Wilson on Croce, 'Young William James Thinking'

Paul J. Croce
Daniel J. Wilson

Paul J. Croce. Young William James Thinking. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 392 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-2365-4.

Reviewed by Daniel J. Wilson (Muhlenberg College) Published on H-Disability (June, 2018) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51416

Paul J. Croce’s Young William James Thinking is not, strictly speaking, a work of disability history. Croce is primarily interested in the development of James’s thinking as a young man, from his early education through his thirties to the beginning of his mature career as a professor of psychology and philosophy at Harvard University. As a young man, James explored several career possibilities—artist, scientist, physician, physiologist, psychologist, and philosopher—before settling on psychology and philosophy as the major emphases of his mature thought. However, as Croce clearly demonstrates, James’s journey to his mature thinking was often delayed and sidelined by a series of medical issues—back pains, eye troubles, depression, digestive problems, and neurasthenia—that, if they were not a disability per se, were certainly disabling for significant periods of time. Croce deftly weaves his account of James’s disabling conditions into his larger narrative of the development of the young James’s thought.

Croce traces, with persuasive detail, James’s early struggle to find a career, a vocation. “When he was still struggling to have his say about the universe, he asked the questions and established the directions that would point him toward his mature theories” (p. 14). Croce describes his book as a “work of developmental biography” that “pursues James’s experiences through youthful texts and contexts to illuminate his intentions and directions on paths toward his mature thoughts” (p. 21). He found that “approaching William James’s theories through his biographical development can display both the halting steps in their formation and the depths of his commitment to avoiding abstract theoretical categories or one-sided choices” (p. 26). For those interested in how the young James became one of the founders of Pragmatism and a leading psychologist and philosopher at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Croce is a valuable guide.

Woven through Croce’s account of the development of James’s thought is his discussion of the various maladies that afflicted the young James. These ailments often deflected or postponed his studies of science, medicine, physiology, and psychology, but they also often provided James with an opportunity to reconsider his thinking or to reorient his career path. James’s physical ailments often forced him in the years of his early adulthood to step away from his studies, to take a water cure, and to reevaluate his plans for the future. For example, in 1867, as James planned to travel to Germany to study with some of the world’s best physiologists, “his poor health stood in the way. He suffered from poor digestion, eye and back troubles, and frequent discouragement that intruded on his intellectual ambitions” (p. 77). To relieve his complaints, James, as he often did, turned to the water cure, which was popular in the late nineteenth century in both the United States and Europe. Advocates of water cure, or hydropathy, saw cold water as a “powerful tool”; “when administered properly, the shock of the cold water would improve health, but only after bringing actual setbacks, such as ‘evacuations of the morbific matters in boils, eruptions, perspirations, diarrheas, etc.’ This was the period of ‘crisis’ in the cure, and although uncomfortable and experienced as a temporary setback, it was anticipated eagerly, even ‘with pleasure and hope’” (p. 115). James seems to have welcomed this sectarian approach to a cure and it explains his “frequent use of the term crisis, often without alarm.” Croce suggests that James may have even “welcomed his personal troubles” as a way of moving forward. Or, as James put it, the “crisis setbacks were part of a broader ‘tendency to recover’” (p. 116). As Croce observes, James, in the fall and winter of 1867, “was experiencing the benefits of this temporary but healing setback, but he would experience the burden of crises over and over again” (p. 117). The repeated reliance on the water cure, especially in the late 1860s, gave James time to recover, to reflect on his goals, and sometimes to redirect his vocational path.

Neurasthenia was one of the diagnoses that James received when he consulted his physicians in the late 1860s. Neurasthenia was a common diagnosis for upper-class men and women of this period who exhibited a wide variety of symptoms that sapped their strength and made it difficult, if not impossible, to continue their work or even the activities of daily life. Croce notes that neurasthenia “had scientific appeal for identifying the physical causes of mental symptoms, especially depression, anxiety, morbid fear, and hopelessness, but also a host of physical troubles including fatigue, headache, and digestive problems.” It was a diagnosis that emerged from the “functional exhaustion in the nervous system rather than a set of problems caused by organic impairment” (p. 124). During his young adulthood, James experienced most of the symptoms associated with neurasthenia. Croce writes that “the neurasthenic diagnosis appealed to James not only because of his own experiences with its symptoms and his own rest cures using hydropathy, but also because it mingled mental and physical symptoms in intimate interaction.” In his writings, including in his psychology texts, James frequently referred to neurasthenia. He also acknowledged that he suffered from the disease, writing in 1895 that “I am a victim of neurasthenia and the sense of hollowness and unreality that goes with it” (p. 125). Whatever the origins of the neurasthenic symptoms, the diagnosis was a medically and socially accepted way for a young man, conflicted about his future prospects, to step out for a period of time to regain his strength and will to reengage with his studies and work. Croce acknowledges as much when he writes that when James, in 1864, was about to enter Harvard Medical School he “shocked himself with the intensity of his first major feeling of ‘desolation.’ In the next few years, a convergence of his health problems, his tendencies to ambivalence about the Civil War, his social relations with family and friends, his vocational uncertainty, and even bleak winter weather plunged him into repeated crises” (p. 187).

Despite the burdens these mental and physical ailments placed on the young man, both James and Croce see these repeated crises as beneficial. As Croce comments, James “was burdened with a set of vexing interwoven dilemmas throughout his young adulthood—in effect, a series of crises that blended into the fabric of his whole development” (p. 188). 

In the late 1860s, however, these long-standing symptoms developed into a deep depression. “The depression James struggled with from 1869 had been building for years. In the early to middle 1860s, he had felt dark moods occasionally, to the point of worry about working in an asylum for fear of contagion from the inmates” (p. 125). During a trip to Germany, “his mood often darkened considerably” and at this time, James “felt ‘on the continual verge of suicide.’ Throughout the season, he was disappointed that his health was not improving, and these problems, combined with his isolation, poor vocational prospects, and frail will, made him feel that ‘I very nearly touched bottom’” (p. 215).

When James accepted his first teaching job at Harvard in 1873, teaching physiology, he “felt a vocational answer to his dilemma about philosophy and physiology. Choosing the concreteness of physiology, with small daily pegging at the natural facts of scientific inquiry, provided an immediate and welcome order in his personal life, because he relished ‘the concrete facts in which a biologist’s responsibilities lie’” (p. 237). In addition, “James’s assertions of will, which would become so important within his mature philosophy, were ways to cope with his troubles, which emerged largely as weakness of his own will in vocational direction, awkwardness with women, and search for philosophical orientation” (p. 240).

James’s neurasthenic symptoms decreased as he started his teaching career at Harvard, which began in physiology and expanded to psychology and philosophy over the next several decades. But he was never completely free of his mental and physical ailments. “James’s youthful troubles continued to nag him for the rest of his life. He complained frequently of back pain, difficulty seeing, digestive problems, and fatigue, and he never stopped being nervous and occasionally depressed, with moments of craving for greater assurance.” Having accepted the water cure sectarian’s interpretation of crises, “James treated them as short-term problems and long-term opportunities for insight and sensitivity. His crises, for all their troubles, kept providing those gifts” (pp. 248-249).

For James and many of his contemporaries, the neurasthenic symptoms and dark moods of depression were indeed disabling in the short run. Blocked in their educational, vocational, and life goals, these young men and women had a medically and socially sanctioned disabling condition that permitted, and indeed often required them to avail themselves of an opportunity to step aside for a period of time. Whether they used the water cure that James relied on or other versions of the rest cure, the diagnosis gave them a chance to recharge their energy, to reconsider their prospects, to focus on building their will, and to wait until the social and vocational situation had changed and they could envision a way forward. As Croce notes, James’s symptoms never completely disappeared, but once launched on his career as a college professor in physiology, psychology, and philosophy, James found ways of limiting the frequency and damage of these disabling conditions. Croce’s excellent book is a valuable guide, not only to the development of the young James thinking but also to the means by which James surmounted the disabling conditions that had afflicted his young adulthood.

Citation: Daniel J. Wilson. Review of Croce, Paul J., Young William James Thinking. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51416

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