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2. Biological Consciousness and the Experience of the Transcendent: William James and American Functional Psychology

Eugene Taylor
Harvard University Medical School
Reproduced by permission of the Author.

All trends pertaining to the mind/body problem in the late 19th century, from both popular and high culture, seem now in retrospect to culminate in the functionalism of the American philosopher-psychologist, William James (1842-1910). Born in a New York hotel in 1842, eldest son of the eccentric religious philosopher, Henry James Sr. and older brother of Henry James, the novelist, William James received his early education in Europe and America at the hands of a polyglot assortment of private tutors, temporary school masters, and painting teachers, until he embarked upon regular instruction at Harvard in 1861 by joining the Lawrence Scientific School. He transferred to medicine in 1864 and was graduated with the M.D. in 1869. He then proceeded to make his career in psychology and philosophy over the next forty years.

[Figure 50] James [see figure 50] was, first of all heir to the older moral philosophy. The great Concord sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) had been his god-father and a close friend of Henry James Sr. (1811-1882). In Representative Men: Seven Lectures [57], Emerson had preached an intuitive psychology of character formation and borrowed heavily from Henry James Sr.'s interpretations of the religious mystic Emanuel Swedenborg in order to define transcendentalism as the realization of higher consciousness within the individual personality. William James fell heir to this Swedenborgian and transcendentalist literary psychology (see Henry James's The Secret of Swedenborg [58] and William James's edition of the Literary Remains of the Late Henry James [59]), but was forced to square its religious epistemology with the more rigorous scientific dictates of his own age.

Thus, he first became a defender of consciousness as an efficacious force in the biological evolution of the species. As a young medical student in the 1860s, he sided with the Darwinians at Harvard and began his literary career by writing favorably about the effects of natural selection on mental life. Consciousness, he observed, obeys the laws of variation and selection. Intuitive types, prone to emotional uprushes, who produce art and literature, geniuses whose mind is in constant ferment so they can see analogies that others miss, original thinkers whose associations are unfettered, all represent consciousness as a field of awareness that contains the largest number of ideas to choose from. Rationality and the empirical dictates of the sensory world then select out what is adaptive and what is not. In this manner experience as a whole counts as a potent force in the preservation of the race.

As a young professor of psychology at Harvard, James then anchored the study of consciousness to experimental physiology. In collaboration with Henry Pickering Bowditch and James Jackson Putnam at Harvard Medical School, James reproduced the experiments of Meynert and Fritsch and Hitzig to settle certain problems in the controversy over the localization of function. Extending the work of Bain and the British associationists on ideo-motor activity, he articulated a biologically grounded theory of instincts and linked these with the psychological development of emotion and habit. Going beyond the psychophysics of Helmholtz and Wundt, he linked the physiological understanding of perception to realms of symbolic meaning when he claimed from an evolutionary standpoint that when we are confronted with the blooming, buzzing mass of confusion before us, attention to outward stimuli is largely a function of personal interest.

[Figure 51] At the height of his professional career, in 1890, James produced perhaps the most important text still available in the discipline, his two volume Principles of Psychology [60, see figure 51]. In it, he began from a preoccupation with the object at the center of attention and advocated that psychology develop around a cognitive psychology of consciousness. His most enduring metaphor became the stream of thought. But ideas never exist in isolation; what colors thoughts and gives continuity to the pulsating stream is the thought's feeling-tone. Here was his doctrine of relations. Just as objects can be experienced, so too can the relations between them. Thus, he said, any legitimate scientific psychology must account for both the stream of thought and feeling.

Immediately after the publication of his Principles and the international acclaim that followed, James turned his attention to the role of attitudes and values on health and disease. Particularly between 1890 and 1902, he reviewed the French and German literature on experimental psychopathology and continued to conduct experiments on hypnosis, automatic writing [see figure 52], and other phenomena of dissociation that he had begun in the late 1880s. He became a conduit for the latest developments in the French experimental psychology of the subconscious and corresponded with Pierre Janet and Théodule Ribot on problems related to the pathology of the emotions. He ardently defended the psychotherapeutic practices of the American mental healers against attacks by the medical profession; and between 1893 and 1896 he taught an advanced graduate seminar on psychopathology at Harvard that influenced a subsequent generation of investigators in scientific psychotherapy.

The most important work of this period was his previously unpublished Lowell Lectures of 1896 on Exceptional Mental States [61]. His individual lecture titles were: Dreams and Hypnotism, Automatism, Hysteria, Multiple Personality, Demoniacal Possession, Witchcraft, Degeneration, and Genius. The first four talks establish James as the master of a modern dynamic psychology of the subconscious, while the remainder articulate the pathological working of the subconscious in the social sphere.

[Figure 52] His main thrust was that experience contains more than just waking awareness and some murky realm called the unconscious. Rather, personality was an ultimate plurality of states. Waking consciousness was but one state out of many, its significance being only for survival of the biological organism in the external world. Other realms of human experience at different levels of the person also existed simultaneously alongside waking consciousness. Consciousness, in fact, was a field with a focus and a margin. While the object at the center of attention may remain the same, the very ground of perception may become radically altered through fatigue, traumatic shock, or intrapsychic conflict in ways that the standard scientific explanations of perception had not accounted for. The implications of these findings would, in turn, soon alter James's conception of science.

Meanwhile, in 1902, James advanced his thinking on the mind/body problem a step further when, in his Varieties of Religious Experience [62], he investigated the role of the transcendent experience in the remaking of shattered lives. The significance of religion, he said there, lies within the experience of the individual. The subconscious, it seemed to him, was the doorway through which the ultimately transforming experiences that we call mystical appear to come -- transient, passive, states from which the intellect itself may be derived. Whatever they are, when they came, personality was permanently altered. But the adequacy of these experiences, he further maintained, could only be tested in terms of their fruits for life.

These evolving conceptions of consciousness, based on experimental evidence and corroborated by living testimony, even as early as 1890 began to alter James's conception of how a scientific psychology could legitimately be conducted. As the culmination of his work in psychology throughout the 1890s, James evolved a philosophical epistemology which he believed was sophisticated enough to challenge the supremacy of scientific materialism.

The basis of this critique, and the logical outcome of both his study of the British Empiricists and the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, was his metaphysics of radical empiricism. James's approach was empirical, he said, because it confined itself only to the facts of experience. It was radical, however, in that it demanded science not ignore any aspect of reality if it could, in fact, be experienced. The main question his philosophy sought to address was the fundamental dichotomy between subject and object. Subjective factors had to be eliminated in order for an objective psychology to arise. The psychologist's ploy was to claim that good science was positivistic; that is, it sought no metaphysical or supernatural explanations for physical phenomena, but presumed that everything we needed to know was knowable through the intellect and the senses.

James had even written his Principles from this standpoint, but the evidence from experimental psychopathology about the emotions and subconscious states had forced him to rethink the problem. In the mid-1890s he first enunciated his view that the agenda to separate positivistic science from metaphysics should be abandoned, since no scientific theory was free of metaphysics. Positivism, for instance, was, itself, based on a metaphysics of physicalism; that is, a set of preconceived assumptions about how the physical world can be studied.

This new thinking, however, posed two new problems for James: first, what is consciousness, if it is not a faculty independent of objects, and second, how was one to reconcile conflicting truth claims if reality was a function of so many different states of consciousness. The first question James answered in his 1904 article, "Does consciousness exist?" [63]. There he scandalized philosophers and psychologists alike by asserting that consciousness did not exist as an independent entity, but as a function of particular experiences. Consciousness and object had to be considered in the same functional complex. One could not be defined without the other. Here we have the germ of phenomenology, contextualism, and modern hermeneutic analysis, all of which can trace their origin through various routes back and then across James's path.

The second question James addressed initially in his 1898 address to the Berkeley Union, Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results [64], and again in his 1906 Lowell lectures, published in 1907 as Pragmatism[,] A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking [65]. "Pragmatism", James said, meant two things. It was first of all a way to evaluate truth claims, not by looking at the truth or falsity of a primary definition but by evaluating the claim in terms of its moral and aesthetic outcome. Two different truths with the same outcome, in other words, were functionally the same. Second, it also suggested a way of reconciling conflicting definitions of reality. People could still maintain their individual idiosyncratic beliefs if the outcome of those different beliefs led to common and consensually validated ways of acceptable social behavior.

James was not so naive, however, that he thought he had solved the mind/body dilemma originally posed so trenchantly by Descartes. He only maintained that while science had set the stage for a more sophisticated handling of the problem, the very presuppositions of science were being called to account by the analysis. This meant for James that one place to look for a solution was beyond language, but nevertheless within the realm of experience. For this reason, at the very end of his life he enjoined psychologists to keep an open mind and to study the fall of the threshold of consciousness. In the subliminal extension of the horizons of awareness, we find alterations that point to the very core of life and identity. But we will not understand these alterations, he said, either in this generation or the next.

Table of Contents


Wozniak, Robert H. "Mind and Body: Rene Déscartes to William James";
Bryn Mawr College, Serendip 1995
Originally published in 1992 at Bethesda, MD & Washington, DC by the National Library of Medicine and the American Psychological Association.

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