Notes on Consciousness by William James


Willaim James is one of the greatest philosophers and psychologists of all time. His writings on the mind, self, and consciousness come from both empirical studies as well as interoception and personal illness. William James had major depression in his childhood, and this existential paradigm motivated him to learn more about himself and his mind. James was a professor at Harvard University, where he taught both physiology and psychology. Later in his career, he switched to philosophy and religion, but he always admired studying things that gave meaning to his life. HIs existential crises and melancholic periods were not wasted in vain. He spent hours and hours reading literature about psychology and biology. He was a propounder of evolutionary theory and came up with the pragmatic principle of truth. Pragmatism is still used in current scientific studies to better understand complex animal behaviors. Pragmatism is the view that suggests the truth is based on its functionality and its practice use. We can't approach the ultimate truth, because it is always out of our grasp. All we can do is use the tools we have and come up with the best theories to find efficient and practical ways to put knowledge to good use. James' analysis of consciousness and Self is very methodical, and I will try my best to present the key points that he puts forth.


The terms Self and Consciousness are very vague, so we need to first understand what they truly mean, and how James defined them. In this case, James does not refer to a spiritual entity such as a Soul or supernatural power that defines the two terms. Instead, he approaches them from a very analytical point of view, one that is very important to psychologists. What is consciousness? Is it something that our brains can understand or do our faculties not have the proper tuning to understand it? What is the Self? Is the Self something objective or simply an accumulation of subjective experiences and habitual tendencies? All these questions are answered by James in a very proper way.

James defines consciousness as 'states of the mind' that may or may not have phenomenological importance. What I mean by that is that some states of the mind can produce an experience, while other states of the mind can be subtle but still have an impact on our experience of the world. Nonetheless, consciousness is the internal feeling of being alive and experiencing the qualities of life. Experience refers to not only the 5 senses but also their interaction with our thoughts and habits. So it isn't simply a matter of input and output like it is in computers. It is far too complex, but as we introspect and analyze how the world presents to us, we can come up with some axiomatic theories of consciousness. There are four characteristics of consciousness, according to James. They are:

  1. Every state tends to be a part of a personal consciousness

  2. Within each personal consciousness, states are always changing

  3. Each personal consciousness is sensibly continuous

  4. Consciousness is interested in some parts of its object to the exclusion of others. It welcomes or rejects or chooses from various objects and presents only those that are congruent with the concept of Self.

We will analyze each of these characteristics of consciousness in detail, but first, we need to understand the definition of Self. There is a reason why I decided to write about Self and Consciousness in the same post, and that is because either of them cannot exist without the other. Consciousness works for the entity that we call Self, and Self is nothing but the accumulation of various states of consciousness. This cycle of Self and consciousness is important because it suggests that our phenomenological experience is always dependent on our internal states, and therefore no two people will ever think of the same things. There are many cognitive neuroscience papers on the mechanism by which various systems in our brain work to give the experience of the world. But James wasn't interested in knowing how brain matter correlates to our subjective feeling. Instead, he was more interested in the subjective feeling itself, and how it brings forth various aggregates of identity to produce experience.

Consciousness is a stream of thoughts, which is constantly changing, and yet there is some internal feeling of continuous self-identity. The events and thoughts themselves are discrete, but the way they interact with one another and produce experience results in a continuous perception. "Whatever I may be thinking of, I am always at the same time more or less aware of myself, or my existence." (James). What he is referring to here is the fact that I am both the thinker and the thoughts, the knower and the knowledge, the actor, and the action. In other words, I am both the subject and the object of an experience because I am aware of whatever is going on, and yet still I experience the same thing that I am aware of. How can something be aware of something else if it is the same thing? Therefore, the thinker, or the thing that is aware of the experience, according to James, is pure ego. While the thoughts themselves, which congregate and change activity in our brain are the empirical ego. He also refers to these things as the 'I' and the 'Me.' The I is the subject, which is aware of the thinking, and the Me is the object who thinks. The I and Me work together to present some sort of personal identity which we call Self. In reality, analyzing the I and Me separately doesn't do them justice. This is because they work in tandem and their holistic understanding is more useful than analyzing them individually. Nonetheless, it is important to know the distinction so that when we explain the various concepts of Self, we know exactly how it connects to this notion of subject-object, the I-Me phenomena.

Four Characters of Consciousness

The way James writes his book, he puts consciousness before Self, and I think the reason why he does this is that Self is a compilation of consciousness. So if we understand the qualities and the characteristics of consciousness, we set ourselves up to better understand the qualities of the Self. As mentioned earlier, James is a pragmatist, so he doesn't bring forth any metaphysical or spiritual theories of consciousness. Instead, he analyzes his experience and uses rationality to come up with theories of how it all works. Of course, his theories are far from perfect, but they are extremely useful because of their coherence and functional usage. Remember the fact that James is a pragmatist, so his writing reflects practical knowledge, that can be used to understand other concepts. Think of his writing as a model, that represents something, but it in itself is not the thing that it represents. Theories of consciousness themselves are not consciousness, but they come very close to understanding consciousness from an analytical point of view.

The first characteristic is that every state tends to be a part of personal consciousness. This suggests that all thoughts require an agent, a Self that brings them together to produce experience. "My thoughts belong with my other thoughts, and your thoughts belong with your other thoughts." (James). What James is referring to is that no two people can ever think alike because of their previous patterns of thinking. This is why habits and mental tendencies are so important. Our thoughts take the color of that which is congruent with our experience. So we would rather go through the shame, depression, and guilt than enjoy life if our childhood is filled with misery and abuse. This is because our nervous system learned to justify its negative thoughts and normalize them to our capacity. Patients with schizophrenia or manic disorders often feel like their thoughts do not belong to them or that someone else is controlling them. This is large because they do not have a set way of thinking; a habitual pattern. So when a thought comes to the surface of the mind, it feels alienated because it is chaotic and doesn't fit with previous tendencies. Many times these patients don't have a congruent pattern of thinking, they are driven by their impulsive nature to think in any direction that pulls them. If there is no true volitional pattern of thinking, no matter what thoughts arise, they feel as if they are separate from your very identity. This is because 'my other thoughts are not really 'mine' they are simply things that came up without my recognition or volition. Those without these illnesses, do have congruent thinking patterns, and this is why they build a type of thinking. Pessimism and Optimism is just an example of how our thoughts can color our experience. In reality, there is no agent behind these thoughts. Thoughts exist, feelings exist, but we think that 'I think' or 'I feel' or 'I know.' We feel connected with our thoughts only because of how congruent they are with one another. But in reality, the thoughts that I think I possess, come outside of me and go nowhere. In other words, my consciousness is dependent on some sort of personal experience, but this personal agent doesn't exist. All that exists is 'my other thoughts' which are interpreted as 'agent' when it comes to experience.

The second characteristic of consciousness is that consciousness is constantly changing. "No state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before." (James). Our thoughts form a stream of consciousness, and each thought is too fleeting to hold onto. Even if we had the same thought two different times, we would experience it differently simply due to what happened between those two states. Though we may never be aware of the constant change in our consciousness, the subtle effects lead to a change in what we referred to as 'my other thoughts.' "What appeals to our attention far more than the absolute quality of an impression is its ratio to whatever other impressions we may have at the same time" (James). This is similar to Weber's Law of sensation. Our thoughts are always relative to one another, and their quality is not defined by their value, but rather by their value in comparison to what we thought about before and after it. Since consciousness is constantly changing, our thoughts are constantly being affected by the inputs of senses and other thoughts. In this way, there is no pure thinking, but simply thinking about what is incoming in the mind. When everything is dark, less dark environments allow us to see a white object that we wouldn't be able to see in regular daylight. This is the same as our thoughts. Our thoughts can only take the appropriate form of that which precedes them and that which follows them. So we conclude that there is no such thing as permanent thought, there is no such thing as perfectly remembered thought, and there is no such thing as pure thought. All there is a stream of consciousness, which affects its pieces that flow only in correspondence to one another. The final point is that regardless of how mundane a thought maybe if it is thought upon with a 'fresh attitude' then it takes a whole different picture. Boredom is man's worst enemy, and the mind has evolved in a way that at any given point, it will do its best to avoid boredom. Thus, we imagine things that are far from real, and we can go about doing this all day. We will never run out of things to think about because each thought is so distinct. Anxiety patients tend to think about the same thing again and again, and never get bored of it, why you may ask. It is simply because the intensity of anxiety and the preceding thoughts influences the subjective experience at the moment. So even if you were to have the same anxious thoughts, they 'feel' different due to their appearance on the surface.

The third characteristic of consciousness is that it is sensibly continuous. Even when there is a gap in between consciousness, such as when you pass out or sleep, the thoughts following it give us a perception of a continuous stream. When you wake up, you look around and give yourself enough cues to start realizing who you are and where you are. Consciousness, as I stated earlier, cannot be broken down into discrete thoughts, simply because of how interconnected they are. The alterations of consciousness at each moment are never abrupt, it is always continuous. When a man wakes up, his present consciousness finds the past, before it presents the feeling of Self. The past thoughts are just as important to our sense of Self as the present states. Though two people can know everything about one another, they still cannot think like one another. This is simply because their pasts give them an entirely new perspective on the present and the future. "So sure as this present is me is mine, it says, so sure is anything else that comes with the same warmth and intimacy and immediacy, me and mine." Our possessions are considered to be me because they produce that same warm feeling that I feel when I think of my body and limbs. My name seems more intimate than some of my internal organs simply because of how it is associated with that pleasant feeling. Evolutionary, this makes sense because if pain were to be the marker of consciousness, then most of the population would go extinct. Instead, since pleasure is reinforced by our thoughts, we survive and live to experience various things.

There are two types of states: substantive and transitive states of the mind. The analogy that James uses is a bird's flights and perchings. The substantive states are the perchings of the bird when the mind holds onto some sensory phenomena- the imagination of an image, sound, or feeling. And then, the transitive states are the flights, when the dynamic thoughts come in and swiftly scatter our attention. This is why when suicidal patients have intrusive thoughts, they find it difficult to stop them at any given moment, but if they were to go through a grounding technique such as the 54321 methods, where they are asked to see 5 things, hear 4 things, and so on, their thoughts start to subside. Our sensory world and mental world work together but it is the proportion of each that determines what we experience subjectively. The main purpose of the transitive states, the thoughts, is to lead us from one sensation to the next. We can't introspectively analyze these substantive and transitive states unless we meditate deeply upon them. Consciousness, thus, is a product of these substantive and transitive states, where sensory information comes in and leaves a mark that gradually becomes the objective of thinking. A good way to summarize our analysis is this quote: "Every definite image or thought in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows around it. Knowledge about a thing is the knowledge of its relations" (James).

The last characteristic if that consciousness is selective and always chooses that which fits its habitual tendencies. We start with the basic principle that our senses are selective and their corresponding systems within the body have limitations to what they input to the brain. For instance, we cannot see everything there is in our visual field not because our rods and cones do not capture the image, but because of how that information is decoded and transduced to the central nervous system. In other words, our eyes may capture the entire picture, but it is far too inefficient for all things to go to the frontal lobes. Thus, our secondary and tertiary visual cortices purposefully neglect the information that doesn't seem pertinent to our current disposition. Some of the things that interest our nervous system include primitive drives such as food and sex, danger in form of fear and stress, aesthetics in form of curiosity and wonder, and finally non-sexual love/ compassion in form of social harmony. Some of our daily behavior is predetermined by these evolutionary dispositions, but what is more interesting is that we are also more attentive to things that disturb these actions than we are to other actions which aren't as interesting. "The mind chooses to suit itself and decides what particular sensation shall be held more real and valid than all the rest" (James). Not only is there is a primary selective bias, but there is also a secondary selection that occurs when the information comes in. So the mind, mainly the prefrontal cortex can decide which sensation to value and which one to neglect. This is mainly attributed to the salience system that corresponds to the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. Nonetheless, there are patients with abnormal circuitry, where attention is scattered. We see this very well in ADHD and autism patients, who are unable to regulate the sensory information that is coming in. There is also another neurological illness named hemispatial neglect, where the patient neglects either one side of their own body or their visual field. This mainly occurs due to damage to the opposite side of their parietal or occipital lobes. Anatomy aside, these examples show that attention is key to how our consciousness presents the world to us. Attention is regulated both by our volitional efforts and our predetermined evolutionary neural circuitry. "In a world of objects thus individualized by our mind's selective industry, what is called our experience is almost entirely determined by our habits of attention." (James). What is far more interesting about this whole attention business is that it directly affects our rationality and reasoning. Philosophers have always emphasized how important rationality is despite the failure of our senses. Bur James points out that rationality is but a mere act of breaking down several components to find one that fits the current disposition. This is why morality can be flipped at times, where virtue can be vice simply because of how attentive we are to its flaws.

Fundamentally, we divide the universe into two halves: me and not me. All phenomena that associate with me or mine are far more fascinating to the mind than that of someone else. Even if it may be loosely associated, it is still of value because its presence reassures me of my existence. In other words, man believes his expansion over possession and knowledge evolves his very being- he becomes more literally when he has more things, whether they be material or mental. And when any of these things are separated from him, it is as if he feels his very own essence being at loss. It is like having an arm cut away from your body. Therefore, the man is always in pursuit of expanding his concept of self, and when any conflicting thing arises, that becomes an enemy of one of the various things he possesses, he feels attacked. It is like a loyal general who feels hurt when his army gets crushed in war; so it is our mind, which becomes paranoid when its internal schemas or conscious attitudes are countered by external forces. Is at this point, we need to dive further into the concept of Self, and how we construct the world about the I's and Me's.