Young William James Thinking

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Paul J. Croce
  • Baltimore, MD: 
    Johns Hopkins University Press
    , December
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 1995, Paul J. Croce published Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880 (University of North Carolina Press), a cultural biography of the American philosopher who exemplifies the transition between the Victorian era and modern thought. Croce labeled this monograph “volume I” of a planned treatment of the entire career of this seminal thinker considered to be the father of pragmatism and modern psychology, who by 1880 had published little, but contained the makings of the greatness that would ripen with his Principles of Psychology (1890), Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and Pragmatism (1907). In Croce’s first book, the decades before James’s birth created the cultural and intellectual preconditions for his understanding of the continuity between the material and the ideal and the infinite “multiverse” of possibilities that forbid anyone from rightfully claiming to know the whole of truth.

Now the reading public finally has Croce’s follow-up, but it is not “volume II.” Instead, Young William James Thinking retraces the heavily documented years between James’s late adolescence and prime manhood. Ending before the Psychology, this work accompanies James through his chaotic early adulthood, his scientific training, his artistic apprenticeship, and his pessimistic crisis; then, on into his early understanding of how ideas should be evaluated according to the effects of believing in them.

Full disclosure: in between these two monographs, I came to know Croce as a fellow James scholar and lunch companion, then as a conference organizer and respondent, and as a sharp, gracious questioner at panels we both attended. This gives me insight into what readers of Young William James Thinking may expect from their investment: time spent with an earnest, humble, passionate student of James and of liberal thought in general. In the years between the two monographs, Croce not only forged connections with scholars in history, English, philosophy, and other disciplines germane to James, but also read avidly in all the fields that fall under the general heading of “American Studies,” which has been Croce’s disciplinary home for all these years. As scholars become increasingly hyper-professional and read more extensively than intensively, Croce’s diligence is welcome.

Accordingly, what a reader gets upon opening Young William James Thinking is a digestion of a massive amount of thought, and a digestion performed by a humane, generous, sensitive, perceptive scholar. Croce has taken advantage of the voluminous scholarship by and about William James to provide a patient, descriptive close reading of his early thought. Croce’s work provides a reference for scholars who want to understand Jamesian ideas without puzzling out the intricate understandings Croce has achieved, or spending so many hours with James’s essays and correspondence—the majority of his output—as Croce. This book provides a one-stop shop for intellectual consumers who understand that pragmatism is important for understanding the course of American ideas, but are not sure why.

Croce calls this work a “developmental biography” (21), which indicates how his work straddles history and philosophy in our time, just as James straddled the real and the ideal in his. James accompanied Croce through his own maturity, showing “awareness of dark times as resources for insights” (197). For those who do not have time to read the letters James wrote to his siblings, spouse, and colleagues, Croce has done that work for us, and is prepared to show, through James, just what makes a life worth living.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Kittelstrom is Professor of History at Sonoma State University and author of The Religion of Democracy (Penguin, 2015).

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul J. Croce is Professor of History and American Studies at Stetson University and a former president of the William James Society. He is the author of Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820–1880.



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