Monday, November 7, 2011

William James's Fringe

In the last post, I wrote about adventure and our need to make the most of whatever comes our way. Even after planning something as detailed as a ten-year reading list, I still follow it with a sense of adventure: the plan is full of authors and works I've never read before, and I never know how they'll strike me or what I'll have to do to learn from them. Even with familiar authors, I wonder sometimes as I approach a new section whether I'll find a tempest or following winds. I schedule William James's Principles of Psychology in the late months each year because I've enjoyed him so much in the past and need exciting, enjoyable reading during my busiest semester of teaching. But each year, I think, "Surely it won't be as good this year as last." Yet James comes through every time.

I've complained in earlier posts about philosophers who try to explain away the human individual; James never worries me in this way. The chapter I'm reading, for instance (chapter IX, "The Stream of Thought"), begins with a defense of individual personhood, proven by the absolute separation of different streams of thought:
Each [mind] keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought ever comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. . . . The breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature.
Later, James points out that these separate unities preserve their integrities even after the interruptions of sleep or other forms of unconsciousness. If two people sleep and then wake up together, "each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection with but one of the two streams of thought which were broken by the sleeping hours." Just what this personal entity is that unifies each stream of thought is hard to define. Like Augustine trying to define time, James says, "Its meaning we know so long as no one asks us to define it." Nevertheless, he says, "No psychology . . . can question the existence of personal selves. The worst a psychology can do is so to interpret the nature of these selves as to rob them of their worth." Hmm. That worst is bad enough, actually.

Besides his defense of the personal self, another reason I like James is that he constantly provides everyday thought experiments. In the second section of the chapter, he posits two related statements: (1) that thought is in constant change, and (2) that the "simple ideas" discussed by Locke and others do not exist. I imagine that my thought of a rock is always the same, he says, because the rock always appears to be the same no matter the conditions under which I view it. But these changing conditions are precisely what makes my thought of the rock different every time I encounter it. Everything from the lighting and my relative position with the rock to how sleepy I am and what I've been thinking about in the previous minute colors my thought of the rock. I have no thought without this contextual fringe, he says. So here's experiment 1: pick an object you're likely to encounter more than once today and notice what you think about it each time you come to it. Can you imagine ever having exactly the same state of mind twice? At the very least, the first time you see it, you'll be thinking, "I should pay attention so this experiment will work," and the second time you see it, you'll be thinking, "This is the second time, so I wonder how my frame of mind is different."

The fringe is always there, even though we can't put a finger on it, picture it, or put a name to it. James's brilliant proof again rests on an everyday occurrence: forgetting a word or name. (OK, it's an everyday  occurrence for me.) We can sense the name in the distance. If someone suggests a possible name, we know if it's on the right track or not, even though before the suggestion we couldn't begin to express our vague feeling of the fringe. And here's a third reason to love James: he always uses such clear, vivid analogies. Trying to capture the fringe of our thought, he says, is like trying to catch a top to see its motion or trying to flip the lights on quickly to see what the room looks like in the dark.

If James is right (and it appears to me that he is), our stream of consciousness is like the river of Heraclitus: you can never step into the same one twice. That means that my reading list offers adventure at every turn, not just with the new authors and new books. Even an old favorite will appear differently the next time I read it. You can never step into the same book twice.

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