There’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?