William JamesThere’s a great collection of stuff about William James here, including the famous paper in which he introduced the concept of the ‘stream of consciousness’. That idea has been more influential in literature than psychology, perhaps, but James’ work enjoys tremendous respect among contemporary academics – much more than the works of some more recent thinkers whose ideas are tied to largely discredited theories.

Curiously, not all that many years after writing about the stream of consciousness, James produced a trenchant piece calling for the whole idea to be done away with. Consciousness, he wrote “is the name of a nonentity… a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy”.

A century later, this still sounds a perplexingly radical stance. James himself rather wearily observed that his view would take a good deal of explanation to make it plausible, something he did not feel he had achieved in a single paper. I think that’s pessimistic: the paper inevitably leaves a lot of metaphysical washing up to be done, but there’s nothing half-baked about the central point. The best way of grasping what James means is to take his point in a historical context, as the quotation above suggests.

Once, straightforward dualism was the unquestioned orthodoxy: there were physical objects and spiritual objects and a great gulf lay between the two. Souls basically did the perceiving and the physical world did the being-perceived. Over time, however, the gulf began to close and the two sides began to get closer. But although the prevailing orthodoxy became increasingly monist, a distinction was always maintained, eventually boiling down to the difference between subject and object: and that difference is, in a word, consciousness. Subjects possess this mysterious substance, objects do not.

James calls for a further step towards a purer monism. There is no substantial difference between subject and object, nor (this is a little more difficult to accept) between thoughts and things. It is all a matter of functional relationships. He offers the analogy of paint: when it’s in a tin, paint is clearly just a saleable commodity; when it’s on canvas as part of a painting, it represents things, it has meaning, and all the rest. But it’s still paint: it hasn’t become spooky magic meaning paint; it hasn’t been endowed with the miraculous stuff of subjectivity. It’s still paint. The only difference is that on the canvas it now stands in certain relationships to certain things (objects represented, people) which it didn’t while it was still in the tin.

Moreover, says James, so far as thoughts are concerned, aren’t imaginary objects fundamentally similar to real ones? People have difficulty in accepting that a fictional rose is really red, or a hallucinatory knife really sharp, but why? James isn’t arguing that imaginary objects are indistinguishable from real ones, but rather that they are distinguishable only through a difference in the relations between them: real knives cut real objects, while imaginary knives may or may not cut imaginary objects and don’t cut real ones at all. Real knives, we notice, have stable and predictable relations with other real objects – that’s what their reality amounts to, not a fundamental difference of substance.

Everything, it seems, reduces to experience, and in fact, if we reformulate our view of consciousness in those terms, it ceases to be problematic. So long as we recognise that it is a matter of relations within a monist world, we won’t get into trouble: let’s stop speaking of it as something in a world of its own.

I think that once you get over the initial strangeness of this view, it seems pretty logical. But I see two problems. The first is that James speaks as though the different relations between things in his accoung of the world were more or less arbitrary: as it happens, this thing has the relations which make it an idea or a subject, and these things haven’t. Surely it isn’t quite like that. Some of these things have qualities which enable them to enter into the required relations, and others don’t. A block of stone does not have the qualities needed to become a subject, still less a thought. On James’ account, much of the difficulty and many of the challenges arising from the issues of consciousness transfer to the task of describing what these qualities are: and one may legitimately suspect that the dualistic magic he has banished from his account is likely to pop up again in one form or another when that task is undertaken.

Second, I think there are basic problems in saying that imaginary things can be red or sharp in the same sense as real ones. What imaginary knives have is the property of being thought-of-as-sharp: but that’s clearly not the same as the property of being-sharp: real things can have the first in addition to, but distinct from, the second: in fact, they can have the property of being thought-of-as-sharp together with the property of not-really-being-sharp-at-all.

All the same, could it be true that we should do better to speak merely of experience, and stop talking about consciousness altogether?


  1. 1. Tanasije Gjorgoski says:

    Hi Peter,
    Very interesting post.
    I tend to agree with you (and James) that ‘consciousness’ taken as some mysterious essence doesn’t exist. Taken in such way, it seems to me it is left in some otherness, in which its relation with the brain and the objects remain mystical. However if ‘consciousness’ as notion is taken as referring to something about being (subject), namely a possession of agency, possession of different intentional acts, and so on, then it seems clear to me that it exists. If understood in such sense, it seems that it is hard to deny that there is basic difference between humans and stone.

    I find interesting also the equating between thoughts and the things, which is kind of Hegelian I guess. I tend to agree with James there. I’m guessing that in case of thinking of particulars it may be interpreted as denying the “middle something” in the case of intentional acts. If I think of the knife, there is no “thought of knife” there as middle something between my psychological state and the knife, but the “knife as thought” is the knife.
    Of course in the place you are quoting, the issue is universals. But, one can argue for equating the idea and thing for universals even more directly. Because whatever is what makes a particular to fall under a universal – knife, it is present also in any imagined knife. Or so to say, as far as we imagine a knife, we imagine it as existing, and as cutting things.

  2. 2. peter.hankins says:

    Yes – alas, I don’t really know enough about Hegel to judge how Hegelian this line of thought may be.

  3. 3. Dan Bloom says:

    This is terrific stuff!
    I am a gestalt therapist in NYC and am part of a renaissance of pragmatism (and radical empiricism, I suppose) within my field. Many of us have been searching for the deeper roots of gestalt therapy and found it in James, Mead and Dewey. My European colleagues on a similar quest, found these roots in phenomenology (existential and transcendental) and hermeneutics.

    It is axiomatic in gestalt therapy that the structure of experience is understood as emergent functioning. You can readily see how this brings us right to James’s later essays. I do not see his later writings as representing a rejection of his stream of consciousness, but more as a finer tuning of his ideas. As a careful describer of experience itself, James has few rivals. His stream of consciousness, his description of the experience of self, are wonderful formulations of lived experience.

    You pose an interesting question when you wonder if dualism returns when we start describing the qualities of consciousness. I don’t think that is inevitable. To remark about such qualities as the iterations of the functioning of experience within the contingencies and affordances of the phenomenal field is not to separate out those qualities from experience as “things.” The dualism we must avoid is that between the stuff of mind and the stuff of the world, so to speak. That which are experienced are a whole emergent events of the stream of experience.

    The commentor above brings in Hegel and that is an interesting thing, too. But let me throw in Mead. Any “object” perceived is a “social object” in that our perception of it includes the perception others have of the same object. I see “it” being seen by others at the same moment I recognize it as “something.” We cannot escape the web of historical, cultural, and social meanings out of which “objects” emerge. This is also my limited understanding of Hegel’s particular/universal, individual/social distinctions.

  4. 4. Dan Bloom says:

    I just delivered a paper at a gestalt therapy conference in which I went to some lenghts in distingishing “awareness” from “consciousness.” Have you considered these as describing different phenomena?

  5. 5. Peter Main says:

    “Consciousness” is the nominalisation of the adjective “conscious”. It leads us to reify the notion, to think that there must be some ~thing~, consciousness, and it is this error that James was attacking. There is no evidence that he had any objection to such usages as “conscious mind”, “conscious thought”, and so on – only to “consciousness”.

    More recently, Thomas Metzinger has attacked the same target in his book, “Being No One”, which starts by denying that anyone ever was or had a self – a start that Metzinger seems to have regretted, since he mentions “the ugly consequences I have to face after calling the book Being No One: I am suddenly confronted with people from all over the world who are stomping their feet on the ground like stubborn children, claiming that they definitely are someone, and they definitely have a self” (Psyche 12(4)). It is evident a bit further on in the book, though, for those that don’t throw it out in disgust after reading that first sentence, that by “self” Metzinger means a conscious entity ontologically independent of the brain, a reified consciousness, the very same that James denied all those years ago.

  6. 6. peter.hankins says:

    Thanks for interesting comments. I’ve certainly read people who use ‘awareness’ to mean a basic faculty of perception, as against the full monty of thinking, believing, feeling, and so on – I don’t know whether that’s quite the distinction you’re making, Dan.

    I will get round to reading Metzinger!

  7. 7. Dan Bloom says:

    I am considering awareness to be the initial, biological responsiveness of the human organism, inluding immediate sensations, urges, and impulses, and consciousness as the further differentiation of that experiece through the activities of cognition. I’ve been debating with colleagues about whether “self” is still a viable concept for epistemology. I believe it is, so long as we understand it to be a phenomenal self.
    By the way, I am a gestalt therapist. Our modality is holistic, non-Cartesian, and phemomenologial. Not many people in other field appreciate our work in this area!

  8. 8. Chris S says:

    I think I have a simpler concept that explains the “delusion of conciousness”. The brain evolved as a computer to more efficiently actualise the biological imperatives of the human organism . One of the powerful tricks/simplifications this computer uses is to label a group of coexisting, cotravelling parts as a single entity . An “object”.
    I do not say “I see four wheels, an engine and a metal body moving down the highway ” I say ” I see a car”. Now consider such a computer contemplating its self . A computer is a collection of functions, proccesors, switches , power units etcetera. but to simplify we label it in every day speech as the thing ” computer” .its this labelling of co parts as a single object that leads us to the error that its essense is a sigularity – a point. For thousands of years philosophers have searched for this sigularity labelled conciousness .Something that never existed . Its a mere artifact of how the brain/computer views “objects” and views itself as a single object.

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