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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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,

The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59a48a7ae4b0d6cf7f404fa5,

and in 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.

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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

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William James Coming of Age

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/.

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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.

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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

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What's DAT?

Attention, Our Effective Intelligence

Everyone has their own particular brain capacity.  From an early age, we are good at some things rather than others, and attracted to particular fields.  Do you like detail work or big pictures?  Are you good with numbers or with words?  You probably had a favorite subject in school; and if you are lucky, when a first job did not suit you, you found one that did—one that well suited your native capacities.  Psychologists measure our brain capacities with numbers, our IQ or intelligence quotient, which puts a big emphasis on logical reasoning abilities.  But our full capacities are a whole congress of talents for figuring things out, from mathematical puzzles and chess moves to basketball plays and social interaction.  In the whole theater of life, some steps are smarter than others.

Education is the widely recognized setting for upping our intelligence game, with more knowledge and more skills; classrooms are important for learning all kinds of things from better writing to the subtleties of mitosis or financial accounting.  Education is a great social step for sharpening our native intellectual capacities.  But there is another personal step that anyone can take without spending a dime on tuition.  Pay attention.  Yes, paying attention is like pressing the power button on our brains.  Imagine a powerful computer that’s turned off; now imagine a powerful brain with great capacities but no attention: powered off.  Attention is effective intelligence.  No matter your native endowments, add the sharp focus of attention to any project large or small, with interests fired up and mind drilling down on every implication and detail, and you’ve got intelligence to the max.  Find what captures your attention, and you’ll find yourself capturing more of the world.

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