CONSCIOUSNESS
© C.O. Evans & J. Fudjack

Addendum E - William James' Theory
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In the previous section we discussed the experimental findings in research on subliminal perception. We discovered that by keeping an item in a person's field of consciousness just below a certain threshold of awareness experimenters were able to discern effects on the subject's physiological state and behavior that they attributed to the subject's 'subliminal perception' of the item in question. We proposed that such 'subliminally

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perceived' items be described as items in subsidiary awareness with strong contexting functions. This suggests that subliminal perception experiments are ones which attempt to isolate the effects that some particular item in subsidiary awareness has on attention. But this is to take the experimentally contrived occurrence of a single 'subliminal perception' as indicative of a more general diffuse ongoing subsidiary awareness of items not in attention and is tantamount to positing the existence of a 'subliminal consciousness'. It is interesting, then, to note that the idea of a 'subliminal consciousness' had been introduced as early as 1886 by Frederic Myers and is acclaimed the forerunner of the present day concept of the unconscious. It is of even more interest to note that William James acknowledged his indebtedness to Myers and identified his own idea of a 'transmarginal field of consciousness' with Myers' 'subliminal consciousness', as Jung tells us in the following passage in which he describes this stage in the historical development of the concept of the unconscious,

So defined, the unconscious depicts an extremely fluid state of affairs: everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have not forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; al the future things that are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness: all this is the content of the unconscious. These contents are all more or less capable, so to speak, of consciousness or were once conscious and may become conscious again the next moment. Thus far the unconscious is a : fringe of consciousness", as William James put it ftn.

[ftn: James speaks also of a "transmarginal field" of consciousness and identifies it with the "subliminal consciousess" of F.W.H. Myers, one of the founders of the British Society for Psychical Research. Concerning

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the "field of consciousness" James says (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 232): "The important fact which this 'field' formula commemorates is the indetermination of the margin. Inattentively realized as is the matter which the margin contains, it is nevertheless there, and helps both to guide our behaviour and to determine the next movement of our attention. It lies around us like a 'magnetic field' inside of which our center of energy turns like a compass needle as the present phase of consciousness alters into its successor. Our whole past store of memories floats beyond this margin, ready at a touch to come in; and the entire mass or residual powers, impulses, and knowledges that constitute our empirical self stretches continuously beyond it. So vaguely drawn are the outlines between what is actual and what is only potential at any moment of our conscious life, that it is always hard to say of certain mental elements whether we are conscious of them or not.] 138

In this section we shall show that the description of consciousness offered to us in James' psychology outline some of the essential features of the attentive model.

If this be the case, it is instructive to consider the inadequacies, in Jung's opinion, of the Jamesian view. The following passage supplies a hint of Jung's reasons for dissatisfaction with the psychology of James.

The universal belief in spirits is a direct expression of the complex structure of the unconscious. Complexes are in truth the living units of the unconscious psyche, and it is only through them that we are able to deduce its existence and its constitution. The unconscious would in fact be--as it is in Wundt's psychology--nothing but a vestige of dim or 'obscure' representations, or a "fringe of consciousness", as William James calls it, were it not for the existence of complexes. That is why Freud became the real discoverer of the unconscious... 139

We shall pursue this point in the next two sections of the addendum and suggest that the attentive model is adequate for the purposes of discussing 'complexes'; the implication being that none of James' essential points about the 'fringe' or 'margin' of consciousness need be withdrawn in the face of evidence of

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the existence of complexes, as naive as James' psychology may be when it comes to the complex structuring of the 'fringe'. Essentially, we will be following up our discussion of Freud in the second section of the addendum, for we suggest there that the Freudian unconscious can be understood in terms of the attentive model. The Freudian findings regarding the dynamics of repressions needn't be understood as necessitating the positing of an unconscious as a discrete entity separate from consciousness (conceived as composed of object of attention and subsidiary awareness), despite Freud's explicit warnings regarding this matter This follow-up discussion will include a hypothesis we offer regarding the nature of primary process thought and Jungian 'archetypes', a hypothesis which entails explaining 'latent' contents of consciousness in terms of the structuring of consciousness as opposed to treating them as reifed objects housed in a separate compartment--a Freudian or Jungian 'unconscious'.

For the present let us return to James.

We note that the margin of which James speaks in the above passage is defined as being that which though in consciousness is 'inattentively realized'. In constructing the attentive model we employ the term 'object of attention' and insist on discriminating between it and that which is in subsidiary awareness. We use this terminology in the attempt to emphasize the fact that consciousness is structured by attention-- that is, it becomes definitionally impossible to speak of attending to the margin, fringe, or field of consciousness as such.

We may also notice that in speaking of the matter in the margin as influencing the deployment of attention James has, in our terminology,

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discovered the contexting function of items in subsidiary awareness. This is further emphasized by the use of the term 'field of consciousness' which he likens to a magnetic field. The essential attribute of a magnetic field that is of interest in this context is the fact that it can best be described in systems terminology and characterized by a set of equations describing the mutual influence changes in parts of the field have on each other. So far, then, we have a picture of inattentively realized matter composing a field that influences the movement of attention.

We shall cite other passages from James indicating that 1) he conceived of feeling as the mode in which the fringe or field is experience by the subject, 2) he thought that what we feel at the fringe of consciousness are relationships that provide a schema which gives the object to which we are attending a meaning, 3) he conceived of consciousness in terms of a part-whole relationship and of attention as accentuating (or bringing into relief) some part of a whole in consciousness.

1) James distinguishes between a 'higher consciousness' about things and the 'mere inarticulate feeling of their presence'. In the following passage we notice James describing sensations which are not objects of attention, yet are more than 'Unconscious nerve- currents'. We notice that he speaks of 'having a feeling' of such sensations even when attention is engaged elsewhere.

Habits depend on sensations not attended to. We have called a, b, c, d, e, f, by the name of 'sensations' If sensations, they are sensations to which we are usually inattentive; but that they are more than unconscious nerve-currents seems certain, for they catch our attention if they go wrong. Schneider's account of these sensations deserves to be quoted. In the act of walking, he says, "even when our attention is entirely absorbed elsewhere, it is doubtful whether we could preserve equilibrium if no sensation of our body's attitude

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were there, and doubtful whether we should advance our leg if we had no sensation of its movement as executed, and not even a minimal feeling of impulses to set it down. Knitting appears altogether mechanical, and the knitter keeps up her knitting even while she reads or is engaged in lively talk. But if we ask her how this is possible, she will hardly reply that the knitting goes on of itself. She will rather say that she has a feeling of it, that she feels in her hands that she knits and how she must knit, and that therefore the movements of knitting are called forth and regulated by the sensations associated therewithal, even when the attention is called away..." Again: "When a pupil begins to play on the violin, to keep him from raising his right elbow in playing a book is place under his right armpit, which he is ordered to hold fast by keeping the upper arm tight against the body. The muscular feelings, and feelings of contact connected with the book, provoke an impulse to press it tight. But often it happens that the beginner, whose attention gets absorbed in the production of the notes, lets drop the book. Later, however, this never happens; the faintest sensations of contact suffice to awaken the impulse to keep it in its place, and the attention may be wholly absorbed by the notes and the fingering with the left hand. The simultaneous combination of movements is thus in the first instance conditioned by the facility with which in us, alongside of intellectual processes, processes of inattentive feeling may still go on. 140

In the following passage James describes the fringe of consciousness by identifying it with attitudes we have, attitudes that manifest themselves as feelings.

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 three successive persons say to us: "Wait !" "Hark!" "Look!" Our consciousness is thrown into three quite different attitudes of expectancy, although no definite object is before it in any one of the three cases. Probably no one will deny here the existence of a real conscious affection, a sense of the direction from which an impression is about to come, although no positive impression is yet there. Meanwhile we have no names for the psychoses in question but the names of hark, look, and wait.

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

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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 are different from each other. Such a feeling of want is toto coelo 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. 141

2) The following passage suggests that James thought the fringe to be best described as composed of feelings of relation rather than discrete feelings of unrelated objects. This suggests the notion of an underlying feeling state as a mode of experiencing the frame or context of the object attended to and the idea of attention relevating one term or object in the complex system of relations.

We see, then, that it makes little or no difference in what sort of mind-stuff, in what quality of imagery, our thinking goes on. The only images intrinsically important are the halting-places, the substantive conclusions, provisional or final, of the thought. Throughout all the rest of the stream, the feelings or relation are everything, and the terms related almost naught. These feelings or relation, these psychic overtones, halos, suffusions, or fringes about the terms, may be the same in very different systems of imagery. 142

We can see the following passage as getting at the idea that subsidiary awareness of context determines which possible objects are appropriate objects of attention and that such dispositions are experienced phenomenologically as a feeling about the 'proposed' object of attention.

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In all our voluntary thinking there is some TOPIC or SUBJECT about which all the members of the thought revolve. Relation to this topic or interest is constantly felt to the fringe, and particularly the relation of harmony and discord, of furtherance or hindrance of the topic. Any thought the quality of whose fringe lets us feel ourselves "all right', may be considered a thought that furthers the topic. Provided we only feel its object to have a place in the scheme of relations in which the topic also lies, that is sufficient to make of it a relevant and appropriate portion of our train of idea....The most important element of these fringes is, I repeat, the mere feeling of harmony or discord, of a right or wrong direction in the thought. 143

James speaks of the thought of an object as "the thought of it- in-those-relations, a thought suffused with the consciousness of all that dim context" 144 indicating, as we surmised from the above passages, that the relations we are aware of in the fringe of consciousness are the ones that make up the context for an object of attention.

3) The following can be seen as describing consciousness as singling out some part of a whole as its object of attention.

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. ...But we do far more than emphasize things, and unite some, and keep others apart. We actually ignore most of the things before us. 145

And when we supplement this description with the following description of the part played by the fringe of things ignored or not attended to we discover that it is this fringe that imparts meaning to the object we do attend to.

The sense of our meaning is an entirely peculiar element of the thought. It is one of those evanescent and "transitive" facts of mind which introspection cannot turn round upon,

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and isolate and hold up for examination, as an entomologist passes round an insect on a pin. In the (somewhat clumsy) terminology I have used, it has to do with the "fringe" of the object, and is a "feeling of tendency", whose neutral counterpart is undoubtedly a lot of dawning and dying processes too faint and complex to be traced. 146

(It is interesting, in passing, to note that what James is saying in speaking about the 'evanescence' of meaning is that the fringe cannot be made itself an object of attention-- 'cannot be held up for examination'.) In the following passage we again have the idea that the fringe that surrounds an object of attention gives it its meaning. But we also have what we might call James' attempt to describe the spotlight model of consciousness and its inadequacies.

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quarterpotsful, 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 the "psychic overtone" or "fringe". 147

In presenting the above passages from James which can be understood as outlining some of the major features of the attentive model we do not want to give the appearance that all James says is consistent with the impression created by these passages. In dealing more explicitly with the relationship obtaining between subsidiary awareness, feeling, context, system, and such

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considerations as the whole-part relation as it pertains to the structuring of consciousness, the attentive model departs from James' psychological understandings although it may be considered a refinement of his view. In articulating a distinction between feeling states, for instance, the groundwork has been laid for an alternative to his theory of emotions which incorporates his theory into a more complex understanding. The following passages will suffice to present his theory.

I now proceed to urge the vital point of my whole theory, which is this: If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no "mind stuff" out of which the emotion can be constituted and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains. 148

In like manner of grief: what would it be without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast bone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable and nothing more. 149

The problem with these two passages is that James is totally unclear about whether we are dealing with references to the fringe of consciousness or with references to sensations singled out by attention. For instance, we may interpret his reference to 'all the feelings of its bodily symptoms' to be his way of specifying the content of the fringe of consciousness, and then his argument that to imagine away the fringe is to imagine away the emotion makes perfectly good sense. For according to the attentive model what makes an emotion an emotion is precisely its role as an underlying feeling state functioning outside the focus of attention.

If these references are not references to the fringe of consciousness and its contents then we may well ask why not? Why would James ignore the fringe when it came to a discussion of emotion and revert to a spotlight

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model in which all reference to feeling and emotion is a reference to sets of items singled out by attention?

Nevertheless, the fact remains that he does seem to ignore the fringe at precisely the point of its most crucial applicability: namely, in connection with emotion. On the very same page on which he asked, What would grief be without its tears, etc.? James makes the following statement,

The more closely I scrutinize my states, the more persuaded I become that whatever "course" affections and passions I have are in very truth constituted by, and made up of, those bodily changes which we ordinarily call their expression or consequence... 150

There seems no way of interpreting this statement other than by saying that James is talking about bodily changes which can be singled out by attention (or noticed). What seems to clinch the argument for this interpretation is the consideration that the sort of bodily changes which James mentions as 'expressions' or 'consequences' are precisely the sort of changes which we notice while in that emotional state. Thus, it would be unlikely for a person to be grief-stricken and not notice that he was crying, or angry and not notice she was striking the table.

And so if we give this interpretation to James, the answer to his gedanken experiment in which he asked what would be left of an emotion if the object of attention (the tears) were taken away is that an underlying feeling state would be left over. With that answer we would refute James' answer that nothing would be left over. Yet it is important to realize that this answer does not take us outside James' theory of consciousness, since the answer comes from his theory in terms of an appeal to the fringe of consciousness. This takes us back to the superiority of the first interpretation

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where we can argue that what James meant to be saying was that there would be nothing left of the emotion if the underlying feeling state was missing. Surely, James deserves the benefit of the doubt.


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Footnotes

138. C.G. Jung, On the nature of the psyche, translated by R.F.C. Hull, (Princeton:Princeton Univ. Press,1969), p.95.
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139. C.G. Jung, "A review of the complex theory." In Collected works, vol. 8 (New York:Pantheon Books,1960), p.101.
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140. W. James, Psychology: briefer course (New York:Collier Books,1962), p.157.
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141. Ibid., p.177.
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142. Ibid., p.182.
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143. Ibid., p.181.
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144. Ibid., p.171.
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145. Ibid., p.183.
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146. Ibid., p.249.
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147. Ibid., p.179.
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148. Ibid., p.380.
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149. Ibid., p.381.
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150. Ibid.
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