Psychology and Metaphysics

James's articulates in The Principles of Psychology (hereafter PoP) a division that arises now and which marks both the birth of psychology as an independent science and also separates us from the concerns of someone like Descartes.

In the introduction to PoP, James says:
I have kept close to the point of view of natural science throughout the book. Every natural science assumes certain data uncritically, and declines to challenge the elements between which its own "laws" obtain, and from which its own deductions are carried on. Psychology, the science of finite individual minds, assumes as its data (1) thoughts and feelings, and (2) a physical world in time and space with which they coexist and which (3) they know. Of course these data are themselves discussable; but the discussion of them (as of other elements) is called metaphysics and falls outside the province of this book. This book, assuming that thoughts and feelings exist and are vehicles of knowledge, thereupon contends that psychology when she has ascertained the empirical correlation of the various sorts of thought or feeling with definite conditions of the brain, can go no farther.... (xiii)

One interesting thing about William James is that he straddles this divide: he is a psychologist and philosopher, but he recognizes the tension between metaphysics and science.

Consider, in contrast, an essay like "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" In this essay, James is doing pure metaphysics. He is trying to suggest a way of escaping the idealism that dominated philosophy in his time. (Here, the word "idealism" refers to the view that all beings -- including the things we would normally think of as "outside" of our minds -- are dependent upon our minds. This view was attractive to some philosophers because they thought it escaped the problems that nag attempts to explain how we can be sure our thoughts connect up with the world. If the world itself turns out to be made out of thoughts, or otherwise somehow dependent upon our thoughts, then one might suppose there is no gulf to cross between mind and world.)

In this essay, then, James's uses the world "consciousness" to refer to the idea of the mind that the idealists had, and as a result he answers the question with a no -- "consciousness", he claims, "is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles" (477).

Let's indulge for a moment in metaphysics, and follow James's argument in this paper "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" James, in denying that there is anything like a mind that the idealists suppose, which was somehow constituting the world, would seem -- his fellow philosophers would expect -- to be stuck now with the problem of two kinds of stuff: mind and matter. The problem returns, and we must ask how mind and matter can relate. Is it possible for mind to know facts about matter, for example?

James makes a clever move. He supposes what today is called "neutral monism" -- a fancy name for supposing that there is one kind of stuff, but he's neutral for now about what we might best call that stuff. He argues that experiences (like memories, or a perception) are made of the same stuff as the world! A flower looks red, and our experience is one thing (the experience of red). But he's also suggesting that the flower is made out of whatever red experience is made out of. This isn't idealism because he's neutral about what the stuff is, and he is not supposing that the world is dependent upon thoughts -- or, at least, not dependent upon your mind.

In PoP, James does not try to settle such questions. He's saying that they are not scientific questions. We might ask whether we agree with this move. Also, we might ask, as many have done, whether the mind is somehow special in a way that makes its study (as opposed to, say, the study of geology) as a science inescapably lead to metaphysical questions.

James's commitment to escaping idealism, and limiting his indulging in metaphysics in PoP does not mean that in PoP James does not concern himself with mind or consciousness. He does. For example, he makes some important general claims about mental phenomena:
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. (5)
no actions but such as are done for an end, and show a choice of means, can be called indubitable expressions of mind. (7)
(To return to our earlier question about whether psychology is a special science: what other sciences take as their subject matter purposeful events?)

James has much to say about conscious experience, in fact. In the chapter of PoP entitled, "The Stream of Thought," James identifies "five characters of thought" which we might just as well call "five characters of conscious experience":
We notice immediately five important characteristics in the process [of thought]...:

1. Every though tends to be part of a personal consciousness.
2. Within each personal consciousness thought is always changing.
3. Within each personal consciousness thought is sensibly continuous.
4. It always appears in some part of these objects to deal with objects independent of itself.
5. It is interested in some parts of these objects to the exclusion of others, and welcomes or rejects -- chooses from among them, in a word -- all the while. (146)
PoP spends most of its first volume on discussion of the brain and the best physiological and neuropsychological data of his day. But in this later chapter on thought, he turns to what he calls the "study of the mind from within" (146). But note that this is not a cry that introspection is the best method, but rather James seems to be proposing just that individual thoughts as experienced by us is a phenomenon that psychology should consider along with other mental phenomena.

He's mixing introspection with empirical data, using the later when possible but using the former either when the subject is itself our experience or when we don't have other kinds of data to replace introspection. This is interesting: whether we allow introspection, and whether it is reliable or even useful, is a question that will plague psychology (and the philosophy of mind) continuously. James here is not adopting the rationalism and introspectionism of Descartes, but he is not rejecting introspection as a source of data -- as will, say, the behaviorists.

A Note about Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a theory of knowledge. Charles Sanders Peirce proposed the following pragmatic maxim:
Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.
James weakened this considerably, seeming to equate 'true' with 'useful,' and arguing that
True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse....
This is very much weaker than Peirce's formulation because note that Peirce is saying that the whole concept can be nothing more than its conceived consequences -- useful consequences don't just confirm, they also determine the meaning of the relevant concepts.

A few philosophical observations on the Lectures on Education

Some interesting features of these lectures reflect upon the changing nature of psychology.

In lecture I, James claims "there is no 'new psychology' worthy of the name. There is nothing but the old psychology which began in Locke's time, plus a little physiology of the brain and senses and theory of evolution, and a few refinements of introspective detail."

This is interesting because it does indeed seem to reflect James's own psychology. He freely uses introspection, but he tries to inform it with reference to brain science and evolution.

In lecture II, he reiterates the point we have already made in discussing the idea of consciousness: "the immediate fact which psychology, the science of mind, has to study is ... some kind of consciousness is always going on."

We can describe this conscious mental life, or we can try to explain it. We have made only a bit of progress in the latter, but in either case, the description -- he believes -- can be done without having an explanation. This is to assert that introspection has some authority (some empiricists deny that you can describe something without having a bit of theory about it).

In lecture III, he argues that this consciosness must have a purpose.

In lecture IV, he describes education, and therefore also learning, as "the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior." I believe James must intend us also to include here the acquisition of new habits.

Lecture V and VI dig further into this view, however, and suggest he's allowing quite a bit more than Introspection. He equates learning with the acquisition of possible reactions. These reactions must be complications of existing reactions, or a substitute for such a reaction. This is interesting because he allows the reactions can't come from nothing -- you must start with some reaction on the part of the child, or education is not possible.

The kinds of innate reactions that come into learning include fear, love, curiosity, and a tendency to imitate and emulate. His list includes some less widely recognized innate tendencies, such as constructiveness.


The references to The Principles of Psychology are to Great Books of the Western World edition, Mortimer Adler (ed.), Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago, IL: 1952.

The references to "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" are to the paper in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 1, No. 18, 1904: 477-491.