Philosophical Psychology is the arena of focus of much of Harari’s account of the history and future of mankind and yet there is little acknowledgment of the thought and theory of Philosophy in general and Philosophical Psychology, Ethics, Political Philosophy, and Aesthetics in particular. Harari argues for the Cognitive revolution of 70,000 BC being the decisive moment in the history of mankind insofar as the development of cognition is concerned and consciousness is an important concept to consider in this debate. The evidence for the cognitive revolution, the use of language for fictional purposes, is flimsy and is not supported by the existing evidence(archaeological or literary) that would place both the use of fictional language and the advent of consciousness much later, to ca 1200 BC(Julian Jaynes’ dating). One explanation for this dating error may reside in the contours of the modern conceptions of Psychology and consciousness which only an excursion into the History of these interrelated concepts can illuminate.
The major question at issue when Psychology cut its umbilical cord to mother Philosophy in 1870 was, how to define its subject matter. Initially, general consensus orbited around the claim that Psychology was “The science of consciousness”, up until the time that the difficulties of manipulating and measuring variables in experiments with human subjects became apparent. At this point two choices must have presented themselves to workers in this new field: either abandon the concept of consciousness on the grounds that it could not be measured or abandon the modern conception of science and the scientific method.
Philosophical analysis of this situation, of the kind we are familiar with through the works of Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein, would have revealed that this seemingly dialectical choice was a false bipolarity. In all these three philosophical accounts, consciousness was not a spiritual phenomenon that could not be manipulated or measured, nor was it a nothing – a figment of the imagination. Aristotle, to take one example, did not speak explicitly of the idea of consciousness but the term might be in some sense operational in his investigation of the notion of the psuche: in his investigation into the life principle of the human form of life. Reifying consciousness into a thing or phenomenon that could be manipulated or measured would have been regarded by Aristotle as a form of logical mistake. The Aristotelian definition of the “science” of psuche was supported by investigations searching for explanations of his holistic idea of the human form of life. The kind of investigation we find in his work “Metaphysics” in which he classifies all change into four kinds of change, three principles of change and four “causes” (or explanations)of change, focuses upon the human form of life that these kinds of change, principles of change and causes of change are attempting to illuminate aspects of. One can perhaps anticipate from such a complex investigation that the type of knowledge being sought for in the work “De Anima” for example is very complex and the most difficult to acquire. This,, in turn,, suggests that the oracular challenge to “know thyself” is no easy task to accomplish and is further confirmed by the fact that in the Aristotelian structure of the Sciences, knowledge of the human form of life would be spread over all three Sciences: theoretical science, practical science, and the productive sciences.
So, human life can be studied by the three sciences of Aristotle: Theoretical science which seeks knowledge of the conditions of our life: practical science which is about action and the telos of the good and the productive sciences whose concern is with the production of beautiful objects(some of which imitate reality) and useful objects such as houses beds and shoes. Christopher Shields in his work “Aristotle” reiterates what has been taken for granted by many other commentators, namely that the principles of the theoretical sciences(the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of sufficient reason) underpin many of the discussions in both the Practical and Productive sciences.
The major feature of Aristotelian thought expresses the view that man is a questioning creature driven by the basic feeling of wonder at the fact that there is something rather than nothing. Aristotle, as we have claimed, does not use the term “consciousness” but if he were to, this might be its original point of insertion. That we experience something rather than nothing gives rise to two questions which his Metaphysics and other works attempt to answer, namely the question what that something is and the question why this something is as it is. This, in turn, gives rise to thinking which is a common inhabitant of the stream of experience that appears to contain both elements of sensible feeling such as sensations and elements of cognition such as concepts and judgments. This line of investigation, in fact, is reflected in contemporary philosophical psychological theories that maintain the mind is divided into two halves that are more or less integrated with each other, depending upon the complexity of the animal possessing it (O’ Shaughnessy “The Will”).
We desire to know, Aristotle argues in the Metaphysics and we aim at the good in all our activities he argues in the Nichomachean Ethics. Both works attest to this division of mind that we can also find in the work of Immanuel Kant, who sees reason to be operating in different ways in both spheres of the mind: the epistemological sphere and the conative sphere. In the epistemological sphere, theoretical judgments are organized into a system of categories which in turn organize our concepts and intuitions and experiences in general: a system where justifications and explanations are given in terms of principles of theoretical reason(non-contradiction, sufficient reason). In the conative sphere, practical reason organizes the field of imperative judgments governing action into three categories: the categorical imperative, the instrumental imperative and the technical imperative: a system reminiscent of the Aristotelian account of judgments. O’ Shaughnessy argues in this context more empirically and neutrally in terms of the desiring half and the thinking half of the mind. The modern conception of science would, of course, refuse to regard Aristotle, Kant, and O’Shaughnessy as scientists because of what is thought to be a lack of commitment to an observation based methodology and a lack of commitment to materialistic assumptions. It was these lack of commitments that in fact was the psychological inspiration for the cutting of the umbilical cord to mother Philosophy. This commitment to materialism and observation/measurement manifested itself when the infant redefined itself and rejected the definition of its subject matter in terms of “the science of consciousness” in favour of the definition “the Science of behaviour”. The reasoning was simple: one can only shake oneself free of the spiritual conception of the mind by returning to the perception and measurement of physical things. Systematic perception or observation became important for theory building. This reasoning, of course, removed concern for the mental life of human beings because I cannot observe such mental events only behaviour. If the sphere of “the mental” is not event-based but purely dispositional, this fact might explain the difficulty in observing what is mental. Thus was created the schism between mind and behaviour that Kant had seen in the empiricist philosophies of his time and which Wittgenstein was forced to bridge with his concept of “criteria”. For Wittgenstein criteria connected mental states(not dispositions) and processes with behaviour grammatically: resting his philosophical case on the logic of language.
For both Aristotle and Kant, it was evident that wonder in the face of the starry heavens and the phenomena of life of all kinds including the human form of ethical life demanded explanations of the same logical kind: in terms which were in accordance with the principles of non-contradiction and sufficient reason. Both philosophers, for example, would have claimed that one can indeed “perceive” or “observe” that someone is joyful or grieving” and for some actions such as a man diving into a river to save a drowning infant the goodness of such actions are “observable”. For many philosophers, there is no schism between mind or consciousness and behaviour requiring a separation of the disciplines of Philosophy and Psychology. Dividing a whole into two elements, one of which is by definition inaccessible to observation would have been a methodological disaster for Aristotle, Kant, and their followers.
Both Aristotle and Kant respected the integrity of experience and would have acknowledged the presence of a stream of experiences that could be more or less organized. Sensations from within the body and from the outside world draw attention to themselves and momentarily disappear unless as William James claims our theoretical, practical, emotional, or aesthetic interests focus the attention upon them turning them into substantive entities to be felt, talked about or reasoned about.
William James is an interesting figure to refer to in this context because his major work “The Principles of Psychology” was published in 1890, during the period in which the shift was occurring in Psychology from focusing on consciousness to focusing on behaviour. Consciousness was still the paramount concern and we can see in this work passing reference to Philosophers in a way that clearly manifests a waning of interest in their ideas and theories. He was attempting to defend the idea of consciousness whilst maintaining what he regarded as a “scientific” attitude toward the idea. As always in history, it is interesting to speculate what might have happened if James instead of using the modern conception of science to defend the idea of consciousness attempted to develop the thought of Aristotle and Kant. If this counter-factual were true we may well have been presented with a very different discipline of Psychology to the one we are confronted with today, containing as it does what are regarded by philosophers many conceptual confusions and logical fallacies. Let us, however, examine this work of William James with a view to throwing more light on Harari’s concerns as well as for the purposes of supporting the truth of the above counterfactual.
William James defines Psychology as “The Science of mental life, both its phenomena and their conditions”:
“The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions and the like: and their variety and complexity are such as to leave a chaotic impression on the observer.”
Phenomena must be classified in accordance with our practical, emotional and aesthetic interests but there is very little recognition of the importance of our theoretical interests in the work. Indeed, there is, one might argue, also a lack of recognition of the “rational” contribution that Philosophy could make to the discipline of Psychology. James, in Hegelian fashion, instead refers dialectically to two different approaches that have attempted to understand the variety and complexity of phenomena he referred to above: the associationist approach and the spiritualistic approach. In the former, James argues, we discover mental “facts” as he calls them and we arrange these into a structure very much in the same way in which a builder arranges his bricks into the form of a house. In this approach, the self or the soul emerges as a consequence or fact of the correct arrangement of the elements. The Spiritual approach, on the other hand, begins with the self or the soul and its faculties of memory, reasoning, volition, imagination, and appetite. James criticizes both these approaches in an empirical spirit and does not acknowledge the conceptual difficulties involved. He wonders for example, in relation to the faculty or power of memory why, when we remember something like our university graduations, we remember this incident rather than that. He also asks why illness should weaken and diminish the power but fevers and asphyxiation and excitement can actually result in a surprising emergence of memories long forgotten we previously had no access to.
It should be pointed out in this context that Aristotle would acknowledge an associationist inductivist phase of discovery in science where facts are accumulated, classified and sorted into categories and faculties that will each eventually reveal themselves to have conceptual definitions. These conceptual definitions will contain a form or principle relating to the phenomena related to this principle and also to the principles of other faculties. Moving to the conceptual level, however, indicates a shift of context from the scientific context of discovery to the so-called scientific context of explanation. The principles of the faculties will relate themselves holistically to the human form of life if it is a human experience we are dealing with. The conceptual activity involved here will, of course, be in accordance with the principle of non-contradiction and principle of sufficient reason. We should also point out here that a principle is not a phenomenon to be observed, spiritual or otherwise, nor is it a nothing that is embedded in the chaos of infinite change. The three principles of the Aristotelian Metaphysical theory of change are: that which a thing changes from, that which a thing changes to and the enduring entity which remains the same throughout the change. These three principles together with the 4 causes, or kinds of explanations and the classification of the kinds of change will explain why my various interests determine what I remember from my graduation day. The material and efficient “causes” of Aristotle’s account will explain why I remember or fail to remember certain particular things. James also asks why as we age the mind is more inclined to remember abstract names than proper names and to this empirical question he gives the correct empirical answer that this state of affairs probably depends upon the fact that there are greater numbers of association of other experiences to the well used abstract name compared to the name of someone one does not meet that often. He points out in the context of this discussion and the context of his definition that the above considerations prove that the mental faculties work under conditions and it is the task of the Psychologist to explicate these conditions. One should also remember in this context Kant’s insistence that the power of reasoning in man attempts to unify a totality of conditions in accordance with the principles of non-contradiction and sufficient reason. James takes a different more empirical tack and insists that in relation to memory” the brain is the one immediate bodily condition of the mental “operations”. Apparently, however, the ghosts of philosophers past must still be haunting him because he hastily admits that this condition is only a co-determinant of the result.
In accordance with his definition, James then points out that there are also consequences of the activity of mental states and processes: consequences which can be observed and measured such as physiological responses and behaviour that must also fall into the purview of the science of Psychology. It is in discussing this issue that the concept of consciousness first arises in his account. He claims that behaviour or action originates through what he calls “conscious intelligence” and it is this which so clearly manifests mentality in our behaviour. He also points out in this discussion that actions and behaviour can grow automatic and be performed unconsciously in the case of our habits. he then asks whether such machine-like acts should be included in the study of Psychology. His answer is a tentative yes which of course is music to the ears of those cognitive psychologists that have moved away from a biological account of behaviour action and consciousness and toward a model of artificial intelligence to explain human behaviour. James is less tentative in his essentially Aristotelian definition of mental life in terms of what he calls “conscious intelligent action”. This definition occurs after James contrasts an event in the physical world with an event in the human world. He speaks of a magnet attracting iron filings and characterizes this event in terms of an agent acting in relation to an object. If in this process of attraction one inserts a cardboard obstacle between the iron filings and the magnet, the iron filings will cling to the cardboard obstacle and never make contact with the attracting agent. James then discusses the trials of Romeo in his attempt to overcome a number of obstacles in order to make contact with his attractive agent, Juliet. It is because Romeo possesses what he calls conscious intelligence that he will eventually overcome all obstacles and make contact with his attractive agent, Juliet. of course, love and desire also play their role in this drama and this leads James to his definition of consciousness:
“The pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment are thus the mark and criterion of mentality in a phenomenon.”(William James Principles of Psychology, P8)
This conclusion then leads to a discussion of why a machine that performs a certain action when it is working as it should, and another different kind of action when it is broken, could never be regarded as intelligent or conscious. James points out that in the above case both the right and the wrong action follow from a physical condition which just is what it is and could not be anything else, indicating a lack of conscious intelligent choice. James ends this discussion by arriving at the following principle:
“No actions but such as are done for an end and show a choice of means can be called indubitable expressions of mind”.(p11)
Aristotle, in response to Harari and the above cognitive psychologists and their embracing of the concept of artificial intelligence, would merely have pointed out that embodiment of a certain kind and complexity is necessary for life that is, in turn, a condition for consciousness and intelligence. The claim that a machine could think or consciously act would be for Aristotle a conceptual mistake, namely the conceiving of an inorganic artifact as a living organic being. He would, however, have applauded the appearance of a teleological explanation for conscious, intelligent action.
Materialists concerned with the observation of the entities they are investigating are naturally curious about where these entities are located and James shares this attitude when he asks where memory and consciousness are located. His answer is, in some sense neo-Aristotelian. These mental faculties are located in the nervous system of the animals that possess them and these nervous systems are designed to act in accordance with the survival imperative or principle. Neurones are concerned with producing and responding to sensation and obey energy regulation laws of the stimulus-response kind, especially where the lower regions of the nervous system are concerned. James, no doubt influenced by the thinking of Hughlings-Jackson differentiates between the lower centres of an animal which “act from present sensational stimuli alone” and the higher centres such as the hemispheres of the brain that act from perceptions and considerations that may involve the absence of sensations. The hemispheres, according to James are centres for memory and recall and the function of memory is to assist in formulating the goals of distant(absent) goods and evils. Memory enables us, James argues, to also deliberate among a number of alternatives, pause, and eventually act prudentially which is obviously a distinct virtue in the human world. The simpler the animal the more it is the case that its acts emanate from the lower nervous centres. In the context of this discussion James connects human intelligence with the more distant ends of life:
“The tramp who lives from hour to hour: the bohemian whose engagements are from day to day: the bachelor who builds for a single life: the father who acts for another generation: the patriot who thinks for a whole community and many generations, and finally the philosopher and saint whose cares are for humanity and eternity.”(p23)
Ideas obviously play an important role in the process of deciding for ones ends and implementing the means to these ends and James gives an excellent account of the conditions involved:
“The same cerebral process which, when aroused from without by a sense organ, given the perception of an object, will give an idea of the same object when aroused by other cerebral processes from within.”(p24)
In this context, the example of a child who burns his fingers after extending them because of the attraction of the candle’s flame is discussed in relation to the efficacy of the idea of the burned fingers in preventing the child from extending his fingers into the flame a second time. Here James examines the mechanism of a sensory idea intervening to prevent the reflexive action. It is this kind of process that is involved in what he earlier described as considerations of future good and evil. There is, however, no theoretical discussion of the roles of perception, memory, language, and reasoning in the life of a human being as there is in Aristotle’s hylomorphic actualization theory. Aristotle begins his discussion at the level of the power of perception for the discrimination of the differences between objects and the different power of thought to form an idea based on similarities which abstract from those differences. Experiences are formed into memories in accordance with the various interests of life. The result of this organization is the formation of a general practical rule that rests on a general principle. Contemporaneously, another power of the mind emerges to assist in the organization of experience: the power of discourse or language. For Aristotle, spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul and written marks are the symbols of these spoken sounds. These affections argue Aristotle, are the same for all men as are the things which produced these affections. The internal organization of these spoken and written words is grammatical. In De Interpretatione Aristotle discusses names and verbs in relation to the truth and falsity generated by sentences affirming or denying something about something. Aristotle also points to the fact that names and verbs occurring outside the context of sentences have a meaning but no truth value which can only be constituted by an intended combination or separation of the name and the verb. It is also pointed out in this discussion that the verb is a more complex grammatical form for two reasons: firstly it refers to time and secondly because it says something about something else when it occurs in a sentence. It is what primarily generates the truth value of a sentence. Sentences can, of course, have other functions than a truth function. Poetry, rhetoric, and prayer produce meaningful sentences that have different grammatical functions. Sentences referring to goods and evils, on the other hand, are multi-functional possessing both truth function and other functions such as the function of recommending a change of a state of affairs in the world through the performance of an action of value. This is a short account of how ideas or affections in the soul are organized in thought and speech. In this account, it can readily be seen how language or discourse brings into play a manifold of powers of the mind. In this connection consider this passage from James:
“Take, for example, the “faculty of language”. It involves, in reality, a host of distinct powers. We must first have images of concrete things and ideas of abstract qualities and relations: we must next have the memory of words and then the capacity so to associate each idea or image with a particular word that, when the word is heard, the idea shall forthwith enter our mind. We must, conversely, as soon as the idea arises in our minds, associate with it a mental image of the word, and by means of this image, we must innervate our articulatory apparatus so as to reproduce the word as a physical sound. To read or to write a language other elements still must be introduced. But it is plain that the faculty of spoken language alone is so complicated as to call into play almost all the elementary powers which the mind possesses, attention, perception, memory, imagination, association, judgment and volition”(p28-9)
Given the fact that we find sometimes in James an element of neo-Aristotelianism, it is not then surprising to find him insisting that there is no localization of speech in the brain because the entire brain is involved in speaking. James skillfully elaborates upon the Aristotelian position which maintains that the human being is a combination of matter and form that together form a functioning unit. For Aristotle, the matter cannot occur independently of some principle of organization or form and in the case of the human, this involves an interrelation of organs including the brain. James again refers to Hughlings-Jackson in characterizing brain function as a sensory-motor system in which sensory impressions and movements are “represented” and to which there correspond “mental” ideas of these impressions and movements. Dualism was the natural alternative position to materialism during the time of James’ theorizing in spite of the fact that both dualism and materialism had been substantially criticized by Kant when he was engaged in the task of uniting empiricism and rationalism in his critical philosophy. James ignores this contribution of Kant and as a consequence, it can be said that he oscillates theoretically between dualist and materialist positions throughout this work. In the name of materialism, he points to examples of how devastating the effects of physical damage to the brain can be for the mental life of such unfortunate victims.
The distinction between the higher and lower centres of the brain was also the basis for James’ claim that consciousness was “located” in the cortex of the hemispheres. In the hemispheres, we have both the so-called sensory-motor “projection” areas but also language in both the frontal and temporal lobes. the lower centres of the nervous system have no connection with speech and therefore no connection with the self that speaks. In this context, however, James does enigmatically claim that a kind of consciousness might attach to the lower centres but if so “it is a consciousness of which the self-knows nothing”(p67)
The hemispheres of the brain do possess those native tendencies of reaction we know as the instincts or emotions. These instincts or emotions project upwards into the cortex areas and associate themselves with certain special objects of perception. In this association, these reactions can obviously be modified.
We cannot escape the fact, however, that James, regards consciousness as practical and directed at principally practical ends which it prefers or desires. For Aristotle, the desire to understand, that James would have regarded as theoretical, is a contemplative state of consciousness which could transform all one’s practical preferences and desires. Apart from obscure references to the lives of philosophers and saints, there is no acknowledgment of the importance of this theoretical desire to understand or the desire to lead a contemplative god-like life. It is no great surprise therefore to find James speaking of the will as being primarily connected to the motor centres of the brain: connecting desire to motor discharges. In this context, James claims that:
“All nervous centres have then in the first instance one essential function, that of intelligent action. They feel, prefer one thing to another and have “ends” that have become more intellectual because of the integration of powers in the cortex.”(p79)
James does not refer to this fact but brain research in the last century has focussed on the frontal lobes of the cortex where motor centres are found in close juxtaposition to language, the medium we use to contemplate, think and discuss actions past present and future. We know also the importance Freud placed upon his “talking cure” as if merely contemplating, thinking and talking about one’s illness and condition could be transformational. That evolution has brought such a state of affairs about is not paradoxical given the fact that we know that the process itself is basically a trial and error matter unconcerned with outcomes. We can just accept this fact and turn to Aristotle rather than a divine designer to give us an account of the teleological aspects of human life.
Having arrived at the idea of intelligent action and being confronted with the automatic mechanical appearance of habit James then attempts to explain the role of habit in the life of human beings. Habit, he argues, is a means which the mechanism uses to reduce the energy it spends on the necessary tasks of living. If James continues, we never learned habitually to do anything our life would be spent on fewer tasks because they would require much more attention and energy for their completion. He appears here to be relating consciousness with attention and expenditure of energy in accordance with some kind of energy regulation principle: a principle we also find in Freud’s early theorizing. He refers to the writing of a Physiologist, Dr. Maudsley;
“A man might be occupied all day in dressing and undressing himself: the attitude of his body would absorb all his attention and energy: the washing of his hands or the fastening of a button would be as difficult to him on each occasion as to the child on its first trial: and he would furthermore be completely exhausted by his exertions. Think of the pains necessary to teach a child to stand, of the many efforts which it must make and of the ease with which it at last stands unconscious of any effort.”(Physiology of Mind, p155)
The consequence of habit, then, is to “diminish the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.”
Consciousness then is also associated with the effort in learning something new. Imagine a particular complex action composed of a sequence of nervous events ABCDEFG etc and imagine the effort involved in choosing one event from a large number of alternatives at each stage of the sequence. Such activity requires much energy for the cortex which is the origin of these choices. Once we have successfully learned the complex action, the task is devolved upon the lower parts of the nervous system which requires only one sensation to function as a signal for another without the interposition of the cortical “mental” events of perception idea and volition. The whole sequence requires either an initial conscious perception or idea for the whole process to begin. The sensations involved in the habitual performance can, of course, become conscious again if something unexpected happens or goes wrong in the performance of the task. The process of correction appears to require a conscious relinking of perception ideas and volitions. The habitual area of the mind reminds one very much of the Freudian preconscious in which knowledge and the meanings of words are located. In relation to this point, one can but imagine how slowly we would read if we were unable to transform the conscious act of reading into a preconscious stream of activity. Each word would require a conscious search for a meaning.
Habit, which initially looked to be a physiological matter guided by an energy regulation principle also has social and ethical consequences according to James:
“it saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fishermen and deckhand at sea through the winter: it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow: it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight the battles of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choices and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees because there is no other to which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again…” (p121)
Aristotle’s discussion of the process involved in acquiring the virtues confirms, without the details of the role of the brain, the moral of James’ message.
James’s discussion is of course a reminder of a time gone by when perhaps our educational systems were not sufficiently complex to provide us with a base of ideas, perceptions, and skills that would enable almost everyone to do almost everything including hopefully, think about the most distant ends of humanity typical of the philosopher and the saint. Yet the ultimate insight is correct in accordance with the thoughts of the Philosopher, Aristotle: habits should be developed as early as possible.
Julian Jaynes in his work entitled “The Origins of Consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind” claims that consciousness is not a phenomenon or a thing or a principle but rather an operator thus raising the obvious question: what is the nature of its operations? James is thinking along similar lines when he claims that consciousness is an active selecting agency:
“Whether we find it in the lowest sphere of sense or in the highest intellection, we find it always doing one thing, choosing one out of several of the materials so presented to its notice, emphasizing and accentuating that and suppressing as far as possible all the rest. The item emphasized is always in close connection with some interest felt by consciousness to be paramount at the time.”(p139)
Again James emphasizes the practical at the expense of the theoretical-cognitive function thus undervaluing Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian positions which regard positively the conscious attitude of contemplation in respect to the wonder and awe we experience in the face of the world. For James, the cognitive powers are subservient to the practical ends created by practical attitudes in the higher centres or cortex of the brain. It is quite clear that for James, Consciousness is no epiphenomenon but on the contrary has causal efficacy in our lives. It has been pointed out that it is responsible for intelligent action, the perceptive selective choosing of the correct alternatives from an array of possibilities: it is also responsible for correcting actions that have gone awry, and it is further responsible for the sensory selection of stimuli from an array of alternatives, all in relation to the so-called interests of the organism. This idea of interests it turns out in James’ argument is significantly related to the consciousness we have of pleasure and pain both of which have obvious relevance for what we undergo and choose to do:
“It is a well-known fact that pleasures are generally associated with beneficial, pains with detrimental experiences. All the fundamental vital processes illustrate this law.”(p143)
If painful or destructive events were pleasurable for the organism or vice versa then this conscious pleasure-pain principle would not be useful for the organism. James refuses this possibility and points out its obvious evolutionary value in the process of evolution insofar as vital functions are concerned. This principle obviously also plays a role in the instability of a restless consciousness continually searching for a state of equilibrium in a world which continually precipitates states of in-equilibrium.
The efficacy of consciousness is not further discussed except for the insistence that the mind itself cannot, as the associationists suggest, be made up of an assembly of atomic facts that mysteriously “constitute” consciousness” or “mind”. There is ambiguity in James’s terminology when he speaks sometimes of consciousness and sometimes of the mind, soul, or self.
In speaking about the mind he claims that the mind knows other objects and he insists that this relation is so mysterious that it cannot be explained. the Psychologist in this situation has no choice but to assume a dualism of subject and object and a mysterious pre-established harmony. We can nevertheless distinguish two kinds of knowledge:
“we call them respectively knowledge of acquaintance and knowledge about…I am acquainted with many people and things which I know very little about, except their presence and the places where I have met them. I know the colour blue when I see it and the flavour of a pear when I taste it. I know an inch when I move my finger through it: a second of time when I feel it pass, an effort of attention when I make it: a difference between two things when I notice it: but about the inner nature of these facts or what makes them what they are, I can say nothing at all.”(p221)
One can wonder in what sense I can be said to know an inch if I move my finger through it if I am not moving my finger along a ruler :or know a second of time unless I am watching the second hand of a clock moves but there does seem to be some kind of distinction between these two types of knowledge which we can form a better idea of when we consider how assertions in our language function.
The sentence for James is the principal bearer of a knowing consciousness that begins with sensations or feelings that help us become acquainted with things and begin our cognitive relation to them. The subject of a sentence often names this beginning point and the predicate of the sentence then moves consciousness into the mode of thinking about reality as opposed to merely feeling it. This is the mode of conception and judgment and the truth value of our statements and it is at this level that communication best occurs between rational animals capable of discourse.
The stream of consciousness, James argues, is made up of feelings and thoughts which I own:
“The universal conscious fact is not “feelings and thoughts exist” but, “I think” and “I feel”. No psychology, at any rate, can question the existence of personal selves.”(p226)
This comment is in accordance with the Aristotelian requirement that something must endure through a process of change if we are to be able to think coherently about it. The stream of consciousness may be continually changing but something is enduring throughout this change. James does, however, cast some doubt on his own statement in a discussion about the possibility of secondary conscious selves. The very term “secondary” however takes this phenomenon out of the realm of contradiction because the secondary will still have complex relations to the primary personality with which it will share certain powers(the power of speaking for example).
Personality remains high on James’ agenda when he talks about personal reminiscences being more closely related to feelings than to conceptions:
“Remembrance is like a direct feeling, its object is suffused with a warmth or intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains.”(p239)
This memory is continuous with other memories in the individual’s system. These latter memories may not be presently conscious.
Consciousness itself seems also to possess a continuity such that the thought of one object and then another does not disrupt the stream. The sound of thunder, therefore, is not just that sound simpliciter but rather a figure on a background: it is rather “thunder -breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it.” The feeling of this thunder is also a feeling of the silence that has just recently been broken. James elaborates upon this point in relation to language and its connection to what is occurring in consciousness. He claims that we name our thoughts after the things they are about as if each thought knew only its own thing and nothing else. What is more likely to be the case, he argues, is that each thought knows clearly the thing that it is named for and more dimly perhaps a thousand other things.
James is here attempting to capture in his account the fleeting nature of his so-called “stream of consciousness”:
“Like a birds life, it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence and every sentence closed by a period. The resting places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is such that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing… Let us call the resting places the “substantive parts” and the places of flight the “transitive parts” of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of all our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another.”(p243)
The stable sensorial imaginings are the stable points in a process of change. There are transitional processes such as the process of deciding to say something and perhaps this process cannot be named but only described, perhaps with the words “the intention to say so and so” James admits that ca one-third of our psychic life is constituted of premonitions of things to be said or done. These transitory phases form what he calls the “free waters” of consciousness which we cannot gather in spoonfuls, pailfuls or barrelfuls.
Intentions as such, however, can be discriminated from each other and James illustrates this by referring to the intentions of a language user using the term “man” in its universal sense in contrast to using the term to refer to a particular man. The universal and particular intentions are discernible in the structure of the sentence. The universal intention itself is embedded in the interest we have in saying something about a man, for example, that he is a rational animal capable of discourse. Here the interest is clearly theoretical or philosophical, i.e. the complete sentence aims at the production of a knowledge claim about all men. Each word is felt as a word but also as something with a meaning. In an abstract thought such as this, the meaning is not connected to the sensory image of man but rather perhaps to other words. This is the mark of a conceptual thought:
“the verbal symbol “horse” which stands for all our experiences of horses serves all the purposes of thought without recalling one of the images clustered in the perception of horses, just as the sight of the horses form serves all the purposes of recognition without really the sound of its neighing or its tramp, or its qualities as an animal of draught etc”(p271)
James adds here, without explaining why that the image must appear at the end of the thinkers thinking if the thought is not to be left unrealized or in some sense incomplete.
James on a number of occasions washes his hands of any philosophical investigation into this mysterious power of knowing and prefers to give scientific and psychological account. (cf the commentary and critique of Harari) In this spirit, he asks why a thinker believes that his thought knows outer reality and discusses two examples of what he calls “triangulation”:
“The judgment that my own past thought and my own present thought are of the same object is what makes me take the object out of either and project it by a sort of triangulation into an independent position from which it may appear to both…making repeated judgments of sameness among their objects, he corroborates in himself the notion of realities, past and distinct as well as present which realities no one single thought possesses or engenders, but which all may contemplate and know.”(p272)
This triangulation process is what enables a mind to become conscious of its own consciousness, to know, for example, that the things it enters into cognitive relations with. It is via this process that we know that we know them. Many psychological commentators refer to this phenomenon as the meta-cognitive power of consciousness. Philosophers, on the other hand, refer to it as the reflective consciousness of the self.
James then elaborates upon the operation of selective attention that enables man to organize external reality into forms assimilable to appropriate sense organs:
“Out of the infinite chaos of movements of which physics teaches us the outer world consists, each sense organ picks out those which fall within certain limits of velocity. To these it responds but ignores the rest as completely as if they did not exist… as Lange claims there is no reason whatever to think the gap in Nature between the highest sound waves and the lowest heat waves is an abrupt break like that of our sensations: or that the difference between violet and ultra-violet rays has anything like the objective importance subjectively represented by that between light and darkness.”(p284)
Some of the physical phenomena mentioned above may create no sensations in us at all but out of those which bombard our bodies, attention selects from an array corresponding to our interests, be they theoretical, practical aesthetic or emotional. In what must be regarded as a theoretical spirit our attention then selects amongst the array of sensations belonging to one phenomenon those sensations which represent the thing most characteristically, i.e. we call the table square probably because of the knowledge that the top is composed of 4 right angles. This essentially perceptual process is mirrored by a possible form of higher activity that may aim at conceptualizing where concepts are selected for combination or separation in the search for the truth about the table. Propositions can be then subsequently be combined or separated in a process of reasoning about the truths of the table in order to arrive at knowledge.
Conception is an important effect of the operation of attention upon the infinite continuous manifold of external phenomena. Concepts in this sense are fixed points in an ever-changing stream of external and internal events. Concepts enable us to determine truth:
“The paper, a moment ago white, I may now see to have been scorched black. But my conception “white” does not change into my conception “black”. On the contrary, it stays alongside the objective blackness, as a different meaning in my mind, and by so doing lets me judge the blackness as the papers change…Thus amid the flux of opinions and physical things, the world of conceptions, or things intended to be thought about, stands stiff and immutable, like Plato’s realm of ideas.”(p462)
Concepts also assist in the generation of knowledge:
“The facts are unquestionable: our knowledge does grow and change by rational and inward processes as well as by empirical discoveries. Where the discoveries are empirical no one pretends that the propulsive agency, the force that makes the knowledge develop is conception. All admit it to be our continual exposure to the thing with its power to impress our senses. Thus strychnine, which tastes bitter, we find also will kill etc. Now I say that where the new knowledge merely comes from thinking the facts are essentially the same and that to talk of self-development on the part of our conceptions is a very bad way of stating the case. Not new sensations as in the empirical instance, but new conceptions are the indispensable conditions of advance. For if the alleged cases of self-development are examined it will be found I believe that the new truth affirms in every case a relation between the original subject of conception and some new subject conceived later on.”(p464)
Certainly new conceptions must be arrived at consciously and the very term connotes an activity involving the selection of one concept instead of another as well as the application of the concept to reality, transforming and translating a continuously changing continuum into a system of unchanging items that then can be used in complex judgements to make knowledge claims or alternatively to claim what we ought to do. Concepts do not resemble the sensations of which they are composed and when they occur linguistically in the stream of consciousness they do so symbolically, relating to sensation and objects via the operation of meaning. When one, as James argues, uses the concept of “man” in the sentence “What a wonderful man Jones is!” one means or intends to exclude Napoleon Bonaparte, Smith and all other men except for Jones. When, on the other hand, one says “What a wonderful thing man is!” I mean to include Jones and all mankind past present and future. In this case, the image or sensation of man is the least important part of the thought. With concepts man judges, and with judgment man operates upon the world, transforming experience into something more systematic and something very different: the conceived world–a world in which explanations are given for changes in the physical world and reasons are given for changes brought about by action in the human world.
James’ penchant for the empirical then leads him into a strange adventure of attempting to describe the present perception of time. Whether or not one believes that this description makes sense will depend upon whether one believes that time is not an experience like Aristotle but rather a measure of change in terms of before and after. Of course, Aristotle claims that there is a now but he also maintains that it is like a point on a line marking a boundary with no magnitude in itself. James claims that the perception of “the present” is restricted to 12 seconds and this phenomenon ultimately depends upon a brain process which consciousness is tied to. It is claimed that this amount of time, which he calls the specious present, is “pictured” fairly steadily in each passing instance of consciousness. James calls this an experience of duration. This parceling up of durations in 12-second packets, of course, contradicts the Aristotelian notion of time as a continuum. As was indicated above moments of time for Aristotle are rather like mathematical points on a line that can only be actively counted in terms of acts of saying or thinking “now”. As claimed before a now is a non-quantifiable boundary between a moment of before and a moment of after, just as a point on a line serves as a boundary of a segment of a line. A consequence of this is also that since every now can be numbered and every number is divisible, so time theoretically can also be infinitely divided. What we are seeing in this adventure of reflection is an attempt to conceptualize time which is, to say the least problematic. James concludes by claiming:
“but the original paragon and prototype of all conceived times is the specious present, the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible.”(p631)
This is a denial of both the discovery of physicists relating to the continuum of velocities of waves as well as a denial of the philosophical and mathematical view of reality as possibly being an ever-changing infinite continuum. The ultimate purpose of this adventure might, however, be related to a point he wishes to make concerning memory:
“For a state of mind to survive in memory it must have endured for a certain length of time. In other words, it must have been what I would call a substantive state.”(p643)
The argument is that our intellectual faculty requires an after-memory of our states of mind if these states are going to form an idea or perhaps determine a transition to an action. This concern is obviously also related to James’ materialistic concern with the brain and its neural activity. What is not evident in this account is the fundamental element of change. Had James paid more attention to the account of Aristotle he would have realised that the mere act of counting up to twelve would have served to differentiate the experience into twelve different moments or “presents”: each “now” must be regarded as a present which slips into the past with the next number being uttered. One can, of course, recall the numbers uttered but the number of items we can recall according to modern research is not twelve but seven plus or minus two which in itself gives a good indication of how difficult measurement is in this arena of consciousness. Aristotle has the following to say about the apprehension of time:
“We apprehend time only when we have marked a change, marking it by before or after, and it is only when we have perceived before and after in change that we say that time has elapsed. Now we mark them by judging that one thing is different from another and that some third thing is intermediate to them. When we think of the extremes as different from the middle and the mind pronounces that the nows are two, one before and one after, it is then that we say that there is time and this that we say is time. For what is bounded by the now is thought to be time–we may assume this. For time is just this, “a number of motion in respect to before and after”.(Physics iv ii 219a22)
This process can then be used for larger “units” of experienced time in the creation of the conceptual framework we use for collectively measuring time: a process of conceptualizing time by clocks and calendars. For example, the passage of a day can be marked out in relation to the earth’s rotation on its axis. The passage of a year can be marked out by the orbit of the earth around the sun and the passage of a month by lunar observations. Each second, minute, hour, day, month or year could then alternately become a “now”
The difference between these two accounts is clear. In the Aristotelian account, man interacts with nature and the changes occurring there. Aristotle does, however, acknowledge that his account requires the being in time, in some sense, of the soul if such measurement is to occur and this brings us back to the idea of consciousness. For Aristotle, the bodily self is the source of all the powers of the human being. The human being is a unity of matter and form and matter is all that remains when it is no longer “inhabited” by a form which here means that the principle of life is no longer active in the body. The external forces that brought matter together in just this body slowly gave rise to the formation of internal powers which could maintain the organism in existence, until that moment when these powers fail and the organism ceases to exist, eventually losing its shape and crumbling into particles of dust. When however the body remains activated by its powers of life and consciousness it is like a sounding board and James’ account of instinct and emotion provides us with unique insight into the realm of being that lies between life and consciousness. Emotional consciousness, James argues, often terminates in something happening to the body, something being felt in the body–the field of operation of what Freud called the pleasure-pain principle. James discusses three central cases of emotion: grief, fear and hatred and claims:
“Were we to go through the whole list of emotions which have been named by men and study their organic manifestations, we should but ring the changes in the elements which these three typical cases involve. The rigidity of this muscle, relaxation of that, contraction of arteries here, dilation there, breathing of this sort or that, pulse slowing or quickening, this gland secreting, that one dry, etc etc.”(p447)
Kant in his work “Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view” would regard much of what James is discussing under the heading of instincts and emotions as “physiology”, a study not directly relevant to what man makes of himself because it studies instead, in a certain sense, events that happen to man and over which he has little control. Elements causing physiological and physical reactions in the body fall into a different field of study for Kant. For him, Anthropology then is about man’s active thought and reasoning about what he is doing with his life and includes ethical considerations. Here too we see the holistic perspective without the retreat into the inner life of the human being. Kant’s focus is on the human being as “a form of life” to use the words of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein advised us when it came to explaining what is going on in our selves, to focus upon what we do and not what we feel or what happens to us. The emphasis for him is also on the “we”, on the collectivity and its activities. In this respect, one must admire Harari’s passage about “Modern Time” in his work “Homo Sapiens”. Whilst one can question much of what is said in terms of the analysis of the history of mankind much of what occurs in this section of the work is Wittgensteinian in its very core. The Industrial Revolution is associated with a new form of mentality and a social re-engineering project that revolutionized the form of life that was common in pre-industrial societies. Industrial factory workers were linked like cogs in a machine the one machine depending upon what is done with another machine to the extent that if one machine operator was not on station to keep the chain moving, activity was significantly disrupted. Schedules and timetables dominated everyday activities and spread to schools and many institutions of society. Clocks and watches became important tools of everyday life in contrast to agricultural communities where the natural rhythms of daylight and weather conditions were activity regulators. Moving forward to our modern societies Harari points out that one household may own more clocks and watches than an entire medieval country. This was an excellent exercise in descriptive phenomenology by Harari and serves well as a basis for the philosophical explanation of time such as that given by Aristotle.
Linking consciousness with what we do, the effort of attention in the selection of materials, the choice of means and ends etc is clearly in accordance with the Kantian project of Anthropology and the project of Wittgensteinian and post Wittgensteinian Philosophy. It is not clear however where the emotions and the instincts fit into this account.
For James, however, emotions are a very central element of the discipline he calls “Psychology”. He claims consciousness is intimately involved in the sequence of events one can observe in every emotion which is, the perception of an exciting fact, bodily response, consciousness of the bodily response. This consciousness must be regarded as non-cognitive. It is not, that is, the consciousness of an image of the bear that frightens us but rather the consciousness of our bodily response or reaction. Were, on the other hand, I to judge that on seeing the bear it is best to run from the bear and then do so, this would be a cognitive instrumental response which is not that of an emotional consciousness as James describes it. We know from experience for example that the emotional consciousness of fear for the bear could even paralyze me and prevent any life-saving action. It seems clear, therefore that we are investigating a realm of being between life and consciousness. We are investigating, in other words, the sounding board of the body whose reverberations can be manifold. James insists that this is the case also with aesthetic responses where emotional thrills and flashes of pleasure are related to the rightness or appropriateness of the relations of elements in the objects we appreciate. It seems here that the aesthetic object which is a cognitive work of art is being undervalued in being reduced to thrills and flushes. The object appears to have dropped out of the account as the external world also appeared to evaporate in the account of the specious present James gave as part of his account of time-consciousness.
James then moves from an account of those events of consciousness which cannot be foreseen to those which can, namely those movements which we desire and intend before their occurrence. One of the conditions of such voluntary movement is, according to James, the memory images of the sensations of the act we are proposing to ourselves to perform. Once these conditions are met, James argues:
“Every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object: and awakens it in a maximum degree wherever it is not kept from doing so by an antagonistic representation present simultaneously to the mind.”(p526)
Some commentators have posited an act of consenting internally to the idea of the action but James claims that this is only the case if there is an antagonistic or inhibiting idea competing for attention in one’s stream of consciousness. It is only then we deliberate over the action, James argues. Consciousness is, James continues, by its very nature impulsive. Movement, whether it be reflexive, emotional or voluntary, originates in feeling.
It is clear that James does not acknowledge any higher cognitive power than consciousness and if what is said above concerning the impulsive nature of consciousness then one must wonder what powers of the mind are involved in the education of the mind to act in accordance with the distant ends of the saint or the philosopher. It appears that at least two further powers need to be involved. Firstly that in which we find the correct conception in accordance with which we shall act and secondly the use of this conception in formulating a reason to act which will serve the distant ends of humanity so important to the saint and the philosopher. An example of such a distant end was given by Kant’s moral philosophy of the categorical imperative in which the actor reasons universally(with universal intent) to protect universal human institutions such as truth-telling and promise-making in order to create a very distant(in terms of the future) communal state in which reason is used universally by everyone in a so-called “kingdom of ends” where the truth and the good are actualized and not just hoped for norms of action. The higher power Kant is referring to is, of course, the power of rationality: the same power referred to by Aristotle and his followers. James appears to refuse to acknowledge this power especially given the fact that he appears to believe that consciousness is by its very nature impulsive and connected to both emotional states of mind and the performance of instrumental actions. The status of final ends and their relation to consciousness is left hanging in the air in this account. In the Philosophies of Aristotle and Kant, final ends, or termini of action are what can be rationally justified by a reflective self-conscious being reflecting upon the nature of his conceptions of action and his reasons for acting. If in this self-reflective process reason can theoretically meet the tests of virtue for Aristotle(doing the right thing in the right way at the right time), or the tests of universalization of Kant then these are the kinds of action that are more likely to lead to the distant ends of humanity valued by philosophers and saints. Consciousness as a power of mind might be needed in Aristotle’s account of the man who is being trained to act virtuously, especially when he realizes he must choose a third position between two extremes if he is to lead a flourishing life. Consciousness as a power of mind might also be needed in Kantian moral training where one realizes for example that one is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, the wrong thing for the right reason, or the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
According to James, actions performed with the distant ends of humanity in mind can only be performed by an effort of will: presumably, because thinking in itself is contemplative rather than impulsive–aimed at delaying action rather than initiating it. For Freud too there is a clear distinction between the impulsive acts sponsored by the pleasure-pain principle and the more reflective acts sponsored by the reality principle and it was clear to him that the latter were the acts which would most likely lead to the flourishing life. The latter, that is, exercises a controlling influence over the impulsivity of consciousness. The reason why James refuses to acknowledge rationality as a superior power of mind in comparison to consciousness probably resides in a picture he has of the rational thinker. He imagines a thinker deliberating but never being able to act because he is forever embroiled in his deliberations. He imagines that is, rationality as a pathological phenomenon. He does not see the relation between thought and action. This is confirmed when he claims that sometimes the man of reason might be right and sometimes the man of instinct may be right. If, however one accepts the idea of a continuum of which instinct and reason are earlier and later phases this bi-polar objection loses its force. This probably also due to a failure to recognize the power of speech which also possesses the power to integrate a whole host of powers and susceptibilities including the non-voluntary forms of reacting instinctively and emotionally to stimuli. James also ignores the cognitive aspects of consciousness where we relate to the world in terms of a contemplative understanding of what we see and experience, in terms of truth and knowledge, the traditional concerns of Philosophy. We see the same tendencies to disregard the conceptions and theories of philosophers in Harari’s work.