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Quote for the Day – Theology and Idealism as Rhetorical Devices in Academic Philosophy

In old times, whenever a philosopher was assailed for some particularly tough absurdity in his system, he was wont to parry the attack by the argument from the divine omnipotence. ‘Do you mean to limit God’s power?’ he would reply: ‘do you mean to say that God could not, if he would, do this or that?’ This retort was supposed to close the mouths of all objectors of properly decorous mind. The functions of the bradleian absolute are in this particular identical with those of the theistic God. Suppositions treated as too absurd to pass muster in the finite world which we inhabit, the absolute must be able to make good ‘somehow’ in his ineffable way. First we hear Mr. Bradley convicting things of absurdity; next, calling on the absolute to vouch for them quand même. Invoked for no other duty, that duty it must and shall perform.

~William James, The Pluralistic Universe

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Quote for the Day – The Overwhelming Automaticity of Being

“Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature,’–at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training have by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there. Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-raisings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response. My very words to you now are an example of what I mean; for having already lectured upon habit and printed a chapter about it in a book, and read the latter when in print, I find my tongue inevitably falling into its old phrases and repeating almost literally what I said before.”

~William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals


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Why I Think Pragmatism Fails

My intellectual history with pragmatism goes way back. My first real exposure to pragmatism was through Richard Rorty’s masterpiece Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In this work Rorty attempted to argue for a position that would do away with the dogmas and philosophical problems associated with either realism or idealism. Rorty’s own position was heavily inspired by James, Dewey, Heidegger, and late Wittgenstein. He saw in this tradition a way to avoid the problematic claims of realism and idealism, which he saw as both relying on a kind of epistemic foundationalism to get off the ground. Foundationalism is the idea that we can secure a solid foundation for building up philosophy and science that rests on self-evident epistemic principles. The most obvious epistemic foundation for Modern Philosophy is subjective experience. This was Descartes position in a nutshell. From the indubitably self-evident principles of subjective consciousness, Descartes wanted to provide a solid footing for the entirety of human knowledge, including science. For foundationalism, the essential project is to build a edifice of knowledge that rests on the epistemic security of our own experience of the world. From our own experience, we can provide a foundation for the truth claims of the sciences.

Rorty found this problematic because it assumed that our essential self was, at bottom, this self-conscious “Glassy Essence” that mirrors the world through representational mentation. Because the mind represents the world, the most secure path to knowledge for foundationalism is to determine whether the contents of the mind match up or correspond to the external world. Since the mind is the foundation for our knowledge, if we can develop a method for determining which mental contents accurately correspond to the world, we can arrive at a concept of truth. True mental states are those that correspond to the external world.

But what is this external world? Kant eventually forbid philosophy from talking about mental states corresponding to the external world. For Kant, the method for securing our epistemic foundations is equally subjective, since the essential task for philosophy is to inspect the mind to make sure its representational mechanisms are working properly. On the Kantian schema, the path to objective, grounded knowledge goes through the self and never really leaks out to the external world. The world which we think is external, is actually internal to our minds, since our experience is but a representation of the noumenal realm. To make sure our mirror is working properly, Kant wants us to polish the mirror rather than inspect the actual world, since we can never get out of our heads.

For Rorty, this whole project of grounding knowledge is doomed to fail from the beginning because it presupposes an awful lot about the nature of the mind, the self, and knowledge. Rorty’s essential philosophical move is to externalize the self such that there is no “inner core”, no real “Glassy essence” except the one we invent for ourselves through cultural accumulation. Rather than starting with the inner world and moving outwards towards the world, Rorty, like Sellars, wants to start with the outer world and move inwards. For Rorty we are first and foremost social creatures inhabiting a public sphere with a public language. Following Heidegger’s move of externalization, Rorty thinks we are first “outside” the mind, in-the-world, and it is only a theoretical move which brings us to the inner realm of subjectivity. Once we as a culture have played this “subjectivity game” for long enough, we actually become convinced that we do indeed have a Glassy Essence which is the foundation for all our experience, along with the appropriate cultural mechanisms for acknowledging our own authority on subjective matters. Rorty thinks this is a delusion generated by philosophical language games. In this respect, we can see how Rorty took up the project of later Wittgenstein, who thought philosophical problems about the mind and body are mere tricks generated by our use of language games.

When I first read Rorty, I bought this hook, line, and sinker. The demolition of the Glassy Essence seems right to me, even to this day. If there is no glassy essence at our core grounding knowledge, then the truth-claims of both realism and idealism are groundless, since they are both founded by the core self (which we know now is a mere delusion). In realism, the glassy foundation allows us to make truth-claims about the world insofar as we can represent the objective world in our mind. In idealism, the glassy foundation allows us to make truth-claims about the human-world correlate. On Rorty’s reading, both positions are problematic since they start off with the isolated, representing self.

So if objective truth-claims are groundless for Rorty, how does he avoid a radical relativism where anything goes? Since Rorty moves the “foundation” for knowledge from the inner self towards the outer community, does this not relegate truth to the community? What is to stop a community of flat Earthers to say it is “true for them” that the Earth is flat because they have a long communal history of talking about the Earth as if it is flat? Nothing. Rorty cannot avoid this relativism. But he can attempt to rob it of its essential force. How does Rorty do this? By recognizing that one of the most dominant and “useful” communal language games is science itself. Science is nothing but a sophisticated communal practice that has developed its own norms of subjectivity and objectivity, and science tells us that the Earth is not flat.

So although Rorty thinks that it is impossible to ground or provide an absolute foundation for truth claims which separate appearance from reality, he does think that science has invented a language game for distinguishing appearance from reality. This is how Rorty responds to the critics who claim that he is a relativist where “anything goes”. Rorty doesn’t think that we can have absolute knowledge of what’s mere appearance versus what’s reality, but he does think that we have highly developed language games for separating appearance from reality. Science is exactly such a game. It’s just that the truth-claims of science are grounded, not by the self, but by the standards and norms of the scientific community. So we are still able to make truth-claims that separate appearance from reality, it’s just that this ability to make claims is itself just a language game, albeit an absurdly successful one.

So why does pragmatism fail? Very simply, it fails because no matter how hard he tries Rorty is unable to stop religious fundamentalists from hijacking this exact argument to show the rationality of faith-based knowledge claims. Reformed Epistemologists like Plantinga want to use this exact same anti-foundationalist argument to bolster the claim that it is rational to believe in God even if there is no evidence or rational argument for his existence. Just so long as there is a religious community with shared communal norms and standards, it is perfectly rational for someone growing up in that community to accept the truth-claims without rational evidence or argumentation. God becomes “properly basic” i.e. not believed on the basis of any epistemic foundations. The Christian community grounds the truth-claims of Christianity and Christians are excused from providing evidence or arguments for their position.

This is unacceptable to me. I discovered this “quirk” of pragmatism when I took an undergrad class on Reformed Epistemology. That class made me realize that pragmatism makes it too easy to bolster the “subjective” truth-claims of religion as being perfectly rational because there are religious communities in which those claims make sense. If science is groundless but ok because it’s useful, then religion can be ok too so long as it is useful to a community of believers.

So what’s the solution? How do you avoid the relativism of pragmatism without collapsing back to a problematic foundationalism wherein truth-claims are grounded by the subject, which always seems to lead to problems of skepticism? I’m not totally sure. I’m still working out my critique of pragmatism and Reformed Epistemology. I certainly don’t want to return to foundationalism. I do think we need to demolish the “Glassy Essence” and acknowledge that we all start off embedded in a community of pragmatic norms. But perhaps we need to rehabilitate the position of naturalistic realism to be compatible with the demolition of the self. Can we develop an ecological realism that acknowledges both the reality of the mind-independent world and the ideality of our embeddedness into a community? Moreover, if the scientific language game is able to give a plausible explanation for how religion evolved in the first place, then we would have rational recourse for rejecting the truth-claims of religion without necessarily collapsing to a dogmatic foundationalism. If we can show that religion evolved as a method of social control based on the hallucination of divine beings, we could actually explain religion without merely claiming it is “false”, for obviously someone hallucinating believes with all their mind that their hallucinations correspond to reality. We could acknowledge that religious people think their claims are true while still having a plausible explanation for how these feelings of certainty are generated by neurological activity in the brain, which have an evolutionary and developmental history. When placed side by side in the intellectual arena, the truth-claims of religion and the naturalistic explanation for how religion contingently developed don’t seem to be on equal footing. If a schizophrenic was convinced that aliens had implanted a device in his brain, the pragmatist would be forced to say it’s “true for him”, especially if the schizophrenic started a cult of followers who developed communal norms of truth based on the reality of alien abductions. The pragmatist could only say “that idea is false from perspective of a scientific language game but true in respect to the standards of the cult”. The naturalistic realist would be able to, in principle, trace the origin of the belief in aliens to either a evolutionary or developmental neurological fact and claim them to be in all likelihood false (although it’s, of course, possible that the schizophrenic is right).

Have I really escaped pragmatism? It’s hard to see how I am avoiding it if I accept anti-foundationalism. It might seem like I am accepting anti-foundationalism but just adding dogma. But I think realism might have a way out of this, and that’s through the method of approximation by guessing. If we wanted to answer the question of where religion came from, we have two competing hypotheses. The religious hypothesis is that religion developed because God actually exists. The naturalistic hypothesis is that religion developed as a contingent fact of evolutionary and cultural development. Now which is the better hypothesis? I.e. , which hypothesis is most likely to be accepted by a community of genuine, truth-seeking inquirers after a million years of sustained inquiry? Given the overwhelming acceptance of naturalism amongst the educated and scientifically literate, we could extrapolate and determine that naturalism’s hypothesis about religion is approximating the truth. Given that the God-hypothesis cannot actually generate any predictions of the natural world (for it is one thing to say God exists, it is another to say what he is going to do), it seems like naturalism is superior as a method of inquiry. And the hypothesis for why that method is superior is that naturalistic realism is actually true. Note how this claim is not presupposed at the beginning of the investigation, but rather, is something that is generated after genuine inquiry into the probability of either hypothesis being true. Naturalism is the result of a long process of thinking and examining the world, not a dogma presupposed on the basis of self-evident knowledge. It seems then that we can accept anti-foundationalism while still being naturalists and realists.


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James on the Noumenal, a Reply to "Anti-Correlationists"

I have, indeed, said that “to be radical, an empiricism must [not] admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced.” But in my own radical empiricism this is only a methodological postulate, not a conclusion supposed to flow from the intrinsic absurdity of transempirical objects. I have never felt the slightest repsect for the idealistic arguments which Mr. Pitkin attacks and of which Ferrier made such striking use; and I am perfectly willing to admit any number of noumenal beings or events into philosophy if only their pragmatic value can be shown.

-William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 123

So called anti-correlationists would point to the last sentence and say “See! Reality is correlated with the pragmatic value of humans, therefore James was an idealist!” This response, of course, relies on a mistakenly shallow understanding of pragmatic value. When anti-correlationists think of pragmatism and “practical consequences”, they imagine using a fork to eat, or a lawnmower to mow lawns i.e. useful instruments. To say then that noumenal beings are only allowed in ontology when they have “pragmatic value” is taken to mean that entities only exist if they serve some useful purpose relative to human needs. But this is a mistake! In order to understand James, one must have an expanded notion of “pragmatic” that goes beyond mere instrumental usefulness. Imagine if the noumenal realm was so noumenal that Kant never even bothered to think about it, let alone write about it. Reflection on this indicates that the noumenal realm, whatever that turns out to be, must be cashed out in terms of its effects on us (what it causes us to do, even if that just means writing philosophically about it), otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it or understand it. Notice how this is a purely methodological doctrine, similar to phenomenology. We need not directly experience these noumenal beings with our five senses, but they must factor into our cognitive economy somehow if they are to be discussed ontologically. Similar to the Kant example, if we postulate the existence of neutrinos that we cannot directly experience with our senses, the scientific discourse itself constitutes the “pragmatic value” of the neutrinos rather than any possible instrumental use we could find for the neutrinos. Thus, by understanding the broad scope of pragmatic value, which goes beyond mere instrumentality,  we can see how radical empiricism escapes from the “correlationist fallacy” often levied against James.

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The Subliminal Mind

If the word ‘subliminal’ is offensive to any of you, as smelling too much of psychical research or other aberrations, call it by any other name you pleasure, to distinguish it from the level of full sunlit consciousness. Call this latter the A-region of personality, if you care to, and call the other the B-region. The B-region, then, is obviously the larger part of each of us for it is the abode of everything that is latent and the reservoir of everything that passes recorded or unobserved. It contains, for example, such things as all our momentary inactive memories, and it harbors the springs of all our obscurely motivated passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Our intuitions, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general all our non-rational operations come from it. It is the source of our dreams, and apparently they may return to it. In it arise whatever mystical experiences we may have, and our automatisms, sensory or motor; our life in hypnotic and ‘hypnoid’ conditions; our delusions, fixed ideas, and hysterical accidents, if we are hysteric subjects; our supranormal cognitions, if such there be, and if we are telepathic subjects. It is also the fountain head of much that ffeds our religion. In persons deep in the religious life, as we have now abundantly seen, –and this is my conclusion- the door to this region seems unusually wide open; at any rate, experiences making their entrance through that door have had emphatic influence in shaping religious history.

-William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 483-4

It is easy to see where James influenced Julian Jaynes. The bicameral mind is more or less James’ subliminal mind.

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Sunday Pragmatism, part III: James on Habits and Will; a Mental Taxonomy


Pragmatism Series

Part I
Part II

William James’ Principles of Psychology is a remarkable book. One of the most striking chapters is chapter IV, “Habit”. It starts by claiming

When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. (104)

This is one of James’ most famous expressions. It represents, I think, a powerful argument against Cartesian psychology. Indeed,

The strongest reason for believing that [attention and effort] do depend on brain-processes at all, and are not pure acts of the spirit, is just this fact, that they seem in some degree subject to the law of habit, which is a material law. (126)

That our mental life is undoubtedly structured by asymmetric rules of psychology provides a powerful abductive argument against the Cartesian — ultimately Platonic —  taxonomy of Reason above and against base emotions and habits. After James, Heidegger was perhaps the most systematic critic of the dualisms stemming from Descartes, Locke, and Kant. Like James, Heidegger inverted the traditional mental hierarchy by placing greater emphasis on factical thrownness and our “falling” into habit, idle chat, and the socially scripted comportments of Das Man and the they-self.  All this is evidence against the dualist hypothesis. An analytic of humanity must be finite for indeed,

the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed. (105)

We see in James a clear statement of naturalistic philosophy of mind, an attempt to embody the mind and ground it in natural reality. It’s curious that Husserl accused Heidegger of also trying to naturalize consciousness in his marginalia of Being and Time. Moreover, James’ broad understanding of cognition seems to me light-years ahead of his time. We see in this chapter a lucid account of what was considered a modern neuroscientific fact: brain plasticity and Hebbian learning (“fire together, wire together”):

The only thing [nervous currents] can do [to brain matter], in short, is to deepen old paths or to make new ones; and the whole plasticiy of the brain sums itself up in two words when we call it an organ in which currents pouring in form the sense-organs make the extreme facility paths which do not easily disappear. (107)

The most complex habits, as we shall presently see more fully, are, from the same point of view, nothing but concatenated discharges in the nerve-centres. (108)

Moreover, James’ mental metaphors were far ahead of his time. He had already clearly saw the importance of homeostatic equilibrium and the basic ideas of dynamic systems theory and how they theoretically apply to cognitive function. The image is vague, but the substance is there:

…[W]e can only fall back on our general conception of a nervous system as a mass of matter whose parts, constantly kept in states of different tension, are as constantly tending to equalize their states.

I won’t go into the details, but it seems clear that James’ understood the idea of phase state changes and Deleuzian singularities, albeit abstractly. Speaking of Deleuze, I am really looking forward to taking John Protevi’s Deleuze class in the Fall; it’s going to rock! (I’m planning on digging into Deleuze this summer with Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus, and Protevi’s Political Physics and Political Affect.)

Anyway, James’ chapter on Habit is also brilliant in regards to its understanding of child development and the process of mastering embodied skills. He quotes at length a Dr. Carpenter from 1874 who said

It is a matter of universal experiences that every kind of training for special aptitudes is both far more effective, and leaves a more permanent impress, when exerted on the growing organism that when brought to bear on the adult. (110)

This kind of stuff is bread and butter to the Dreyfusian Heideggerians. It’s no surprise to me that many people accuse such scholars of reading Heidegger in terms of American pragmatism. Often this is seen as a narrow reading, but this critique only works if one assumes that James’ understanding of humanity was itself narrow. On the contrary, James’ mental taxonomy was phenomenologically rich, perhaps more so than the purely “formal indication” of Heideggerian phenomenology. Indeed, in developing a mental taxonomy, he says

Most of the performances of other animals are automatic. But in [humanity] the number of them is so enormous, that most of them must be the fruit of painful study. (113)

From this, James’ extracts a general principle: “habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts our performed.”

One may state this abstractly thus: If an act require for its execution a chain, A, B,C,D,E, F, G, etc., of successive nervous events, then in the first performances of the action the conscious will must choose each of these events from a number of wrong alternatives that tend to present themselves; but habit soon brings it about that each event calls up its own appropriate successor without any alternative offering itself…(114)

This might not sound obviously Heideggerian, but upon close inspection, we can see that it is.

We all of us have a definite routine manner of performing certain daily offices connected with the toilet, with the opening and shutting of familiar cupboards, and the like. Our lower centres know the order of these movements, and show their knowledge by their “surprise” if the objects are altered so as to oblige the movement to be made in a different way. (115)

From this passage, we can see that Heidegger’s phenomenology of the ready-to-hand was not original; it had been anticipated by American pragmatism decades earlier. Like Heidegger, James says that our primary mode of interaction with the world is characterized by familiarity. We are intimately familiar with the usability of our surroundings and how they afford us opportunities for acting. We become so familiar or “at home” in our dwelling that when something familiar doesn’t work how it normally works, readiness-to-hand “breaks down”, or we become “surprised”, as James put it. The mental taxonomies are roughly isomorphic.  However, I think James’ taxonomy is more accurate, because it has a phenomenological account of initiation and voluntary will that Heidegger is either unable or unwilling to address. Indeed, James says

A strictly voluntary act has to be guided by the idea, perception, and volition, throughout its whole course. In a habitual action, mere sensation is a sufficient guide, and the upper regions of brain and mind are set comparatively free….

In habitual action…the only impulse which the centres of idea or perception need send down is the initial impulse, the command to start.(115-116)

The only psychologist I know who captured this notion of “initial commands” as well as James did is Julian Jaynes and his notion of “structions” or “neural instructions”. Furthermore, Jaynes’ notion of “behavioral reactivity” and his distinction between automatic nonconscious cognition and volitional conscious narratization is drawn from Jamesian mental taxonomies as well. A post on Jaynes and James will probably be forthcoming soon…

After laying out his taxonomy of habit and will, James’ uses this to provide some moral lessons from which we can rethink education of the young. I will end this post with one one of my favorite passages ever:

Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. (127)

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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.


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