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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.





        In opposition to the metaphysical view that there exists one consciousness and a separate content, James in his article "Does Consciousness exist?" flatly denies the existence of such a consciousness. He lays stress on the fact that such a consciousness is of a purely hypothetical and speculative character. Psychologically speaking all there exists is thought, experience, while an abstract undifferentiated consciousness may as well be omitted from the scheme of things. All we deal with is mental facts. James ridicules the position of those who regard consciousness as being independent of content: "To consciousness as such nothing can happen, for timeless in itself, it is only a witness of happenings in time, in which it plays no part" . . . . "Consciousness as such is entirely impersonal―'self' and its activities belong to the content" . . . . James' view is that instead of an impersonal consciousness we should substitute thought as a function of knowing (James's italics). "To deny plumply that 'consciousness' exists seems so absurd on the face of it―for undeniably 'thoughts' do exist―that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. 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. . . . That function is knowing" (James' italics).

        We can thus far agree with James. When however he begins to speculate on unitary stuff and pure simple experience which is both objective and subjective we must part company, for he leaves the domain of psychology and enters the domain of metaphysics. "My thesis is" he writes "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 call that stuff 'pure experience' then knowing can only be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter." In this respect James approaches perilously close to Wundtian Voluntarism which he does not favor. It practically means double barrelled experience which on the one hand is objective while on the other it is subjective. As James puts it, the same experience is counted twice over in one stream which is external and the other which is internal.

        All objections urged against Voluntarism may be brought against this view which is really nothing but the voluntarism of Wundt under a different garb. We are not better off by the assumption of the same experience participating in two different streams. We do not understand the streams any better by assuming differences which really amount to the differences of matter and mind, or of matter and consciousness.

        James on the one hand is too metaphysical and on the other hand he wishes to eliminate the inactive, impassive consciousness of the idealists and of the Neo-Kantians. He is metaphysical in assuming a pure experience which is both material and mental and which in its purity is neither mental nor material. His true psychological sense tells him that an inactive, passive consciousness is a useless, futile assumption. James draws a sharp difference between internal and external experience. "We find that there are some fires that will always burn sticks and always warm our bodies, and that there―are some waters that will always put out fires. . . . Mental fire is what won't burn real sticks; mental water is what won't necessarily (though of course it may) put out even a mental fire. Mental knives may be sharp, but they won't cut real wood. . . ." In short, James himself strongly contrasts the two sets of experiences. That is all that the psychologist requires. The rest of the speculation,―the identification of the two streams in one unitary, primitive stuff-experience does not belong to psychology as a science.

        The whole view of James is metaphysical, and still with his clear psychological insight he cannot keep away from psychological facts. He shifts from metaphysics to psychology: "The stream of thinking" he says," (which I recognize emphatically as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself as 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 breath 'I breathe' " which actually does accompany them. There are other internal facts besides breathing (intercephalic muscular adjustments. . . .) and these increase the assets of 'consciousness' so far as the latter is subject to immediate perception; but breath which was ever the original 'spirit', breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is, I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have construed the entity known to them as consciousness. 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." (James' italics). In this passage James as usual displays his great psychological introspection which is unfortunately complicated with metaphysical considerations.    

        Of course, even from a purely psychological point of view we can hardly agree that sensations of respiration and intercephalic, muscular adjustments are alone sufficient as elements of general consciousness, for as Ribot and others have pointed out coenaesthetic sensations, sensations coming from muscles, viscera, nerves, neurones, peripheral, central, and sympathetic nervous system, all enter as elements in the synthesis of consciousness. It may be claimed that the sensations pointed out by James may be predominant, but this is rather questionable. However the case may be, the identification of matter and mind, one being objective and the other subjective thought is an adventure into the realms of metaphysics.

        James differentiates the fire that burns from the fire that does not burn, the water that is really wet from the water which is not wet, the motion that obeys the laws of mechanics from the motion that does not obey Newton's laws. In order to constitute water the chemist does not mix oxygen with his thought of hydrogen; in order again to constitute the idea of water the psychologist does not require tubes, retorts, so many volumes of gases of oxygen and hydrogen. The chemist does not put his ideas into his chemical compounds, and the psychologist does not subject his mental states to chemical tests. It is only in metaphysics that the fundamental difference of mental states and physical objects can be explained away in one unitary experience.

        I may add that James himself realized the truth of my contention, for in a private discussion with me he acknowledged that the view taken by him as purely metaphysical, that for the psychologist consciousness is as much of a reality as matter, atoms, molecule, ether, election, in short, as some form of material substance is requisite for the physicist.

        Recently some neo-realists attempted to identify consciousness with energy and especially with that form of energy known as potential energy. Now we cannot possibly identify mental states and processes with physical forms of energy, whether kinetic or potential. Arthur Gordon Webster in his "Dynamics" points out:  "Kinetic energy is of the dimensions ML2/T2 the same as  those of work. Potential Energy is defined as work. The C.G.S. unit of energy is, therefore, the erg." If mental states or consciousness be potential energy of the physicist, the neo-realist should define it in terms of physical work. How many ergs are there in the ideas of virtue, goodness, and beauty? It is clear that if we use the term energy in the case of mental states or processes, we can do it only in a figurative way. Energy in psychology cannot be used if the same sense as the physicist uses the term in the case of kinetic or potential energy. One cannot take the mass of the idea and multiply it on the square of its length. Such a procedure is meaningless, it is therefore idle to talk of consciousness as potential energy. Energy is used in mental life as a figure of speech, as an illustration or substitute taken from physical life, but energy and consciousness can not be identified. When we say that an argument is clear, we do not mean that there are no particles of dust in it, or that we can use it as a medium through which we can see objects distinctly; or when we say of a stupid person that he is dense, we do not mean that he has a high specific gravity. Consciousness is not physical energy.

        It is, however, quite possible that the potential energy-consciousness of the neo-realist is neither the potential energy of the physicist nor the consciousness of the psychologist. In this case we once more deal with some general metaphysical unifying substratum akin to the "pure experience" of James or to the "unitary experience" of Wundtian Voluntarism; in other words, we deal here again with metaphysics and not with science. One cannot help agreeing with Calkins: "Of late years vigorous attempts have been made to eject the term consciousness from our vocabulary, but, in my opinion, these efforts, though richly significant, are metaphysical, not psychological, since all are mainly concerned to overcome the dualistic opposition of psychical to physical. For whether accurate or inaccurate, the attempt to balance the account of thought and thing, that is, to distinguish psychical from physical, is concerned with the problem of ultimate reality, not with the explanation and description of observed facts, and is therefore metaphysical, not scientific in character."

        While on the one hand there is danger that psychology, dealing with mind, experience, knowledge, is apt to fall into epistemological and metaphysical pitfalls, on the other hand there is grave danger on the side of physiologists and biologists to identify psychic facts with physiological and biological facts. Recently students of animal life have made violent efforts of merging psychology into biology. There is no doubt that motor reactions, adjustments, adaptations, behavior must be taken into consideration in the study of psychic facts, but motor manifestations are of psychological significance only in so far as they lead to an interpretation of the inner subjective facts, facts of consciousness. This knowledge can only be given through an introspective interpretation of the facts of behavior.

        We can fully realize the non-psychological attitude when we find writers like Watson who wish to eliminate ideas or kindred mental states from psychology, or who like McDougall define psychology as a science of animal behavior. The peristaltic movements of the intestines, the action of the heart, the lungs and the liver belong to animal activities and still they can hardly be included under psychic activities. McDougall thinks that "psychologists must cease to be content with the sterile and narrow conception of their science as the science of consciousness, and must boldly assert its claim to be the positive science of the mind in all its aspects and modes of functioning, or as I would prefer to say, the positive science of conduct or of behaviour." But even from McDougall's standpoint mere movements do not constitute psychological material, they are psychological in so far as they are the indications of some inner subjective experience, such as sensations, feelings, emotions, strivings, conations. Now it is just these phenomena that form the subject matter of psychology. The psychologist regards behavior as the means for an introspective comprehension of what that behavior may indicate subjectively.

        Psychology, even from McDougall's standpoint, is after all the science of the mind, the science of consciousness which we can study through an introspective interpretation of motor reactions or behavior. Knowing introspectively what fear is from our own introspection and from the observation of the motor reactions the instinct of fear gives rise to we can interpret similar reactions or behavior in our neighbor or in our lower kin in the scale of evolution.

        It is interesting to observe that while on the one hand McDougall and others put motor reactions, conduct among psychic phenomena, on the other hand pure motor phenomena and physiological activities with but the rudiments of psychic life are described "in terms of the three aspects of mental life of all mental processes―the cognitive, the effective and the conative," terms which are really characteristic of the higher forms of mental life. According to McDougall even "the lower animals perceive, feel, and act." This reminds one of Binet's micro-organisms possessing perception, feeling, and volition.


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