The Stream of Consciousness (1892)

William James

The first and foremost concrete fact which every  one will affirm to belong to his inner experience is the fact that  consciousness of some sort goes on. 'States of mind' succeed each other in  him. If we could say in English 'it thinks,' as we say 'it rains' or 'it  blows,' we should be stating the fact most simply and with the minimum of  assumption. As we cannot, we must simply say that thought goes on.

....How does it go on? We notice  immediately four important characters in the process, of which it shall be  the duty of the present chapter to treat in a general way :

1) Every 'state' tends to be part of a personal consciousness.  2) Within each personal consciousness states are always changing.  3) Each personal consciousness is sensibly continuous.  4) It is interested in some parts of its object to the exclusion of others,  and welcomes or rejects -- chooses from among them, in a word -- all the  while.

In considering these four points successively, we shall have to plunge in  medias res as regards our nomenclature and use psychological terms which can  only be adequately defined in later chapters of the book. But every one  knows what the terms mean in a rough way; and it is only in a rough way that  we are now to take them. This chapter is like a painter's first charcoal  sketch upon his canvas, in which no niceties appear.

[Personal Nature of Consciousness]

When I say every 'state' or 'thought' is part of a personal consciousness,  'personal consciousness' is one of the terms in question. Its meaning we  know so long as no one asks us to define it, but to give an accurate account  of it is the most difficult of philosophic tasks. This task we must,  confront in the next chapter; here a preliminary word will suffice.

In this room -- this lecture-room, say -- there are a multitude of thoughts,  yours and mine, some of which cohere mutually, and some not. They are as  little each-for-itself and reciprocally independent as they are  all-belonging-together. They are neither: no one of them is separate, but  each belongs with certain others and with none beside. My thought belongs  with my other thoughts, and your thought with your other thoughts. Whether  anywhere in the room there be a mere thought, which is nobody's thought, we  have no means of ascertaining, for we have no experience of its like. The  only states of consciousness that we naturally deal with are found in  personal consciousness, minds, selves, concrete particular I's and you's.

Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or  bartering between them. No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought  in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation,  irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic  fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every  thought being owned. Neither contemporaneity, nor proximity in space, nor  similarity of quality and content are able to fuse thoughts together which  are sundered by this barrier of belonging to different personal minds. The  breaches between such thoughts are the most absolute breaches in nature.  Every one will recognize this to be true, so long as the existence of  something corresponding to the term 'personal mind' is all that is insisted  on, without any particular view of its nature being implied. On these terms  the personal self rather than the thought might be treated as the immediate  datum in psychology. The universal conscious fact is not 'feelings and  thoughts exist,' but 'I think' and 'I feel.' No psychology, at any rate, can  question the existence of personal selves. Thoughts connected as we feel  them to be connected are what we mean by personal selves. The worst a  psychology can do is so to interpret the nature of these selves as to rob  them of their worth.

[Consciousness in Constant Change]

Consciousness is in constant change. I do not mean by this to say that no  one state of mind has any duration -- even if true, that would be hard to  establish. What I wish to lay stress on is this, that no state once gone can  recur and be identical with what it was before. Now we are seeing, now  hearing; now reasoning, now willing; now recollecting, now expecting; now  loving, now hating; and in a hundred other ways we know our minds to be  alternately engaged....

....The grass out of the window now looks to me of the  same green in the sun as in the shade, and yet a painter would have to paint  one part of it dark brown, another part bright yellow, to give its real  sensational effect. We take no heed, as a rule, of the different way in  which the same things look and sound and smell at different distances and  under different circumstances. The sameness of the things is what we are  concerned to ascertain; and any sensations that assure us of that will  probably be considered in a rough way to be the same with each other....

Such a difference as this could never have been sensibly learned; it had to  be inferred from a series of indirect considerations. These make us believe  that our sensibility is altering all the time, so that the same object  cannot easily give us the same sensation over again. We feel things  differently accordingly as we are sleepy or awake, hungry or full, fresh or  tired; differently at night and in the morning, differently in summer and in  winter; and above all, differently in childhood, manhood, and old age. And  yet we never doubt that our feelings reveal the same world, with the same  sensible qualities and the same sensible things occupying it. The difference  of the sensibility is shown best by the difference of our emotion about the  things from one age to another, or when we are in different organic moods,  What was bright and exciting becomes weary, flat, and unprofitable. The  bird's song is tedious, the breeze is mournful, the sky is sad.

....From one year to another we see things in new lights.  What was unreal has grown real, and what was exciting is insipid. The  friends we used to care the world for are shrunken to shadows; the women  once so divine, the stars, the woods, and the waters, how now so dull and  common! -- the young girls that brought an aura of infinity, at present  hardly distinguishable existences; the pictures so empty; and as for the  books, what was there to find so mysteriously significant in Goethe, or in  John Mill so full of weight? Instead of all this, more zestful than ever is  the work, the work; and fuller and deeper the import of common duties and of  common goods.

[The Continuity of Thought]

....No  doubt it is often convenient to formulate the mental facts in an atomistic  sort of way, and to treat the higher states of consciousness as if they were  all built out of unchanging simple ideas which 'pass and turn again.' It is  convenient often to treat curves as if they were composed of small straight  lines, and electricity and nerve-force as if they were fluids. But in the  one case as in the other we must never forget that we are talking  symbolically, and that there is nothing in nature to answer to our words. A  permanently existing 'Idea' which makes its appearance before the footlights  of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the  Jack of Spades.

Within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous. I can  only define 'continuous' as that which is without breach, crack, or  division. The only breaches that can well be conceived to occur within the  limits of a single mind would either be interruptions, time-gaps during  which the consciousness went out; or they would be breaks in the content of  the thought, so abrupt that what followed had no connection whatever with  what went before. The proposition that consciousness feels continuous, means  two things:

a. That even where there is a time-gap the consciousness after it feels as  if it belonged together with the consciousness before it, as another part of  the same self;

b. That the changes from one moment to another in the quality of the  consciousness are never absolutely abrupt.

The case of the time-gaps, as the simplest, shall be taken first.

....When Paul and Peter wake up in the same bed, and recognize that they have  been asleep, each one of them mentally reaches back and makes connection  with but one of the two streams of thought which were broken by the sleeping  hours. As the current of an electrode buried in the ground unerringly finds  its way to its own similarly buried mate, across no matter how much  intervening earth; so Peter's present instantly finds out Peter's past, and  never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul. Paul's thought in turn is  as little liable to go astray. The past thought of Peter is appropriated by  the present Peter alone. He may have a knowledge, and a correct one too, of  what Paul's last drowsy states of mind were as he sank into sleep, but it is  an entirely different sort of knowledge from that which he has of his own  last states. He remembers his own states, whilst he only conceives Paul's.  Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with a warmth and  intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains. This quality of  warmth and intimacy and immediacy is what Peter's present thought also  possesses for itself. So sure as this present is me, is mine, it says, so  sure is anything else that comes with the same warmth and intimacy and  immediacy, me and mine. What the qualities called warmth and intimacy may in  themselves be will have to be matter for future consideration. But whatever  past states appear with those qualities must be admitted to receive the  greeting of the present mental state, to be owned by it, and accepted as  belonging together with it in a common self. This community of self is what  the time-gap cannot break in twain, and is why a present thought, although  not ignorant of the time-gap, can still regard itself as continuous with  certain chosen portions of the past.

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such  words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself  in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a  'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In  talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of  consciousness, or of subjective life....

[Substantive and Transitive States of Mind]

....When we take a general  view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is  the different pace of its parts. Like a bird's life, it seems to be an  alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this,  where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by  a period. The resting-places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations  of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for  an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight  are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most  part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative  rest.

Let us call the resting-places the 'substantive parts,' and the places of  flight the 'transitive parts,' of the stream of thought. It then appears  that our thinking tends at all times towards some other substantive part  than the one from which it has just been dislodged. And we may say that the  main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive  conclusion to another.

Now it is very difficult, introspectively, to see the transitive parts for  what they really are. If they are but flights to a conclusion, stopping them  to look at them before the conclusion is reached is really annihilating  them. Whilst if we wait till the conclusion be reached, it so exceeds them  in vigor and stability that it quite eclipses and swallows them up in its  glare. Let anyone try to cut a thought across in the middle and get a look  at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation  of the transitive tracts is. The rush of the thought is so headlong that it  almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can rest it. Or if  our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to  itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a  crystal but a drop, so, instead of catching the feeling of relation moving  to its term, we find we have caught some substantive thing, usually the last  word we were pronouncing, statically taken, and with its function, tendency,  and particular meaning in the sentence quite evaporated. The attempt at  introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top  to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how  the darkness looks....

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a  feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of  cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the  existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to  lend itself to any other use....

[Fringes of Experience]

The object before the mind always has a 'Fringe.' There are other unnamed  modifications of consciousness just as important as the transitive states,  and just as cognitive as they. Examples will show what I mean....

Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is  peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is  intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a  given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our  closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If  wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts  immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the  gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content  as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps. When I vainly  try to recall the name of Spalding, my consciousness is far removed from  what it is when I vainly try to recall the name of Bowles. There are  innumerable consciousnesses of want, no one of which taken in itself has a  name, but all different from each other. Such feeling of want is tota cÏlo  other than a want of feeling: it is an intense feeling. The rhythm of a lost  word may be there without a sound to clothe it; or the evanescent sense of  something which is the initial vowel or consonant may mock us fitfully,  without growing -more distinct. Every one must know the tantalizing effect  of the blank rhythm of some forgotten verse, restlessly dancing in one's  mind, striving to be filled out with words.

....The traditional psychology talks like one who  should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful,  quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the  pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them  the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of  consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image  in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With  it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of  whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The  significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that  surrounds and escorts it, -- or rather that is fused into one with it and  has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true,  an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that  thing newly taken and freshly understood.

Let us call the consciousness of this halo of relations around the image by  the name of 'psychic overtone' or 'fringe.''


....The last peculiarity to which attention is to be drawn in this first rough  description of thought's stream is that -- Consciousness is always interested more in one part of its object than in  another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks.

The phenomena of selective attention and of deliberative will are of course  patent examples of this choosing activity. But few of us are aware how  incessantly it is at work in operations not ordinarily called by these  names. Accentuation and Emphasis are present in every perception we have. We  find it quite impossible to disperse our attention impartially over a number  of impressions. A monotonous succession of sonorous strokes is broken up  into rhythms, now of one sort, now of another, by the different accent which  we place on different strokes. The simplest of these rhythms is the double  one, tick-t—ck, tick-t—ck, tick-t—ck. Dots dispersed on a surface are  perceived in rows and groups. Lines separate into diverse figures. The  ubiquity of the distinctions, this and that, here and there, now and then,  in our minds is the result of our laying the same selective emphasis on  parts of place and time

But we do far more than emphasize things, and unite some, and keep others  apart. We actually ignore most of the things before us. Let me briefly show  how this goes on.

....what is called our 'experience' is almost entirely determined by  our habits of attention. A thing may be present to a man a hundred times,  but if he persistently fails to notice it, it cannot be said to enter into  his experience. We are all seeing flies, moths, and beetles by the thousand,  but to whom, save an entomologist, do they say anything distinct? On the  other hand, a thing met only once in a lifetime may leave an indelible  experience in the memory. Let four men make a tour in Europe. One will bring  home only picturesque impressions -- costumes and colors, parks and views  and works of architecture, pictures and statues. To another all this will be  non-existent; and distances and prices, populations and  drainage-arrangements, door- and window-fastenings, and other useful  statistics will take their place. A third will give a rich account of the  theatres, restaurants, and public halls, and naught besides; whilst the  fourth will perhaps have been so wrapped in his own subjective broodings as  to be able to tell little more than a few names of places through which he  passed. Each has selected, out of the same mass of presented objects, those  which suited his private interest and has made his experience thereby....

If now we pass to the æsthetic department, our law is still more obvious.  The artist notoriously selects his items, rejecting all tones, colors,  shapes, which do not harmonize with each other and with the main purpose of  his work. That unity, harmony, 'convergence of characters,' as M. Taine  calls it, which gives to works of art their superiority over works of  nature, is wholly due to elimination. Any natural subject will do, if the  artist has wit enough to pounce upon some one feature of it as  characteristic, and suppress all merely accidental items which do not  harmonize with this.

Ascending still higher, we reach the plane of Ethics, where choice reigns  notoriously supreme. An act has no ethical quality whatever unless it be  chosen out of several all equally possible.... When he debates, Shall I commit this crime? choose that profession? accept  that office, or marry this fortune? -- his choice really lies between one of  several equally possible future Characters.....The problem with the man is less what act he shall now resolve to do  than what being he shall now choose to become.

[Me and not-me]

....One great splitting of the whole universe into  two halves is made by each of us; and for each of us almost all of the  interest attaches to one of the halves; but we all draw the line of division  between them in a different place. When I say that we all call the two  halves by the same names, and that those names are 'me' and 'not-me'  respectively, it will at once be seen what I mean. The altogether unique  kind of interest which each human mind feels in those parts of creation  which it can call me or mine may be a moral riddle, but it is a fundamental  psychological fact. No mind can take the same interest in his neighbor's me  as in his own. The neighbor's me falls together with all the rest of things  in one foreign mass against which his own me stands cut in startling relief.  Even the trodden worm, as Lotze somewhere says, contrasts his own suffering  self with the whole remaining universe, though he have no clear conception  either of himself or of what the universe may be. He is for me a mere part  of the world; for him it is I who am the mere part. Each of us dichotomizes  the Kosmos in a different place.

First published in Psychology, Chapter XI.  (Cleveland & New York, World).

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