Stream of Consciousness
Stream of Consciousness
The science of psychology in large part investigates the activities of individuals and groups as they function in a social system. Many social scientists share the conviction that a psychological understanding requires not only systematic observation of behavior that occurs in a social context but also study of the mental life of the individuals involved. Human beings have access of a direct kind to part of their mental life. They are normally in a position to communicate to others a great deal of firsthand information concerning that part. Specifically they apprehend their own stream of consciousness as it is proceeding within them. William James (1842–1910) is one of the original creators of the science of psychology and is famous for the perspicacious account presented on the stream of consciousness in his masterwork The Principles of Psychology (1950 ). The following is from James’s Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (1916 ) and encapsulates his concept of the stream of consciousness:
Now the immediate fact which psychology, the science of mind, has to study is also the most general fact. It is the fact that in each of us, when awake (and often when asleep), some kind of consciousness is always going on. There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields, (or of whatever you wish to call them), of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life. The existence of this stream is the primal fact, the nature and origin of it form the essential problem, of our science. (p. 15)
I spell out here James’s concept of the stream of consciousness (cf. Natsoulas 1999, 2001) using interchangeably the terms state of consciousness and consciousness state for the basic durational components that James proposes to constitute the stream of consciousness one at a time in tight succession.
A consciousness state is generally an awareness of a number of items. It is no less an integral state given the number of its “objects.” These include states of consciousness as well as, for example, environmental properties and bodily aspects of the individual. A highly recurrent feature of the mental life of humans is the direct apprehension of states of consciousness as they occur. James holds that this “inner awareness” is a matter of one consciousness state’s having another consciousness state belonging to the same stream among its objects. It is impossible for a state of consciousness to be itself among the items it directly apprehends. James insists on the latter point notwithstanding his equally central thesis that a consciousness state commonly has many distinct objects. Not every consciousness state is an object of inner awareness. But such a state transpiring unbeknownst is no less a basic durational component of its stream. A sincere report of one’s being unaware of x does not on its own entail that one did not experience a state of consciousness with x among its objects.
A stream of consciousness consists of momentary states of consciousness one after another in a series that subjectively seems tightly adjacent. Inner awareness does not detect any interruption in the flow of consciousness however long or brief it may be. Such a stoppage must subsequently be inferred to have taken place if it is to be known of at all. Some of James’s remarks suggest that the stream of consciousness is continuous in the sense of expanding in the dimension of time through internal growth rather than by a series of external accretions. But I argue at length elsewhere that his more consistent view is that pulses of change in the brain yield pulses of mentality (Natsoulas 1992–1993). The latter series is proposed to be continuous. Each state directly follows upon the consciousness state right before it “with absolutely nothing in between” just as long as no “time-gap” intervenes. Such time-gaps do happen, according to James, owing to what is taking place in the brain. But they are not noticeable because consciousness totally ceases during any timegap. In The Principles of Psychology James advances a dualist interactionist theory as to the relation of the mental to the physical (cf. Natsoulas, 2005). The brain generates the consciousness states, but they can in turn influence the ongoing physical process that produces them and thus indirectly affect the course that the stream of consciousness is taking. Yet no state constituting the stream is a state of the brain. Nor is any state of consciousness any kind of feature belonging intrinsically to the brain itself.
One’s consciousness is at any moment comprised completely of a single consciousness state. This is James’s (1950 ) view with one exception. In the same individual a second consciousness may simultaneously flow, consisting of its own distinct states of consciousness (cf. James 1982 ). Yet every state of consciousness is integral in the sense that each one of them is a unitary awareness, albeit usually possessing many objects but never compounded of distinct mental experiences or mental acts. James describes the individual complexity of the large majority of human states of consciousness (calling them “fields” and “states” interchangeably):
The concrete fields are always complex. They contain sensations of our bodies and of the objects around us, memories of past experiences and thoughts of distant things, feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, desires and aversions, and other emotional conditions, together with determinations of the will, in every variety and permutation and combination. In most of our concrete states of consciousness all these different classes of ingredients are found simultaneously present to some degree, though the relative proportion they bear to one another is very shifting. (1916 , p. 17)
One should not understand these many ingredients of James’s consciousness states to be separate mental acts as traditionally conceived of. They are not mutually distinct cases of someone’s being aware of something. Any object of a state of consciousness is apprehended therein in relation to all other objects of that consciousness state. James’s ingredients of the states of consciousness are (1) abstractions from individual concrete states that have them among their features, (2) features of how a consciousness state’s multiple objects are apprehended altogether, and (3) nonexistent except in the form of features of states of consciousness. Thus an auditory or a visual experience does not exist except as an ingredient of one or more consciousness states (cf. Natsoulas 2001).
From James’s standpoint references to someone’s being aware of this or that is very likely to be misleading. It is not meant to imply that the experiential features of consciousness states have a subject or an ego who is aware. This is not to say that a stream of consciousness and all of the consciousness states involved are not someone’s. Rather it is to maintain that the consciousness states themselves are the only location that there is of consciousness. Neither the brain nor any kind of spiritual entity is what experiences, thinks, feels, apprehends, or issues one’s states of consciousness and is in that sense the source or agent of one’s mental life. One’s brain does indeed bring one’s states of consciousness into existence, but it is aware of nothing at all including its doing so and the states it produces. James distinguishes the material self, the social self, and the spiritual self but identifies the spiritual self concretely with the stream of consciousness and not with any entity or operation external to the stream that causes it to be as it is or that oversees it or puts it to use. “The passing Thought [i.e., state of consciousness] itself is the only verifiable thinker” (James 1950 , p. 346). It is states of consciousness in themselves that provide mental life with subjective temporal unity. They do so by appropriating immediately past consciousness states that are now objects of inner awareness and more distant consciousness states that are currently objects of remembrance.
Is James’s understanding of the consciousness states consistent with its seeming firsthand that consciousness is a “fighter for ends”? That a state of consciousness has a certain goal or type of goal among its objects is owed directly to the brain state responsible for the consciousness state’s occurrence. The influence of past states of consciousness is limited to their having reinforced or inhibited (furthered or checked) the ongoing brain process and thereby affected the course it was taking. A state of consciousness and its successors may come to intend some new goal but not as a consequence of their effects on how the ongoing brain process is proceeding. James asserts that a consciousness state can produce nothing absolutely new. But a consciousness state can help to maintain a certain goal as an object of the stream at the expense of alternative goals and to increase thereby the chance of related actions since the brain process determines such actions and is suitably affected.
Is the stream of consciousness illusory? James (1950 ) raises this question himself as he discusses the spiritual self and concretely identifies the spiritual self to be no other than the stream of consciousness itself. From certain of his own introspective efforts James surmises that all one can know of oneself in an immediate rather than an inferential way is objective (e.g., bodily states) and requires perceptual observation. Consciousness states and the streams of which they are parts are not directly apprehended and therefore are inferred constructs. James sets this skeptical position aside for practical reasons and continues to use the deliverances of inner awareness as though he has no doubts. The following questions indicate what I believe is a better reason for his going on just as he does. How can James be aware of observing x if he has no inner awareness of any state of consciousness with x among its objects? Can James tell he is observing x by making behavioral observations? Would a certain piece of James’s behavior give away to him or to others that he is observing x ? But then how can anyone be aware of observing a piece of James’s behavior if there cannot occur in anyone inner awareness of any consciousness state having that piece of behavior among its objects?
SEE ALSO James, William; Psychotherapy
James, William. 1916. Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Holt. (Orig. pub. 1899.)
James, William. 1950. The Principles of Psychology. New York:Dover. (Orig. pub. 1890.)
James, William. 1982. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Ed. Martin E. Marty. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1902.)
Natsoulas, Thomas. 1992–1993. The Stream of Consciousness: I. William James’s Pulses. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality 12 (1): 3–21. (Series published 1992–2006 in same journal.)
Natsoulas, Thomas. 1998. On the Intrinsic Nature of States of Consciousness: James’s Ubiquitous Feeling Aspect. Review of General Psychology 2 (2): 123–152.
Natsoulas, Thomas. 2001. On the Intrinsic Nature of States of Consciousness: Attempted Inroads from the First-Person Perspective. Journal of Mind and Behavior 22 (3): 219–248.
Natsoulas, Thomas. 2005. On the Intrinsic Nature of States of Consciousness: A Thesis of Neutral Monism Considered. Journal of Mind and Behavior 26 (4): 281–306.
stream of consciousness
stream of con·scious·ness • n. Psychol. a person's thoughts and conscious reactions to events, perceived as a continuous flow. The term was introduced by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890). ∎ a literary style in which a character's thoughts, feelings, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust are among its notable early exponents.