Reading James' Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, Chap. 1 "The Scope of Psychology"

After attending the incredibly stimulating Toward a Science of Consciousness conference in Tucson, AZ, I have become convinced that I need to read Williams James more carefully to determine the influence he had on German phenomenology, particularly Husserl, and Heidegger from Husserl. I had originally read him before I studied phenomenology closely but now I think a fresh reading in light of my current knowledge will be useful for establishing historical precedent, considering James’ international renown during his hey-day. This is slightly ambitious, but I think it would be helpful to my research to work through The Principles of Psychology chapter by chapter and write up a corresponding blog post. Forcing myself to write a summary for each chapter and make my associations explicit will help me internalize James so that I can work him into my research vocabulary.  These summaries will not purport to capture everything James’ had to say. Instead, I want to pull out key quotations and then comment on them in relation to contemporary findings in phenomenology and cognitive science.

Chapter 1

Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. (PP 1)

Right away we see the necessity  of phenomenology, the science of phenomena, for psychological science. James rightly understands the futility of trying to understand neural conditions without knowing what exactly is being conditioned. The explanandum must be lived experienced itself. A phenomenologically blind neuroscience is does not know what it is trying to explain. Julian Jaynes said the same thing:

Even if we had a complete wiring diagram of the nervous system, we still would not be able to answer our basic question. Though we knew the connections of every species that ever existed, together with all its neurotransmitters and how they varied in its billions of synapses of every brain that ever existed, we could never — not ever — from a knowledge of the brain alone know if that brain contained a consciousness like our own. We first have to start from the top, from some conception of what consciousness is, from what our own introspection is. We have to be sure of that, before we can enter the nervous system and talk about its neurology. (OC 18)

Next, James discusses the two most influential schools of thought on explaining psychological behavior, the Soul theory and the “associationist” theory.  I assume the Soul theory of consciousness is well-known to most of my readers, so I will not elaborate here. The associationist theory however, is worth commenting on. Such a theory is

a psychology without a soul by taking discrete ‘ideas’, fain or vivid, and showing how, by their cohesions, repulsions, and forms of succession, such things as reminiscences, perceptions, emotions, volitions, passions, theories, and all the other furnishings of an individual’s mind may be engendered. (PP 1-2)

However, James’ points out that an explanation at this level of ideality is practically useless when it comes to explaining why memory works better under particular conditions, or why the mind is irrational and prone to sloppy error.

Such peculiarities seem quite fantastic; and might, for aught we can see a priori, be the precise opposites of what they are. (PP 3)

I take this critique of “ideas” theory to be transferable to modern cognitivist theories of representations. Saying that perception is explained by something “standing for something else” in the brain does not explain much of anything until you show how that function actually works without resorting to circular arguments. If you explain the representations by their causal role in aiding functionality, then you need to show why we cannot just explain the entire system in causal terms, rather than saying one thing stands for another — a devishly vague statement. Instead of resorting to ideas,

The fact that the brain is the one immediate bodily condition of the mental operations is indeed so universally admitted nowadays  that I need spend no more time in illustrating it, but will simply postulate it and pass on. The whole remainder of the book will be more or less of a proof that the postulate was correct. (PP 4)

This sounds like a modern precursor to Merleau-Ponty, Gibson, and Varela. James’ emphasis on the embodied nature of cognition is reinforced by

the general law that no mental modification ever occurs which is not accompanied or followed by a bodily change. (PP 5)

Cognition is for changes in the body. Moreover, James’, like Jaynes, seems to establish a dual-process theory of consciousness wherein there can be intelligent nonconscious operations. Indeed,

Standing, walking, buttoning and unbotting, piano-playing, talking, even saying one’s prayers, may be done when the mind is absorbed in other things. The performances of animal instinct seem semi-automatic. (PP 5)

I take this to be a historical precedent to the Jaynesian idea that cultural zombies are possible. I have recently argued this in my latest paper, “What Is It Like To Be Nonconscious?“. I take this to mean that there are two levels of consciousness. One is intelligent and embodied, grounded in action. I call this the “Reactive mind”, following Jaynes notion of “behavioral reactivity”. The reactive mind constitutes the normal cognitive state of humans and nonhumans alike. This was the mentality that humans were in for probably 99% of their evolutionary development (until the rise of civilization). The other level of consciousness is consciousness proper, that operation wherein narratization occurs within a virtual mindspace opened up by metaphorical processes of spatialization. The question then is

Shall the study of such machine-like yet purposive acts as these be included in Psychology? (PP 6)

The answer is of course yes. A proper psychology must “[take the] mind in the midst of all its concrete relations” (PP 6). Heidegger’s hermeneutics of facticity has a similar methodological approach. For Heidegger, as for Jaynes and James, we must examine lived human experienced in terms of it concrete finitude. But phenomenology is methodologically a priori in that we must first uncover the phenomena to be studied before we objectify and neurologize.

Given there are intelligent nonconscious acts, what is their nature? James’ answer is that they are directed towards an end with varying means. He uses an example of iron filings being attracted to a magnet. A teleological (means/end) explanation (like “Iron loves magnets) is only useful as a metaphor, because if you put a card between the filings and the magnet, the filings will never move around the card in order to satisfy their desire.

Romeo and Juliet, if a wall be built between them, do not remain idiotically pressing their faces against its opposite sides like the magnet and the filings with the card. (PP 7)

This is the crucial phenomenological difference between living and nonliving things. And insofar as phenomenology is ontology (according to Heidegger), teleological behaviors marks an ontological distinction between tables and humans.

The pursuance of future ends and the choice of means for their attainment are thus the mark and criterion of the presence of mentality in a phenomenon. We all use this test to discriminate between an intelligent and a mechanical performance. We impute no mentality to sticks and stones, because they never seem to move for the sake of anything, but always when pushed, and then indifferently and with no sign of choice. So we unhesitatingly call them senseless.(PP 8 )

Anyone who is familiar with Heidegger will recognize the bold sentence as familiar.

We have interpreted worldhood as that referential totality which constitutes significance. In Being-familiar with this significance and previously understanding it, [humans let] what is ready-to-hand be encountered as discovered in its involvement. In Humanity’s Being, the context of references or assignments (of worldly things) which significance implies is tied up with human’s ownmost Being — a Being which essentially can have no involvement, but which is rather that Being for the sake of which Dasein itself is as it is…significance, as worldhood, is tied up with the existential “for-the-sake-of-which”. (SZ 123)

But how can teleological explanations by accepted in scientific discourse? James has an eloquent answer.

In the lengthy discussions which psychologists have carried on about the amount of intelligence displayed by lower mammals, or the amount of consciousness involved in the functions of the nerve-centres of reptiles, the same test has always been applied: Is the character of the actions such that we must believe them to be performed for the sake of their result? The result in question, as we shall hereafter abundantly see, is as a rule a useful one, — the animal is, on the whole, safer under the circumstances for bringing it forth. So far the action has a teleological character; but such mere outward teleology as this might still be the blind result of vis a tergo.

We thus arrive at a Jamesian  principle, echoed in Heidegger, Gibson, Jaynes, and Charles Taylor:

no actions but such as are done for an end, and show a choice of means, can be called indubitable expressions of Mind.



Filed under Psychology

3 responses to “Reading James' Principles of Psychology, vol. 1, Chap. 1 "The Scope of Psychology"

  1. Pingback: Sunday Pragmatism, part III: James on Habits and Will; a Mental Taxonomy | Minds and Brains

  2. Dear Gary Williams,
    I find quite interesting and refreshing your approach to James. Are you aware of any good published work that would simply comment on the series of chapters in the Principles dedicated to habit, will and emotions? Thank you for your concern.

  3. James Groff

    Great stuff!

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