William James and the Stream

February 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

"Let us call the resting-places the 'substantive parts,' and the places of flight the 'transitive parts,' of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another." - William James, Principles of Psychology

William James's famous depiction of human thought as a continuous stream is now a mainstream idea. HMU's January Quarterly Discussion focused on this metaphor. We investigated its "resting places" and "places of flight". Why, or how, does one come to recognize any thought? James says that we have many thoughts of which we are both aware and unaware. These thoughts compose our stream of consciousness. Humans encounter a staggering amount of data everyday and parse it into the noisy stream, combined with reminders, memories, song lyrics, and interests (just to name a few other things that we carry).

One thing that strikes me as important is that James does not clearly define any terms in this chapter. Rather, he invokes the power of metaphor to universally describe thought. The accessibility of a stream is clear in ways that a scientific definition may not be. At the same time, though, James also notes the inherent flaws of language. He is quick to claim that language cannot accurately depict all reality. Rather, he says, "language works against our perception of the truth." In other words, perception is subjective. The subject defines experience in language that is also defined by the subject. An object, something external to the subject, can be defined only through the subject's access to it. And repeated experiences lead us to a level of "sameness".

"Sameness" allows humans the ability to recognize forms. An orange, for example, is round, orange and citrusy. Language allows sameness, but also limits us from having absolutely equivalent experiences with that orange. We know that an orange has a recognizable form, but it may carry different connotations for each of us. This additional baggage is personal, and not necessarily transmitted in the thought of orange itself. However, James claims that we can continually expand our understanding of an object. He writes, "Experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date.... Every brain-state is partly determined by the nature of this entire past succession." (152) In other words, our thoughts exist in a continual stream. As we interact with each thought, the thought develops its own unique parts.

So, while "sameness" allows us to converse with others about an object, personal influence is in part always lost. For example, imagine an orange sitting on the table. Investigate your preconceived notions of orange. Does the color please you? Do you like the flavor and taste? Does it make you think of summer or winter, a particular vacation, dessert or juice? We have almost instantaneous associations that may be what we are thinking when we speak. For example, I grew up with an orange tree. So, after this conversation and after thinking about what defines an object itself, I realized that when I say the word orange, I mentally recall the experience and smell of picking oranges. Therefore, while the communicable thought remains only that the orange is on the table, I am sensing much more than my words contain. Orange is the object of thought, but not the full thought itself. James continues that "[t]he next point to make clear is that, however complex the object may be, the thought of it is one undivided state of consciousness." So, for me, an orange is also experiential in a way that language does not immediately transmit. Imagining that everyone functions in a similar manner, makes it difficult to grasp how humans arrive at any verifiable "sameness".

I wonder what causes us to say anything? What focuses our attention on a single thought? It was suggested that the stream of thought is substantive and also transitive. The substantive section represents objects of interest. These objects exist in time and places for us, as we must associate them with some experience or definition. However, the transitive subset of the stream is composed of things that have yet to enter our consciousness. For whatever reason, these objects avoid our consciousness, and, as a result, they cannot be expressed in any sort of time-part. They literally do not yet exist in any functional or communicable way, though they may exist within the stream.

I am astounded at how difficult a discussion of simple thought is. Representing our personal definition of an orange, even, can be problematic. Extend this into philosophical ideas and intangible notions, and it is a wonder we can communicate at all. This is reinforced by the fact that thought can be traced through hundreds of years of philosophy. James is, in part, responding to those previous thinkers when he rebuts the idea that thought is composed of single, static conclusions. Rather, he reinforces complexity by allowing that each idea is connected to a massive flow of data.

I am ever-so-grateful to those who discussed James's work with me. His stream of consciousness idea has profound implications for communication and is well worth reading. I truly appreciate others' time and efforts in clarifying difficult points.

Our next Quarterly Discussion will focus on two translation. Join us! Email for more information.

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