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Section III

2.  William James on the Most Mysterious Thing in the World

    William James, the early 20th century American philosopher and psychologist, has been one of the most influential figures in promoting western approaches to the study of consciousness and mind.  This was evident in the frequency with which James was cited, during the 1970's and 1980's, when the topic of consciousness re-emerged in psychology.

    James’ early Principles of Psychology (1890) began with this definition of psychology: “Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both its phenomena and their conditions.”  (p.1)  In the 1892, abridged version of the Principles, this definition is changed to: “... the description and explanation of states of consciousness as such.”  (p.15)  Psychology was, according to James,  most essentially concerned with the mental life and consciousness.  Although James modified his views of the nature of consciousness and mind throughout his career, a number of his early descriptions of consciousness are widely quoted in contemporary psychology:

"By states of consciousness are meant such things as sensations, desires, emotions, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, volitions, and the like."  (p.1)  "The first and foremost concrete fact which every one will affirm to belong to his inner experience is the fact that consciousness of some sort goes on. ‘States of mind’ succeed each other in him.  ... we must simply say that thought goes on." (p.167)

Consciousness is identified, in a general way, with the stream of psychological processes which go on within the mind.  Hence, it is equated with the flow of sensations, desires, emotions and cognition, the “stream of subjective life,” or with the “stream of thought.”  James even suggested the site which he thought was the most likely basis of these states of mind, or consciousness: “The immediate condition of a state of consciousness is an activity of some sort in the cerebral hemispheres.”  (1892, p. 18)
     In more modern consciousness studies, Strange (1978), in The Stream of Consciousness, notes:

James contributes the basic definition of consciousness to the mainstream of American, functional, cognitive psychology–consciousness is thought, which includes all the mental activities, such as feeling, imagining, reasoning, knowing, perceiving, conceiving, remembering, and all the rest.  Consciousness, according to him, is not a substance, nor a place, nor any thing, except a stream of thought that results from pure experiencing. (p.15)

Strange’s comments identify two definitive elements in the modern approach to the study of consciousness.  Firstly, it is equated generally with the stream of thought, minding activity, or of subjective life.  Experimental approaches to consciousness are then based upon subjects’ reports of the contents of their inner experiences.  Hence, researchers sample different thoughts and daydreams over time, and describe this as a study of the “stream of consciousness.”
    The equation of consciousness with thinking, or cognition, has become quite prominent within the minds of many psychologists.  Ey (1978) proclaimed:

It is common knowledge (psychologists have all noted–and it is not an original discovery to repeat it) that to be conscious is to know one’s experience, and that all experience insofar as it is ‘known’ by the subject is discursive. ...  Consciousness lies in the verbalization of the phenomena which unfold in consciousness. ... to be conscious is to be capable of grasping one’s knowledge in the categories of verbal communication. ... Language is thus a structural quality of consciousness.  (p.16)

Certainly not all psychologists have taken language to be a structural quality of consciousness, but nonetheless this is a definitive feature of cognitive theories.
   Secondly, as Strange notes, consciousness is defined as “a stream of thought that results from pure experiencing.”  Thus, consciousness has two defining features: a pure experiencing or awareness component which exists in relation to the particular contents of experience (the thoughts, feelings, sensations and the like.)  Whereas experimental approaches to consciousness focus on the contents of consciousness, philosophical approaches often refer to this abstract, subjective side.  Significantly, most psychologists simply equate consciousness with thinking and cognitive processes, and ignore the trickier issues raised by  the pure experiencing element.  Thus, it is standard fare, in experimental consciousness studies and cognitive psychology, for researchers to focus on studying the normal conscious flow by sampling thoughts, or analyzing different functions of the mind.  In doing so, they assume that the stream of consciousness is basically equivalent to the stream of thought and subjective life, occurring within the brain.  The scientific approach emphasizes the object side of consciousness and politely ignores its subjective aspect.  Scientists do not regard consciousness as being anything substantive in itself, apart from the contents of the mind.

   Elsewhere, William James describes the dualistic nature of the self:

Whatever I may be thinking of, I am always at the same time more or less aware of myself, of my personal existence.  At the same time it is I who am aware; so that the total self of me, being as it were duplex, partly known and partly knower, partly object and partly subject, must have two aspects discriminated in it ... the Me and ... the I.  (1892, p.189)

For practical purposes, psychologists do not explore the “I” aspect of self–the pure experiencing component–but focus on the “me” aspect.  Thus, consciousness is equated with the general stream of inner thoughts, images, feelings and all the rest.  By assuming this tactic, the empiricist skirts around a host of extremely tricky and perplexing issues.
   Later in his life, William James, after years of investigating consciousness and the possibility of survival after death, came to regard consciousness as being most elusive.  Nevertheless, he concluded that it was not substantive. Natsoulas (1978) explains:

In time, consciousness came to be a theoretical nonentity. Nonentity was James’s (1904) word in “Does Consciousness Exist?”  where he inveighed ... against the existence of consciousness qua substance or entity.  James considered consciousness the most mysterious thing in the world.  But he was sure it was no actual thing, that it was a non-entity. Those psychologists who would cling to a substantive consciousness were said to be clinging “to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy.” (James, 1904, p.477)  ... Rather, James considered consciousness to be a “function,” specifically the function of knowing.  (p.906)

Once again, the idea of a substantive consciousness is linked to the idea of a soul–some immaterial thing connected to the material body/brain–and both such possibilities are discounted.
    In the American Psychologist (1978), Natsoulas noted that, at this time in the history of science, psychologists need to readdress the issues of consciousness:

What consciousness is (if it is not some thing), that deceptively simple question, which James addressed, needs to be addressed once again, but carefully and in a way that does not close off, by fiat, a good portion of the potential subject matter. ... We should not quickly decide, for example, that consciousness is no more or less than James’s function of knowing and proceed to study merely that.  At this point in the history of scientific understanding, an effort at comprehensiveness surely seems called for. ... ( However, I) ... predict that psychology will not define consciousness as a substance or as an entity again.  Note that this prediction refers to the scientific discipline and not to individual scientists. ... Scientific knowledge has not yet rendered consciousness as a distinct entity unthinkable.  (p.907)
   The nature of that “most mysterious thing in the world” remains a profound enigma within modern science.  Science has not disproved the possibility that consciousness might be substantive.  Likewise, it has not produced any evidence which would deny the existence of an immaterial mind, spirit or soul.  Instead, psychologists ignore these tricky issues of consciousness and simply equate it with thinking,  reasoning, and all the other mental processes.  Unfortunately, scientists who regard these issues as having been resolved ignore the fact that they have been determined by fiat and methodological considerations, rather than on the basis of scientific evidence.

    Despite this willful ignorance and oversimplification, many psychologists are aware, on some level and to some degree, that the question of consciousness remains an extraordinary mystery and a fundamental enigma within the discipline.  This is evident when one realizes how often psychologists cite the following quotation from William James in the more contemporary literature on consciousness and  “altered states:”

... our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. ... No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.  How to regard them is the question–for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. ...  At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.  (1958, p.298)

    Although the reductionist may be content to simply explain these altered states of consciousness as being the result of altered neurological or biological processes, James remained intrigued by glimpses into other experiential states and possibilities.  Further, many modern psychologists acknowledge James’ contention about the existence of these states of consciousness and perhaps even share his fascination with them.  However, they seem also to share James’ inconsistent and inexplicable conclusion that, despite the admitted mysterious nature of these states, consciousness is not substantial and there is no need to reconsider the issues of the soul.
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