A while ago I discussed the way William James, who originated the phrase “stream of consciousness” nevertheless went on to embrace a radical scepticism about the very idea of consciousness. In an interesting recent paper William Lyons reviews the roots and significance of this apparent apostasy; I was interested in particular in an argument which he thinks helped form James’ view.
James was happy with thoughts and experiences, but denied the existence of any special reflexive sense of self. Hume famously said that when he turned his attention inwards on his own mind, he found only a bundle of perceptions; in the same spirit James says he detects nothing but ‘some bodily fact, an impression coming from my brow, or head, or throat, or nose’. In fact, he becomes convinced that when you boil it right down the breath is probably the core of what has been built up into a strange metaphysical/spiritual entity; I expect he had in mind the ancient Greek pneuma, both breath and spirit. Maybe, he says, we could better talk of ‘sciousness’ to refer to our awareness; consciousness, the special self-awareness, is out. James was impressed by an argument for the impossibility of introspective self-awareness set out by Comte. It points out that when you observe your own thoughts there is an awkward circularity involved. Observation involves conscious attention, but in this case conscious attention is also the target. Necessarily then, there must be some splitting, some withdrawal from the target of observation; but then it ceases to be the conscious awareness we were trying to introspect. It’s like trying to tread on your own shadow. You end up, at best, observing not your real immediate self, but a kind of fake or ersatz thing, an idea of yourself which you have generated.
I’m not absolutely sure this argument is watertight. Comte supposes that in order to observe our own thoughts, we have to stop observing whatever we were contemplating before. If that’s so, is it a disaster? All it really means is that when we observe ourselves, we’ll find that we are currently observing ourselves. That’s circular alright, but I’m not sure it is necessarily disastrous. Moreover, can’t we think about more than one thing at once? Comte suggests that self-observation requires a kind of separation in the self, but aren’t we complex anyway, with several different layers and threads of thought often co-existing? Can’t it be that when we introspect we can observe the thoughts that were running along beforehand accompanied by a new meta level on which we’re watching the original thought and also watching ourselves watching? It sort of seems like that when I introspect – more like that than like bundles or gusts of breath in an empty head.
Putting that aside, if we accept the argument there is another way out, apparently proposed by John Stuart Mill and adopted by James, namely that the required separation takes place over time. So instead of trying to observe my own mind at this very instant, what I’m really doing is contemplating the state it was in a few moments ago; I am in fact remembering rather than perceiving. James concluded that introspection is really retrospection. Far from being a special case of infallible perception, it is as flawed and prone to error as any other memory.
Well, yes; but then all our perceptions are subject a small delay, aren’t they? It may only take a fraction of a second for light to reach our eyes and work its way to the brain, but it’s not instantaneous; and before the perception becomes conscious at least a few more milliseconds of processing will surely intervene. It’s arguable in fact that all perception is retrospection; and we could still argue that self-perception is privileged in at least a weak sense because it all takes place within the brain, where the most serious sources of error and misinterpretation can hardly apply and the delays are presumably at their shortest.
But in fact I think the whole argument goes wrong from the beginning in assuming that when we talk about conscious self-awareness we’re talking about a redirection of the same stream of attention that we habitually direct towards the outside world. I think claims about the special qualities of self-perception actually rest on a view that it is not a product of perception, but inherent in it.
If we’re using a light to explore a dark cellar, we have to turn the beam on each object in order to perceive it. But then what about seeing the light? Do we have to turn the beam of light on to itself – and if we do somehow manage that will we really be seeing the light as it is, or some strange reflected optical phenomenon? Obviously not: light is visible already without more light being played on it: and we are aware of our own perception without having to perceive it.
Of course we can turn our eyes inwards, and all the confusingly complex business of retrospection and perceiving imagined self-images are all perfectly possible, and part of the complicated overall picture. But the essence of it is that acts of perception inherently indicate the perceiving self as well as the object of perception. Perception of the self seems to be a special case, invulnerable to error, because we can be mistaken about the objects of perception but not about the fact that we are perceiving (as Descartes might have said).
I dare say, however, that some reasonable people would be content with sciousness, or rather would take simple awareness to be consciousness, without being unduly concerned with the self-reflecting variety. It seems as if James, by contrast, would agree with higher-order theorists about the nature of consciousness, but differ from them in considering it impossible.