James: A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture V { Philosophy Index }

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William James

A Pluralistic Universe

Lecture V: The Compounding of Consciousness

In my last Lecture I gave a miserably scanty outline of the way of thinking of a philosopher remarkable for the almost unexampled richness of his imagination of details. I owe to Fechner's shade an apology for presenting him in a manner so unfair to the most essential quality of his genius; but the time allotted is too short to say more about the particulars of his work, so I proceed to the programme I suggested at the end of our last hour. I wish to discuss the assumption that states of consciousness, so-called, can separate and combine themselves freely, and keep their own identity unchanged while forming parts of simultaneous fields of experience of wider scope.

Let me first explain just what I mean by this. While you listen to my voice, for example, you are perhaps inattentive to some bodily sensation due to your clothing or your posture. Yet that sensation would seem probably to be there, for in an instant, by a change of attention, you can have it in one field of consciousness with the voice. It seems as if it existed first in a separate form, and then as if, without itself changing, it combined with your other co-existent sensations. It is after this analogy that pantheistic idealism thinks that we exist in the absolute. The absolute, it thinks, makes the world by knowing the whole of it at once in one undivided eternal act.[1] To ‘be,’ really to be, is to be as it knows us to be, along with everything else, namely, and clothed with the fulness of our meaning. Meanwhile we are at the same time not only really and as it knows us, but also apparently, for to our separate single selves we appear without most other things and unable to declare with any fulness what our own meaning is. Now the classic doctrine of pantheistic idealism, from the Upanishads down to Josiah Royce, is that the finite knowers, in spite of their apparent ignorance, are one with the knower of the all. In the most limited moments of our private experience, the absolute idea, as Dr. McTaggart told us, is implicitly contained. The moments, as Royce says, exist only in relation to it. They are true or erroneous only through its overshadowing presence. Of the larger self that alone eternally is, they are the organic parts. They are, only inasmuch as they are implicated in its being.

There is thus in reality but this one self, consciously inclusive of all the lesser selves, logos, problem-solver, and all-knower; and Royce ingeniously compares the ignorance that in our persons breaks out in the midst of its complete knowledge and isolates me from you and both of us from it, to the inattention into which our finite minds are liable to fall with respect to such implicitly present details as those corporeal sensations to which I made allusion just now. Those sensations stand to our total private minds in the same relation in which our private minds stand to the absolute mind. Privacy means ignorance—I still quote Royce—and ignorance means inattention. We are finite because our wills, as such, are only fragments of the absolute will; because will means interest, and an incomplete will means an incomplete interest; and because incompleteness of interest means inattention to much that a fuller interest would bring us to perceive.[2]

In this account Royce makes by far the manliest of the post-hegelian attempts to read some empirically apprehensible content into the notion of our relation to the absolute mind.

I have to admit, now that I propose to you to scrutinize this assumption rather closely, that trepidation seizes me. The subject is a subtle and abstruse one. It is one thing to delve into subtleties by one's self with pen in hand, or to study out abstruse points in books, but quite another thing to make a popular Lecture out of them. Nevertheless I must not flinch from my task here, for I think that this particular point forms perhaps the vital knot of the present philosophic situation, and I imagine that the times are ripe, or almost ripe, for a serious attempt to be made at its untying.

It may perhaps help to lessen the arduousness of the subject if I put the first part of what I have to say in the form of a direct personal confession.

In the year 1890 I published a work on psychology in which it became my duty to discuss the value of a certain explanation of our higher mental states that had come into favor among the more biologically inclined psychologists. Suggested partly by the association of ideas, and partly by the analogy of chemical compounds, this opinion was that complex mental states are resultants of the self-compounding of simpler ones. The Mills had spoken of mental chemistry; Wundt of a ‘psychic synthesis,’ which might develop properties not contained in the elements; and such writers as Spencer, Taine, Fiske, Barratt, and Clifford had propounded a great evolutionary theory in which, in the absence of souls, selves, or other principles of unity, primordial units of mind-stuff or mind-dust were represented as summing themselves together in successive stages of compounding and re-compounding, and thus engendering our higher and more complex states of mind. The elementary feeling of A, let us say, and the elementary feeling of B, when they occur in certain conditions, combine, according to this doctrine, into a feeling of A-plus-B, and this in turn combines with a similarly generated feeling of C-plus-D, until at last the whole alphabet may appear together in one field of awareness, without any other witnessing principle or principles beyond the feelings of the several letters themselves, being supposed to exist. What each of them witnesses separately, ‘all’ of them are supposed to witness in conjunction. But their distributive knowledge doesn't give rise to their collective knowledge by any act, it is their collective knowledge. The lower forms of consciousness ‘taken together’ are the higher. It, ‘taken apart,’ consists of nothing and is nothing but them. This, at least, is the most obvious way of understanding the doctrine, and is the way I understood it in the chapter in my psychology.

Superficially looked at, this seems just like the combination of H2 and O into water, but looked at more closely, the analogy halts badly. When a chemist tells us that two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen combine themselves of their own accord into the new compound substance ‘water,’ he knows (if he believes in the mechanical view of nature) that this is only an elliptical statement for a more complex fact. That fact is that when H2 and O, instead of keeping far apart, get into closer quarters, say into the position H-O-H, they affect surrounding bodies differently: they now wet our skin, dissolve sugar, put out fire, etc., which they didn't in their former positions. ‘Water’ is but our name for what acts thus peculiarly. But if the skin, sugar, and fire were absent, no witness would speak of water at all. He would still talk of the H and O distributively, merely noting that they acted now in the new position H-O-H.

In the older psychologies the soul or self took the place of the sugar, fire, or skin. The lower feelings produced effects on it, and their apparent compounds were only its reactions. As you tickle a man's face with a feather, and he laughs, so when you tickle his intellectual principle with a retinal feeling, say, and a muscular feeling at once, it laughs responsively by its category of ‘space,’ but it would be false to treat the space as simply made of those simpler feelings. It is rather a new and unique psychic creation which their combined action on the mind is able to evoke.

I found myself obliged, in discussing the mind-dust theory, to urge this last alternative view. The so-called mental compounds are simple psychic reactions of a higher type. The form itself of them, I said, is something new. We can't say that awareness of the alphabet as such is nothing more than twenty-six awarenesses, each of a separate letter; for those are twenty-six distinct awarenesses, of single letters without others, while their so-called sum is one awareness, of every letter with its comrades. There is thus something new in the collective consciousness. It knows the same letters, indeed, but it knows them in this novel way. It is safer, I said (for I fought shy of admitting a self or soul or other agent of combination), to treat the consciousness of the alphabet as a twenty-seventh fact, the substitute and not the sum of the twenty-six simpler consciousnesses, and to say that while under certain physiological conditions they alone are produced, other more complex physiological conditions result in its production instead. Do not talk, therefore, I said, of the higher states consisting of the simpler, or being the same with them; talk rather of their knowing the same things. They are different mental facts, but they apprehend, each in its own peculiar way, the same objective A, B, C, and D.

The theory of combination, I was forced to conclude, is thus untenable, being both logically nonsensical and practically unnecessary. Say what you will, twelve thoughts, each of a single word, are not the self-same mental thing as one thought of the whole sentence. The higher thoughts, I insisted, are psychic units, not compounds; but for all that, they may know together as a collective multitude the very same objects which under other conditions are known separately by as many simple thoughts.

For many years I held rigorously to this view,[3] and the reasons for doing so seemed to me during all those years to apply also to the opinion that the absolute mind stands to our minds in the relation of a whole to its parts. If untenable in finite psychology, that opinion ought to be untenable in metaphysics also. The great transcendentalist metaphor has always been, as I lately reminded you, a grammatical sentence. Physically such a sentence is of course composed of clauses, these of words, the words of syllables, and the syllables of letters. We may take each word in, yet not understand the sentence; but if suddenly the meaning of the whole sentence flashes, the sense of each word is taken up into that whole meaning. Just so, according to our transcendentalist teachers, the absolute mind thinks the whole sentence, while we, according to our rank as thinkers, think a clause, a word, a syllable, or a letter. Most of us are, as I said, mere syllables in the mouth of Allah. And as Allah comes first in the order of being, so comes first the entire sentence, the logos that forms the eternal absolute thought. Students of language tell us that speech began with men's efforts to make statements. The rude synthetic vocal utterances first used for this effect slowly got stereotyped, and then much later got decomposed into grammatical parts. It is not as if men had first invented letters and made syllables of them, then made words of the syllables and sentences of the words;—they actually followed the reverse order. So, the transcendentalists affirm, the complete absolute thought is the pre-condition of our thoughts, and we finite creatures are only in so far as it owns us as its verbal fragments.

The metaphor is so beautiful, and applies, moreover, so literally to such a multitude of the minor wholes of experience, that by merely hearing it most of us are convinced that it must apply universally. We see that no smallest raindrop can come into being without a whole shower, no single feather without a whole bird, neck and crop, beak and tail, coming into being simultaneously: so we unhesitatingly lay down the law that no part of anything can be except so far as the whole also is. And then, since everything whatever is part of the whole universe, and since (if we are idealists) nothing, whether part or whole, exists except for a witness, we proceed to the conclusion that the unmitigated absolute as witness of the whole is the one sole ground of being of every partial fact, the fact of our own existence included. We think of ourselves as being only a few of the feathers, so to speak, which help to constitute that absolute bird. Extending the analogy of certain wholes, of which we have familiar experience, to the whole of wholes, we easily become absolute idealists.

But if, instead of yielding to the seductions of our metaphor, be it sentence, shower, or bird, we analyze more carefully the notion suggested by it that we are constituent parts of the absolute's eternal field of consciousness, we find grave difficulties arising. First, the difficulty I found with the mind-dust theory. If the absolute makes us by knowing us, how can we exist otherwise than as it knows us? But it knows each of us indivisibly from everything else. Yet if to exist means nothing but to be experienced, as idealism affirms, we surely exist otherwise, for we experience ourselves ignorantly and in division. We indeed differ from the absolute not only by defect, but by excess. Our ignorances, for example, bring curiosities and doubts by which it cannot be troubled, for it owns eternally the solution of every problem. Our impotence entails pains, our imperfection sins, which its perfection keeps at a distance. What I said of the alphabet-form and the letters holds good of the absolute experience and our experiences. Their relation, whatever it may be, seems not to be that of identity.

It is impossible to reconcile the peculiarities of our experience with our being only the absolute's mental objects. A God, as distinguished from the absolute, creates things by projecting them beyond himself as so many substances, each endowed with perseity, as the scholastics call it. But objects of thought are not things per se. They are there only for their thinker, and only as he thinks them. How, then, can they become severally alive on their own accounts and think themselves quite otherwise than as he thinks them? It is as if the characters in a novel were to get up from the pages, and walk away and transact business of their own outside of the author's story.

A third difficulty is this: The bird-metaphor is physical, but we see on reflection that in the physical world there is no real compounding. ‘Wholes’ are not realities there, parts only are realities. ‘Bird’ is only our name for the physical fact of a certain grouping of organs, just as ‘Charles's Wain’ is our name for a certain grouping of stars. The ‘whole,’ be it bird or constellation, is nothing but our vision, nothing but an effect on our sensorium when a lot of things act on it together. It is not realized by any organ or any star, or experienced apart from the consciousness of an onlooker.[4] In the physical world taken by itself there is thus no ‘all,’ there are only the ‘eaches'—at least that is the ‘scientific’ view.

In the mental world, on the contrary, wholes do in point of fact realize themselves per se. The meaning of the whole sentence is just as much a real experience as the feeling of each word is; the absolute's experience is for itself, as much as yours is for yourself or mine for myself. So the feather-and-bird analogy won't work unless you make the absolute into a distinct sort of mental agent with a vision produced in it by our several minds analogous to the ‘bird'-vision which the feathers, beak, etc., produce in those same minds. The ‘whole,’ which is its experience, would then be its unifying reaction on our experiences, and not those very experiences self-combined. Such a view as this would go with theism, for the theistic God is a separate being; but it would not go with pantheistic idealism, the very essence of which is to insist that we are literally parts of God, and he only ourselves in our totality—the word ‘ourselves’ here standing of course for all the universe's finite facts.

I am dragging you into depths unsuitable, I fear, for a rapid Lecture. Such difficulties as these have to be teased out with a needle, so to speak, and Lecturers should take only bird's-eye views. The practical upshot of the matter, however, so far as I am concerned, is this, that if I had been lecturing on the absolute a very few years ago, I should unhesitatingly have urged these difficulties, and developed them at still greater length, to show that the hypothesis of the absolute was not only non-coercive from the logical point of view, but self-contradictory as well, its notion that parts and whole are only two names for the same thing not bearing critical scrutiny. If you stick to purely physical terms like stars, there is no whole. If you call the whole mental, then the so-called whole, instead of being one fact with the parts, appears rather as the integral reaction on those parts of an independent higher witness, such as the theistic God is supposed to be.

So long as this was the state of my own mind, I could accept the notion of self-compounding in the supernal spheres of experience no more easily than in that chapter on mind-dust I had accepted it in the lower spheres. I found myself compelled, therefore, to call the absolute impossible; and the untrammelled freedom with which pantheistic or monistic idealists stepped over the logical barriers which Lotze and others had set down long before I had—I had done little more than quote these previous critics in my chapter—surprised me not a little, and made me, I have to confess, both resentful and envious. Envious because in the bottom of my heart I wanted the same freedom myself, for motives which I shall develop later; and resentful because my absolutist friends seemed to me to be stealing the privilege of blowing both hot and cold. To establish their absolute they used an intellectualist type of logic which they disregarded when employed against it. It seemed to me that they ought at least to have mentioned the objections that had stopped me so completely. I had yielded to them against my ‘will to believe,’ out of pure logical scrupulosity. They, professing to loathe the will to believe and to follow purest rationality, had simply ignored them. The method was easy, but hardly to be called candid. Fechner indeed was candid enough, for he had never thought of the objections, but later writers, like Royce, who should presumably have heard them, had passed them by in silence. I felt as if these philosophers were granting their will to believe in monism too easy a license. My own conscience would permit me no such license.

So much for the personal confession by which you have allowed me to introduce the subject. Let us now consider it more objectively.

The fundamental difficulty I have found is the number of contradictions which idealistic monists seem to disregard. In the first place they attribute to all existence a mental or experiential character, but I find their simultaneous belief that the higher and the lower in the universe are entitatively identical, incompatible with this character. Incompatible in consequence of the generally accepted doctrine that, whether Berkeley were right or not in saying of material existence that its esse is sentiri, it is undoubtedly right to say of mental existence that its esse is sentiri or experiri. If I feel pain, it is just pain that I feel, however I may have come by the feeling. No one pretends that pain as such only appears like pain, but in itself is different, for to be as a mental experience is only to appear to some one.

The idealists in question ought then to do one of two things, but they do neither. They ought either to refute the notion that as mental states appear, so they are; or, still keeping that notion, they ought to admit a distinct agent of unification to do the work of the all- knower, just as our respective souls or selves in popular philosophy do the work of partial knowers. Otherwise it is like a joint-stock company all shareholders and no treasurer or director. If our finite minds formed a billion facts, then its mind, knowing our billion, would make a universe composed of a billion and one facts. But transcendental idealism is quite as unfriendly to active principles called souls as physiological psychology is, Kant having, as it thinks, definitively demolished them. And altho some disciples speak of the transcendental ego of apperception (which they celebrate as Kant's most precious legacy to posterity) as if it were a combining agent, the drift of monistic authority is certainly in the direction of treating it as only an all-witness, whose field of vision we finite witnesses do not cause, but constitute rather. We are the letters, it is the alphabet; we are the features, it is the face; not indeed as if either alphabet or face were something additional to the letters or the features, but rather as if it were only another name for the very letters or features themselves. The all-form assuredly differs from the each-form, but the matter is the same in both, and the each-form only an unaccountable appearance.

But this, as you see, contradicts the other idealist principle, of a mental fact being just what it appears to be. If their forms of appearance are so different, the all and the eaches cannot be identical.

The way out (unless, indeed, we are willing to discard the logic of identity altogether) would seem to be frankly to write down the all and the eaches as two distinct orders of witness, each minor witness being aware of its own ‘content’ solely, while the greater witness knows the minor witnesses, knows their whole content pooled together, knows their relations to one another, and knows of just how much each one of them is ignorant.

The two types of witnessing are here palpably non-identical. We get a pluralism, not a monism, out of them. In my psychology-chapter I had resorted openly to such pluralism, treating each total field of consciousness as a distinct entity, and maintaining that the higher fields merely supersede the lower functionally by knowing more about the same objects.

The monists themselves writhe like worms on the hook to escape pluralistic or at least dualistic language, but they cannot escape it. They speak of the eternal and the temporal ‘points of view'; of the universe in its infinite ‘aspect’ or in its finite ‘capacity'; they say that ‘qua absolute’ it is one thing, ‘qua relative’ another; they contrast its ‘truth’ with its appearances; they distinguish the total from the partial way of ‘taking’ it, etc.; but they forget that, on idealistic principles, to make such distinctions is tantamount to making different beings, or at any rate that varying points of view, aspects, appearances, ways of taking, and the like, are meaningless phrases unless we suppose outside of the unchanging content of reality a diversity of witnesses who experience or take it variously, the absolute mind being just the witness that takes it most completely.

For consider the matter one moment longer, if you can. Ask what this notion implies, of appearing differently from different points of view. If there be no outside witness, a thing can appear only to itself, the caches or parts to their several selves temporally, the all or whole to itself eternally. Different ‘selves’ thus break out inside of what the absolutist insists to be intrinsically one fact. But how can what is actually one be effectively so many? Put your witnesses anywhere, whether outside or inside of what is witnessed, in the last resort your witnesses must on idealistic principles be distinct, for what is witnessed is different.

I fear that I am expressing myself with terrible obscurity—some of you, I know, are groaning over the logic-chopping. Be a pluralist or be a monist, you say, for heaven's sake, no matter which, so long as you stop arguing. It reminds one of Chesterton's epigram that the only thing that ever drives human beings insane is logic. But whether I be sane or insane, you cannot fail, even tho you be transcendentalists yourselves, to recognize to some degree by my trouble the difficulties that beset monistic idealism. What boots it to call the parts and the whole the same body of experience, when in the same breath you have to say that the all ‘as such’ means one sort of experience and each part ‘as such’ means another?

Difficulties, then, so far, but no stable solution as yet, for I have been talking only critically. You will probably be relieved to hear, then, that having rounded this corner, I shall begin to consider what may be the possibilities of getting farther.

To clear the path, I beg you first to note one point. What has so troubled my logical conscience is not so much the absolute by itself as the whole class of suppositions of which it is the supreme example, collective experiences namely, claiming identity with their constituent parts, yet experiencing things quite differently from these latter. If any such collective experience can be, then of course, so far as the mere logic of the case goes, the absolute may be. In a previous Lecture I have talked against the absolute from other points of view. In this Lecture I have meant merely to take it as the example most prominent at Oxford of the thing which has given me such logical perplexity. I don't logically see how a collective experience of any grade whatever can be treated as logically identical with a lot of distributive experiences. They form two different concepts. The absolute happens to be the only collective experience concerning which Oxford idealists have urged the identity, so I took it as my prerogative instance. But Fechner's earth-soul, or any stage of being below or above that, would have served my purpose just as well: the same logical objection applies to these collective experiences as to the absolute.

So much, then, in order that you may not be confused about my strategical objective. The real point to defend against the logic that I have used is the identity of the collective and distributive anyhow, not the particular example of such identity known as the absolute.

So now for the directer question. Shall we say that every complex mental fact is a separate psychic entity succeeding upon a lot of other psychic entities which are erroneously called its parts, and superseding them in function, but not literally being composed of them? This was the course I took in my psychology; and if followed in theology, we should have to deny the absolute as usually conceived, and replace it by the ‘God’ of theism. We should also have to deny Fechner's ‘earth-soul’ and all other superhuman collections of experience of every grade, so far at least as these are held to be compounded of our simpler souls in the way which Fechner believed in; and we should have to make all these denials in the name of the incorruptible logic of self-identity, teaching us that to call a thing and its other the same is to commit the crime of self-contradiction.

But if we realize the whole philosophic situation thus produced, we see that it is almost intolerable. Loyal to the logical kind of rationality, it is disloyal to every other kind. It makes the universe discontinuous. These fields of experience that replace each other so punctually, each knowing the same matter, but in ever-widening contexts, from simplest feeling up to absolute knowledge, can they have no being in common when their cognitive function is so manifestly common? The regular succession of them is on such terms an unintelligible miracle. If you reply that their common object is of itself enough to make the many witnesses continuous, the same implacable logic follows you—how can one and the same object appear so variously? Its diverse appearances break it into a plurality; and our world of objects then falls into discontinuous pieces quite as much as did our world of subjects. The resultant irrationality is really intolerable.

I said awhile ago that I was envious of Fechner and the other pantheists because I myself wanted the same freedom that I saw them unscrupulously enjoying, of letting mental fields compound themselves and so make the universe more continuous, but that my conscience held me prisoner. In my heart of hearts, however, I knew that my situation was absurd and could be only provisional. That secret of a continuous life which the universe knows by heart and acts on every instant cannot be a contradiction incarnate. If logic says it is one, so much the worse for logic. Logic being the lesser thing, the static incomplete abstraction, must succumb to reality, not reality to logic. Our intelligence cannot wall itself up alive, like a pupa in its chrysalis. It must at any cost keep on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it. Fechner, Royce, and Hegel seem on the truer path. Fechner has never heard of logic's veto, Royce hears the voice but cannily ignores the utterances, Hegel hears them but to spurn them—and all go on their way rejoicing. Shall we alone obey the veto?

Sincerely, and patiently as I could, I struggled with the problem for years, covering hundreds of sheets of paper with notes and memoranda and discussions with myself over the difficulty. How can many consciousnesses be at the same time one consciousness? How can one and the same identical fact experience itself so diversely? The struggle was vain; I found myself in an impasse. I saw that I must either forswear that ‘psychology without a soul’ to which my whole psychological and kantian education had committed me,—I must, in short, bring back distinct spiritual agents to know the mental states, now singly and now in combination, in a word bring back scholasticism and common sense—or else I must squarely confess the solution of the problem impossible, and then either give up my intellectualistic logic, the logic of identity, and adopt some higher (or lower) form of rationality, or, finally, face the fact that life is logically irrational.

Sincerely, this is the actual trilemma that confronts every one of us. Those of you who are scholastic-minded, or simply common-sense minded, will smile at the elaborate groans of my parturient mountain resulting in nothing but this mouse. Accept the spiritual agents, for heaven's sake, you will say, and leave off your ridiculous pedantry. Let but our ‘souls’ combine our sensations by their intellectual faculties, and let but ‘God’ replace the pantheistic world-soul, and your wheels will go round again—you will enjoy both life and logic together.

This solution is obvious and I know that many of you will adopt it. It is comfortable, and all our habits of speech support it. Yet it is not for idle or fantastical reasons that the notion of the substantial soul, so freely used by common men and the more popular philosophies, has fallen upon such evil days, and has no prestige in the eyes of critical thinkers. It only shares the fate of other unrepresentable substances and principles. They are without exception all so barren that to sincere inquirers they appear as little more than names masquerading—Wo die begriffe fehlen da stellt ein wort zur rechten zeit sich ein. You see no deeper into the fact that a hundred sensations get compounded or known together by thinking that a ‘soul’ does the compounding than you see into a man's living eighty years by thinking of him as an octogenarian, or into our having five fingers by calling us pentadactyls. Souls have worn out both themselves and their welcome, that is the plain truth. Philosophy ought to get the manifolds of experience unified on principles less empty. Like the word ‘cause,’ the word ‘soul’ is but a theoretic stop-gap—it marks a place and claims it for a future explanation to occupy.

This being our post-humian and post-kantian state of mind, I will ask your permission to leave the soul wholly out of the present discussion and to consider only the residual dilemma. Some day, indeed, souls may get their innings again in philosophy—I am quite ready to admit that possibility—they form a category of thought too natural to the human mind to expire without prolonged resistance. But if the belief in the soul ever does come to life after the many funeral-discourses which humian and kantian criticism have preached over it, I am sure it will be only when some one has found in the term a pragmatic significance that has hitherto eluded observation. When that champion speaks, as he well may speak some day, it will be time to consider souls more seriously.

Let us leave out the soul, then, and confront what I just called the residual dilemma. Can we, on the one hand, give up the logic of identity?—can we, on the other, believe human experience to be fundamentally irrational? Neither is easy, yet it would seem that we must do one or the other.

Few philosophers have had the frankness fairly to admit the necessity of choosing between the ‘horns’ offered. Reality must be rational, they have said, and since the ordinary intellectualist logic is the only usual test of rationality, reality and logic must agree ‘somehow.’ Hegel was the first non-mystical writer to face the dilemma squarely and throw away the ordinary logic, saving a pseudo- rationality for the universe by inventing the higher logic of the ‘dialectic process.’ Bradley holds to the intellectualist logic, and by dint of it convicts the human universe of being irrationality incarnate. But what must be and can be, is, he says; there must and can be relief from that irrationality; and the absolute must already have got the relief in secret ways of its own, impossible for us to guess at. We of course get no relief, so Bradley's is a rather ascetic doctrine. Royce and Taylor accept similar solutions, only they emphasize the irrationality of our finite universe less than Bradley does; and Royce in particular, being unusually ‘thick’ for an idealist, tries to bring the absolute's secret forms of relief more sympathetically home to our imagination.

Well, what must we do in this tragic predicament? For my own part, I have finally found myself compelled to give up the logic, fairly, squarely, and irrevocably. It has an imperishable use in human life, but that use is not to make us theoretically acquainted with the essential nature of reality—just what it is I can perhaps suggest to you a little later. Reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows and surrounds it. If you like to employ words eulogistically, as most men do, and so encourage confusion, you may say that reality obeys a higher logic, or enjoys a higher rationality. But I think that even eulogistic words should be used rather to distinguish than to commingle meanings, so I prefer bluntly to call reality if not irrational then at least non-rational in its constitution,—and by reality here I mean reality where things happen, all temporal reality without exception. I myself find no good warrant for even suspecting the existence of any reality of a higher denomination than that distributed and strung-along and flowing sort of reality which we finite beings swim in. That is the sort of reality given us, and that is the sort with which logic is so incommensurable. If there be any higher sort of reality—the ‘absolute,’ for example—that sort, by the confession of those who believe in it, is still less amenable to ordinary logic; it transcends logic and is therefore still less rational in the intellectualist sense, so it cannot help us to save our logic as an adequate definer and confiner of existence.

These sayings will sound queer and dark, probably they will sound quite wild or childish in the absence of explanatory comment. Only the persuasion that I soon can explain them, if not satisfactorily to all of you, at least intelligibly, emboldens me to state them thus baldly as a sort of programme. Please take them as a thesis, therefore, to be defended by later pleading.

I told you that I had long and sincerely wrestled with the dilemma. I have now to confess (and this will probably re-animate your interest) that I should not now be emancipated, not now subordinate logic with so very light a heart, or throw it out of the deeper regions of philosophy to take its rightful and respectable place in the world of simple human practice, if I had not been influenced by a comparatively young and very original french writer, Professor Henri Bergson. Reading his works is what has made me bold. If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet, and trying to discover some mode of conceiving the behavior of reality which should leave no discrepancy between it and the accepted laws of the logic of identity. It is certain, at any rate, that without the confidence which being able to lean on Bergson's authority gives me I should never have ventured to urge these particular views of mine upon this ultra-critical audience.

I must therefore, in order to make my own views more intelligible, give some preliminary account of the bergsonian philosophy. But here, as in Fechner's case, I must confine myself only to the features that are essential to the present purpose, and not entangle you in collateral details, however interesting otherwise. For our present purpose, then, the essential contribution of Bergson to philosophy is his criticism of intellectualism. In my opinion he has killed intellectualism definitively and without hope of recovery. I don't see how it can ever revive again in its ancient platonizing role of claiming to be the most authentic, intimate, and exhaustive definer of the nature of reality. Others, as Kant for example, have denied intellectualism's pretensions to define reality an sich or in its absolute capacity; but Kant still leaves it laying down laws—and laws from which there is no appeal—to all our human experience; while what Bergson denies is that its methods give any adequate account of this human experience in its very finiteness. Just how Bergson accomplishes all this I must try to tell in my imperfect way in the next Lecture; but since I have already used the words ‘logic,’ ‘logic of identity, intellectualistic logic,’ and ‘intellectualism’ so often, and sometimes used them as if they required no particular explanation, it will be wise at this point to say at greater length than heretofore in what sense I take these terms when I claim that Bergson has refuted their pretension to decide what reality can or cannot be. Just what I mean by intellectualism is therefore what I shall try to give a fuller idea of during the remainder of this present hour.

In recent controversies some participants have shown resentment at being classed as intellectualists. I mean to use the word disparagingly, but shall be sorry if it works offence. Intellectualism has its source in the faculty which gives us our chief superiority to the brutes, our power, namely, of translating the crude flux of our merely feeling-experience into a conceptual order. An immediate experience, as yet unnamed or classed, is a mere that that we undergo, a thing that asks, ‘What am I?’ When we name and class it, we say for the first time what it is, and all these whats are abstract names or concepts. Each concept means a particular kind of thing, and as things seem once for all to have been created in kinds, a far more efficient handling of a given bit of experience begins as soon as we have classed the various parts of it. Once classed, a thing can be treated by the law of its class, and the advantages are endless. Both theoretically and practically this power of framing abstract concepts is one of the sublimest of our human prerogatives. We come back into the concrete from our journey into these abstractions, with an increase both of vision and of power. It is no wonder that earlier thinkers, forgetting that concepts are only man-made extracts from the temporal flux, should have ended by treating them as a superior type of being, bright, changeless, true, divine, and utterly opposed in nature to the turbid, restless lower world. The latter then appears as but their corruption and falsification.

Intellectualism in the vicious sense began when Socrates and Plato taught that what a thing really is, is told us by its definition. Ever since Socrates we have been taught that reality consists of essences, not of appearances, and that the essences of things are known whenever we know their definitions. So first we identify the thing with a concept and then we identify the concept with a definition, and only then, inasmuch as the thing is whatever the definition expresses, are we sure of apprehending the real essence of it or the full truth about it.

So far no harm is done. The misuse of concepts begins with the habit of employing them privatively as well as positively, using them not merely to assign properties to things, but to deny the very properties with which the things sensibly present themselves. Logic can extract all its possible consequences from any definition, and the logician who is unerbittlich consequent is often tempted, when he cannot extract a certain property from a definition, to deny that the concrete object to which the definition applies can possibly possess that property. The definition that fails to yield it must exclude or negate it. This is Hegel's regular method of establishing his system.

It is but the old story, of a useful practice first becoming a method, then a habit, and finally a tyranny that defeats the end it was used for. Concepts, first employed to make things intelligible, are clung to even when they make them unintelligible. Thus it comes that when once you have conceived things as ‘independent,’ you must proceed to deny the possibility of any connexion whatever among them, because the notion of connexion is not contained in the definition of independence. For a like reason you must deny any possible forms or modes of unity among things which you have begun by defining as a ‘many.’ We have cast a glance at Hegel's and Bradley's use of this sort of reasoning, and you will remember Sigwart's epigram that according to it a horseman can never in his life go on foot, or a photographer ever do anything but photograph.

The classic extreme in this direction is the denial of the possibility of change, and the consequent branding of the world of change as unreal, by certain philosophers. The definition of A is changeless, so is the definition of B. The one definition cannot change into the other, so the notion that a concrete thing A should change into another concrete thing B is made Out to be contrary to reason. In Mr. Bradley's difficulty in seeing how sugar can be sweet intellectualism outstrips itself and becomes openly a sort of verbalism. Sugar is just sugar and sweet is just sweet; neither is the other; nor can the word ‘is’ ever be understood to join any subject to its predicate rationally. Nothing ‘between’ things can connect them, for ‘between’ is just that third thing, ‘between,’ and would need itself to be connected to the first and second things by two still finer betweens, and so on ad infinitum.

The particular intellectualistic difficulty that had held my own thought so long in a vise was, as we have seen at such tedious length, the impossibility of understanding how ‘your’ experience and ‘mine,’ which ‘as such’ are defined as not conscious of each other, can nevertheless at the same time be members of a world-experience defined expressly as having all its parts co-conscious, or known together. The definitions are contradictory, so the things defined can in no way be united. You see how unintelligible intellectualism here seems to make the world of our most accomplished philosophers. Neither as they use it nor as we use it does it do anything but make nature look irrational and seem impossible.

In my next Lecture, using Bergson as my principal topic, I shall enter into more concrete details and try, by giving up intellectualism frankly, to make, if not the world, at least my own general thesis, less unintelligible.

« Lecture IV

A Pluralistic Universe by William James

  1. Royce: The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, p. 379. back
  2. The World and the Individual, vol. ii, pp. 58–62. back
  3. I hold to it still as the best description of an enormous number of our higher fields of consciousness. They demonstrably do not contain the lower states that know the same objects. Of other fields, however this is not so true; so, in the Psychological Review for 1895, vol. ii, p. 105 (see especially pp. 119-120), I frankly withdrew, in principle, my former objection to talking of fields of consciousness being made of simpler ‘parts,’ leaving the facts to decide the question in each special case. back
  4. I abstract from the consciousness attached to the whole itself, if such consciousness be there. back