16 May 2012

Consciousness is Personal — William James continued

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:35 am

[Excerpts from The Principles of Psychology, 1890 by William James; Volume One, Chapter IX: “The Stream of Thought”]

Every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness.

My thought belongs with my other thoughts, and your thoughts with your other thoughts. Whether anywhere in the room there be a mere thought, which is nobody’s thought, we have no means of ascertaining, for we have no experience of its like. Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned… On these terms the personal self rather than the thought might be regarded as the immediate datum of psychology. The universal conscious fact is not ‘feelings and thoughts exist’ but ‘I think’ and ‘I feel.’

What now is the common whole. The natural name for it is myself, I, or me

When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought that were broken by the sleeping hours… Peter’s present instantly finds out Peter’s past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul. Paul’s thought in turn is as little liable to go astray. The past thought of Peter is appropriated by the present Peter alone… The community of self is what the time-gap cannot break in twain…

The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone. In a sense the statue stood there from eternity. But there are a thousand different ones beside it, and the sculptor alone is to thank for having extricated this one from the rest. Just so the world of each of us, howsoever different our several views of it may be, all lay embedded in the primordial chaos of sensations, which gave the mere matter to the thought of all of us indifferently. We may, if we like, by our reasonings unwind things back to that black and jointless continuity of space and moving clouds of swarming atoms which science calls the only real world. But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply rejecting certain portions of the given stuff. Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos! My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may extract them. How different must be the worlds in the consciousnesses of ant, cuttle-fish, or crab!

But in my mind and your mind the rejected portions and the selected portions of the original world-stuff are to a great extent the same. The human race as a whole largely agrees as to what it shall notice and name, and what not. And among the noticed parts we select in much the same way for accentuation and preference or subordination and dislike. There is, however, one entirely extraordinary case in which no two men ever are known to choose alike. One great splitting of the whole universe into two halves is made by each of us; and for each of us almost all of the interest attaches to one of the halves; but we all draw the line of division between them in a different place. When I say that we all call the two halves by the same names, and that those names are ‘me‘ and ‘not-me‘ respectively, it will at once be seen what I mean. The altogether unique kind of interest which each human mind feels in those parts of creation, which it can call me or mine may be a moral riddle, but it is a fundamental psychological fact. No mind can take the same interest in his neighbor’s me as in his own. The neighbor’s me falls together with all the rest of things in one foreign mass, against which his own me stands out in startling relief. Even the trodden worm, as Lotze somewhere says, contrasts his own suffering self with the whole remaining universe, though he have no clear conception either of himself or of what the universe may be. He is for me a mere part of the world; for him it is I who am the mere part. Each of us dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place.



  1. What James has to say about the immediate perception of the unity of consciousness is accepted by Advaita but rejected as an inbuilt illusion by Buddhists. For them its grip must be broken by various practices, chief of which is mindfulness. So instead of saying ‘I feel cold’, I ought to say ‘cold feeling, cold feeling’. The advaitin position is that consciousness as such is substantial and the source of identity whilst the various forms that it takes, what they call mental modifications are merely fleeting and insubstantial. The metaphor they use is that of clay being the reality of vessels made of clay and the various forms of clay exist in name only.

    Owen Flanagan in his book on consciousness, the title escapes me for the moment, its his counter to Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, has some remarks about the Jamesian ‘stream of consciousness’. I’ll root it out later, things are getting chaotic in the shelving department.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 17 May 2012 @ 2:04 am

  2. The current emphasis on “embodied mind” is concerned less with the mind-matter issue than with the perceiver’s perspective always taking shape from a particular physical point of view that corresponds with the perceiver’s body. So even if you and I agree that the table exists, is hard, etc., I can always only see it from the POV afforded by the eyes perched near the top of my head; I can feel its hardness only by the shins near the bottom that bump into the table’s legs, etc. James makes the case elsewhere that the ability to think and talk about an external world is contingent on this subject-centeredness, that the pragmatic need to move around in the world, to avoid obstacles, to find food, and so on actively shapes perception, thought, and language use. These insights have largely been supported empirically. I’d say that science too seeks a transcendent point of view, decoupled from the individual perceiver: not “it feels hard,” but “it is hard.” James is more ambiguous about this externalized view of reality; I might post some of his writings on that subject later, along with his elaborations on the stream. Meanwhile, you’re also getting some feel for how William brother of Henry writes about these ideas.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 May 2012 @ 6:55 am

  3. ” Wemay, ifwelike,byourreasoningsunwind thingsbacktothatblackandjointlesscontinuityofspaceandmoving cloudsof swarmingatomswhichsciencecallstheonlyrealworld.Butallthewhiletheworldwefeeland livein willbethatwhich our ancestorsandwe, byslowlycumulativestrokesofchoice, haveextricated outofthis,likesculptors,bysimplyrejecting certain portionsofthegivenstuff.Othersculptors, other statuesfromthesamestone!Other minds,otherworldsfromthesame monotonousand inexpressivechaos!Myworldisbutoneinamillionalikeembedded,alikerealto thosewhomayextract them. Howdifferentmustbetheworldsintheconsciousnessesofant,cuttle-fish,or crab!”

    Sounds like constraint causation to me.


    Comment by Carl — 17 May 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  4. Nice streamofconsciousnesspunctuation, Carl. From Wikipedia:

    In stream of consciousness, the speaker’s thought processes are more often depicted as overheard in the mind (or addressed to oneself); it is primarily a fictional device. The term was introduced to the field of literary studies from that of psychology, where it was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James.

    Spaces between words provide a nice example of constraint being an absence rather than a presence. The spaces reduce the uncertainty of meaning in the letter strings both preceding and following the space, thereby reducing informational entropy. The James text you duplicate in your comment illustrates James’ ambivalent position with respect to realism. He’s famous for his “blooming buzzing confusion” characterization of an external world unconstrained by human consciousness. On the other hand, he writes things like this:

    “Does not a loud explosion rend the consciousness upon which it abruptly breaks, in twain? Does not every sudden shock, appearance of a new object, or change in a sensation, create a real interruption, sensibly felt as such, which cuts the conscious stream across at the moment at which it appears? Do not such interruptions smite us at every hour of our lives, and have we the right, in their presence, still to call our consciousness a continuous stream?

    This objection is based partly on a confusion and partly on a superficial introspective view.

    The confusion is between thoughts themselves, taken as subjective facts, and the things of which they are aware. It is natural to make this confusion, but easy to avoid it once put on one’s guard. The things are discrete and discontinuous; they do pass before us in a train or chain, making often explosive appearances and rending each other in twain. But their comings and goings and contrasts no more break the flow of thought that thinks them than they break the time and the space in which they lie… The transition between the thought of one object and the thought of another is no more a break in the thought than a joint in a bamboo is a break in the wood. It is a part of the consciousness as much as the joint is a part of the bamboo.” (emphasis added)

    Just as there is a stream of consciousness, so is there a stream of reality. The streams aren’t just a smooth slurry; they have chunks floating in them. The streams interact but aren’t identical; the joints in the bamboo don’t necessarily correspond precisely with the joints in my consciousness of the bamboo. As a pragmatist James will insist that the joints of consciousness are a largely — though not completely — a function of the person’s intentions, which manifest themselves as selective attention to certain features of the world while ignoring others. Consciousness becomes an emergent function of (a) the constraints of the efficient causes imposed by reality, interacting with (b) the constraints imposed on reality by the conscious person’s final cause. Certainly James was an early theorist of emergence, along with his pragmatist buddy Peirce, acknowledged repeatedly and *explicitly* by Terrence Deacon in the book we’re discussing on your blog, Carl.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 May 2012 @ 6:44 am

  5. This is all very well visioned. (And re: the spaces, you’re right and that was a serendipitous artifact of my tablet’s cut/paste function interacting w/ WordPress.)

    I really would like to rethink the origins/influences/intertext/citation discussion revisioned according to this new analytical l


    Comment by Carl — 18 May 2012 @ 11:47 am

  6. ine. It seems really silly to think of theory complexes plodding along in additively linear lockstep.


    Comment by Carl — 18 May 2012 @ 11:49 am

  7. Hume’s question: How does a series of conscious states become conscious of itself as a series? Flanagans answer to this in his chapter on ‘The Stream of Consciousness’ in Consciousness Reconsidered is the Buddhist one – the thoughts think themselves. This is the position of James according to him.

    When James says “For every brain-modification, however small, we may suppose that there must correspond a change of equal amount in the consciousness which the brain subserves”, Flanagan brushes that aside. He’s picking and mixing at the Jamesian sweet-counter.

    Concerning the relation of memory to identity the connectedness to other brain states which is his understanding of memory survives even long periods of brain quiescence such as coma. However that brings up the position which puzzled Hume namely the magical power of memory to create its own subject. Memory cannot provide the evidence for identity but it displays it.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 20 May 2012 @ 2:41 pm

  8. You can see from the portions cited in this post that “thoughts think themselves” is not consistent with James’ view. To reiterate:

    “[T]he personal self rather than the thought might be treated as the immediate datum of psychology. The universal conscious fact is not ‘feelings and thoughts exist,’ but ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’. No psychology, at any rate, can question the existence of personal selves. The worst a psychology can do is so to interpret the nature of these selves as to rob them of their worth.”

    In the quote about correspondence between changes in brain state and changes in feeling, James is arguing on neurological grounds against any attempt to reduce a thought to the simple discrete elements of which it is composed.

    “[H]owever we might in ordinary conversation speak of getting the same sensation again, we never in strict theoretic accuracy could do so; and that whatever was true of the river of life, of the river of elementary feeling, it would certainly be true to say, like Heraclitus, that we never descend twice into the same stream.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2012 @ 6:17 pm

  9. I’ve been quoting excerpts from Chapter IX, “The Stream of Thought; the next chapter is entitled “The Consciousness of Self.” James presents the continuous stream as an explicit contrast to the series of states that Hume finds problematic. After quoting Hume’s reflections on personal identity at some length, James observes:

    Hume, after doing this good piece of introspective work, proceeds to pour out the child with the bath, and to fly to as great an extreme as the substantialist philosophers. As they say the Self is nothing but Unity, unity abstract and absolute, so Hume says it is nothing but Diversity, diversity abstract and absolute; whereas in truth it is that mixture of unity and diversity which we ourselves have already found it so easy to pick apart. We found among the objects of the stream certain feelings that hardly changed, that stood out warm and vivid in the past just as the present feeling does now; and we found the present feeling to be the centre of accretion to which, de proche en proche, these other feelings are, by the Judging thought, felt to cling. Hume says nothing of the judging Thought; and he denies this thread of resemblance, this core of sameness running through the ingredients of the Self, to exist even as a phenomenal thing. To him there is no tertium quid between pure unity and pure separateness…

    The chain of distinct existences into which Hume thus chopped up our ‘stream’ was adopted by all of his successors as a complete inventory of the facts. The associationist Philosophy was founded. Somehow, out of ‘ideas,’ each separate, each ignorant of its mates, but sticking together and calling each other up according to certain laws, all the higher forms of consciousness were to be explained, and among them the consciousness of our personal identity…

    The defect of all these attempts is that the conclusion pretended to follow from certain premises is by no means rationally involved in the premises. A feeling of any kind, if it simply returns, ought to be nothing else than what it was at first. If memory of previous existence and all sorts of other cognitive functions are attributed to it when it returns, it is no longer the same, but a wholly different feeling, and ought to be so described. We have so described it with greatest explicitness. We have said that feelings never do return. We have not pretended to explain this; we have recorded it as an empirically ascertained law, analogous to certain laws of brain-physiology; and, seeking to define the way in which new feelings do differ from the old, we have found them to be cognizant and appropriative of the old, whereas the old were always cognizant and appropriative of something else…

    It is but just to say that the associationist writers as a rule seem to have a lurking bad conscience about the Self; and that they are explicit enough about what it is, namely, a train of feelings or thoughts, they are very shy about openly tackling the problem of how it comes to be aware of itself. As a rule, associationist writers keep talking about ‘the mind’ and about what ‘we’ do; and so, smuggling in surreptitiously what they ought avowedly ot have postulated in the form of a present ‘judging Thought,’ they either trade upon their reader’s lack of discernment or are undiscerning themselves.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 May 2012 @ 8:19 pm

  10. Under his breath Flanagan is humming:
    You’ve got to accentuate the positivist, don’t mess with Mr. Inbetween


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 21 May 2012 @ 1:48 am

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