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Boris Sidis, Ph.D.

© 1898. New York, D. Appleton and Company.




        IT is certainly of great interest to know whether the subconscious revealed behind the upper consciousness is a personality or not. To answer this question we must first turn to the problem of personality. "What is personality? Omitting the metaphysical hypotheses of the soul and of the transcendental ego, we find on the field of empirical psychology two contending theories of personality: the one is the association theory of the English and of the Herbartians, the other is the "wave theory" of Prof. James.

        The personal self is regarded by the associationists as a train of ideas of which memory declares the first to be continuously connected with the last. The successive associated ideas run, as it were, into a single point. Memory and personality are identified. Personality is considered as a series of independent ideas so closely associated as to form in memory one conscious series. "The phenomena of self1 and that of memory," says J. S. Mill, "are merely two sides of the same fact. . . . My memory of having ascended Skiddaw on a given day and my consciousness of being the same person who ascended Skiddaw on that day are two modes of stating the same fact. . . . I am aware of a long and uninterrupted succession of past feelings, going back as far as memory reaches, and terminating with the sensations I have at the present moment, all of which are connected by an inexplicable tie. . . . This succession of feelings which I call my memory of the past is that by which I distinguish myself (personality)." Mill’s identification of memory and personality is rather unfortunate, for brutes have memory2 but it is certainly questionable whether they have personality. "We shall, however, soon see that not only Mill, but psychologists who seem to take the opposite view, fall into the same fallacy of identifying personality with memory. In another place J. S. Mill expresses himself clearer as to his meaning of personality: "If we speak of the mind as a series of feelings, we arc obliged to complete the statement by calling it a series of feelings which is aware of itself as past and future." Mill, however, clearly sees the difficulty of his position―namely, "the paradox that something which, ex hypothesi, is but a series of feelings can be aware of itself as a series." He endeavours to extricate himself from this difficulty by saying "that we are here face to face with that final inexplicability at which, as Sir W. Hamilton observes, 'we inevitably arrive when we reach ultimate facts.'"

        Now Prof. James takes Mill to task, and points out that Mill himself, when "speaking of what may rightly be demanded of a theorist, says: 'He is not entitled to frame a theory from one class of phenomena, extend to another class which it does not fit, and excuse himself by saying that if we can not make it fit it is because ultimate facts are inexplicable.'" The class of phenomena which the associationist school takes to frame its theory of the ego are feelings unaware of each other. The class of phenomena the ego presents are feelings of which the latter are intensely aware of those that went before. The two classes do not "fit," and no exercise of ingenuity can ever make them fit. No shuffling of unaware feelings can make them aware. In another place Prof. James says: "This inexplicable tie which connects the feelings, this 'something in common' by which they are linked and which is not the passing feelings themselves, but something ‘permanent' of which we can 'affirm nothing' save its attributes and phenomena, what is it but the metaphysical substance come again to life?"

        Prof. James's criticism of associationism is certainly just and acute, and one can not help agreeing with him. But now, what is Prof. James's own theory of personality? The passing thought, according to Prof. James, is the thinker. Each passing wave of consciousness, each passing thought, is aware of all that has preceded in consciousness; each pulse of thought as it dies away transmits its title of ownership of its mental content to the succeeding thought. To put it in his own words:

        "Each thought out of a multitude of other thoughts of which it may think is able to distinguish those which belong to its own ego from those which do not. The former have a warmth and intimacy about them of which the latter are completely devoid. . . "Each pulse of cognitive consciousness, each thought, dies away and is replaced by another. The other, among the things it knows, knows its own predecessor, and finding it 'warm,' greets it, saying, 'Thou art mine and part of the same self with me.' Each later thought, knowing and including thus the thoughts which went before, is the final receptacle, and, appropriating them, is the final owner of all they contain and own. Each thought is thus born an owner, and dies owned, transmitting whatever it realizes as itself to its own later proprietor. As Kant says, it is as if elastic balls were to have not only motion but knowledge of it, and a first ball were to transmit both its motion and its consciousness to a second, which took both up into its consciousness and passed them to a third, until the last ball held all that the other balls had held, and realized it as its own. It is this trick which the nascent thought has of immediately taking up the expiring thought and adopting it which is the foundation of the appropriation of most of the remoter constituents of the self. Who owns the last self owns the self before the last, for what possesses the possessor possesses the possessed. . . . A thing," Prof. James goes on to say, "can not appropriate itself―it is itself; and still less can it disown itself. There must be an agent of the appropriating and disowning; but that agent we have already named. It is the thought to whom the various 'constituents' are known. That thought is a vehicle of choice as well as of cognition, and among the choices it makes are those appropriations or repudiations of its own. But the thought never is an object in its own hands. It. . . is the hook from which the chain of past selves dangles, planted firmly in the present. . . . Anon the hook itself will drop into the past with all it carries and then be treated as an object and appropriated by a new thought in the new present, which will serve as a living hook in its turn.

        "To illustrate by diagram, let A, B, and C stand for three successive thoughts, each with its object inside of it. If B's object be A and C's object be B, then A, B, and C would stand for three pulses in a consciousness of personal identity."

        Like the associationists, Prof. James looks for personality in the function of memory; like them, he regards personality as a series, with the only difference that he postulates a synthesis of that series in each passing thought. Each thought has the title to the content of previous thoughts, but this momentary thought does not know itself. The thought can only be known when dead, when it has become a content of a succeeding wave of consciousness. In short, Prof. James seems to think that personality is a synthesis of a series, and that this synthesis is not conscious of itself. We see at once that although Prof. James attacks so valiantly and justly the association theory, he himself falls into an error no less flagrant―he omits from his account of personality the fact of self-consciousness.

        Mill, in starting with a disconnected series of sensations and ideas, could not see how that series could possibly become synthetized and conscious of itself as such, as a series, and he was compelled to fall back in that refuge of ignorance, the unknowable, placing this synthetic conscious activity into a noumenal world, but he at least clearly saw that personality requires self­consciousness. Prof. James, however, while accounting for the synthetic side of the "pure ego," totally omits the self-conscious side of personality. He even emphasizes this lack of self-consciousness in the passing thought, the present personal thinker. "All appropriations," he says, "may be made to it, by a thought not at the moment immediately cognised by itself." If, then, the passing thought can be known only as content, can there possibly he self-consciousness at all? According to Prof. James the passing thought with its synthetized series or contents can be known only as object, but then the consciousness of an object is not self-consciousness. Where, then, does the fact of self-consciousness come in? Self-consciousness can not be in the mere object-consciousness, for in it the object occupies the whole field of mental vision, and, besides, the object content is but the material, the inheritance of former dead owners. Self-consciousness, again, is not present in the passing thought, for the passing thought, according to Prof. James, "can not own itself"; nor can self-consciousness be in the succeeding thought, for then the pre dons thought has already perished, and it is now. another thought that is conscious of the thought gone―a state that can in no wise be self-consciousness; it is rather other-consciousness. How, then, is self-consciousness possible? Prof. James attempts to escape from the difficulties by making the thoughts feel "warm," but surely "animal warmth" advances us very little toward a clear comprehension of the "pure ego." A warm thought, whatever it may mean to Prof. James, is as much an object as a cold thought.

        The fact is that Prof. James, in asserting that the present passing thought or the present moment of consciousness lacks knowledge of itself, seems to have forgotten his own distinction of the two kinds of knowledge―knowledge about and knowledge of acquaintance. The blind man who knows the theory and laws of light has knowledge about, but he sadly lacks the most essential knowledge―knowledge of acquaintance; he does not know what the sensation of light is in itself―that is, he has mediate but not immediate knowledge. Now the most that Prof. James can claim is that the present thought lacks knowledge about, but it nevertheless does possess knowledge―knowledge of acquaintance. Prof. James, however, is not altogether unaware of it, for in asserting that" the present moment is the darkest in the whole series," he also tells us that "it may feel its own immediate existence," but he hastens to qualify this last statement of his by adding, "hard as it is by direct introspection to ascertain the fact." Even if it be granted that Prof. James did keep in mind the two kinds of knowledge, and denied to the passing thought only knowledge about, he is still in the wrong; for self-consciousness partakes of the two kinds of knowledge: it is both knowledge about and knowledge of acquaintance.

         A close examination of the two theories shows that neither the bundle of associationism nor Prof. James's passing thought gives us a true account of personality. The "pure ego" or personality is not a series, for a disconnected series can not possibly make a unity a person; nor is personality a mere synthesis of passing thoughts, for there may be synthesis or memory in each passing wave of consciousness and still no personality. The consciousness of a dog, of a cat, may fully answer Prof. James's description of the "pure ego." The central point of the ego or of personality lies in the fact of the thought knowing and critically controlling itself in the very process of thinking, in the very moment of that thought's existence.

         Prof. James is certainly wrong in asserting that in personality the passing thought does not know itself in the moment of thinking. He seems to assume that the knowledge of an object and the knowledge of that knowledge require two distinct pulses of consciousness, two distinct thoughts; but, as we pointed out above in our discussion, if this were the case self-consciousness would have been an impossibility. The fact is that the knowledge of an object and the knowledge of that knowledge do not require two distinct moments, but only one and the same moment. Once a thought has come to assert "I feel," the knowledge and the feeling constitute one and the same thought. The pure ego, the "I," taken by itself means consciousness of consciousness. What the "I" asserts is that there is present consciousness of consciousness. "I feel" means that there is consciousness of a feeling along with consciousness of that consciousness. The "I know, and I know that I know," and the "I know that I know that I know," and so on, do not require so many separate thought-moments, but only one and the same moment of self-consciousness.

         Prof. James's defective analysis of personality seems to be the result of his imperfect discrimination between the present moment of consciousness and the present time-moment. It is this want of discrimination between the two moments that underlies the ideal structure of Hegelianism; and although Prof. James3 kicks vigorously against Hegel, he still can not free himself from the influence of that great dialectician. Prof. James, in fact, is a Hegelian at heart.

         Moments, Hegel tell us,4 are in a continuous flux; the now and the here, the this and the that, change with each coming moment. No sooner does the moment of consciousness posit its now, than the moment is changed and the now turns out to be something different. The negation lies on the very face of the moment's affirmation. The moment of consciousness taken in its immediacy can not know itself, because it negates itself in the very act of its affirmation. "Le moment où je parle est déjà loin de moi." It is partly this consideration that Prof. James has in mind when he declares that "the present moment of consciousness is the darkest in the whole series."

         Before we proceed further with our discussion it would not be amiss to point out the fact that Prof. James is also guilty of confounding two widely different moments: the present moment of consciousness and the present moment of self-consciousness. This is, in fact, implied by his whole theory of the passing thought with no self-consciousness to back it; and this confusion of the two moments is especially clearly revealed in the "darkness of the present moment of consciousness." Prof. James means by the present moment of consciousness the present thought, the present thinker-that is, the present moment of self-consciousness. Now, even if it be granted that the present moment of consciousness be "the darkest in the whole series," the present moment of self-consciousness is certainly the brightest of all.

         Turning now to the Hegelian flux fallacy―a fallacy committed by many a philosopher and psychologist―we find that two qualitatively different moments are lumped together into one, namely, the present time moment and the present moment of consciousness. While in the schema of objective time the present moments are in a continuous flux, the present moments of consciousness are far from being in a parallel incessant change. The moments in the schema of time may go on flowing, but the present moment of consciousness may still remain unchanged nay, it is even fully conceivable that a present moment of consciousness should fill a whole eternity. The radical difference of those two moments is well illustrated in the popular story of the monk, who happened to listen to the song of a bird from paradise for but a single moment and found that meanwhile a thousand years had passed away.

         The present moment of consciousness does not change with the change of the present time moment; the two moments are totally different in their nature. Now the moment of consciousness not being a time moment, not being in a continuous flux as the latter is, may include as wen its own consciousness, and thus be a moment of self-consciousness; and as a matter of fact a present moment of self-consciousness does include the knowledge of the present moment of consciousness within the self same present moment.

         Prof. James passes a severe criticism on Hume for not making his ego-bundle a little more of a decent whole; he censures Hume for denying the synthetic unity of the pure ego. On similar grounds may Prof. James be criticised for not making his evanescent thinker a little more of a decent person; he may be censured for not seeing that knowledge of the conscious moment within the very present moment of consciousness; in other words, that self-consciousness is of the very essence of the pure ego.

         The central point of personality is self-consciousness. A series of moments-consciousness cognized as a unity or synthesis of many moments in one thought, or by one thought, is not at all an indispensable prerequisite of personality. We can fully conceive an eternal moment of self-consciousness with no preceding moments to synthetize, and still such a moment of self­consciousness is no doubt a personality. An ego of such a type is not constituted of a series of moments, and has therefore neither memory nor personal identity; and still such an ego is a person, and possibly the most perfect of persons, since the personality, independent of all time; is completely synthetized by the very nature of its self-conscious being. We can again conceive it being with distinct pulses in each moment of self-consciousness. Each pulse of consciousness, however, being a moment of self-consciousness, is certainly of the nature of personality. We have here an objective series of moments of self-consciousness, originating from the primitive life consciousness, but each moment remaining distinct in itself, not owned, not synthetized by the succeeding moment of self-consciousness. This type of self-consciousness has a series, but no synthesis, no memory, no personal identity. On the other hand, there may be a series of pulses of consciousness, there may be memory, there may be a synthesis of all the preceding moments in each passing moment of consciousness, and still if there is no self-consciousness such a consciousness is certainly no personality. Neither a connected series of moments nor their synthesis is of the essence of personality; it is only consciousness of consciousness, the knowledge of consciousness within the same moment of consciousness; in short, it is only the moment of self-consciousness that makes of a consciousness a personality.

        Consciousness and self-consciousness may hypothetically be arranged in the following series of stages or types:

        I. Desultory consciousness. In this type of consciousness there is no connection, no association, between one moment of consciousness and another; there is certainly no synthesis of moments, and consequently no memory, no recognition, no self-consciousness, no personality. This type of consciousness may have its representatives in the psychic life of the lowest invertebrates.

         II. Synthetic consciousness. In this type of consciousness there is synthesis of the preceding moments in each passing moment, but there is no recognition. Former experiences are reinstated in consciousness, but they are not recognised as such. Instinctive consciousness falls naturally under this type of mental activity. Memory is certainly present, but it is objective in its nature; it exists only for the observer, not for the individual consciousness itself. The subjective side of memory, the projection of the present experience into the subjective past of the present moment consciousness, is wanting; and, of course, it goes without saying that the synthetic consciousness has no self-consciousness, no personality.

         III. Recognitive consciousness. In this type of consciousness there is not only an objective synthesis of the preceding moments in each moment of consciousness, but there is also present a subjective synthesis.5 Former experiences are not only simply reinstated in consciousness, but they are also recognised as such. This type of mental activity may be represented by the consciousness of the higher vertebrate animals. There is here memory, there is the projection of the present into the subjective past, there is recognition, but there is no self-consciousness, no personality.

        IV. Desultory self-consciousness. This type of self­consciousness has no synthesis in each present moment of the preceding past moments of self-consciousness. Such a form of consciousness may be regarded as a series of independent, instable personalities coming like bubbles to the surface of consciousness and bursting without leaving any marked trace behind them. It is evident that this type of personality, although it has a series of moments, has no memory of that series, nor has it any personal identity.

         V. Synthetic self-consciousness. This form of self­consciousness has a series of moments, and all the moments in the series can be included in and owned by each present moment of self-consciousness. The moments in the series are intimately linked and intertwined. Each moment synthetizes, owns, knows, and controls the preceding ones. This type of consciousness possesses synthesis, reproduction, recognition, personality, personal identity, and is represented by man's mental activity.

         VI. The eternal moment of self-consciousness. In this form of self-consciousness there is no series; it is but one moment. Memory and personal identity are not present because they are superfluous, since there is no preceding series to synthetize. This type of personality may transcend the synthetic personality, as the former may contain the whole content of complete lines of series in one eternal moment of self-consciousness. This form of self-consciousness may be considered as the pure type of personality; it is the perfect person.6



1.  Self is often understood by writers as equivalent to personality, while I use the term self to designate mere consciousness.
2.  See Lloyd Morgan's Comparative Psychology, chapter Memory in Animals.
3.  See James's essay On Some Hegelisms.
4.  See Hegel's Phänomenologie, chapter Die sinnliche Gewissheit.
5.  It is this type of consciousness that answers Prof. James's description of personality.
6.  I must, however, add that this last type of personality is purely hypothetical, and if I brought it here it was simply to emphasize the pure aspect of personality.


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