Why PubClassroom?

Why Pub Classroom?

Dreaming in Translation

Academics harbor a lot of learning. But all that knowledge and insight often remains unused in the public. In an odd parallel with the old story about Las Vegas, what’s learned in colleges and universities often stays there. Part of the reason for this is that citizens outside academia are too busy with their own work to follow scholarly publications or attend college classes; and many don’t have the time or money for academic training, or even notice why anyone needs this kind of work.

But another reason for this disconnect of “town and gown” is that academics often speak with more intricacy and complexity than most people have patience for—and sometime analyze with more elaboration than is immediately necessary for the understanding how to steer through key issues and problems. Using academic learning for understanding direction would actually be helpful to the average person. True confessions: I live the professor type, ready to elaborate in detail; I thank my children for warning me about too much “complexifying.”

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The Uses of History

Two Cheers for Pragmatic Democracy

This essay first appeared in Society for US Intellectual History Blog, March 16, 2018, https://s-usih.org/2018/03/two-cheers-for-pragmatic-democracy-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

With democracy pragmatic style, complete realization of ideals are always out of reach—and it also means, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “agitate, agitate, agitate”

                  Once upon a time, marketplace thought and practice was associated with the work of accountants and the policies of cold-hearted politicians.  In 1978, Irving Kristol wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism to retrieve the reputation of free markets for their intimate role in democratic freedoms.  The rest is history, the history that is of the surge of marketplace conservatism.  From Ronald Reagan’s 1980 call to “get the government off the backs of the people,” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, to the current president’s eagerness to deregulate business, marketplace thought and practices have moved from margin to mainstream.

The cachet of markets in the last four decades has put progressive goals on the defensive.  From welfare programs to education, advocates for social justice and public purposes have felt the need to show how their programs will pay in marketplace terms, as expressed succinctly by the slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts: “Art Works.”

James’s Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy has potential to revive the influence and significance of progressive democracy for our own time.  He focuses on “the Struggle for Self-Rule,” in the words of the book’s subtitle, as citizens achieved freedom from aristocratic rule in the early modern Western world, and continued to strive for freedom from the power of concentrated wealth since the nineteenth century.

As Kloppenberg shows, the practice of democracy has achieved the goals of popular sovereignty and citizen autonomy beyond the dreams of eighteenth-century republican revolutionaries; and democratic dynamics in the nineteenth century put still more emphasis on these goals.  However, democracy has not fulfilled that other democratic dream of greater social equality; in fact, those triumphant features of democracy have acted to promote greater inequality.  Not only have free markets enabled great and unequal accumulations of wealth, but also, autonomous citizens have not necessarily chosen democratic goals.

Especially in America’s mass democracy, market forces have penetrated not only the economics of production and services, but also the public sphere.  Well-funded ideological organizations take advantage of the information abundance and “attentional scarcity” of our time, as Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu points out, to manage citizen choices.  Many of the choices that Americans feel they are making freely are directed by the miracle of the marketplace.  Concentrations of wealth are able to generate persuasive communication from think tanks or media trolls to organize public relations campaigns.  For example, in contemporary public discourse, the democratic ideal of equality has actually come to seem undemocratic even to many who would benefit from an egalitarian ethos because advocates of free markets have associated this democratic thinking with socialism.

While modern democracy has faced these illiberal challenges, the tradition itself does not have a purely progressive pedigree.  Democracy began as a Eurocentric ideal, and it has grown alongside colonial hierarchies and globalized reshuffling of regional social and cultural practices, from the days of the fur trade to our time of multinational corporations headquartered in the West.  Modern democracy did indeed emerge alongside not only the commodification of furs and countless other consumer products, but also the commodification of human beings in the slave trade leaving dark legacies in chattel slavery, segregation, and racial hierarchy as Manisha Sinha and Michelle Alexander have pointed out.  And modern democracy, for all its founders’ enthusiasms for dramatic social transformation, has in its practices of checks and balances, become associated with moderation.  Johann Neem makes this point with an edgy question: is this “stumbling” tradition up to the challenge of confronting enormous injustices; “can we sustain moderation?”

When democracy has not lived up to its ideals, it invites such criticism and doubt.  This can produce a portrait of democracy as a political system ready to justify complacency, with its turn from ideals enabling settlement for the status quo.  By providing historical understanding about the frequent gaps “between democrats’ aspirations and their achievements,” Kloppenberg is also presenting a tacitly pragmatic plan for continued support of democracy despite its imperfections.  He responds to progressive doubters of democracy by placing the ideals themselves as part of the democratic process; the goals for social justice, human rights, and more, can be achieved only in struggle, in active resistance to the forces holding them back.

In the face of ways in which democracy “unleashes forces that can endanger the sensibilities it requires,” Kloppenberg votes for redoubling efforts to boost those sensibilities, to approach democracy not just for its structures, but as an “ethical ideal.”  This characterization of democracy points to the theoretical spine of his historical coverage of the rise of democracy in the modern world.  In fact, he points out that the “underlying premises” of “deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity,” while “less visible” than the contests of politics, are the crucial life blood that enable a government with democratic structures to thrive with democratic culture.  This points to the philosophical roots, or in political terms the values-oriented rhizome, feeding the life of democracy.  These attitudes and ways of thinking mean plural openness not only to different people but also to different ideas; they mean readiness to deliberate with listening and dialogue across those differences; and they mean reciprocal interaction in talk and action so that each position includes attention to the broad consequences of one’s own views and also to the potential significance of contrasting views.

These “underlying premises” of democracy are political applications of pragmatism.  Although Kloppenberg does not make much explicit reference to this tradition of American philosophy, it is the guiding spirit of the book.  The pragmatism in the Kloppenberg brand of democracy is not only a way of thinking and an ethical ideal; it is also a way to cope with democracy’s own shortcomings.  While progressive critics grow impatient with democracy for not living up to its ideals, the pragmatic core of this politics is a reminder that its very ideals involve a commitment to process; so in effect, what he calls the “tragic irony of democracy” means commitments unhooked from ideals.  Ideal results are unpragmatic absolutes that would undercut the ability of society’s diverse groups and plurality of perspectives to interact.  And absolutes stifle deliberation and reciprocity; why listen and dialogue if the result is already fixed?  A pragmatic approach to democracy involves recognition of its messiness.  When Klopppenberg calls democracy an unfinished labor, he is offering a political channeling of a favorite phrase of pragmatist William James, “ever not quite.”  For James, this phrase assumed his psychological awareness of the abundance of experience, from which we pay attention to selected portions; and he urged using our selective awareness for melioristic improvement of the world, with realization that no one person—and no one ideal—could do it all.

Kloppenberg not only narrates his history according to pragmatic ideals; he also finds precedents for them.  For example, when evaluating the democratic practices emerging adjacent to rank exploitation of non-whites, he focuses on Roger Williams, one of the few European settlers to apply democracy consistently on both sides of the frontier, insisting that the colonists “could assume dominion only by attaining the Indians’ consent.”  This ethic made Rhode Island “one of the first successful, if tumultuous, experiments in democratic government.”

Considered theoretically, the pragmatic qualities of democratic ideals are paradoxical because the ideals are always out of reach; but in the nitty gritty of politics, democracy means engagement in pragmatic processes with constant calls for civic engagement, since only our efforts can help the polity realize these goals.  As Reinhold Niebuhr suggests, “what ought to be true … may become true” with enough commitment and effort.  That effort includes holding on to ideals, in effect as GPS guidance through the undertow of very unprogressive impulses for interests that often stray far from what the American founders called public-spiritedness.

One of those founders, James Madison, worked to set up a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republic government.”   However, as Elizabeth Dowling Taylor points out in Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, Madison did not have the foresight or moral courage to act on the contradictions he himself acknowledged when one of his own slaves, William Gardner, “covet[ed] that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood.”  But the pragmatism in Madison’s tainted ideals have allowed deliberate dialogue to emerge among citizens with genuine and deep disagreements—up to and including challenges to the founders’ own cruel mix of slavery and liberty.  The structure he helped design, and the hope he banked on to keep the system afloat, would involve engaging those disagreements and even making use of them to work toward democratic ideals.

There is a constant need to invigorate the public sphere as it goes through—and because it goes through—many problems and not-so-public-spirited challenges.  This contingency and need for self-correction is the pragmatism in democratic theory, a theory put into practice with cultivation of deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity.  Ideals fall short at any one time often simply because so ideal, so out of reach, but they are also the standards for keeping eyes on the prize while engaging in democratic cultural practices.

The recent challenges for democracy have been foreshadowed by monarchical and aristocratic dismissal of government of the people.  Kloppenberg illustrates the autocratic resistance to democracy with a story of royal puzzlement.  Like most of those on the powerful side of status politics, King Maximilian II of Bavaria assumed deference from the people with their betters managing their affairs, top down.  In 1848, he invited historian Leopold von Ranke to explain his subjects’ democratic discontent.  The scene reads like a version of the song from the musical Camelot, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjIVSVGMWEk.  When the historian explained that with the democratic impulses of this “new force in the world, … power should come from below.”  The king’s haughty tone parallels the attitude of Camelot royalty; we can imagine him scoffing in disbelief about such uncanny behavior of the unwashed masses: They deliberate; they act with autonomy; they vote….  “Really?,” the musical’s Queen Guinevere asks in bafflement about what the “simple folk do”….  As with the musical’s King Arthur, the Bavarian king now “ha[s] it on the best authority,” but it doesn’t make this democratic earthquake any more palatable to royal folk, or anyone else wanting to dominate the people top down.

This story is a reminder that Toward Democracy is highlighting just how brash was the modern turn to democracy.  The word on elite street was that the demos could not self-rule; once in power, “the people” would of course spin into greedy corruption or anarchy.  Those elites had a point, which the frequent chaos of modern democracy sometimes confirms.  But Kloppenberg offers the reminder, however, that setbacks do not define the whole of the democratic experiment, and the problems can actually be the basis for summoning the greatest virtue of this politics, its capacity for pragmatic self-correction.  The third cheer for democracy is always in the future.

This history book suggests a present purpose: The progressive criticism of democracy should not be cause to give up on the politics of self-rule.  In fact, the criticism is essential to the future of democracy.

-Paul J. Croce is a professor of history and American studies at Stetson University and a former president of the William James Society. His most recent book, Young William James Thinking, has recently appeared from Johns Hopkins University Press, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/young-william-james-thinking, and his most recent essay is “Waking From the Dream of Total Victory,” American Philosophical Association’s Civil American, January 19, 2018, https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2018/01/19/waking-from-the-dream-of-total-victory/


Waking From the Dream of Total Victory in the Contests for Public Truth

This essay first appeared in Civil American, Volume 3, Article 1 (January 19, 2018), https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2018/01/19/waking-from-the-dream-of-total-victory/

Can academics support the democratic struggle not just to critique fake news, but also to engage the public in the stories that make those false facts appealing?

The Oxford English Dictionary named “Post-Truth” its Word of the Year for 2016.  The dictionary cites “appeals to emotion or personal belief,” which have gained more influence than “objective facts … in shaping public opinion.”  The sober scholars of the OED spotlighted this word not to glorify this way of thinking, but to call attention to a disturbing trend.  In 2005, Stephen Colbert had already identified “truthiness” as the posture of public figures who “feel the truth” even in the face of contrasting facts and reasons.  The particular items of recent history are new, such as the claim that Democrats have been managing a ring of pedophiles out of the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, but fabricated news has always been the exaggerating cousin of political spin.  The multiplication of media outlets appealing to diverse clusters of people has made it particularly difficult to sort out corrupted truths from authentic stories.

Intellectual responses surely help identify the really true stories, but the problem of fakery runs deeper because of the way fake stories can seem plausible, at least to segments of the population, as a way to explain what’s happening around them.  The political problem with “post-truth” is that, in its tendencies toward exaggerations of the truth, it reinforces already sharp suspicions about contrasting points of view.  And it gets worse: people convinced by the fake stories, especially ones with lurid depictions of contrasting positions, tend to believe that the other side should not even get a hearing.  At the righteous extreme of these extreme reports, fake news encourages the assumption that one side will simply need to defeat the other.

1-Making a Case for Listening to the Stories that Make Fake News Appealing

Post-truth statements are not hidden in dark corners gaining no attention.  The kindred label, “Alt.Truth,” is in wide enough circulation to be the name of a popular Homeland episode.  The wide appeal of these distortions, not their merits, makes them an issue.  And it is our democratic culture and commitments that makes popular appeal significant.  Respect for the voice of the people calls for attempting to understand how stories stripped of truth gain supporter.  That suggests a special role for academics and teachers, as long as they do not get so caught up in their learned ways that they come to believe that they can’t learn anything from the thinking of the average citizen.  One of our most intellectual of presidents, Thomas Jefferson, even believed that the tangible experiences of “a ploughman” would foster a better decision on “a moral case” than the abstract reasoning of “a professor.”  Even when not learned, citizens can shed light on the lived experience of democracy, and those lessons travel on the wings of stories instead of the highways of scholarship.

In The Death of Expertise, professor of comparative politics Thomas Nichols honors the “specialization and expertise” that have produced the marvels of the modern world, and he laments the squandering of those achievements by the “unfounded arrogance” of citizens with “stubborn ignorance.”  Philosopher Zach Biondi has issued a call to action for philosophers to help the public “recognize incompetence and poor argument.”  Investigative journalists gamely try to bridge the gap between knowledgeable professionals and citizen indifference about expert insights.  The organization Snopes evaluates public statements from True to Mostly False to downright Legends that circulate despite their lack of factual support.  These experts do great work and deserve wide support.  This approach shows great faith in the power of knowledge, with the tacit assumption that people just need to learn objective facts to correct the appeal of false facts.

Accuracy of facts is surely important, and they can sometimes be persuasive, but the appeal of misinformation persists.  American psychologist William James offers helpful insights for addressing this challenge.  He formed his thoughts in the late nineteenth century, just as the age of information abundance and expertise was taking on its modern shape.  His psychology both helps to explain the appeal of false facts and suggests ways to respond to them.  Without understanding the appeal of fakery, the responses won’t get very far.  His insights can actually support the goals of the experts and fact checkers.

First, James points to the formative role of selective attention in the establishment of sharply different views.  In the vastness of experience, there is not only room for different interpretations of facts, but also for selection of different facts.  To make sense of situations, James observes, we select portions of the abundant facts to construct likely stories, which provide guidance within the complexities of experience based on prior assumptions.  The most basic elements of false information can generally be corrected rather directly with true information.  But the false is often not simple; more complex settings call for deeper inquiry into the sources of those likely stories.

Second, when facing the resulting cacophony of different points of view, James acknowledges the complexity, and suggests the humbling effect that awareness of this range of interpretations can have for coping with this diversity.  In reminding that “to no one type … whatsoever is the total fullness of truth … revealed,” his point is not that there is no truth, but that truth is immense and complicated.  Even with his awareness of human limitations in the face of the vastness of experience, he firmly critiques those ready to use the elusiveness of truth as a cover for active promotion of untruths.  In recognizing the rich complexity of truth, he points to the need for constant inquiry and cooperation among us mere mortals who each have portions of truth in degrees.  Attention to the truths of others can even shed light on one’s own truths.

James’s insights about selective attention and the overarching complexity of experience suggest the importance of looking at problems of fabricated news not just as reported (false) information, but also as storytelling, people’s efforts to find meaningful truth in their experiences.  Every claim to fact is embedded in a story, which enables that fact to be accepted or not based on the plausibility of the story surrounding it.  Awareness of the power of stories is not an endorsement of the sometimes false facts within them, but an acknowledgement of their significance in the human mind, and this awareness can also serve as a resource for addressing their unsavory power.  This is especially important when the well-informed voices of experts are not enough to persuade citizens.  And this is most especially important in a democracy that values the voice of the people.

2-Learning From People We Disagree With

This essay could end here, with a message about listening for the appeal of stories embedded within the fake news.  In fact, an earlier draft, “Telling Likely Stories,” effectively ended at this point.  That essay, attempting to bridge from scholarly thinking to public discussion, ran the gauntlet of a major bastion of scholarly work, the Peer Review.  Designed to ensure quality, this process of review by experts in the field helps to prevent the publication of errors and of sloppy thinking; as a result, the finished work tends to be more authoritative and trustworthy.  In addition, because Peer Review involves multiple views from within the profession, it also tends to hive off points of view that stray from mainstream interpretations.  The anonymity of the readers reinforces the tugs toward consensus because without having to reveal their identity, they can critique different perspectives at liberty.

My reviewers both helped me improve the composition of the essay and took issue with my departure from mainstream views.  Most helpfully, they pointed out that, despite my intentions, reference to “telling likely stories” can seem like an endorsement of those stories of fakery, or at least a casual disregard for the intellectual and public problems they involve.  The first reviewer said, “Your argument does not recognize how problematic ‘alt truth’” is, and urged addressing “the latest [President Donald] Trump nonsense” by pointing out how wrong it is.  This helped me to realize that I needed to make clear that understanding fakery is not instead of outrage for its problems, but a step toward undercutting the power and appeal of post-truth talk.  For those who have focused only on outrage, until that first step emerged clearly, my argument could be perceived as consorting with the enemy.

My professional reviewers went further, taking issue with the very attempt to address how false information can seem plausible and my depiction of the storytelling roots of the problems of misinformation.  Instead, they maintained that the misinformation is simply and literally wrong, by confusion or from deliberate manipulation.  Call them out!  About one half of the country, from water coolers to talk shows, are taking just this approach to scold the other half.  But many people are not listening to the professors’ proposed corrections, except those who already agree.  This seems a formula for amplified polarization.  Mow down the latest “nonsense,” and more will soon sprout until we address those stories at their roots.  Identification of the trends is not a celebration of them, but a blueprint for action against them.

“No way,” declared my second reviewer, who stated firmly that in my openness to hearing out different views, “you appear to deny that there’s any such thing as truth.”  It’s fine to care about other people, but “you can’t mix the idea of caring with the road to understanding.”  Without adopting “independent standards for truth,” this professor said, my argument “seems magical and hard to take seriously.”  This view represents a school of thought that does not reckon with the work of recent psychologists and philosophers who, in the spirit of William James, have emphasized the relationship of caring and other non-rational factors within the process of knowing, including Antonio Damasio, Catherine Elgin, Nel Noddings, and Martha Nussbaum.  Without considering these perspectives, my reviewer colleague regarded my James-inspired proposition as a species of relativism.  Then, “if all facts are relative, the facts of those we disagree with are at best useless to my own mind, or we are left to surrender to someone else’s facts becoming my facts.”  This position would have been familiar to James whose pragmatism mediated objectivist and relativist philosophies, frustrating both sides.  And he came to expect scolding from advocates of each, respectively, who called him a roader for the other side.

My reviewer seemed so confident, but I wondered, How would this perspective address the endurance of different points of view?  As James’s student Walter Lippmann noted a century ago, “Knowing how unjust other people’s inferences are when they concern us,” can help us to understand how “ours may be unjust to them.”  Considering the unprecedented superabundance of information and interpretations now available to so many people, add in the complexity of the world, and now what?  The confident assertions of my peer reviewers seemed like a declaration of constant warfare, with the tacit hope that one set of standards will triumph or face “surrender.”  This is the conventional wisdom of our time, even as there are variations on the ultimate source of triumph.  With enough persuasion, the victory will be intellectual; with enough conversion, the victory will be religious; with enough proof, the victory will be scientific; with sufficient electoral majorities, the victory will be political; with enough force of arms, the victory will be military.

I planned my essay precisely because I don’t see much evidence that these plans for total victory have been working very effectively.  Every victory brings a defeat for others; and those others, especially those with views that one side finds appalling, have not been ready to surrender.  This has not stopped the insistence that my reviewer colleagues represent, and this insistence comes with great fear as one of them went on to explain: “Without independent standards, no one can be wrong or foolish.  If no one is wrong or foolish, society is utterly adrift.”  Yet I wondered, who among us in this democracy will remain content when called wrong or foolish?  And when called so by a smarter set, aren’t those very people ready to wear that scorn with pride?—and prepare a fighting response.

Bring on more shirts and bumper stickers like the ones saying “I’m a deplorable!” after Hillary Clinton’s painfully quotable critiques of working-class citizens.  When these slogans appear—brashly declaring “I’m wrong and foolish!”—the listening and learning will have stopped.  In addition, the insistence on standards, planted firmly in the fluid world of political debate, offers an either-or contrast: either standards with certainty or rudderless drift.  James suggests a third way.  He calls for inquiry in pursuit of truthful directions emerging not by prior absolute plan, but in response to particular concrete experiences.

I read my reviewer comments feeling that I had just gone through a bracing scholarly seminar review of my work.  My thoughtful colleagues represent the posture of many academics impatient with the contemporary level of public discourse.  Their work has the benefit of encouraging constant intellectual vigilance about public claims to truth.  In his call for just this kind of work, Biondi also urges intellectuals to avoid “complacently call[ing] their [surrounding] culture ‘anti-intellectual.’”  Beyond avoiding this slur, the next step is to understand how average citizens think.  In fact, and ironically, despite their intellectual merits, sophisticated critiques of public understanding, can seem like tit-for-tat responses to the impatience that many average citizens feel for the thinking of intellectuals.

Academics can up their game as contributors to the work of democracy.  Other political systems have found effective but cruel ways to deal with distasteful positions or unwelcome people, through imprisoning, banishing, or killing the outliers.  In living with the voice of the people, a democracy calls for getting along, even with people holding views that many, for many good reasons, call outrageous.  James’s awareness of the role of selective attention in the formation of wildly different views and of the elusive complexities surrounding these and all views, suggests ways to get along without endorsement of any particular position, outlandish or otherwise.  And in the openness to different people’s stories that he encourages, we may even learn new layers of truth that had remained out of view when in the comfortable embrace of discoursing with those who share our own perspectives.  By letting go of our attempts to seize victory for any one of our positions, when we attempt to see the world through the eyes of others, we may achieve an even larger victory, not for any one position, but for the whole democratic community.


Challenging His Teacher’s Racism: Was Huck William James?

This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog, December 17, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/challenging-his-teacher%E2%80%99s-racism-was-huck-william-james; and then in the Huffington Post, December 31, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/challenging-his-teachers-racism-was-huck-william_us_5a490387e4b0d86c803c77a9

A moment of awakening to an honest reckoning with natural facts

In his youth, William James tried on a range of career possibilities.  In the 1860s, his attention was focused on a career in science.  He had spent his childhood in a host of schools on both sides of the North Atlantic guided by his father, Henry James, Senior, who promoted experiential learning and familiarity with natural facts for his five children.  The elder James had high hopes for a “scientific career for Willy,” his oldest son.  Like his father, Willy James had an appetite for the natural facts of scientific investigation and a reflective temperament.  Henry James noticed the growing authority of science in this era, and hoped that his eldest son would train in science to give more respectability to his own idealistic belief that all the natural facts of our empirical world are mere shadows pointing to higher spiritual truths, which he hoped would help shed society of selfishness.

This was the picture of science William James brought to his first scientific training as a chemistry student starting in September of 1861 at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University.  His chemistry teacher, Charles Eliot would become the university’s president eight years later.  As president, he would bring the example of the science school’s specialized training to the founding of the Graduate Department in 1872, a major forerunner of what would become the premier path for professional training in graduate schools around the country and around the world.

In the next few years, William James studied, in addition to chemistry, physics, anatomy, physiology, and medicine.  In his science classes, young James would meet a very different form of science than he was hearing at home.  Most of his teachers, including Eliot, insisted that the distinctive strength of science was in its experimental method, with controlled investigations into empirical facts.  This materialism of method, for specialized inquiry into material dimensions of nature, sometimes encouraged a materialist philosophy, the view that nature is only physical matter while all apparently immaterial dimensions of life, including thought, belief, feelings, and life itself, can be explained by empirical facts.

Eliot remembered his nineteen-year-old student as an “agreeable pupil, … tolerably punctual at recitations,” but “not wholly devoted to the study of Chemistry.”  Instead, “his mind was excursive.”  William’s exploration of “other sciences and realms of thought” was in keeping with his father’s approach to education, and his mental excursions show that he was retaining his father’s spiritual questions even if not endorsing all of the elder James’s idealistic answers.

When William James turned twenty one in January of 1863, he wrote to a cousin with a joshingly earnest declaration about “the choice of a profession,” and listed “four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary.”  Still feeling the tug of his father’s philanthropic ideals but also forced to “consider lucre,” he said of his choices, “much may be said in favor of each,” which he named “in the ascending order of their pecuniary invitingness.”  In the next year, he would indeed enroll in the Medical School.  His talk of printing would foreshadow the popular writing he would take up, starting with book reviews in 1865 and continuing with his public intellectual work years later.  But at this point, natural history was at the top of his list.

The prospect of becoming a field naturalist especially caught James’s attention, and when one of the teachers at the Lawrence School, Louis Agassiz, organized with his wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a natural history trip to Brazil in 1865, the young science student jumped at the chance.  The Swiss-born Agassiz was one of the most famous and charismatic scientists of his time.  He charmed audiences with his exuberant enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world, and was so instrumental in organizing professional science and spurring financial support that his most recent biographer, Christoph Irmscher, calls him the “creator of American science.”  David Starr Jordan, who would become president of Stanford University, declared that “graduate instruction in science in America began” with the exuberant teaching of Louis Agassiz.  Before his arrival in the United States, Agassiz had first established his academic reputation with a definitive study of the fish of Brazil collected by German explorers in 1819-1820.  For his own expedition to Brazil, Agassiz had still bigger plans.

When Charles Darwin proposed the development of species by means of natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859), the first critiques were from scientists.  Agassiz objected to Darwin’s methods and conclusions.  Gradual evolution challenged the Ice Age theory that Agassiz used to explain the periodic creation of species followed by climactic destruction, in rounds of special creation that integrated divine action into scientific theory.  Darwinism did not overtly reject religion, but it explained natural facts without religious references.  Agassiz presented the trip to Brazil as an opportunity to show the special creation of species through the work of glaciers, as “God’s great plough[s].”  Finding evidence of multiple successive species and ice even in the tropics would, Agassiz announced, disprove Darwinism.

For William James, the expedition was an opportunity to try on the profession of natural history, with a scientist who shared some of his father’s idealistic views, no less.  Agassiz and Henry James had even attended the same Saturday Club discussions in the early 1860s.  They also shared kindred racial views.  The elder James sentimentally patronized African Americans as a more “sensuous” people, who needed the guidance of whites.  When his third son, Wilkinson (Wilkie) James volunteered to serve as an officer in the “Colored” Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the father doubted the resolve and courage of the African American troops; Wilkie quickly corrected him about their adamant bravery at the Battle of Fort Wagner (featured in the movie Glory).

Louis Agassiz held even more virulent views of African American inferiority, and he amplified his prejudice with the authority of science.  As part of his Darwin-disproving goals for the trip, he also lined up what he called human specimen of different racial hues, hoping to demonstrate the hierarchy of races.  He set his photographer Walter Hunnewell on task to create a gallery of races, each also separately created, in keeping with his overall theory of special creation.

William James went to Brazil to get “valuable training from the Professor,” and he respected Agassiz as a “vast practical engine” with a prodigious knowledge of natural facts.  As a student, he tried to learn when Agassiz would “pitch… in to my loose and superficial way of thinking.”  But James veered away from his teacher’s theories, and even began to think that Agassiz was making a “burlesque misrepresentations of Darwin’s book.”

James also ebbed away from the ideas of racial hierarchy that the expedition was designed to promote.  Despite the authority of his father’s sentimental views of race and the immediacy of his teacher’s insistence, James looked squarely at the natural facts around him and did not find the Native and African American people inferior at all.  As his thoughts veered against the conventional wisdom pushing his thoughts toward assumptions of hierarchy, he cautiously started dropping the negative stereotypes.  At first, he observed that the people in front of him were “at all events not sluttish.”

James’s words read like Huck Finn’s guilt-filled thoughts while floating down river with Jim, the runaway slave who was also becoming his respected partner.  Both Huck Finn and William James were surrounded by racism, but their own experiences were telling a different story.  Shelley Fisher Fishkin boldly asks Was Huck Black? (Oxford University Press, 1993) in identifying the African-American rhetorical traditions that inspired Mark Twain’s free-spirited, down-home, all-American character.  Similarly, William James displays a fledging moral courage that parallels Huck Finn’s shifts away from the racist norms all around him.

James’s school of experience was his own natural history work, which prodded his steps into a more respectful acceptance of racial differences.  Circulating with non-whites, James maintained that even though “these are peasants,” scorned by Brazilian society and by his own expedition leader, “no gentleman of Europe has better manners.”  And he added that the Brazilians, “masters and servants” alike, had “not a bit of our damned anglo saxon brutality and vulgarity.”  James even found that the people so readily regarded by most European Americans as exotic primitives lived lives not unlike what he knew back home.  He recognized that “the amazonians have not the pleasures of [the] domestic hearth which are so dear to us, … but in the mosquito net, hardly domestic, but personal they have a faint substitute for it.”  While in their household, you have the “feeling of … security” that you get with a “big blazing fireside in our winters [when] you hear the icy storm at work out of doors.”

By contrast, to support his theory of racial hierarchy, Agassiz regarded Brazil as a case study of his worst social fears since “all clearness of type had been blurred,… leaving a mongrel nondescript type.”  Yet even Agassiz and his wife had to admire a “cafuzo” (with “a mixture of Indian and black blood in her veins”), who worked for Elizabeth Agassiz.  Young Alexandrina had “keen perceptions,” Elizabeth Agassiz admitted, and was “a very efficient aid.”  The North American was, however, very ready to explain away the non-white woman’s virtues by adding dismissively that she was “a person whose only training has been through the senses,” a view resonating with the patronizing racial theories of Henry James, Senior.

William, however, picked up on another part of his father’s theories, about the best way that Henry James himself had insisted for raising his own very non-cafuzo children: with an experiential education in natural facts.  William found virtues in the vices claimed by the expedition leaders, and he used his father’s own methods of thinking to see Alexandrina with direct clarity, challenging his father’s racial assumptions.  In sharp contrast with Agassiz’s exploitative portraits, young James drew a sketch of Alexandrina with individual dignity, a hint of sadness, and even some skeptical detachment.

William James’s egalitarian awakening in 1865 did not keep him from engaging in his own stereotyping of racial and ethnic differences.  He even showed pride in his “organ of perception-of-national-differences.”  His casual directness could be crude by twenty-first-century standards, but he repeatedly found impressive qualities at the heart of otherness.  For example, in 1878, James relays a story of medical missionary David Livingston in Africa eager to “dissuade [a] savage” from his primitive healing practices.  James did not balk at use of the denigrating word, but focused instead on the African’s approach to healing.  Purveyors of modern medicine may sneer at such “proverbial philosophy,” but while the African’s approaches are incomplete, so too are even the most sophisticated and scientific propositions: “sometimes the patient gets well and sometimes he dies, just as when you do nothing at all.”

Back in Brazil in the 1860s, William James rendered Alexandrina with a serene look and knowing eyes.  His portrait suggest her knack for spontaneous encounters with nature, just what he was striving to master in the work of natural history.  Alexandrina seemed to harbor insights into nature that the most civilized scientists simply overlooked with their theories distracting from direct perceptions of natural facts.


Johns Hopkins University Press published Paul Croce’s Young William James Thinking in December 2017, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/young-william-james-thinking; and see stories from research on the book at youngwilliamjamesthinking.tumblr.com



Letting Go of Results: The Education of William James and My Own Medical Crisis

This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Author Blog, December 1, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/letting-go-results-education-william-james-and-my-own-medical-crisis; and then in The Huffington Post, December 6, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/letting-go-of-results-the-education-of-william-james_us_5a26fd7ee4b0e9b1e032b105

Life is a soul school, and some classes are harder than others.

For decades after his death in 1910, William James served as the genial uncle figure of American philosophy.  He was famous as a popularizer, even though his tendencies to offer insights connecting disparate parts of life and contrasting outlooks reinforced his reputation for lack of rigor.  Recently, research on the relations of dual contrasts between religion and science, mind and body, and philosophical thinking and lived experience has increased appreciation for James’s ways of thinking.  My book, Young William James Thinking, tells the story of James’s evolution toward his mediating postures, and writing the book brought home to me the significance of connecting theory and life.

In December 2003, I was working on chapter 2, “Between Scientific and Sectarian Medicine.”  However, in previous weeks, blurry vision in my left eye was making reading increasingly difficult. My eye doctor conducted some tests, including an MRI, “just to rule some things out.”  A few days later, the doctor called to say that the MRI results explained my blurry vision: I had a brain tumor growing on my pituitary gland and pushing on my optic nerve.  This craniopharyngioma tumor is extremely rare, and sadly, it usually strikes in childhood.  Within a few hours, after immediately imagining the worst, and getting advice on next steps, I was back at my writing desk, revising the paragraph I had written the day before.

Despite my personal woes, I immersed myself in the words of William James, about his education in a range of diverse nineteenth-century medical practices.  In my writing, I was developing a picture of his troubled life in the late 1860s.  He felt constrained by his father’s spiritual philosophy, which he found difficult to square with his scientific education.  He was completing his medical degree in 1869, but his physiological learning showed little connection to his philosophical interests, and it offered few vocational prospects.  Authoritative science suggested that his own willful efforts would be for naught in the face of material factors determining life’s directions.  He suffered eye and back problems and bouts of depression that prompted thoughts of suicide.  And he even doubted his long-term sanity, while growing so awkward with women that he vowed never to marry.  The prospects for his career and personal life brought him to a slough of discouragement, and yet the very crucible of his own troubles also suggested insights about a more hopeful path.

In his young adulthood, James shifted his attention to the current tangible facts right in front of him.  He stopped focusing on his long-term goals for finding work in psychology or philosophy because that was so out of reach.  Instead, he paid attention to the immediate present, unhooked from past facts or future dreams. He looked carefully at his current work, the study of human physiology with reflections on the philosophical implications of his science. While scrutinizing that particular work and finding it a worthy task, he resolved to stop worrying about what it might lead to. He declared, “Results shd. not be too voluntarily aimed at or too busily thought of.” Instead, just work in the present without dwelling on how you arrived at this point and without expectations about future achievements. Do the job that feels right at this moment, and let the future emerge, with all its uncertainties, from this good work.

When I heard my MRI results, like James, I too was discouraged, but also as with him, letting go of results had a “potent effect in my inner life.”  Without knowing my medical fate, I continued my “small daily pegging,” as James described the tedium of regular work toward a goal that at any one moment appears well out of reach.  My own daily pegging, with attention to careful and thorough coverage, led to expectations for recognition of all that hard work—prospects now dashed by that growing mass of flesh in my head.  I could not plan for publication, and I might not even complete the book, but I was left with the process, the doing, and that was what mattered at that moment of medical crisis.  I had read James’s words about the challenges he endured, his utter discouragement, even as he continued learning and working.  But now I had “knowledge by acquaintance,” as James would say about realizations that surge from lived experience, about the firm resolve he forged in his youth to continue his efforts.  Minor achievements of each day became his goals in and of themselves without any idea of whether they would lead to anything.

From 1860 to 1877, from his first time studying outside his home through his years as a teacher of science, James searched for direction in his vocation, philosophical orientation, and personal life.  He never fully solved the problems of his youth, but he worked through them and despite them, without expecting results.  This proved to be a freeing mental posture that enabled him to make his “first act of free will” in 1870, asserting that his own choices could have substantial impact.  From this posture, he grew comfortable living “life without guarantee” and constructed theories that transformed his earlier uncertainties into assets.

The uncertainties of James’s early life left him ambivalent and hesitant.  However, when he learned not to expect results, the prior pain of ambivalence about different sides of issues and different choices became a window for looking at multiple sides of things without blinking out any of the parts.  He embraced a decisive ambivalence.  He developed his pluralist philosophies, with openness to different assumptions and diverse points of view.  He attended to the simultaneous mental and physical elements of psychological life.  His pragmatism incorporated the perspectives of rationalism and empiricism.  His radical empiricism showed the relation of subjective and objective perspectives.  And in his religious studies he evaluated the subliminal psychology of spiritual experiences.  In his earlier posture, he was torn over these contrasts, precisely because he expected results—he expected one side to become the exclusive answer.  However, not expecting results enabled a more comprehensive view and served as the basis for innovative thinking.

Problems as opportunities?  That’s not how they feel.  When in the thick of problems, they are just problems.  Indecision, depression, lack of direction, and health issues are all incredibly discouraging.  James’s insight builds toward the long term precisely by not thinking about it.  Every problem calls for immediate action, with plans to address that immediacy.  At first, my audacious tumor visitor wore the garb of a foul villain, invading my space and threatening murder.  But it later became a difficult but welcome guest, a stern guide and rigorous teacher.

I lived out the old saying that “life is a soul school,” and I experienced that some classes are harder than others.  My tumor was most certainly a problem, and as with James, I explored both alternative and mainstream medical remedies; and like him, I practiced “curapathy,” trying the least invasive practices first.  When homeopaths and acupuncturists could not gain traction, maintaining that their remedies would have been preventive at earlier stages, I turned to scientific medicine and scheduled surgery for removal of most of the tumor and radiation of the remnant to reduce the chances of recurrence.

Scary stuff, with no certainty of result.  I could have gone blind, lost some mental function, or worse.  I pictured the Grim Reaper saying, “Are you ready?” while I petitioned for postponement through the good work of the surgeon and radiologists.  Thankfully, the extension was granted, and more.  I developed an attitude of gratitude for this lease on life, for full use of my brain, and for the return of my vision.  From these, much follows, starting with an approach to life goals without expecting results.  This posture prods toward achievement, without clinging to an uncontrolled and unpredictable future.  James made that move as a young adult, growing comfortable with contingency, and that stance opened him to his most creative theorizing.  Similarly, my medical adventure prodded me to write this book, in my own way, with attention to thoroughness, and without expecting results.

Johns Hopkins University Press is publishing Paul Croce’s Young William James Thinking in December 2017, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/young-william-james-thinking; and see stories from research on the book at youngwilliamjamesthinking.tumblr.com



Halloween 2017

MegaHalloween, DeLand, USA: Trying on Identities

This essay also appeared in the Stetson University student newspaper, Hatternetwork, November 18, 2017, http://www.hatternetwork.com/arts_culture/megahalloween-deland-usa-trying-on-identities/article_7bb073fa-cc73-11e7-bd79-cbcaad1ce9a1.html,

And, with the title “A Time to Try on New Identities,” in the West Volusia Beacon, November 20-26, 2017, page 7A.

Halloween was as big as ever on Minnesota Avenue, with about 2,000 creepy and cute outfits adorning people from far and wide and from many social backgrounds.  This year, students from my Modern US History class joined me on my front lawn to talk with our animated visitors about how they think up their ideas.  Continue reading

The Uses of History

Historians, the Columbos of Our Cultural Life

similar versions of this essay have appeared in History News Network, August 27, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166629, in The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59a48a7ae4b0d6cf7f404fa5, and in the Society for US Intellectual History Blog, September 16, 2017, https://s-usih.org/2017/09/historians-the-columbos-of-our-cultural-life-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

You don’t have to like the people you study and teach, but as with the TV private investigator Frank Columbo, get to know them.

The death of Thomas Haskell is sad news and a loss to the field of history.  James Kloppenberg, a friend of Haskell’s since their days together as fellow PhD students in History at Stanford University, offers a fine tribute to his great work by highlighting the twin peaks of historical insight that Haskell practiced, “To Understand and to Judge,” https://s-usih.org/2013/05/to-understand-and-to-judge-kloppenberg-on-haskell/.  On first reading Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science and “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” I found orienting understanding of modern American cultural and intellectual history, about how we think and how we feel.  These lessons are also good reminders that as historians, we don’t have to like what we learn.  Learning the worlds of our study is the mission of the historian.

Kloppenberg offers good practical advice about the importance of reticence; in an era of information overload that is also an act of charity.  And even more valuable than saying fewer words is the ability to choose words carefully.  This is particularly significant these days with a public culture featuring more heat than light on so many issues.  Historians have the gift of careful thought and abundant awareness of contexts.  We can offer these lights to the raging contemporary cultural scene.

Jim Kloppenberg’s words, and Thomas Haskell’s example offer good platforms for these public roles.  As they show, the good understanding that history can provide is built on both thorough research and seeing the topics of our stories from multiple points of view.  That will result in not only reporting on the historical record, but also both “respect[ing] the record,” as Kloppenberg points out, and also understanding the record even more deeply than would be possible with fewer angles of vision.

I first learned these historical lessons in my own historical studies of the psychologist and philosopher William James.  He advocates what I call an “unblinking” approach to experience.  Selective attention to comfortable slices of the world, to ideas and behaviors where we feel “at home” are so common, but perpetually distorting.  He urges keeping open to different “sentiments of rationality,” and he quickly adds that listening to diverse points of view does not mean abandoning one’s own.  It might even enrich them, and it will surely help in dealing with those strange “others” who disagree.

Openness to what the historical record has to teach is the first art of the historian.  Addressing it with both diligence and humility is the best way to maintain “truthfulness to it,” as Kloppenberg says of Haskell.  And James’s unblinking approach can continue to illuminate for our time, to coach toward our goals of fidelity to the historical record.

I offer an example of this unblinking approach to the recent historical record in this essay on “What We Can Learn From Fake News,” https://pubclassroom.com/2017/07/24/what-we-can-learn-from-fake-news/.  Historians can enrich public discourse not just by critiquing fake news stories, but also by attempting to learn how they appeal.

Historians can become like the Columbos of our public life.  In Peter Falk’s memorable role as the private investigator Lieutenant Frank Columbo (http://www.metv.com/lists/16-fascinating-facts-about-peter-falk-and-columbo), he would solve crimes by getting to know the suspects.  In the same way, historians let us get to know the producers and consumers of fake new, and the whole array of characters, from heroes to villains, in our cultural dramas.   That understanding of how we think and feel can help all citizens be better judges of the worlds around them.

Popular Thinking in Political Campaigns

What We Can Learn from Fake News

FakeNewsAn earlier version of this article appeared in History News Network, July 23, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166400 , and in The Huffington Post, July 25, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-we-can-learn-from-fake-news_us_597764e7e4b0940189700cd0

False facts provide clues about the stories that make the fakery seem true.

Fake news has both producers and consumers.  Stories like the one about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump for president are eye catching, but fake news can really only generate much power when a lot of people believe it.  Without that, it is just so much sputtering, and can even backfire on the perpetrators by smearing them with a reputation for dishonesty or for being just plain crazy.  Continue reading