My yearly visit with William James for 2012 took me through his theory of the Self, which he compares with three other prominent theories. (1) The substantial Soul of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas may be real, but we never perceive it, so empirically we have no evidence of it. We can say we know it by its operations (i.e., the thoughts we perceive), but how do we know that the It that thinks these thoughts is a separate substance? (2) Hume’s associationist theory – that a self is nothing but the string of thoughts, each composed of stable, simple ideas that combine in sometimes new and sometimes habitual ways – doesn’t work, James reasons, because (a) no idea is the same when it is thought a second time, and (b) there must be a tertium quid to connect the thoughts, since, for instance, the thought of four and the thought of three don’t combine to make the thought of seven. (3) Kant’s view he dismisses with a hint of disdain: “Does one seriously think he understands better how the knower 'connects' its objects, when one calls the former a transcendental Ego and the latter a 'Manifold of Intuition' than when one calls them Thought and Things respectively?”
In contrast with these three views, James suggests that the scientist should accept the current Thought as the Thinker. My current Thought certainly seems connected in some way with my surroundings and memories in a way that I could call “awareness.” In fact, in saying that I’m aware of my current thought, it seems that my current thought consists of awareness of itself. So perhaps the current Thought is the I that thinks it.
James really has me puzzling over this one. Of course, “Who am I?” is one of the greatest, most puzzling questions of the human condition. It is one of the great problems of philosophy, and I’m not going to solve it for all my fellow humans any time soon. But James has me thinking, and I’m leaning his way right now. Naturally some problems occur. For instance, the current Thought is fleeting, and I seem to have longevity. James answers this critique by saying that the current Thought inherits a “title” from the previous thought, an authority that comes with the ability to perceive, judge, and choose, and to remember all that the previous Thought remembered. This view of the revolving authority makes sense to me until he says again that, while he believes in a Thinking Self, he doesn’t see a reason to place it in a non-phenomenal world. In other words, he wants empirical validation of the Self, and the current Thought is the perceptible thing. But then where is this “title”? I certainly don’t perceive it. I have an inclination to say, “Does one seriously think he understands the tertium quid better when one calls it a ‘title’ rather than a ‘substance’?” (He’s comfortable with the word “soul” and uses it provisionally, with the caution to the reader that he doesn’t mean by it what Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas meant.)
One of the things I love about William James is that he seems to be in love with the fascinating human mind as much as with the quest of understanding it. Religion plays a huge part in human life, and James embraces that facet. He says for instance that humans can’t help but pray. His argument goes this way: My reputation with others occupies a vital place in my sense of self, and when I choose to make of myself something my family or culture doesn’t approve, I still want recognition and vindication from some outside Judge. Since the society I’m going against can’t provide that positive reinforcement, I turn to an ideal Judge. He doesn’t say that God does or does not exist, i.e., whether the ideal Judge of my imagination might correspond to Fact, only that such a question “carries us beyond the psychological or naturalistic point of view,” thus making it the subject for a different book.
Aware that many of his readers will, like me, believe in God and hope for eternal life, James anticipates and answers two potential theological problems with his location of the Soul in the stream of thought rather than in a separate, supra-sensible substance that “has” the thoughts. First, he asks, would a righteous Judge punish a soul for acts committed when delirious? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that God will judge each person for what he chooses and remembers in his conscious stream of thought? I don’t know. David prays for forgiveness of hidden sins, which I’ve taken to mean hidden even from David himself. James’s second point, though, has weight to my way of thinking. Would we really want, he challenges, to live eternally as simple substances without a train of thought to experience the blessedness? And if the train of thought is what I hope will be in Heaven, isn’t the train of thought my Self? As I said, James has me thinking – thinking about the me that he has thinking.