Lecture Supplement on William James’ “Does Consciousness Exist?”[1] [1904]




“The Continuity of Experience”[2] [1904]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


As we have seen, Peirce wanted a world with value and one which had a tripartite metaphysics.  James wants a “unitary” world, and one which has value in it as it is (not as it will be).  In the next three essays, we turn to a clarification of his views regarding “metaphysical unity,” and the place of value. 


            In "Does Consciousness Exist?" James argues that consciousness is not an “entity,” but, instead, a “function.”  He contends that it would be absurd to deny that consciousness exists, but the question of its nature is important.  His thesis (p. 148) 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 all that stuff ‘pure experience,’ then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter.”  He will contend that the underlying metaphysical unity is subject to several [many?] differing relationships.  These are what others mistakenly think is a dualism. 


            The essay was projected by James to be the first chapter in his Essays In Radical Empiricism [1912, posthumously] which was to provide a unified statement of his mature metaphysical views.  In his “Introduction” to Essays In Radical Empiricism [1912] and A Pluralistic Universe [1909] William James, Richard Bernstein maintains that James wished to challenge the core dualistic vision of reality and the representational theory of knowledge which characterized modern philosophy.  He would replace it with a view of the world


which was “not intrinsically subjective or objective.  Experience doesn’t come in packages neatly marked “subjective” and “objective,” “mental” and “physical,” “internal” and “external”….James is not denying that there are important distinctions to be made between consciousness and content, thoughts and things, etc.  He is challenging a theory that claims that these distinctions refer to distinct types of entities, realms, or substances.  So when James asks, Does Consciousness exist? and answers No!, it is the theory that “consciousness stands for some type of distinctive entity that he is denying.  But then how are we to account for these sets of distinctions which do pervade our thinking about ourselves and the world?  James’s answer is that these distinctions are introduced to discriminate functions within “pure experience”: they signify different ways in which experience may be taken.[3] 


The thesis of a world of pure experience, where all dichotomies and distinctions are to be understood as modes of classifying experiences which are consequently dependent upon our purposes, is one of the major strands of what James means by “radical empiricism”….We can and do speak of a man who is really hateful, an action that is mean….When we do so we are not illegitimately projecting intrinsically subjective feelings onto a cold indifferent objective world; we are describing and classifying events and objects in the world as they are experienced.  Of course there are certain projects and purposes, such as scientific inquiry, when we may discount such affectional classifications.  But this fact tells us more about the purposes guiding our inquiry rather than the intrinsic character of the world of experience in which we live and function.[4] 


As Bernstein notes, James believes philosophers have


…misunderstood their own conceptual distinctions.  They have mistaken distinctions, which are useful and important for particular purposes, for the concrete reality of experience itself.  They have been guilty of what Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” and James calls “vicious intellectualism.”  It is a fallacy that occurs when we mistake some abstraction or conceptual distinction (which is important for specific intellectual purposes) for the concrete reality of experience itself.  It is a fallacy that according to Whitehead, James, and Bergson has had disastrous consequences for a philosophic understanding of the world.  Abstractions are important; we cannot think without them.  But abstractions are abstractions from a concrete reality.[5] 



In addition to the epistemological and metaphysical motivations, this view was also driven by James’ psychological theories.  His view of experience as continuous and as different from the scientific, phenomenological, or modern characterizations, led him to the view we will see developed here. 


2. “Does Consciousness Exist?”


  (a) Against Dualism:


149 Neo-Kantians hold that the “object-plus-subject” is such that “to consciousness as such nothing can happen…it is only a witness of happenings in time, in which it plays no part.  It is, in a word, but the logical correlative of ‘content’ in an Experience of which the peculiarity is that fact comes to light in it, that awareness of content takes place.  Consciousness as such is entirely impersonal…. 


In addition, almost everyone contends that we all have “…an immediate consciousness of consciousness….” 


Still, consciousness seems ephemeral: the moment we try to fix our attention upon it, it vanishes. 


150 Here, he contends, the problem in understanding consciousness comes in the attempt to separate it from “its content”—as if one could separate a solvent from what is suspended therein.  While physical subtraction may work sometimes in such a “separation effort,” it will not work in the case of consciousness! 


  (b). What Experience Is:


James continues to use his “paint example” [pigment suspended in a menstruum] contending that what really happens as people try to understand consciousness is that they don’t “subtract,” but, rather, “add”—they try to connect a conscious experience to other conscious experiences in order to break it down.” 


While the pigment can be spread on a canvas and related to the other pigments to perform a “spiritual function, so an experience can perform functions via relation to others:


-“…a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, [can] play the part of a thing known, or an objective ‘content’.  In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another as a thing.  And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it a subjective and objective both at once.” 


-150-151 He is contending, then, that terms like ‘experience’ ‘phenomenon’ and ‘datum’ are “double-barrelled,” and if we talk in terms of functions we can avoid the problems which dualism poses as it tries to deal with them. 


-He contends that John Locke may have had the germ of such an insight as his use of ‘idea’ is meant to cover both the “thing” and the “thought.” 


151 So he asks the reader, begin with a perceptual experience—say that of the room one is in.  Is it “one reality” in two places (the room and one’s mind)? 


-“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 would 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.” 


-152 One “line” is the reader’s personal biography, the other is the history of the room.  If one is tempted by dualism, the “lines” can never intersect, so, he recommends, drop the dualism (since there is nothing more common and real than the intersection of our biographies and locations). 


He intends to apply this “intersection metaphor” to “conceptual manifolds,” “memories,” “fancies,” and all such “mental states” and “their objects.”  He contends (pp. 152-153) that one reason it is hard to see this is that we are so accustomed to talk about the “relationships” of our “conceptual manifolds,” “memories,” “fancies,” to one another that we have trouble applying the intersection metaphor (of subjectivity and objectivity):


-153 “…any single non-perceptual experience tends to get connected 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 [disjunction or sharp division between parts] on its own part into consciousness and content.  It is all consciousness in one taking; and in the other, all content.” 


-153-155 He uses the example of the book he is seeing and the one in the next room, and wants us to see the various “subjective-objective’ intersections which arise.  The “seen room” and the “recollected room” are “states of mind,” “rooms,” and multiply related. 


--155 the “thought-of-an-object” and the “object-thought-of” is best thought of “functionally:”


---“As ‘subjective’ we say that the experience represents; as ‘objective’ it is represented.  What represents and what is represented is here numerically the same; but we must remember that no dualism of being represented and representing resides in the experience per se.  In its pure state, or when isolated, there is not self-splintering of it into consciousness and what the consciousness if ‘of.’  Its subjectivity and objectivity are functional attributes solely, realized only when the experience is ‘taken.’ i.e., talked of twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively but anew retrospective experience, of which that whole past complication now forms the fresh content.” 


155-156 “The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure’ experience.  It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet.  For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that.  In this naïf immediacy it is of course valid; it is there; we act upon it; and the doubling of it in retrospection into a state of mind and a reality intended thereby, is just one of the acts.  The ‘state of mind, first treated explicitly as such in retrospection, will stand corrected or confirmed, and the retrospective experience in its turn will get a similar treatment; but the immediate experience in its passing is always ‘truth,’ practical truth, something to act upon, at its own movement.  If the world were then and there to go out like a candle, it would remain truth absolute and objective, for it would be ‘the last word,” would have no critic, and no one would ever oppose the thought in it to the reality intended.” 


156 That is: 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 one another. 


Thus, “knowing actually and practically amounts to…[a] leading towards….” 


(c). Some Replies to Possible Objections to His View:


156 1. If your theory is right, how can consciousness not be basic if the basic unit is “pure experience?” 


-‘Pure experience’ is just the name for what is which can be seen as the intersection (between the subjective and objective). 


157 2. How can your one fundamental thing have such very different attributes (thought and extension)? 


-(a) “How, if ‘subject’ and ‘object’ were separated by the whole diameter of being,’ and had no attributes in common, could it be so hard to tell, in a presented and recognized material object, what part comes in through the sense organs and what part comes ‘out of one’s own head’?” 


- 158 (b). Consider, he says, extension:  “the difference between objective and subjective extension is one of relation to a context solely.  In the mind the various extents maintain no necessarily stubborn order relatively to each other, while in the physical world they bound each other stably and added together, make the great enveloping Unit which we believe in and call real Space.”  That is, there are differing relations here—[158-159] mental fire won’t warm real bodies or consume real sticks. 


-159 There is a class of experiences, appreciations, which uniquely mirror their objective and subjective relations: “intuitions of the morally lofty are lofty intuitions....” 


160 3. But we know that we are conscious, and this “experience” doesn’t fit your model! 


“I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking….is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist chiefly of the stream of my breathing.  The ‘I think’ which Kant said must be able to accompany all my objects, is the I breathe which actually does accompany them.  There are other internal facts besides breathing….and these increase the assets of ‘consciousness,’ so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception….That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real.  But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are….” 


3. “The Continuity Of Experience:


In this essay James further clarifies what he means by “pure experience.” 


160-161 “The concrete pluses of experience appear pent in by no…definite limits as our conceptual substitutes for them are confined by.  They run into one another continuously and seem to interpenetrate.  What in them is relation and what is matter related is hard to discern.  You feel no one of them is inwardly simple, and no two as wholly without confluence where they touch.” 


-Consider, for example, your current visual experience: focus attention on me now in front of you.  Now consider the color of the wall behind me—had you “seen” it at first, are you seeing it now?  Did you note the color of my glasses?  Can you see that now?  While all this was going on, you were of course also experiencing my voice!  Did you notice it, was it in the background?  If you didn’t hear my voice, how did you follow the directions above? 


-As Richard Bernstein notes, in his “Introduction” to James’ Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe, James offers careful phenomenological descriptions of experience, but he is not a phenomenologist:


--“there has been a tendency in the phenomenological movement to “bracket” human experience, to try to describe and understand it in its own terms.  From this perspective, a phenomenological description of human experience must be sharply distinguished from a naturalistic, scientific description and explanation.  While there are genuine phenomenological currents in James’s thought, he would never countenance a sharp distinction between the phenomenological and scientific aspects of his thought.[6] 


Thus James would use the sort of visual example I just offered to point out what, experience is like—his “empiricism” begins and ends there!  According to him:


161-162 “the gist of the matter is always the same—something ever goes indissolubly with something else.  You cannot separate the same from its other, except by abandoning the real altogether and taking to the conceptual system.  What is immediately given in the single and particular instance is always something pooled and mutual….No one elementary bit of reality is eclipsed from the next bit’s point of view….Sensational experiences are their ‘own others,’ then, both internally and externally.  Inwardly they are one with their arts, and outwardly they pass continuously into their next neighbors, so that events separated by years of time in a man’s life hang together unbrokenly by the intermediary events.  Their names, to be sure, cut them into separate conceptual entities, but no cuts existed in the continuum in which they originally came.” 


-163 “My present field of consciousness is a center surrounded by a fringe that shades insensibly into a subconscious more.  I use three separate terms here to describe this fact; but I might as well use three hundred, for the fact is all shades and no boundaries.  Which part of it properly is in my consciousness, which out?  If I name what is out, it already has come in.  The centre works in one way while the margins work in another, and presently overpower the centre and are central themselves.  What we conceptually indentify ourselves with and say we are thinking of at any time is the centre; but our full self is the whole field, with all those indefinitely radiating subconscious possibilities of increase that we only feel without conceiving and can hardly begin to analyze.” 


So far, the discussion has been about our experiences.  But James’ metaphysical vision sees pure experience as having a wider compass:


“In spite of rationalism’s disdain for the particular, the personal, and the unwholesome, the drift of all the evidence we have seems to me to sweep us very strongly towards the belief in some form of super-human life with which we may, unknown to ourselves, be co-conscious.  We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.  The intellectualist objections to this fall away when the authority of intellectualistic logic is undermined by criticism, and then the positive empirical evidence remains.” 


164 “The line of least resistance, then, as it seems to me, both in theology and in philosophy, is to accept, along with the superhuman consciousness, the notation that it is not all-embracing, the notion, in other words, that there is a God, but that he is finite, either in power or in knowledge, or in both at once.” 


James’ “dogs and cats in the library metaphor” is central here.  One’s experience and those of other human beings (as well as dogs and cats) bears similarity to the discussion of our experience above.  Centers of consciousness and the surrounding fringe shade into one another, and the boundaries are not metaphysically fixed or absolute.  When I watch my dog observing an ant moving along the floor toward a crumb which was pushed off the kitchen counter by the air-conditioning draft which I had turned on to counter the oppressive heat which is indigenous to Miami in late September (but feels more terrible than it is because it has been preceded by the heat of June, July, and August), I am the “center” of my experience, but Sophie (the dog) is the center of hers, Ralph (the ant) of his, and the crumb, air-conditioning system, and weather are no less capable of having “histories” and “relations.”  James’ view, then, doesn’t just go “upward” toward a “deity,” but it goes “down” toward “things.”  


Whereas Peirce has a scholastic metaphysics of the cosmic evolution of the abstract (the general, universal, and orderly), James’ nominalistic and empiricistic metaphysics wherein [160-161]: “the concrete pluses of experience appear pent in by no…definite limits as our conceptual substitutes for them are confined by.  They run into one another continuously and seem to interpenetrate.  What in them is relation and what is matter related is hard to discern.  You feel no one of them is inwardly simple, and no two as wholly without confluence where they touch.”  His is a view where the “centers” and the “relationships” are equally real.  It is open, anti-dogmatic, and pragmatic—though, as Russell Goodman notes in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “William James:"


James's “radical empiricism” is distinct from his “pure experience” metaphysics.  It is never precisely defined in the Essays, and is best explicated by a passage from The Meaning of Truth where James states that radical empiricism consists of a postulate, a statement of fact, and a conclusion.  The postulate is that “the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience,” the fact is that relations are just as directly experienced as the things they relate, and the conclusion is that “the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience”….  

  James was still working on objections to his “pure experience” doctrine, replying to critics of Pragmatism, and writing an introduction to philosophical problems when he died in 1910.[7]


From here we will turn, finally, to his moral theory. 




Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note--emphasis has been added to several of the citations)

[1] William James, “Does Consciousness Exist?”, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, v. 1 (September, 1904).  James had projected using it as the first essay in his plan for a book, Essays In Radical Empiricism, which was published posthumously [cf., Essays In Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe], ed. Ralph Barton Perry [1942] (N.Y.: E.P. Dutton, 1971), pp. 3-22].  This supplement is to the excerpted reprint in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch [1951] (NY: Fordham Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 148-160.  Emphasis has been added to several passages. 

[2] William James, “The Continuity of Experience,” was delivered in 1908 as the seventh part of James’ Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College, and it was published in his A Pluralistic Universe in 1909 [cf., Essays In Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe, ed. Ralph Barton Perry [1942] (N.Y.: E.P. Dutton, 1971), p. 253-264].  This supplement is to the excerpted reprint in Classic American Philosophers, ed. Max Fisch [1951] (NY: Fordham Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 160-165.  Emphasis has been added to several passages. 

[3] Richard Bernstein, “Introduction,” to William James’ Essays In Radical Empiricism [1912, posthumous] and A Pluralistic Universe [1909], ed. Ralph Barton Perry [1942] (N.Y.: E.P. Dutton, 1971), pp. xi-xxviii, pp. xiv-xv.  Emphasis added to the passage. 

[4] Ibid., p. xvii. 

[5] Ibid., pp xvii-xviii. 

[6] Richard Bernstein, “Introduction”, op cit., p. xii. 

[7] Russell Goodman, “William James,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalt,  http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/james/ .  

Return to PHH 3700 Home page

File revised on 10/06/2014