9 May 2012

William James: Unconscious Eliminativist

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:04 pm

Following on from the nineteenth century German psychophysicians’ understanding of unconscious mental processes, I was curious about what William James, the acknowledged founder of American academic psychology, had to say on the subject. Surprisingly, James, who brought the idea of the “stream of consciousness” into Western public awareness, discounted the unconscious altogether. He deployed logic rather than empirical evidence to debunk the contemporary Continental consensus established by the convergence of philosophers and physiological psychologists. All mental activity is conscious, said James, but the stream typically flows so quickly, generating such transitory results, that the mind retains no memory of its own conscious activity. He acknowledges that neurons may be stimulated before erupting into conscious thought. However, these sub-liminal “affections” or “nerve sensations” are mere reactions to sensory stimuli rather than active unconscious mental activity. We can bring to mind the color of our house, the arrangement of the furniture, and whether the door opens out or in not because these facts are stirring about in an unconscious limbo awaiting conscious retrieval, but because past events modify the molecular structure of the brain itself, resulting in a “predisposition” to act upon familiar quadrants the world more efficiently, as if we had been thinking about them in the background all along.

The theory that James advances is far from a crackpot idea, though in James’ time there were no methods available for evaluating these ideas empirically. James was no experimentalist so he wouldn’t have had much interest in doing the research anyway. James the pragmatist firmly asserted that consciousness is <i>for</i> something; I suspect he found it hard to imagine how an unconscious process could have a purpose or end. Here’s a quote from Volume One of his monumental 1890 Principles of Psychology, in which James lambastes the philosophers of the unconscious:

Hartmann fairly boxes the compass of the universe with the principle of unconscious thought. For him there is no namable thing that does not exemplify it. But his logic is so lax and his failure to consider the most obvious alternatives so complete that it would, on the whole, be a waste of time to look at his arguments in detail. The same is true of Schopenhauer, in whom the mythology reaches its climax.

James describes Schopenhauer’s theory that human unconscious visual perception causes and creates spatiality in the world it perceives. “It is, as I said, pure mythology,” James concludes. But he throws out the baby with the bathwater. Visual perception does use sensory inputs to generate a representation of the world, a representation consisting of flat surfaces/edges arrayed in three-dimensional space. This representational activity does take place outside of conscious awareness, as Schopenhauer asserted. Just because the 3D world exists independently of unconscious perception, as James the realist counters, does not mean that visual perception is not an unconscious representational reconstruction of that real world in the mind. Still, James, while eliminating the unconscious, does acknowledge that “certain results, similar to results of reasoning, may be wrought out by rapid brain-processes to which no ideation seems attached.” That sounds like unconscious process to me.

Here’s an odd wrinkle in James’ dismissal of the unconscious. Freud wasn’t the first to investigate hysteria; his mentor Pierre Janet, along with Alfred Binet (famous for inventing the intelligence test) had already devoted considerable attention to the disorder. They used hypnosis to simulate hysteria in the lab, inducing effects like limb anesthesia through suggestion, effects that would disappear once the subject was brought out of the trance. James conducted his own experiments with automatic writing, during which the hand moving the planchette, seemingly outside of conscious control, could generate meaningful phrases. Weren’t these strange perceptions and behaviors and writings evidence of unconscious thought? No, James insisted:

It must be admitted that in certain persons, at least, the total possible consciousness may be split into parts which coexist but mutually ignore each other, and share the objects of knowledge between them. More remarkable still, they are complementary. Give the object to one of the consciousnesses, and by that fact you remove it from the other or others. Barring a certain common fund of information, like the command of language, etc., what the upper self knows the under self is ignorant of, and vice versa.

James’ long-term impact on American psychology is mixed. His pragmatism endured; his resistance to systematic experimentation and to the unconscious did not. Ironically, this combination of experimentation with ends-driven human activity resulted in the dominance of behaviorism in American psychological research. The idea that unintentional activity can yield adaptively useful outcomes — an idea that James rejected — is integral to Darwinian evolution. The success of the means-ends, stimulus-response model in predicting and shaping behavior resulted in the idea that all human cognition is unconscious, that the brain automatically reacts to external stimuli as motivated by instincts and drives, with no need for cogitation. As John Watson wrote in his 1913 “Behaviorist Manifesto”:

Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.

It seems to be common knowledge among theory bloggists that empirical psychology is too rational, too dismissive of the unconscious, perhaps infected by neoliberal false consciousness. What’s being ignored is the historical context. When, at Cornell in 1967, Ulric Neisser coined the term “cognitive psychology,” he was trying to carve out space in a field dominated by behaviorism where consciousness and its characteristic activities — decision-making, problem-solving, intention — had virtually disappeared. In a sense the current wave of neurophilosophical “eliminative materialism” recapitulates the behaviorists’ argument.The middle road seems most likely: just as unconsciousness is “for something,” so too is consciousness. It’s a pragmatic allocation of limited energy resources for the human brain to conduct much of its operations unconsciously, distributed widely around the neural network, reserving the efforts of the relatively energy-intensive consciousness for mental tasks that benefit from concentrated attention and linear processing.

So now I’m more curious about James’ understanding of the “stream of consciousness.” Another post perhaps.



  1. Everything is for something in the human economy, there are no frills or optional extras. Eliminativists of whatever stripe leave too much out. What is poorly understood by positivistic science with its emphasis on efficient causality is that what it is for involves the notion of a final cause. ‘But I can’t see it, show it to me’ is the complaint.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 9 May 2012 @ 5:00 pm

  2. James the pragmatist certainly subscribes to the “everything is for something” theory. Why then doesn’t he see what the unconscious might be for? In part (no pun intended) it’s because he regards consciousness in holistic terms, not reducible to components. Consciousness emerges, in parallel with brain activity that serves as its material substrate. Also and not coincidentally, James was a panpsychist. He discounted the idea of evolution being ends-driven but not intentional. Similarly he , like Fechner, regarded ends-driven activities of non-human creatures and of plants to be a kind of consciousness. To quote from James’ Principles:

    Consciousness, however small, is an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution. If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things… To prove the separate existence of these degrees of consciousness by indirect evidence, since direct intuition of them is not to be had, becomes therefore the first duty of psychological evolutionism.

    I just discovered that Fechner wrote a book, popular in its day, entitled The Little Book of Life After Death, the introduction to which was written by William James.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 May 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  3. ‘The Little Book’ of. He invented that book marketing format too. Myriad minded man.

    I have before me that very text on screen from internet archive, reading it in epub format using the free calibre application which is comfortable and allows for bookmaking, searching, paragraph id. etc. and of course translation of various formats into epub for transfer to the ereader.

    William James’s introduction is fulsome. Unlike the brother who spent too much time amongst the English upper classes he retained a capacity for enthusiasm. He was going to write an introduction for Bergson’s Creative Evolution as well before a subjective acquaintance with death intervened.

    It occurs to me, and I launch it as a slow moving skeet, that there may have been a creative ambiguity about WJ’s use of the term ‘consciousness’. It can mean the ‘immediate given of awareness’, Bergson’s term of which he approved or it can mean the complete flow most of which is just background though it can become foreground when there is peril. In the buzz of a busy room your name is mentioned and you immediately register it which indicates that you were in some manner conscious. In the higher panpsychist usage consciousness is not an emergent but an essential property. It is substantial in the classical sense.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 10 May 2012 @ 3:30 am

  4. I’ll try to get back to James’ understanding of consciousness, looking not just at the streaming but also at the relationship of thought to the world being thought about. As son of a noted Swedenborgian and a table-tapping enthusiast he may well have advocated an “as above so below” parallelism with respect to the relationship between brain and mind, between consciousnenss and Consciousness. As a pragmatist he wouldn’t have felt obliged to synthesize beyond what was useful. It’s been a long time since I read these books and, like Montaigne’s, my memorie is weake and forgetfull. I did underline and annotate though, so maybe I can pull something together.

    I like brother Will’s writing style: it’s direct but far from telegraphic, and as you note his inveterate curiosity shines through. If I post more I’ll excerpt freely.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 May 2012 @ 10:55 am

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