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

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

Back in the Classroom

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

William James Coming of Age…Between Childhood and Fame

A Coming-of-Age Story, Young William James Thinking

How did William James (1842-1910), a chief founder of American psychology and of the philosophy of pragmatism, come of age?  How do any of us develop from young adulthood, with all its choices and confusions, to maturity?  How did young William James become the William James of fame and influence?

While researching and writing Young William James Thinking, I discovered that in the formative years of his youth adulthood, James engaged in deep learning even through his painful struggles.  During his times of “weakness [and]…exhilaration,” as he put it, he developed a “decisive ambivalence,” which would establish the basis for many connecting threads in his far-flung life work.  During these years, he established his commitment to mediating contrasting points of view, and to finding the relation of material and immaterial dimensions of life, such as science and religion, body and mind, and objective and subjective experiences.

Find snippets of stories from the book at https://youngwilliamjamesthinking.tumblr.com/.

After Election Quake 2016

The 100-Day Barometer: Republicans Governing in Purple Times

The article originally appeared in The Huffington Post, April 25, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58feb26be4b0f420ad99cb55

Looking at a Florida Congressman to read the tea leaves of Republican next steps.

To get a sense of the anxieties and tensions Washington, you need go no further than Daytona Beach, Florida, in a purple part of a purple state in a purple nation.  After November’s Republican sweep, and 100 days into the administration of President Donald Trump, with accompanying Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and most state offices, members of the GOP are in the awkward position of governing a nation that is much more split than the red maps of their dominant positions would indicate.  The representative in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, Ron DeSantis, a Republican loyalist, is at the center of this tide, which is showing the strains that emerge when outsiders gain power, especially when surrounded by all those who don’t support them.

Continue reading


The Many Stories of DAT

Attention becomes more important when there is more to pay attention to.  The information explosion of the modern world has put attention front and center as the gatekeeper of a flood of information, misinformation, and different interpretations about all those facts and claims.  Even the simple acronym, DAT, used on this page for Deficit Attention Tweets, points to oceans of input on many fronts. Continue reading