Archive for August, 2010

sic transit

August 19, 2010

The other hard transition here is to the school-day routine. I returned from my rambling New England sojourn to the frenetic morning hustle & bustle summer seduces us into forgetting. No more sleeping “late,” no more long and leisurely dawn reflections while the household slumbers. I am again a breakfast facilitator, time management supervisor, and taxi driver. And that’s just for their school routine, mine begins next week.

But I’m not really complaining. Just wondering who’s going to manage and supervise my own fleeting time. Guess it’ll have to be me.

in transition

August 18, 2010

Home. A good place to come back to.

I’m really half still in New England, though, and the transition is a little hard. Chocorua, where James said he felt most genuinely real and free, was so beautifully welcoming.

The old homestead on Route 16, across the road from lake and mountain, is for sale too, for not quite a million. A bargain for someone who can appreciate all those doors opening out.

And what fun, re-creating the iconic stonewall face-off with Josiah Royce.

So many fine conversations, in charming and unconventional venues like a church and a library.  My favorite: the screened “1776 porch” looking onto a lovely garden and bird sanctuary. The anonymous proprietors had not bothered to relocate the cat bowl. Why should they? He lives there, we were the squatters. One of the sessions there was about putting the “F”(un) back in Philosophy.” Another, led by a musicologist from Notre Dame, was about the prominent (but previously unnoted) part played in Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge by James’s “Energies of Men.”

Cambridge, in August as ever, is a heady and inspiring place. The new James exhibition in Houghton Library (“Life is in the Transitions”), curated by biographer Linda Simon and there for public perusal through December, is compelling… as was the whole “Footsteps” Symposium weekend, in fact. Paul Croce, the WJ Society, and the local organizers did a wonderful job putting it all together.

There are so many moments I want to lock into memory. One in particular: John McDermott practically lunging across me to tag Hilary Putnam in solidarity as a contemporaneous peer, while captivating the room with yet another passionate testimonial to the enduring power of Jamesian spontaneity and freedom. (Harvard historian James Kloppenberg had invited the elder sages among us to share their experience as teachers and exemplars of Jamesian virtue.)

The guided walking tour of Cambridge was a perfect touch. James had no more use than I for arid academic symposia in which scholars do nothing but sit in stuffy windowless rooms wallowing in words and textual abstractions. He’d have loved the view from the 15th floor of WJ Hall.

Also enjoyed meeting and hearing Robert Richardson.

Looking forward now to the next James centenary, in 2042. What will life have made of itself, by then?


Postscript. Very nice follow-up email from Prof. Croce-

Dear Symposium Participants,

I still feel the energy and excitement of the symposium, and I thank you all for helping to make it a wonderful event.  And special thanks to Lynn Bridgers who did an enormous amount of work setting up the program, to Kent Schneider who orchestrated events (and music!) in Chocorua, and to Leslie Morris who arranged our attendance at the exhibition and our use of the Houghton for the reception.

For many of us, a new semester started after the Symposium—my own first class was the next day!—and this has delayed my communication.  It has been weeks since we last met, and before more time flies, let me share some news with you….

*William James Studies is interested in reviewing papers from the Symposium for publication. Please contact the editors Mark Moller ( or Linda Simon (, and see the submission guidelines (; please send in revised versions of your paper by November 15, 2010.

*For papers of a historical and cultural orientation, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is interested in reviewing Symposium papers for publication; contact editor Alan Lessoff,, and see their web page:

*We were the inaugural audience for the Houghton Library’s year-long exhibition, “Life is in the Transitions: William James, 1842-1910;” to see the exhibition online, go to

*Michael Brant of Conference Recording Services (;; (510) 527-3600) did a superb job recording our event, and the audio and video recordings are available at

*Davidson Films (; Fran Davidson [], 1-888-437-4200) was taking some footage of the Symposium and of some participants for their film on William James for the series “Giants of Psychology,” and it should be ready by January.

*Please consider joining the William James Society for its next gathering at the American Philosophical Association Eastern meeting, Boston, December 27-30; the program includes my paper on “The Pre-Disciplinary James;” and a panel on “James Across the Disciplines” with papers by Ramón del Castillo (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia-Madrid), “The Comic Mind of William James;” Loren Goldman (Rutgers University), “The Ideological James: Radical Appropriations of a Liberal Philosopher;” and Emma Sutton (University College London), “James and the Politics of Psychopathology;” with a comment by Francesca Bordogna (Northwestern University).

*Please consider submitting a paper for a William James Society session at the APA Central meeting in Minneapolis, March 30-April 2, 2011; contact Cecelia Watson (; early-career scholars particularly welcome.

*thanks to many of you for your follow-up messages and words of enthusiasm, and especially for these audio and visual links to the Symposium events:

-from Phil Oliver:;

-from Vinny Hevern:

[Post-postscript, DECEMBER 2010: Flickr photos]

-from Bob Doyle:

We would like to include these, some photos, and more on the William James Society web page,–contributions of content and suggestions about postings most welcome.  If you are new to the society, I hope you can stay involved with our work and our activities.  The election to the executive committee is coming soon; nominations welcome and please exercise your franchise in a few months when it is time to vote.

The Symposium was an exciting event.  I hope we can meet again before too long—perhaps at another Society event.



Paul J. Croce

218 Sampson, Stetson campus; 386-822-7533;

Professor of American Studies at Stetson,

Director of the Stetson Student Research in Science and Religion (2SR) Program,

Director of Stetson American Studies International (SASI),

President of the William James Society,

Co-organizer of the Symposium, In the Footsteps of William James, August 13-16, 2010,

White Mtn dawn

August 13, 2010

What a brilliant sun, just now topping the mountain horizon and beaming thru my open motel window in New Hampshire. It’s much more gorgeous here than I’d recalled.

Time to go exploring.


August 12, 2010

I’m not sure whether to call it a conference or a pilgrimage.

The organizers are calling it In the Footsteps of William James: A Symposium on the Legacy – and the On-Going Uses – of James’s Work. It’s to honor and extend that legacy, on the occasion of the centenary observation of his death in Chocorua, New Hampshire in 1910. It begins in Chocorua on Friday and then migrates to Cambridge, near Harvard, on Monday.

I’m chairing a session on Sunday, on morality and freedom and the “will to believe.” Looks like I’ll be delivering a paper too.

But I’m really going for the experience of treading in my favorite philosopher’s footsteps, at his school and in his homes and on his mountain. I’ve been there before, briefly, first in ’93. But this will be the full immersive baptism, as it were. A (secular) variety of religious experience, even.

And I’m on my way…

transhumanist piety

August 11, 2010

The new scientific quest for immortality is secular, not religious? Maybe that was hasty.

Jaron Lanier says these new seekers (Kurzweil, de Grey et al) are religious, too, motivated by the same aversion to death that has always populated the pews. In this light, Singularity University is the transhumanist mother-church.  Its core message?

One day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening.

Some think the newly sentient Internet would then choose to kill us; others think it would be generous and digitize us the way Google is digitizing old books, so that we can live forever as algorithms inside the global brain. Yes, this sounds like many different science fiction movies. Yes, it sounds nutty when stated so bluntly. But these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.

Well. If they’re talking about destruction– of humanity, individuality, subjectivity, personal consciousness– they can count me out.

But is that what they’re talking about? According to the Transhumanist Declaration, they

favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

Cryonics, eh? That raises a red flag (with Red Sox and a “B”) for me.

But who could be against “wide personal choice”?

singular future

August 10, 2010

Immortality. It’s not just for the religious, anymore.

You can matriculate at Singularity U. and major in it. Or something close. The curriculum includes programs in Futures Studies, bio- and nanotech, AI & robotics… but reading between the lines, the real subject at this school whose stated mission is to “address humanity’s Grand Challenges” seems to be the defeat (not just acceptance or understanding) of death. [“Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday“… Jaron Lanier on the “First Church of Robotics“]

Or you can line up with Aubrey de Grey to study “the strange science of immortality.” That’s the subtitle of Jonathan Weiner’s Long for this World, a page-turning account of the strange scientist who confidently predicts that humans will soon begin to live forever. [de Grey’s “manifesto“]

Unlike Chancellor/Trustee Ray Kurzweil, de Grey says he’s motivated not by dreams of personal immortality for himself or his kin– (he has no children, saying “anyone can have kids. I want to make a difference.”)– but to benefit humanity.

It sounds like fiction. It sounds, in fact, like Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel of a dystopian future in which people carry Orwellian smart phones so they can run instant background checks on each other and constantly monitor their credit ratings, and go to college to major in things like Images and Assertiveness.

“A cornerstone of the Post-Human Philosophy,” in the brave new world, is that if you really want to live forever you’ll find a way. The people who think this way, the narrator observes, are captivated by a singular “inability to grasp the present moment.”

Is there a sensible way we can inhabit the present, invest in the deep future, and genuinely study and advance the amelioration of the human condition? And do it without being kooky eccentric egocentric geniuses? That’s what we’re going to study in Future of Life, getting under way in just a couple of weeks at my own singular university.

simple education

August 9, 2010

Noted in the Sunday Times:

Happiness is more likely to flow from simplicity and richness of experience than from the accumulation of material possessions. (A conclusion we nailed down in Happiness 101 last year, btw.)

People are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses. “But Will It Make You Happy?”

So, hold off on that iPad (actually I’m leaning more to the Kindle now) and new shoes (but I’m really enjoying my new Timberland Chocoruas) and new coat of paint. Go somewhere fun on Labor Day weekend instead.

We were going to Chicago and Wrigley Field, ’til some brilliant school planner decided the 10th graders needed to “retreat” that weekend. So, a related piece of  happiness wisdom: don’t let schooling stand in the way of your happy education. (Mr. Twain said it first, I think.)

The piece concludes: “Give away some of your stuff. See how it feels.” It feels pretty smart, in my experience. Like shedding unhealthy pounds.

Also noted: an opining Protestant minister bemoans the commodification of spirit in consumerist America:

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.  Congregations Gone Wild

I’m not a churchgoer, but substitute academic for pastoral, students for churchgoers, and professors for pastors and you’ve got a telling vocational parallel. Not all of my teaching colleagues would agree that it’s our job to improve our students and wean them from the depredations of life in consumerist America, and even fewer of my administrative colleagues would.

But that’s how I still see it. The new state chancellor of our governing board was quoted over the weekend as saying something about our mission being to help our students succeed. I agree, though I’m pretty sure he and I have incommensurate ideas about what that entails, precisely. It’s not merely about emerging after four years to join the workforce and start accumulating lots of stuff.

There are important dots to connect here, between happiness, simplicity, and an education worth stretching for. If we don’t at least try, we fail.


August 7, 2010

The day began with a glitch, with an unexpected visit from the exterminator. Not a big deal really, but troublesome at the time. A reminder that surprise can rise up out of mundane everyday life and throw you an unpleasant curve. (Details unimportant, but the drama centered on how to apply the rule about letting “strangers” in the house etc.)

But then the day got a lot better. We had some great family time out at the local water park, where the new wave pool and “lazy river” attractions have dispersed the crowd just  enough so that you don’t have to scuffle for a shady spot to stow your stuff.  Then, dinner with Younger Daughter at our favorite faux-Asian eatery, followed by an agreeable On Demand movie about treasure-seeking, culminating in her bedtime observation that it had been one of the best Dad-and-Daughter days ever. A day and a moment to treasure, for real.

[BTW: I was on digital holiday a week ago, so didn’t mention here the terrific Dad-and-Daughter night out with Older Daughter, at the old ballpark. Another warm summer snapshot worth storing.]

Last time we went to a wave pool, a few years ago, it was so hot and crowded you felt like a sardine bobbing in a jostled tin.

Last time we were in real waves, last month, there was real menace and unpredictability in the surf’s indifferent violence. I confess I found myself literally over my head and at sea, at least once. Very real, not very much fun.

Yesterday’s faux experience, controlled and monitored, was much nicer. And it was real, too. Faux real. Real enough.

The moral for me is to take our treasures where we find them. It’s not exactly “your mind that makes it real,” Morpheus. But, how we think about small events and moments, how we tell the stories of our days, is precisely what makes them worth treasuring. And blogging about.


August 6, 2010

It’s raining buckets of welcome relief, this morning, from the oven-baking we’ve been enduring. 72 degrees and breezy. Lovely.

Storms in the early afternoon yesterday pulled our plugs for several hours. Thanks to the disciplined practice of my recent digital holiday, I was happy to go gridless again for a while.

But the girls were less sanguine.  They were pleased with the “emergency” that licensed their refrigerator raid– it’d be tragic for the ice cream to melt, etc.– but their real distress at prolonged disconnection was palpable. Younger Daughter got mad. “Why don’t they fix it?!”

To her credit, she hit upon a smart solution: head to the arts & crafts store with her recent birthday gift certificate and find something there to make or do. What she eventually found was a dry erase board, which she then spent the balance of her power outage deeply engaged with, in an elaborate role-playing game whose rules only she understood.

A genuine wireless device, runs and runs on a single imaginative charge.

NES eventually did get us plugged back in, of course. For a brief while, though, we were  reminded that humans aren’t yet entirely dependent on external energy sources.

music lessons

August 5, 2010

School’s about to begin again, our girls have less than two weeks of their carefree endless summer left to spend.

So, naturally, it has just occurred to them both that they’d really like to get serious now about learning to play guitar and piano. I was dispatched to the hot, dank, dusty attic to retrieve the neglected Casio keyboard for Younger Daughter, and badly out-of-tune string sounds began to emanate from Older Daughter’s room. Later we visited World Music, at their insistence, to see about lessons. It’s an impressive operation, much more alluring than my old piano instructor’s ’60s living room. They’re enthused.

Good for them, growing up in Music City and finally infected with the spirit of “Musica.” I hope it won’t dampen their enthusiasm when we swing by school to pick up their textbooks.

I have no room to complain about their procrastination, with my own summer book project lagging and now in competition with class prep. Today I shall write syllabi.

Some of us get a lot done in summer. Others spend the better part of it figuring out what seems worth doing. Mr. Bennett says the time will be provided. We’re counting on it.