When James came to psychology, it was a science not yet born. In the autumn of 1867, from Berlin, James wrote his friend, Thomas W. Ward: “It seems to me that perhaps the time has come for psychology to be a science ...”1 James’s optimism sprang from the promising results of the new experimental psychology in measuring the psycho-physical region that lies between the physical changes in the nerves and the appearance of consciousness. Weber, Fechner, Helmholtz, and Wundt could be cited as innovators and practitioners of quantitative, experimental methods in psychology, and James himself contributed remarkably to the development of the new science. In 1875 he offered a graduate course on “The Relations between Physiology and Psychology,” and at about the same time, he founded at Harvard University the first psychological laboratory in the United States. Nevertheless, James was temperamentally ill-suited to pursue such research himself. As he wittily remarked while fixing his gaze on the German practitioners and perhaps being oblivious of his own compatriots’ potentialities, the experimental method in psychology “taxes patience to the utmost, and could hardly have arisen in a country whose natives could be bored.”2 Then, too, James was, at bottom, skeptical of the value of the findings so far made. In July 1890, during a moment of respite from correcting the proofs of the Principles, James confided in a letter to Sully, the professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of London, that “psychology is like physics before Galileo’s time—not a single elementary law yet caught glimpse of.”3
The most important scientific theory of the nineteenth century was Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. James’s psychology was a comprehensive endeavor to explain mind in terms of evolution. At this task Herbert Spencer had preceded him. According to the evolutionary account of life and mentality, the fundamental situation is a relation between an organism and its environment. The situation is one fraught with struggle as the organism copes with its environment in order to survive. Mind, according to Spencer, is one of the most important faculties whereby an organism comes to know its environment in order to adjust to it, thereby increasing its chances for survival. Thus Spencer defined life as “the adjustment of inner to outer relations”4 and held this formula to be sufficient to comprehend the entire process of mental evolution. The different degrees and kinds of mental perfection are gauged by the extent of their adjustment or correspondence to the environment.
As early as 1878 James perceived the flaw in Spencer’s account of mind. It makes mind much too mechanical, reducing it to a passive faculty which must conform to an adamant environment.5 Although mind depends on cerebral conditions, it is, as James said, “frankly teleological.”6 Hence the fundamental situation is not an organism adjusting to a fixed environment, but rather an active organism with interests, coping with its environment so that it may realize the ends posited by these interests. As James plainly put the issue: “I, for my part, cannot escape the consideration, forced upon me at every turn, that the knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foothold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing. The knower is an actor ....”7 Thus in the first chapter of his Principles of Psychology James underscored as the mark and criterion of the presence of mind “the pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment....”8
In the history of psychology James’s theory of mind is called functionalism. Mind is conceived as a function of the organism, a kind of instrument which not only enables the individual to adjust to the existing environment but also, perhaps more importantly, enables him to change his environment in ways conducive to his ends. In one sense mind is but a phase in the conduct of an organism in pursuit of ends; it translates itself into action. Yet in another sense, because its operations are essentially purposeful, mind is the fact of spontaneity, of creativity, in the individual, and it cannot be reduced merely to those narrow paths that lead only to survival.
James’s Principles of Psychology was the fruit of twenty years study and twelve years of writing,9 and it immediately established his eminence in the field. As Lloyd Morris has observed, this 1,400-page work marks a major watershed of thought initiating the flow of the future. “In the domain of psychology, it had foreshad-owed nearly all subsequent developments of primary importance. Viewed retrospectively, the permanent significance of the Principles was incentive. It explored possibilities and indicated directions.”10 John Dewey, the most famous American philosopher after James, viewed the Principles as the juncture of two methods in psychology: (1) the traditional method of introspection, which, having produced some of its finest results in the associationist psychology of British empiricism, culminated in James’s doctrine of the stream of consciousness, and (2) the newer methods of experimentalism and behavior־ ism, which in the United States served to establish the social sciences as sciences.11 For Dewey and his compatriots it was the experimentally verifiable method of behaviorism which captured their attention. For European students of James’s thought, such as Bergson and Husserl, it was the rich findings of the introspectionalism which elicited their admiration.
James’s celebrated theory of the emotions exhibits most emphatically the physiological, behaviorist side of his psychology. Since the Danish physiologist Carl George Lange presented a similar theory of the emotions almost simultaneously, it is known as the James-Lange theory. It maintains that the causes of emotion are strictly physiological and that an emotion is merely the feeling of the bodily changes that follow the perception of the stimulus. Whereas common sense supposes that emotion interposes between perception of stimulus and bodily changes or actions, the James-Lange theory considers emotion to be nothing but the subjective feeling of the bodily changes or actions. In James’s words: .. we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.”12 Surveying the significance of his theory of emotions for psychology as a whole James remarked that
... it makes us realize more deeply than ever how much our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame, in the strictest sense of the term. Rapture, love, ambition, indignation, and pride, considered as feelings, are fruits of the same soil with the grossest bodily sensations of pleasure and pain.13
Although James led scientific psychology with his physiological, behaviorist theory of emotions, he refused to join in his own time the movement of scientific psychology toward the materialist reduction of consciousness to an epiphenomenon. Because he conceived mind to be essentially teleological, he reserved for consciousness a very special role. Whatever interests may operate in the life of an organism, the function of consciousness is to favor some interests over others. Consciousness exerts pressure and inhibition all the while over the interests of the organism, and while it might seem that these interests are wholly physical in origin, form and content, they are, according to James, the interests of consciousness and of consciousness alone, interests which consciousness ereates. In this fundamental sense, consciousness is “a fighter for ends”14
James’s theory of consciousness was the most striking achievement of the introspectional side of his psychology. Certainly, he was not ignorant of the objections against the introspective method. These objections center on the alleged inaccuracy of the method, the difficulties attending its exact application and the fallibility of its reports. But as James insisted, the shortcomings of introspective observation accrue to “all observation of whatever kind.”15 And he contended, what consciousness is can be known mainly through introspective observation—”the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover.”16 Thus he concluded that for psychology, “Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always.”17
When we introspect, we observe states of consciousness, states which James was prepared to call indifferently thought or feeling. According to the standard view of consciousness, the view of British empiricism as expounded in the writings of John Locke and David Hume, the basic states of consciousness are discrete perceptions, atomic sensations of presumed external objects and intuitions or impressions of internal mental activities and feelings. These discrete perceptions are the materials of which consciousness consists. They are combined in various ways to produce complex ideas, all ideas in the last analysis being derived from these discrete perceptions. The psychological laws which compound atomic states of consciousness into the flow of thought are the mechanical laws of mental association. This standard view, which regards consciousness as a mosaic of simple elements, James rejected. “No one,” he asserted, “ever had a simple sensation by itself. Consciousness, from our natal day, is of a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations, and what we call simple sensations are results of discriminative attention, pushed often to a very high degree.”18
The states of consciousness observed by introspection reveal that a mental process is going on, that consciousness is a stream. When James described consciousness as a stream, he introduced a figure of speech which not only revolutionized the conception of consciousness in psychology but also inspired a new technique in literature.
What are the major characteristics of consciousness described as a stream? In the Principles James listed five:
1) Every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness.
2) Within each personal consciousness thought is always changing.
3) Within each personal consciousness thought is sensibly continuous.
4) It always appears to deal with objects independent of itself.
5) It is interested in some parts of these objects to the exelusion of others, and welcomes or rejects—chooses from among them, in a word—all the while.19
In the Psychology, Briefer Course, in which he compressed the discussion considerably, James omitted the fourth characteristic, reducing the list to four. Let us consider each of these four in turn.
First, that every thought is part of a personal consciousness meant for James that a thought always belongs to an individual personal consciousness. It is impossible for the same thought to belong to more than one personal consciousness. “Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned.”20
Second, thought is in constant change. No state of consciousness, once it has passed, can recur and be identical with what it was before. Although different states of consciousness may refer to the same object, e.g., my hearing a note in the morning and hearing again the same note in the evening, the mental states themselves can never be the same. This theory of the constant flux of consciousness contrasts vividly with the atomistic psychology which builds consciousness up from static simple perceptions and ideas.
Third, within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous. In nature minds are divided from each other, but within a single consciousness, despite such interruptions as time-gaps and qualitative breaks, no sharp breach, crack or division exists. In effect, personal consciousness feels continuous, although the parts of consciousness felt to be continuous flow into one another at varying paces. Consciousness, said James, is “like a bird’s life; it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings.”21 The resting-places he called the substantive parts and the places of flight the transitive parts. The transitive parts establish the continuity of the stream of consciousness, a continuity which was expanded in James’s doctrine of radical empiricism. Here it suffices to remark that relations are felt to exist between the parts of thought. The psychologist’s tendency to divide consciousness into discrete elements James labeled a fallacy, ascribable to fixities of language which obscure the felt continuities of mental states. He demanded: “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite readily as we say a feeling of blue and a feeling of cold.”22
Besides the felt connections in the transitive states of consciousness, another principle which establishes the continuity of consciousness, one which has caught on in phenomenological psychology, is what James has called the fringe. No matter how discrete an image or datum of consciousness may be, it possesses an overtone, halo, or fringe. This fringe relates the datum to other data, linking one part of consciousness to other parts. It is “the vague consciousness that surrounds the image, of the sphere to which it is intended to apply.”23 It is tantamount to the intentional structure of consciousness. However, it is a structure housed not in a transcendental ego, but rooted in the interested, teleological character of an organism with consciousness, as it passes through various stages in the direction of its ends.
This leads to the fourth characteristic of consciousness: consciousness “is always interested more in one part of its object than in another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks.”24 To return to James’s functionalist view of mind, mentality is manifest when an individual copes with his environment in such a way that he can realize interests he himself has brought to the situation. The flux of thought and feeling in which “all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates but what must” James has aptly described as “one great, blooming, buzzing confusion.”25 Only the activity of interested consciousness succeeds in bringing the confusion of felt experience to conceptual order. Attention is the first effective operation of consciousness, for “attention .... out of all the sensations yielded, picks out certain ones as worthy of notice and suppresses all the rest.”26 When the cerebral structure allows, conception develops from attention. Conception is defined as the function whereby a mental state identifies a numerically distinct and permanent subject of discourse.27 Consciousness selects parts of the flux, slices up the continuous stream according to its purposes, and fixes these pieces in static forms. Concepts are such pieces selected from the flux, enabling the originating consciousness to move more effectively or swiftly from one part of experience to other parts it intends or desires. Hence attention is the key to the formation of concepts, as purposiveness constitutes the essence of mind.
The functionalist conception of consciousness as a fighter for ends, with its implications of purposiveness throughout the mental life, suggests that will is the fundamental faculty of mind. This suggestion requires qualification. In one sense, James assigned a rather special, limited role to will. He did not construe will to be a faculty which transcends consciousness and deals with objects beyond it; nor did he invoke the will to explain all mental activities. Thus will is not operative in cases of simple voluntary acts, where consciousness spills directly into conduct. In such cases all that occupies the mind is “the kinaesthetic idea ... of what the act is to be.”28 Here no special agency is required, since the kinaesthetic idea of the act is itself adequate for the realization of the act. The intimate connection of idea and act, a veritable embodiment of the idea in the act, is the normal condition of consciousness. Only on certain occasions must a fiat, or decision, that the act be done, be superadded to the idea to assure the performance of the act. These occasions occur when immediate action is inhibited. Then deliberation enters, reflecting on the various ideas of action and the obstacles thereto and, finally, of the possible ways action may be resumed. With the advent of deliberation a field of possibilities, of alternative actions, is unveiled, and decision, choice, volition come into play. Thus will may be viewed as a mental operation with a restricted range; it decides between alternative ideas. Will, then, does not relate consciousness to its environment by triggering those acts whereby consciousness objectifies itself in conduct. Not the transcendental link of the subject and its object, will effectuates, however, the central relation in the life of consciousness—namely, the relation of consciousness to its own mental states. This relation becomes critical when, in order to act, consciousness must decide among its ideas. In this sense, will is the generic form of all the specific modes of consciousness—attention, conception, etc.—by means of which consciousness relates to ideas, enabling it to pursue the purposes of the organism.
There remains, of course, the crucial question of the relation of consciousness to its objects beyond. James’s approaches to the question changed somewhat in the passage of years. At the practical level of analysis, consciousness expresses itself, almost without residue when possible, in conduct. At the cognitive level of analysis, however, consciousness contains ideas which somehow are also objective to it. At any level of analysis, the question concerns the ultimate nature and structure of consciousness. James’s answer moved from an idealistic, almost voluntaristic conception of consciousness in relation to the world to a dualism based on an incompletely formulated psycho-physiological theory. Then, in his later writings he defined his position as “radical empiricism.” Fourteen years after the appearance of the Principles of Psychology, James published his famous article, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” He answered the question posed by the title negatively. Cognizant of the prima facie absurdity of his denial of the existence of consciousness, he was quick to expatiate:
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 functions being carried on.29
As regards the transcendental “I think” of Kantian psychology, James’s remarks were scathing: “The I think’ which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects is the I breathe’ which actually does accompany them.”30 A discussion of James’s radical empiricism is deferred till later. Suffice it to note here that this later development in James’s theory of consciousness, also called naturalistic realism, veers dangerously close to the elimination of consciousness, justifying the passage of functionalism into behaviorism.
Still another side of James’s psychological investigations, quite apart from the equation of consciousness with a cognitive function relating parts of experience and suggesting that it may be reduced to behavior, had to do with what later came to be known as depth psychology. James was taken by unusual psychical phenomena. He devoted years of thought and research to reports of occult phenomena, and even served as President of the Society for Psychical Research. He was keenly interested in the data of mental illness, too, and his writings abound in the case histories drawn from clinical psychology. While his contributions to psychology definitely established functionalism and prepared the way for behaviorism, they also anticipated psychoanalysis. For James was among the first proponents of a theory of the subconscious mind, a theory which proved useful in his investigation of religion.