Does Consciousness Exist — Review and Commentary
(PD) — William James
Copyright ©2014-2021 — updated February 08, 2021
Consciousness, How People Think, What is Consciousness
"In some men theory is a passion, just as music is in others. The form of inner consistency is pursued far beyond the line at which collateral profits stop. Such men systematize and classify and schematize and make synoptical tables and invent ideal objects for the pure love of unifying. Too often the results, glowing with 'truth' for the inventors, seem pathetically personal and artificial to bystanders. Which is as much as to say that the purely theoretic criterion of truth can leave us in the lurch as easily as any other criterion, and that the absolutists, for all their pretensions, are 'in the same boat' concretely with those whom they attack." (William James, Meaning of Truth)
The Meaning of Truth quote is very good for presenting the idea and reality that some men love systematizing and classifying while the men may never have an interest in learning of the things that the men systematize and classify. Everyone has a different passion, and not everyone will have an interest in the things that we are interested in. Regardless of how it may appear, the topic of consciousness is not popular, and though there might be thousands of people who write magazine and academic articles about consciousness, the actual number of individuals holding a passion for an understanding of consciousness is very few. James' theories of consciousness might not have held weight, but his passion was philosophical, and thus we recognize from which point of view his ideas arrived, and we will not wring our hands that James' ideas do not mirror our own.
In his latter years James appeared to have possibly begun recognizing that some his ideas had not been as solid and astute as he had originally believed, but still his method of further explaining a topic was to invent philosophical names and classifications: James' passion. My own passion is for the experience itself, to live and to observe the life and all of its events to the deepest details that I am capable. James enjoyed speaking of things he never saw or touched; I enjoy speaking of the things that I have seen and now hold in my hand.
William James' Does Consciousness Exist reflects his own opinions, which is fine and expected — and actually much preferred over the alternative of merely repeating what other men had said; an opinion, even if wrong, is of much more value than reciting another man's words — but his beliefs were based upon the very common assumption that all humans process thoughts relatively the same. James' error was not new in his era, and the error is no less common today.
When two men approach a topic that neither men have a knowledge of, if one man presents a metaphor of his interpretation of the topic, then the second man may interpret the metaphor in a manner that makes sense to the second man, but the second man's own self-created metaphorical interpretation might not be similar to what the first man intended. When a description does not include verbs that clearly describe objectively observable actions, then the description will be of nouns — metaphors — and the longer that the discussion continues, so will increase the lack of understanding of the topic itself; the discussion grows away from an investigation of the item being investigated, and in the thing's place the discussion begins revolving around the metaphors, a perpetual debate of metaphors that were not created the same nor interpreted the same. Such is the nature of western philosophy, a perpetual dialog of metaphors sans verbs, a dialog that can never arrive at a solution. James' essay is philosophical — metaphorical, predominately without verbs — and so I have no intention of delving into discussions of the metaphors that cannot have a solution.
"'THOUGHTS' and 'things' are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other." (Does Consciousness Exist?, William James, The Journal of Philosophy Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 1. No. 18. September 1, 1904.)
It should be clarified from the very start that one man's manner of perceiving his own differences of interpreting 'thoughts' and 'things' may not be of the same manner as another man's. It may be true that some humans 'think thoughts' and 'see objects' (as if the seeing were actually physically touching the objects), but some individuals are consciously aware that their eyes perceive light — not objects — and therefore for those individuals there is not as wide of a difference between 'thinking thoughts about thoughts' and 'thinking thoughts about objects' beyond that of there being thoughts of inner things and thoughts of external things. For some individuals there is a continuous conscious processing of thoughts, and whether the attention is given to a self-created abstract concept, a sensory perception, a memory, or anything else, still it is the same consciousness and the same general thinking process.
Thinking is thinking, and though there may be many different methods, modes, and manners of thinking, still is the action of thinking the action of thinking. If a man cannot fully describe with verbs his own consciousness and act of thinking, then he should not claim that he knows what thought is, nor should he claim that he knows how and what other people think.
William James taught philosophy and psychology at Harvard, plus held a M.D. (I personally have no additional knowledge of his medical background to base an opinion). It is reported that James began teaching psychology in 1874. Psychology was a relatively new field in the 19th century, and so we should expect to find the early ideas about psychology to hold numerous beginner-errors and to not be well-developed. The majority of the early psychologists had no meaningful background in the topic — their base of knowledge was generally limited to beginner-experiments and what other individuals had previously written — and so again we should expect academic progress to have had a slow start. However, western philosophy has roots dating back roughly 2,600 years of known history, and yet the same philosophical debates continue without there yet finding an answer for any.
Of the difficulties expected for anyone who enters a new field of study, one apparent difficulty of James' was his lack of personal firsthand experience with the topics (which might be a moot point since his passion was philosophy and not the acquiring of firsthand experiences). On the topic of consciousness, a rational choice would have been to employ an adept Buddhist — or similar — who would have already invested the years of dedication to achieve an awareness of the mind and be capable of describing the acts of the mind. Unfortunately, James did not have a similar background, and his theories too well illustrated it to be so. James' ideas are a mixture of an education of other men's words plus James' own fanciful imagination colored by western philosophy's approach of debating unknowns, that of giving the unknown things new names and classifications while expecting the names to somehow explain the unknown things. James is well known for his many writings, but his writings are not deemed authoritative.
My interest in James' works is not academic nor so much as a passing interest in the history of ideas, but rather my curiosity is with the desire to learn what I can of how other people think. Since very few humans can describe their own thoughts — or sensory perceptions, or much of anything else — then my self-burdened chore is to glean what information that I can find from experiments and different writings, and for me to then piece-together a general concept of what might be a reasonable guess of how humans think. James' Does Consciousness Exist does not directly answer any question about consciousness, but James' philosophical manner of presenting his beliefs does give us a bit of evidence of how his own mind may have worked.
Regardless of whether James' theories might have been correct or incorrect, the important item is to observe how he assembled and presented the theories, for it is within the theories themselves that we can catch a brief glimpse of James' mind describing itself.
I have included the full first two paragraphs of James' essay because it is important to present a background of from where he drew his opinions. The reader will notice that James never really talked about any concrete thing, but rather he jumped from one topic to the next while apparently assuming that his having referenced a noun somehow made the thing known. Wherever I insert a clarifying note within a quote I will use brackets in italics ( [[...]] ).
"'THOUGHTS' and 'things' are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other. Philosophy, reflecting on the contrast, has varied in the past in her explanations of it, and may be expected to vary in the future. At first, 'spirit and matter,' 'soul and body,' stood for a pair of equipollent substances quite on a par in weight and interest. But one day Kant undermined the soul and brought in the transcendental ego, and ever since then the bipolar relation has been very much off its balance. The transcendental ego seems nowadays in rationalist quarters to stand for everything, in empiricist quarters for almost nothing. In the hands of such writers as Schuppe, Rehmke, Natorp, Munsterberg -- at any rate in his earlier writings, Schubert-Soldern and others, the spiritual principle attenuates itself to a thoroughly ghostly condition, being only a name for the fact that the 'content' of experience is known. It loses personal form and activity — these passing over to the content -- and becomes a bare Bewusstheit or Bewusstsein überhaupt of which in its own right absolutely nothing can be said. [["Bewusstheit" implies awareness (James interpreted it as "consciousness" later in the essay), and "Bewusstsein überhaupt" implies consciousness in general. There is no clarity of difference between awareness and consciousness in the English language, so the words have no meaning except what each individual wants the words to mean metaphorically for him/herself.]]
I believe that 'consciousness,' when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether. It is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing 'soul' upon the air of philosophy. During the past year, I have read a number of articles whose authors seemed just on the point of abandoning the notion of consciousness, and substituting for it that of an absolute experience not due to two factors. But they were not quite radical enough, not quite daring enough in their negations. For twenty years past I have mistrusted 'consciousness' as an entity; for seven or eight years past I have suggested its non-existence to my students, and tried to give them its pragmatic equivalent in realities of experience. It seems to me that the hour is ripe for it to be openly and universally discarded."
"'THOUGHTS' and 'things' are names for two sorts of object, which common sense will always find contrasted and will always practically oppose to each other." : It has appeared to me that the common-normal human does indeed interpret a difference between one's own thoughts and the recognition of objects. Philosophers and psychologists have spoken of the effect, and if so many individuals have agreed that they too interpret their world as having two different 'knowings', then perhaps it may be true for them. Nevertheless, some other individuals are consciously aware that their thoughts are of the same manner of thinking regardless of whether the thoughts are of inward things or of perceptions of things interpreted to be external. The key here is one's own personal interpretation of how they systematize and classify a sensory perception. I will not enter into a detailed discussion of this topic simply because it is far too lengthy for a single article like this one, but perhaps it might be sufficient enough to state that some of the 'inner thoughts' and 'outer thoughts' are very simply explained (for some individuals) as a learned difference between one's sensorial focus: for some individuals 'inward thoughts' create a tactile sensation of self-observation within the body, while 'outward thoughts' are accompanied with a felt focus outside of one's body (not so dissimilar to having learned that focusing the eyes requires specific felt tensenesses of the eye muscles — to know of a distance requires the feeling of the tenseness of muscles — and if a thought of an object is the result of a sensorial perception that has a focal point outside of the body, then the 'outward thought' is merely as a learned classification of a felt sensorial perception.)
Example: an individual who is self-aware and continuously in thought may self-observe themselves feeling tactile perceptions of emotions within the body, and the individual continuously analyses the perceptions for their qualities and attributes. When the eyes focus upon an 'object' at a distance of, say, ten feet away, the individual is still in continual thought and analyses of all sensorial perceptions, and the mind sums a conclusion that the visual sensory perception describes features that are known to the other senses to have weight, firmness, textures, colors, warmths, sounds, aromas, and so on. To the continual-thinking mind the visual sensory perception of an object is still known to be a sensory perception and not a 'real solid thing' (I will lightly expand further on this towards the end of the article).
Might it be possible that most humans perform a similar analyses, but at the subconscious level, and thus the individuals are not conscious of why the normal human believes that there are inner thoughts and thoughts of external things? To me it is very simple; my thoughts are my thoughts, the same perpetual analyses continue regardless of what is being perceived, and within the analyses there remains a continuous knowing and observation that my interpretations of Reality are based upon my sensory perceptions, and thus, Reality to me is interpretative; a very personal experience.
James' thoughts on 'pure experience' may or may not have been parallel to my own, but I am very confident that he did not form the opinion from his having been fully aware of his own thoughts, and so then his sum of ideas cannot have pointed to the same thing as mine. The direction of approach may sum the same number, but if the direction is not the same as another person's, then the sums are not the same even if the same numbers are used (e.g. 1-3-9 and 6561-81-9: both sum to the number of 9, but not for the same reasons, and too, E=mc2 is of one direction, whereas C=e2(-2) is from another direction and of a fully different purpose although both mathematics agree of parallel effects).
James' ideas surely made sense to him, and likely made sense to other individuals who shared similar opinions, but to individuals who are self-aware of their own thoughts, awareness and consciousness are not one and the same. It would require no less than three years of reading eight hours a day for an individual to gather a sufficient quantity of background knowledge of what the philosophers believed, and yet the knowledge would still be of no value beyond that of perhaps having acquired a sympathetic grasp of what James might have been pointing to. The three years would have been much better invested into learning to self-observe one's own thoughts so that the individual could empirically observe what is real to them; not wasting the years memorizing what the inexperienced philosophers imagined.
James' "mere echo, the faint rumor" appears to suggest that his opinions were at least in part being created upon what other individuals had claimed of their awareness and consciousness, and James' opinions were not being formed upon his own self-observations.
It is true that different individuals have different beliefs about consciousness and souls, and it is true that many individuals have believed that consciousness and the act of thinking are acts of a soul, but just because James or anyone else does not want to believe in a soul, the disbelief is not rational if there is not a rational reason of why the disbelief might be valid. I will repeat it over and over and over: debating an unknown thing does not make the thing known.
For myself, at a couple months old I 'consciously' observed the organic mind's first abstract thoughts of the environment (the mind's use of sensorial perceptions relative to memories to self-create concepts that are analogously rational relative to the perceptions and memories, but not of necessity rational to Reality: the nascent of willed imagination). It appears that most modern theories of consciousness revolve around the belief that abstract thinking is itself the consciousness, and some modern biologists still claim that no one can be self-aware until around the age of eighteen months. The beliefs might have some validity for some individuals — perhaps the theorist's own minds are as what the theorists claim — but the beliefs cannot be valid for all individuals.
It is an easy thing to illustrate that the organic mind is of an organic nature because when the body is weak from malnutrition or illness so will the organic mind fail to process thoughts properly (memories fail, abstract thinking fails, etc.). Consciousness, however, the "I" Observer, does not change (or at least it does not change for some of us), and if a thing does not change when the body changes, then consciousness cannot be a product of the body's nor any known physics. It is also easy to illustrate how an electrical field might create an effect that we might term to be consciousness, but there is no known possibility that any electrical field can remain perfectly stable, and so if there cannot be a stable electrical field then there can be no stable electrical-based consciousness. If an individual has not observed their own consciousness, then the individual has no means of determining whether their consciousness is stable, variable, or if it exists at all.
Had James self-observed his own consciousness? Did he have a consciousness? Some Buddhists, Hindus, and new agers invest decades into the goal of attaining awareness through self-observation, and if the goal were an easy thing — and if full consciousness were inherently present in all humans — then Buddhism and Hinduism would not exist. Was James a master Buddhist? No. Was James a master of anything beyond the memorizing of words? No. James could not — or at least did not — describe his own thoughts and consciousness, and so he was not qualified to speak of the topic.
James' World of Pure Experience further illustrates James' method of presentation:
"Objective reference, I say then, is an incident of the fact that so much of our experience comes as an insufficient and consists of process and transition. Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds. The relations, generally speaking, are as real here as the terms are, and the only complaint of the transcendentalist's with which I could at all sympathize would be his charge that, by first making knowledge consist in external relations as I have done, and by then confessing that nine-tenths of the time these are not actually but only virtually there, I have knocked the solid bottom out of the whole business, and palmed off a substitute of knowledge for the genuine thing. Only the admission, such a critic might say, that our ideas are self-transcendent and 'true' already, in advance of the experiences that are to terminate them, can bring solidity back to knowledge in a world like this, in which transitions and terminations are only by exception fulfilled.
This seems to me an excellent place for applying the pragmatic method. When a dispute arises, that method consists in auguring what practical consequences would be different if one side rather than the other were true. If no difference can be thought of, the dispute is a quarrel over words. What then would the self-transcendency affirmed to exist in advance of all experiential mediation or terminations, be known-as? What would it practically result in for us, were it true? [[James debated unknown things while claiming that the debates made the unknown things known.]]
It could only result in our orientation, in the turning of our expectations and practical tendencies into the right path; and the right path here, so long as we and the object are not yet face to face (or can never get face to face, as in the case of ejects), would be the path that led us into the object's nearest neighborhood. Where direct acquaintance is lacking, 'knowledge about' is the next best thing, and an acquaintance with what actually lies about the object, and is most closely related to it, puts such knowledge within our gasp. [[James did not describe the actual acts of applied reasoning, but rather he debated the sums of what the acts had already concluded; debating the color of clothing tells us nothing of the fabrics and weavers, nor does James' debating of knowledge tell us anything of from where the knowledge arrived or how it came into existence.]] Ether-waves and your anger, for example, are things in which my thoughts will never perceptually terminate, but my concepts of them lead me to their very brink, to the chromatic fringes and to the hurtful words and deeds which are their really next effects.
Even if our ideas did in themselves carry the postulated self-transcendency, it would still remain true that their putting us into possession of such effects would be the sole cash-value of the self-transcendency for us. And this cash-value, it is needless to say, is verbatim et literatim what our empiricist account pays in. On pragmatist principles, therefore, a dispute over self-transcendency is a pure logomachy. Call our concepts of ejective things self-transcendent or the reverse, it makes no difference, so long as we don't differ about the nature of that exalted virtue's fruits -- fruits for us, of course, humanistic fruits. If an Absolute were proved to exist for other reasons, it might well appear that his knowledge is terminated in innumerable cases where ours is still incomplete. That, however, would be a fact indifferent to our knowledge. The latter would grow neither worse nor better, whether we acknowledged such an Absolute or left him out.
So the notion of a knowledge still in transitu and on its way joins hands here with that notion of a 'pure experience' which I tried to explain in my [essay] entitled 'Does Consciousness Exist?'"
Count the number of verbs James used to describe awareness, consciousness, and thoughts. James did not speak of acts, but of nouns arranged as do philosophers arrange their words; endless words and endlessly invented classifications, all the while never so much as touching on the topic at hand, and yet the philosophers surely believe that their long-winded imaginations of an unknown have made the unknown thing known.
"To deny plumply that 'consciousness' exists seems so absurd on the face of it -- for undeniably 'thoughts' do exist -- that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function. There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing. 'Consciousness' is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. Whoever blots out the notion of consciousness from his list of first principles must still provide in some way for that function's being carried on."
A common ploy among philosophers and biologists is to claim that a thing is a "function" or "built into our brains" when the philosophers and biologists have absolutely no clue of what the thing might be. Also from James' Meaning of Truth:
"THE FUNCTION OF COGNITION
The following inquiry is (to use a distinction familiar to readers of Mr. Shadworth Hodgson) not an inquiry into the 'how it comes,' but into the 'what it is' of cognition. What we call acts of cognition are evidently realized through what we call brains and their events, whether there be 'souls' dynamically connected with the brains or not. But with neither brains nor souls has this essay any business to transact. In it we shall simply assume that cognition IS produced, somehow, and limit ourselves to asking what elements it contains, what factors it implies.
Cognition is a function of consciousness. The first factor it implies is therefore a state of consciousness wherein the cognition shall take place. Having elsewhere used the word 'feeling' to designate generically all states of consciousness considered subjectively, or without respect to their possible function, I shall then say that, whatever elements an act of cognition may imply besides, it at least implies the existence of a FEELING. [If the reader share the current antipathy to the word 'feeling,' he may substitute for it, wherever I use it, the word 'idea,' taken in the old broad Lockian sense, or he may use the clumsy phrase 'state of consciousness,' or finally he may say 'thought' instead.]" (Meaning of Truth)
It was irrational for James to insinuate that feelings, ideas, states of consciousness, and thoughts are allegedly so synonymous and interchangeable that they are one and the same. Cognition occurs within a state of consciousness? How can a thing occur within another thing without there being different things? Was James attempting to infer that all things are composed of one thing, and from that one thing different things arise which then are not the same thing but still the same thing? Is this along a similar train of thought by modern biologists who believe that consciousness and all thoughts are all created by binary electrical activity in the brain? Is there such a terrifying desire to deny the existence of a soul that the philosophers and biologists will abandon all rational thought as long as the conclusion is to deny the existence of souls? As James' words stand, they are not merely absurd, the words are insulting for their pretension that the reader should be so dull of mind as to believe the words true.
What, exactly, was James saying when he claimed that "cognition is a function of consciousness"? He did not clarify what cognition is, nor what consciousness is, nor how this alleged "function" functions. Many qualified writers throughout history have spoken of consciousness as the "I" that observes the mind performing its acts of perception, reasoning, and storing memories, but James lumped everything into one all-encompassing function that has its own sub-functions. Nothing in the universe is a singularity, absolutely nothing, all things are composed of other things, and yet here we have a philosophy that claims consciousness and all thoughts to be as a singularity.
James' bluntness of inventing a claim and then boldly presenting the claim as uncontestable fact is reminiscent of Objectivism's pseudo-authoritarian style of insisting that its invented explanations must be true because the author claimed them to be true.
You and I would be highly ridiculed if we said that a television produces audio and video because of a function and yet we did not also describe the circuitry nor the electrical physics that have very specific actions within the circuitry. And what of the television broadcasting stations? Cars have a "function" that makes them move; no further description of engines, combustion, ignition, drive-train, nor anything else is necessary? Too many philosophers and biologists believe of themselves to be fully justified to simply give a name to a thing unknown to themselves to be a "function," and the public is fully expected to accept the farce. If a person wants to speak of television soap operas and news stations, then fine, speak of those and of those only, and do not pretend that the watching of a television program has described the nature and 'function' of television. "How it comes" IS "what it is."
"My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff 'pure experience,' the knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter."
Did James just now mirror my own description of experience, or did he wander into metaphysical musings? Whichever it was — or if he spoke of something entirely different — it is fine and okay, but not fine for the topic of consciousness. How should we respond to the essay's claim? How can we respond? James' concept is so vague that regardless of how we respond we cannot reply coherently because we have no objective knowledge to base an opinion of whether everything is composed of 'one stuff' or many stuffs. An increasingly popular modern belief is that consciousness is quantum-based, which too is fine and okay, but not yet has anyone explained how the quantum theory is supposed to work, and no known promoters of the belief are themselves qualified in quantum physics, and so none of the known claims are being presented by individuals who might have an understanding of why consciousness should nascent from a quantum level or any other. The first question that must be answered before anyone can make an intelligent stab at the topic is to ask what consciousness is. If a person does not know what consciousness is, nor can describe consciousness, then upon what wild reasoning are we expected to believe that someone knows how the unknown thing comes into existence?
Leonardo da Vinci predicted "Men will communicate with each other from the most distant countries, and reply. ...Men standing in separate hemispheres will converse with each other, embrace each other, and understand each other's language." Leonardo's prediction appears to have come true today through the use of shortwave radios, television, and the Internet. To us today the act of global communication appears simple because we know of radios and electronic communications, and we who are acquainted with electronic technology can explain with great details how the communication works, but how could an individual five-hundred years ago describe the details of radio-waves, transformers, conductors, transistors, and all of the many other components of modern technologies, or even electricity itself? And here the simple answer is that a description from the firsthand experience is required, the description given by an individual who has actually seen, felt, heard, and used the thing in question. The same applies for consciousness; the description must be from a firsthand experience, spoken with verbs, and not from the mere imagination of nouns. If a philosopher or biologist cannot describe their own consciousness with great details, then it would be ridiculous for us to accept the person's claim that they know how consciousness comes into existence.
"The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its 'terms' becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known. This will need much explanation before it can be understood."
No, before it can be understood it must first be experienced and described from a firsthand point of view through the use of verbs and never with the use of nouns and "terms". The Knower and the known are two different things that 'function' with different processes (or at least do so for some individuals). Never can "much explanation" from a sophism ever make a thing "understood."
"The best way to get it understood is to contrast it with the alternative view; and for that we may take the recentest alternative, that in which the evaporation of the definite soul-substance has proceeded as far as it can go without being yet complete. If neo-Kantism has expelled earlier forms of dualism, we shall have expelled all forms if we are able to expel neo-Kantism in its turn."
James very clearly illustrated why western philosophy has not so much as made one baby-step forward in almost three-thousand years: the philosophy of James' assembles countless unknowns and then debates the unknowns while truly believing that the continual unknowing of many things somehow makes the unknown things known. James' theories do not hold water, but his manner of developing the theories does help lend a hint of what his own thoughts might be.
"[[consciousness]] 'Can be brought out by analysis,' this author says. This supposes that the consciousness is one element, moment, factor -- call it what you like -- of an experience of essentially dualistic inner constitution, from which, if you abstract the content, the consciousness will remain revealed to its own eye. ...Now my contention is exactly the reverse of this. Experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition -- the addition, to a given concrete piece of it, other sets of experiences, in connection with which severally its use or function may be of two different kinds. ...Just so, I maintain, does a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of 'consciousness'; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective 'content.' In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing. And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective, both at once. The dualism connoted by such double-barrelled terms as 'experience,' 'phenomenon,' 'datum,' 'Vorfindung' -- terms which, in philosophy at any rate, tend more and more to replace the single-barrelled terms of 'thought' and 'thing' -- that dualism, I say, is still preserved in this account, but reinterpreted, so that, instead of being mysterious and elusive, it becomes verifiable and concrete. It is an affair of relations, it falls outside, not inside, the single experience considered, and can always be particularized and defined."
I would describe my own consciousness as the presence of an observer who is observing and participating with the mind in action. I observe a 'thought' in action as that of a willed activity of applying motions, pressures, intensities, angularities, and numerous other self-willed acts that are weighed and summed relative to transductive directions, golden ratios, octaves, fractals, and numerous others that are as emotioned states based upon depths, widths, lengths, speeds, densities, and on an on. It would require of me countless words to attempt to describe the most simple of thoughts, and within each thought and variable of thought the "I" observes and participates within a manner that is perceptively transductive with all acts as they are occurring but not as a portion of the thinking-acts themselves. To me the act of thinking is analogous to a many-faceted self-willed kinetic-electrical field that includes full simultaneous transductance to all fractal layers: the "I" observer can make use of the brain and body, but the "I" observer is not the brain or body, nor does the "I" think brain-thoughts.
For me, a single thought includes the 'conscious' awareness of all flows and all complexities of 'thought' simultaneously, that is, the "I" is aware of all that is occurring while thoughts are in the process of occurring. There are, of course, many other things that I will not speak of here, but what little I have spoken of is sufficient enough to contrast with James' noun-based philosophy. To my knowledge James never once described an act of thought, nor an act of consciousness, and so in my estimation James never held a firsthand knowledge of what consciousness might be even for himself. If James' description of consciousness were in fact valid for himself, then his manner of consciousness is alien to me, and I cannot grasp how it might be possible for a living organism to function under such an absence of cognition as James' theory postulated.
My first passion is to experience life within as many positive ways as my time permits. My chosen vocation that earns enough of an income to finance my passion — while also offering me sufficient free time to pursue my passion — is that of being an electronic technician, more specifically that of diagnostics (a trouble-shooter). I am very good at my vocation because I understand how electrical circuits work (that is I have sufficient experience to know that a specific type of electrical circuit will behave in a specific manner when a specific quantity and quality of electricity is applied). Of all the popular brain theories of consciousness and cognition, some are somewhat plausible from a rudimentary point of view, but consciousness, memories, and the processing of thoughts are specifically implausible because there is no form of electricity known to man that can sustain such a huge quantity of information-processing and do so while remaining perfectly stable. For some individuals, one deep analysis spanning one second would consume more binary data than what is possible within a human brain. Your computer with a one-terabyte hard drive could not store more than a few seconds of a low-quality five-sense perception, and yet the mind is able to store a hundred years of high-quality memories, emotions, sensory perceptions, dreams, analyses, and on and on. James' theories — as well as countless other individuals' — would have been laughed out of existence if the public held a reasonable firsthand knowledge of consciousness, cognition, thoughts, and electrical theory. My disfavor with James' theories is not merely a philosophical disagreement, but rather a full rebuke of his essay's pseudo-science. James did not invest his time into learning about consciousness, nor about electrical theory, nor much of anything else it appears, and his essays should not have been presented as if they held any resemblance of value on the topics.
But let's backup and ask the question again: what if James' mind actually did function as he claimed? What if James' mind actually did not possess a consciousness until after a thought or feeling was occurring? What if James' consciousness, thoughts, and feelings were indeed composed of the same stuff? Might his mind have been blank, perhaps only reacting subconsciously like a mechanical animal, and only achieving consciousness when the mind was jolted into wakefulness after a strong sensory input from the body? Might it be possible that James' mind's state of consciousness was nothing more than what he claimed? Could this be true? Is it possible? If so, and if James accurately described his true mentality, then that would explain why James' theories were so bizarre, but the more frightening thing is to wonder how great the differences of thinking might be between different humans. Which then is worse, the nonsensical theoretical blunders, or whether the theories might hold some truth?
"Neither Locke nor Berkeley thought his truth out into perfect clearness, but it seems to me that the conception I am defending does little more than consistently carry out the 'pragmatic' method which they were the first to use.
If the reader will take his own experiences, he will see what I mean. Let him begin with a perceptual experience, the 'presentation,' so called, of a physical object, his actual field of vision, the room he sits in, with the book he is reading as its centre; and let him for the present treat this complex object in the commonsense way as being 'really' what it seems to be, namely, a collection of physical things cut out from an environing world of other physical things with which these physical things have actual or potential relations."
I myself am unable to process such an unaware 'commonsense' observation. Am I to also turn off all sense of smell, of hearing, of feeling temperatures and breezes upon my skin, and on top of all else I am supposed to be able to somehow only see a single set of objects while magically forgetting all previous thoughts that the moment before were lit brightly in my mind? James assumed that everyone thinks similarly as he, which was a wrong belief.
"Now at the same time it is just those self-same things which his mind, as we say, perceives; and the whole philosophy of perception from Democritus's time downwards has just been one long wrangle over the paradox that what is evidently one reality should be in two places at once, both in outer space and in a person's mind. 'Representative' theories of perception avoid the logical paradox, but on the other hand they violate the reader's sense of life, which knows no intervening mental image but seems to see the room and the book immediately just as they physically exist."
James' description helps to describe to us that he interpreted the sight of objects to be the perception of things that "physically exist" without an "intervening mental image." James' description is surely obvious to many individuals, but it is not obvious to everyone. What exactly did James imply?
"The puzzle of how the one identical room can be in two places is at bottom just the puzzle of how one identical point can be on two lines. It can, if it be situated at their intersection; and similarly, if the 'pure experience' of the room were a place of intersection of two processes, which connected it with different groups of associates respectively, it could be counted twice over, as belonging to either group, and spoken of loosely as existing in two places, although it would remain all the time a numerically single thing."
I myself do not like the word "identical" because there is no such thing in the universe as an identical (mathematical numbers are imaginary and do not count (pun unintended but smilingly retained)). Nevertheless, it appears that James was pointing to the human illusion of interpreting sight as the seeing of solid objects, an illusion that is popularly believed to be a 'brain function' that interprets sensory perceptions as being received 'from out there' and not self-willed-consciously analyzed by the mind.
Of the many sub-topics that I will not speak of with depth in this article, one is related to what I had mentioned previously about observing my own mind's first abstract thoughts of the environment. Within the countless acts within the perception, one of the features was that the abstract reasoning was occurring 'forward' of 'me' (forward of from where the conscious Observer was observing), that is, the abstract reasoning was 'out there' and not 'in here'. As I developed a depth of conscious self-willed self-sparked self-driven control over the act of thinking abstractly, the acts of thinking abstractly increased to become continuous, and though abstract thinking is now interpreted to occur 'within me' as compared to objects that 'exist outside of me', the memory remains that my interpretation of my acts of thinking and consciousness is that they have resided at different 'relative locations' at different ages of development. The item of importance here is of my presenting a variance, to illustrate that there is no one single mode of mind that can only possess the 'within me' and the 'out there' that James postulated.
"As a room, the experience has occupied that spot and had that environment for thirty years. As your field of consciousness it may never have existed until now."
James' words are of a wandering philosophical muse that has nothing to do with consciousness beyond possibly describing to us that James' consciousness was impermanent and sporadic, only triggering-on during events that were sufficiently strong to jolt the mind into action. The thinking man's conscious awareness of his environment and mind is continuous, there are no gaps, no pauses, no lapses of memory from one moment to the next, and his "field of consciousness" is not a thing that exists or does not exist from one moment to the next. The thinking man's consciousness is as if a glowing light-bulb that continuously radiates a sensorially-felt awareness, and the light never goes off. James appeared to be speaking of a mentally-conceptualized perception of sensory input, and he may have believed that the perception was itself the act of consciousness.
"As a room, attention will go on to discover endless new details in it."
No, the details are already present, and any new perceptions will be from having physically moved to a different location that provides a different point of view, and the 'new' point of view is then added to the previous points of view to be summed as a singular whole (or at least for some individuals).
"As your mental state merely, few new ones will emerge under attention's eye."
What did he imply by "mental state"? James' statement perhaps too clearly described his absence of mind and consciousness. For some individuals, being motionless in a room of motionless objects does not result in an absence of new 'mental states' of perceptions, awareness, and analyses. Aromas describe their rises and decays, sounds describe external things coming and going, and among the many other perceptions and analyses is the conscious attention given to the sense of passing time that is weighed to all else, resulting in a continually evolving analysis of each moment being different than the moment before. James might not have been mentally capable of self-sparking additional mental states — even "under attention's eye" — but his severe lack of cognition and self-will does not imply that everyone else must have the same manner of mind.
"As a room, it will take an earthquake, or a gang of men, and in any case a certain amount of time, to destroy it. As your subjective state, the closing of your eyes, or any instantaneous play of your fancy will suffice."
For some of us the moment's experience is the moment's experience that is among a continual stream of experience, and the closing of the eyes is merely a variance of the same experience that is not divided. Though the eyes might close, the skin still feels the same temperatures, humidities, radiances, and breezes, while the same aromas and sounds and tastes also continue, and too, the memories remain present with a full recollection of what had the moment before been sensorially perceived. And so it appears that James' words are faintly attempting to describe to us a thing that might have been very normal and natural for him, but very much abnormal, unnatural, and inferior for other people. To imagine the disappearance of a room, is the individual not aware that s/he has willfully imagined the thing that is not true?
"In the real world, fire will consume it. In your mind, you can let fire play over it without effect. As an outer object, you must pay so much a month to inhabit it. As an inner content, you may occupy it for any length of time rent-free. If, in short, you follow it in the mental direction, taking it along with events of personal biography solely, all sorts of things are true of it which are false, and false of it which are true if you treat it as a real thing experienced, follow it in the physical direction, and relate it to associates in the outer world.
So far, all seems plain sailing, but my thesis will probably grow less plausible to the reader when I pass from percepts to concepts, or from the case of things presented to that of things remote. I believe, nevertheless, that here also the same law holds good. If we take conceptual manifolds, or memories, or fancies, they also are in their first intention mere bits of pure experience, and, as such, are single thats which act in one context as objects, and in another context figure as mental states."
This is useful because it illustrates to us that James had no consciousness of his own thoughts' acts, but only of his thoughts' conclusions. Nevertheless, we will never know what degree of details that his thoughts possessed.
"By taking them in their first intention, I mean ignoring their relation to possible perceptual experiences with which they may be connected, which they may lead to and terminate in, and which then they may be supposed to 'represent.' Taking them in this way first, we confine the problem to a world merely 'thought of' and not directly felt or seen. This world, just like the world of percepts, comes to us at first as a chaos of experiences, but lines of order soon get traced."
Was the word "chaos" used figuratively or literally? It seems most plausible that since his consciousness was not a continual stream of perception — nor a single always-aware stream as what a Buddhist master might experience — then yes "chaos" might be a descriptive term given to memories of experiences that are not all directly connected one to the other.
"We find that any bit of it which we may cut out as an example is connected with distinct groups of associates, just as our perceptual experiences are, that these associates link themselves with it by different relations, and that one forms the inner history of a person, while the other acts as an impersonal 'objective' world, either spatial and temporal, or else merely logical or mathematical, or otherwise 'ideal.'"
Without James having a conscious awareness of the acts of thinking, it is therefore understandable that he would assume that a thought's final sum was in itself the act of the thinking that created the sum. James' theory appears parallel to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that of believing that language determines how the mind structures concepts of time, matter, and Reality itself. As the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does not recognize that humans had to first think of time, matter, and Reality to create the words, so did James not recognize that there had to be actual acts of thinking before his mind could form a conclusion, which similarly negates all of James' theories.
"The first obstacle on the part of the reader to seeing that these non-perceptual experiences have objectivity as well as subjectivity will probably be due to the intrusion into his mind of percepts, that third group of associates with which the non-perceptual experiences have relations, and which, as a whole, they 'represent,' standing to them as thoughts to things. This important function of non-perceptual experiences complicates the question and confuses it; for, so used are we to treat percepts as the sole genuine realities that, unless we keep them out of the discussion, we tend altogether to overlook the objectivity that lies in non-perceptual experiences by themselves. We treat them, 'knowing' percepts as they do, as through and through subjective, and say that they are wholly constituted of the stuff called consciousness, using this term now for a kind of entity, after the fashion which I am seeking to refute. Abstracting, then, from percepts altogether, what I maintain is, that any single non-perceptual experience tends to get counted twice over, just as a perceptual experience does, figuring in one context as an object or field of objects, in another as a state of mind: and all this without the least internal self-diremption on its own part into consciousness and content. It is all consciousness in one taking; and, in the other, all content."
James' "they are wholly constituted of the stuff called consciousness" muddles the topic further, being one more example of why words need to be defined before the words are used as a description of another thing. James was not aware of his mind's acts, nor was James aware of the differences between consciousness and acts of thought. Indeed, James did write a lot of words that claimed to know most everything, but if the words did not contain descriptive verbs, then there is no reason to attempt to understand what James himself did not understand.
James continues by quoting a page from Münsterberg's Grundzuge that is very useful for illustrating a similar manner of mind as James'.
""I may only think of my objects," says Professor Munsterberg; "yet, in my living thought they stand before me exactly as perceived objects would do, no matter how different the two ways of apprehending them may be in their genesis. The book here lying on the table before me, and the book in the next room of which I think and which I mean to get, are both in the same sense given realities for me, realities which I acknowledge and of which I take account. If you agree that the perceptual object is not an idea within me, but that percept and thing, as indistinguishably one, are really experienced there, outside, you ought not to believe that the merely thought-of object is hid away inside of the thinking subject. The object of which I think, and of whose existence I take cognizance without letting it now work upon my senses, occupies its definite place in the outer world as much as does the object which I directly see.
What is true of the here and the there, is also true of the now and the then. I know of the thing which is present and perceived, but I know also of the thing which yesterday was but is no more, and which I only remember. Both can determine my present conduct, both are parts of the reality of which I keep account. It is true that of much of the past I am uncertain, just as I am uncertain of much of what is present if it be but dimly perceived. But the interval of time does not in principle alter my relation to the object, does not transform it from an object known into a mental state.... The things in the room here which I survey, and those in my distant home of which I think, the things of this minute and those of my long vanished boyhood, influence and decide me alike, with a reality which my experience of them directly feels. They both make up my real world, they make it directly, they do not have first to be introduced to me and mediated by ideas which now and here arise within me.... This not-me character of my recollections and expectations does not imply that the external objects of which I am aware in those experiences should necessarily be there also for others. The objects of dreamers and hallucinated persons are wholly without general validity. But even were they centaurs and golden mountains, they still would be 'off there,' in fairy land, and not 'inside' of ourselves."
Munsterberg's quote is useful for it illustrating what is likely a normal mind that interprets its external world as being real, solid, and of singular objects. To one person, Munsterberg's perception of the world may appear valid and expected, but to other individuals the description is interpreted as strange in that he did not include a comment of his having been aware of being aware during the perceptions of the objects, nor was he aware of performing self-willed analyses of each sensorial perception as they occurred, which may mean that his mind did not apply the analyses consciously, nor subconsciously. Munsterberg's example appears to say 'this is what I perceived of the external world', whereas another individual might say 'this is how the external world is sensorially perceived through my senses and interpreted by me of how they relate to me'. The purpose and goal of a thought have stronger influences upon the senses than the senses themselves.
The differences of perception and interpretation are many, but the general sum of thoughts show us the contrasts well enough, that of one group of minds who interpret themselves to be solid beings living within a world of solid objects, and another group of minds who interpret the world as having its reality being based upon how the world is sensorially perceived by the individual, that is, the world's reality is judged relative to what the individual can consciously perceive of the world, and then the world itself is the memory of the perception itself.
I will draw an example to help illustrate what I am pointing at (the example can be verified by any researcher performing a similar experiment). When a typical human is near a large industrial machine, the person will likely be aware of the machine's color, shape, and location within the room, but little or nothing else (similar to what James previously used as his example of looking at a book while in a room). To that individual the machine is a solid object that exists in a room with other solid objects, and that is pretty much the sum of the person's conscious awareness of the machine. If the person were removed from the room and asked to draw a picture of the machine and to describe all that the individual perceived, the drawing would be very crude with few details, and the individual would not be capable of describing more than perhaps a few minor details that were registered subconsciously but not consciously.
A second individual may see the shapes, colors, and location of the machine, but the individual is also consciously aware of and analyzing many other features simultaneously including the room's temperatures, humidities, aromas, sounds, the machine's felt radiant temperature, and on and on, with each conscious perception being accompanied with self-willed analyses of how each perception relates to all other perceptions as well as to all memories and knowledge. As an example, a green newspaper printing press has its color (the color is mentally associated to all other colors of similar machines to derive a sum of whether the current color is a factory color, an industrial color, a commercial color, an automotive color, a home decor color, or something else), the density of the paint is felt and added to the calculation (of whether the paint is a factory lacquer or a commercial enamel or a home latex or something else), the room's aromas describe the many other objects accompanying the machine (petroleum-based oils, types of greases, which purposes each oil and grease are best useful, dust particles describing the papers and metals and others that have deteriorated within and around the machine, etc.), the types of metals (stainless steels of different qualities, the density and porosity of the cast irons, types of copper, aluminums, synthetics, fabrics, etc.), the sounds (specific sounds describe the metals and materials that are in motion as well as in contact with the other, the speeds of revolving materials, the hums that describe the voltages and amperages of the drive motors, and on and on), and of the many many other perceptions that are analyzed and simultaneously logically related one to the other, the mind forms a concept of 'this is what the object is to me'. The individual may hold a simultaneous interpretation of 'solid objects' similar to what might be normal for most humans, but the individual is aware that the interpretation is a mental interpretation — a mental construct — and not the natural state of perception itself.
The first individual is not uncommon for humans; there is precious little awareness of the person's environment, and their 'consciousness' might be similar to what James claimed for himself, that of not existing except within the moment of perceiving a perception. The second individual is constantly aware, constantly absorbing perceptions, constantly giving attention to all five senses, and constantly willfully analyzing each perception. Mathematically-speaking, the second individual applies more mental analyses in one second than what the first individual will use in a lifetime. Both individuals' eyes receive the same light that is reflected off of objects, the same aromas, the same sounds, the same radiances, and both individuals have the physical capacity to perceive five senses, but the differences of sensorial perceptions and cognition are vastly different and are in no sense identical nor similar of mind.
When I was a child in school we students were told that humans are only conscious a small percentage of the time, and though many of us knew that the teachers' claims were false, it is now through the writings by Munsterberg and James that I can grasp a plausible reason for the false beliefs. Apparently James' mind may have been similar to what he claimed, that of having severely limited perceptions and brief sporadic states of consciousness.
"And yet, just as the seen room (to go back to our late example) is also a field of consciousness, so the conceived or recollected room is also a state of mind; and the doubling-up of the experience has in both cases similar grounds."
I disagree. For my own use of the term, primary consciousness is the Observer that observes the sensory perceptions and the acts of logic. Perhaps James did not possess an observer, perhaps James only had rudimentary sensory perception and a minimal awareness of the perception, but without a separate entity-observer.
Now is the time to touch on a topic that appears to be rarely mentioned (actually I have never seen it mentioned in any writing), that of self-creating an observer. Within the practices of Buddhism and other methods of attaining awareness, if the individual approaches the practice accurately the individual will self-create a continuous standing-attention, an 'observer' that is conscious of all future thoughts and perceptions.
Briefly, the practice of giving continual attention to one's breathing results in having created a well-established observer that continues observing the self while the individual goes about their daily activities. An analogy is that of the mind being composed of waves of thoughts within a pyramid-like structure where each combination of two or more waves creates a new layer. Within this analogy all thoughts are separate layers, and the top layer is the current sum of all previous thoughts, choices, perceptions, emotions, and all else. If a standing-attention were created at, say, level 10, then levels 11 and higher would be observed by the standing-attention as they are created.
The analogy is not much different than what actually occurs for some individuals. The self-willed attention to one's perceptions creates an observer that observes everything that the person later thinks and does. The important variable here is that the self-created observer may continue observing during all acts — including dreaming — but the self-created observer might cease to exist if the individual is malnourished or has a negative reaction to a toxic substance (e.g. alcohol). In this example the observer is shown to be organic-related because the observer is variable relative to nutrition and health, and too, the observer is not aware of what thoughts occurred prior to the observer's own creation, which means that the self-created observer is not a soul in the normal sense of the word. (Note: if a researcher were interested in consciousness and multiple personalities, then the researcher would want to investigate the self-created observer to determine how the created observer might be similar or dissimilar to the Observer that does not change. There is a wealth of useful information available that opens a lot of doors into the topic of consciousness — as well as sub-topics that are quite fascinating in their recursive acts of cognition and consciousness — but, unfortunately, the topic of consciousness is not sufficiently popular to attract many individuals into investing the time and effort to research the topic.)
Having a singular observer that never changes throughout life is normal for some individuals, while some individuals create their own observer, and it may be possible that some other individuals may have no observer at all. Individuals in possession of an observer tend to define "consciousness" as the act of the observer observing, while individuals without an observer might interpret thought itself as consciousness. It appears likely that James may not have had an observer due in part to his lack of self-willed attention, and too, there is high confidence that he did not know what an observer is.
"In its pure state, or when isolated, there is no self-splitting of it into consciousness and what the consciousness is 'of.' ...Consciousness connotes a kind of external relation, and does not denote a special stuff or way of being. The peculiarity of our experiences, that they not only are, but are known, which their 'conscious' quality is invoked to explain, is better explained by their relations -- these relations themselves being experiences -- to oneanother."
Although James' metaphors do in a very vague manner hint of what might actually occur for some individuals, still he presented his ideas far too vaguely for anyone to pin-down the words' intended meanings. It appears reasonably safe to say that James deemed thoughts themselves as the act of consciousness, while he dismissed the idea of consciousness being applicable to any other act of mind, field, or spirit. If the question of consciousness were asked of an individual who can self-observe their own thoughts, then we might be told of acts and fields of flowing attention that interact to create a field of self-consciousness, but philosophy does not ask; philosophy is based upon metaphors, and forever will philosophy remain metaphorical. The remainder of James' essay is generally a wandering of un-clarified musings.
Did James' theory explain whether consciousness exists? No, not even close, but his words are useful for us to be used as examples of what it is for a mind to not be conscious of itself. But, nevertheless, again, it is best to remember that James' era and culture were relatively new to the topic of consciousness, and it should not be expected that James could have presented a well-developed theory, and especially not philosophically. Of favor to us is to observe how other individuals describe their thoughts, and for us to learn of the descriptions while we simultaneously hold the recognition that no man's worded description can be full. James' ideas might be best used as examples to urge us to use better-defined words within our own descriptions.