William James Coming of Age

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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William James Coming of Age

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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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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William James Coming of Age

The Social Value of William James

September 2011

William James (1842-1910) died one hundred years ago this last month. My study of his life and work has been a liberal education worthy of Stetson’s mission.

His career spans the arts and sciences. He resolved first to be a painter, beginning at age eighteen in the art studio of William Morris Hunt. He had a strong avocational appetite for literature that began with his friendship with his brother, the novelist Henry James, and continued his whole life, with frequent literary references and abundant lively correspondence with writers. And he had a strong interest in spirituality…and which he used to understand the relation of science and religion, and to address the limits of their institutional forms.

For more on William James, click here!

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