Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

The Noble Lineage of Indecision

Maybe you're indecisive, but so was an especially notable genius

I'm presently reading The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, a fascinating, Pulitzer Prize winning book about the development and influence of pragmatism--the only true homegrown American philosophy--beginning with the Civil War through to the Supreme Court decision that laid the foundation for modern free speech law.

During a crucial few months in this period, three influential minds met informally in a discussion group: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. They kept no records, but the ideas they forged became integral to the development of American thought in the twentieth century.

Of these thinkers, William James, polymath and godfather of modern psychology, was known far and wide as fanatically indecisive. Knowing this about himself, yet valuing what he called "risk assuming decisiveness" as a mark of true character, he came up with a solution, which he called "self conscious impulsivity."  He would act decisively, and then just as decisively, change his mind.

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An example of this given in the book was his career path. He spent 15 years trying to settle on an occupation, switching from science to painting, back to science, then back to painting, then anatomy, natural history and finally medicine (which is the only course of study he finished -- though he never practiced medicine a day in his life). He began teaching physiology at Harvard in 1872, then switched to psychology, then to philosophy. In 1903 he began the process of trying to decide if he should retire. His diary for the fall of 1905 reads:

October 26: "Resign!"

October 28: "Resign!!!"

November 4: "Resign?"

November 7: "Resign!"

November 8: "Don't resign"

November 9: "Resign!"

November 16: "Don't resign!"

November 23: "Resign"

December 7: "Don't resign"

December 9: "Teach here next year"

He retired in 1907.

So the next time someone calls you indecisive, you can tell them you're in good company.

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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