor Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and is a regular guest professor in the Theology Faculty at Humboldt University-Berlin. Her latest book is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.

[1] Charles Sander Peirce, The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 8 vols., Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 6: 104.

[2] Peirce, Works of Charles Sanders Peirce, The Perfect Library, Kindle Locations 518-520, 526-527.

[3] Charles Sanders Peirce, Philosophical Writings of Peirce, Justus Buchler, ed., New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications, pp. 46-47.

[4] Peirce, Works, Kindle Location 441.

[5] Peirce, Philosophical Writings, p. 54.

[6] Pierce, Works, Kindle Locations 201-206.

[7] Peirce, Philosophical Writings, p. 252.

[8] Peirce, Philosophical Writings, p. 256

[9] Peirce, Collected Papers, 5:402.

[10] Peirce, Collected Papers, 1.606.

[11] Donald Gelpi, Varieties of Transcendental Experience, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 270.

[12] Peirce, Philosophical Writings, p. 376, 377-378.

[13] Peirce, Philosophical Writings, p. 377.

[14] Peirce, Philosophical Writings, p. 368.

[15] Peirce, Collected Papers, 6.290.

[16] Peirce, Collected Papers, 6.293, 294.

[17] Josiah Royce, Selected Writings, John Smith and William Kluback (Eds.), New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 282.

[18] Josiah Royce, The World and the Individual, Gouchester, MA: Peter Smith, 1976, I, 22-23.

[19] Royce, The World and the Individual, I, 339.

[20] Royce, The World and the Individual, I, 36.

[21] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, ed. Jesse Mann, 2 vols. Chicago, IL: Regnery Press, 1968, 2:272-273

[22] Royce, The World and the Individual, II, 302.

[23] Josiah Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight, New York, NY: Charles Scribners Sons, 1912, p. 271.

[24] Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight, p. 87.

[25] Richard P. Mullin. The Soul of Classical American Philosophy: The Ethical and Spiritual Insights of William James, Josiah Royce, and Charles Sanders Peirce, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007, Kindle Locations 1241-1242.

[26] Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995, p. 9, 166.

[27] Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight, p. 114

[28] Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight, p. 55.

[29] Royce, The Problem of Christianity, 1:49-106, 195-196.

[30] Royce, The Problem of Christianity, 2: 37-72.

[31] Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight, p.144.

[32] Royce, The Sources of Religious Insight, p. 75.

[33] Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail, in Why We can’t Wait, ed. Martin Luther King, Jr., New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 77-100; see,

[34] John Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986, p. 10.

[35] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story, New York, NY: Harper & Brow, 1958, p. 101.

[36] Edgar Brightman, Moral Laws, New York, NY: Abington Press, 1933, p.142..

[37] Brightman, Moral Laws, p. 194.

[38] Brightman, Moral Laws, p. 183.

[39] L. Harold DeWolf, “A Personalistic Re-examination of the Mind-Body Problem,” The Personalist 34 (Winger 1953): 21.

[40]  DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, revised ed. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953/1969, p. 48.

[41] DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, p. 51.

[42] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Radical King, ed. Cornell West, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015, p. 41.

[43] Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr .p. 50.

[44] Martin Luther King., Jr., Why We Can’t Wait, p. 85.

[45] Indeed, King’s critique of communism was that it lacked these, “no absolute moral order; there are no fixed immutable principles” and so it ended in ethical relativism, able to justify any abuse, see Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Towards Freedom, Boston, MA: Beacon, 1958/reprint 1986, p. 79.

[46] Martin Luther King, Jr., “How Modern Christians Should Think of Man,” King Collection, Special Collections Division, Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University, XVI, no. 3, p. 4

[47] L. Harold DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, p. 202.

[48] Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November 1957,

[49] George Davis, “God and History,” The Crozer Quarterly 20, no. 1, January, 1943, p. 31.

[50] L. Harold DeWolf, Class notes, cited in Walter Muelder, Moral Law in Christian Social Ethics, Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966, p. 53.

[51] Edgar Brightman,  “The Best Possible World,” The Journal of Bible and Religion, February, 1943, p. 14.

[52] John Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr: Nonviolent Strategies and Tactics for Social Change, New York, N.Y.: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 17.

[53] DeWolf, “A Theology of the Living Church,” p. 299.

[54] DeWolf’s Law of Social Devotion, quoted in Walter Muelder, Moral Law in Christian Social Ethics, p. 53.

[55] Martin Luther King, Jr., Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,

[56] Martin Luther king Jr., Nobel Lecture, Dec. 11, 1964, Oslo, Norway: Oslo University,

[57] Brightman, Moral Laws, p. 204.

[58] Brightman, Moral Laws, p. 223.

[59] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 17.

[60] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride, Beacon, p. 94-95.

[61] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride, Beacon, p. 91.

[61] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride, Beacon, p. 91.

[62] Coretta Scott King, Introduction, in, Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

[63] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, p. 51.

[64] Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: p. 66.

[65] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride, Beacon, p.90-91.

[66] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride, Beacon, p.86.

[67] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride, Harper & Row, p.137-138

[68] Martin Luther King Jr., Eulogy For The Young Victims Of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing,
September 18, 1963,

[69] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride, Beacon, p. 78.

[70] “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Comments on NAACP Resolution,” April 12, 1967, in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. John C. Bennett, Dr. Henry Steele Commager, Rabbi Abraham Heschel Speak on the War in Vietnam, New York, N.Y.: Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, 1967, p. 28.

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Marcia Pally

Professor Marcia Pally

Professor Marcia Pally

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