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William James and the Citadel of the Self


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            William James’ Principles of Psychology contains an elegant and introspectively convincing explanation for the complex wanderings of the human mind.  James’ explanation is naturalistic, complete with only a brain in a body; no Soul, homunculus, or Transcendental Ego is needed.  Yet James insists that, very rarely, we humans are capable of exercising a "heroic Will" that is spontaneous, inexplicable, unrelated to the rest of his naturalistic explanation, and is the locus of morality and non-deterministic subjectivity.  This paper explores a way to accept James’ naturalistic theory of mind without the contrivance of the heroic Will.  Considered with a pluralistic epistemology and a non-dualistic ontology, the situated truth of James’ theory can be appreciated alongside the equally profound truth of our lived experience of non-deterministic subjectivity.




In The Principles of Psychology, William James insisted that his philosophy be thoroughly embodied and naturalistic, explainable at least in theory by neurons and the bodies they are a part of.  James needed no Soul, no Transcendental Ego, no homuncular executive in the brain to direct his embodied mind.  But without all these, he found, there was no active, volitional Self left over – just a bunch of flesh and neurons whose thoughts and actions might be totally determinable, with no real spontaneity, no meaningful Selfhood at all.  James backed off from these implications, claiming an occasional but crucially important "heroic upsurge of the will."  This, James said, is the basis for morality and human freedom, and for a notion of the Self that is existentially acceptable.  Yet if we follow the rest of James’ philosophy, this heroic Self seems neither necessary, nor even helpful.

            James’ desperate fear of "determinism" is really no fatal check to his philosophy and the Self that it points to.  His fear is a specter of the dualisms of mind and body, Self and World, human and nature that James, in this case, was not quite able to do away with.  "Determinism" and "free will" are not at issue if the Self is not fundamentally opposed to the world which it encounters.

            For the most part, James painted a picture of an embodied human animal whose mind, thoughts, and subjectivity were, at some level, a consequence of its body, brain, and interactions with the world.  I intend here to explore a notion of the Self that follows from James’ philosophy, and to see if there might be a way to avoid the existential crisis that drove James to assert the heroic will.

            James describes the volitional Self who makes decisions and chooses the course of life in his ruminations on the stream of thought, attention, association, and the will.  The stream of thought, James says, is in fact the only Thinker that there is.  There is  a constant stream of awareness, but not necessarily any subject to whom this awareness presents itself.  The stream finds its course by the association of thoughts given by our neural structure and by the influence of stimuli from the world.  Our attention to some part of the stream decides what it is that association will bring.  This leads to James’ assertion near the end of his book that "attention is the fundamental act of will" (II, 564) for it is finally attention that focuses on some part of the stream in order to call up that part’s concomitants by association, be they other thoughts or bodily actions.  James held that, occasionally at least, attention is driven or sustained by pure force of will, not by the processes of association that he proposed for most of our thoughts.  For James, these rare moments of active attention are the basis for volition, spontaneity, and human freedom. 

            If there are no spontaneous acts of will, James said, then our feeling that we can exert effort to direct and control our life is an illusion.  There would be no grounds for morals, no way to claim that instead of an evil act, a good one should have been done.  Yet the psychology that James presented offers a clear and simple possibility that these heroic upsurges of will do not come out of nowhere, but have a naturalistic explanation, described by James’ chapters on Association and the Stream of Thought, and ultimately related to neuronal processes in the brain and body.  The heroic will, on the other hand, has no explanation, and must invoke the homunculus, if not the Soul or the Transcendental Ego which James explicitly repudiated.  Furthermore, James says that the heroic will is what separates "man from the brutes," and the good, moral, and strong man from the weak, bad, and lower man.  These absolute dualisms are untenable for a naturalistic philosophy, and repugnant to a compassionate one.

            Yet complete and absolute determinism seems equally repugnant.  The naturalistic philosophy of the Self that follows from James’ work must somehow deal with the questions of morality and freedom that disturbed James so and led him to deny his own explanations. 


            The basic structure of consciousness that James describes, the unifying element around which his psychology revolves, is the stream of thought.  This stream is the focus for James’ attempt to trace our sense of self-hood to some basic center.  Assuming that most people will feel some nuclear Self, some "innermost circle within the circle, of sanctuary within the citadel" (I, 297) which finds itself presented with a world of stimuli and is the seat of thought and action, James goes on to describe how this Self might feel.  What he finds, in himself at least, is that this center of the Self appears to be his body.  Of these bodily feelings of Selfhood, concentrated in his head, James says, "It would not be surprising, then, if we were to feel them as the birthplace of conclusions and the starting point of acts, or if they came to appear as what we called a while back the ‘sanctuary within the citadel’ of our personal life" (I, 303), or in other words, the volitional Self with which we are concerned.  Yet here it is no Soul, no homunculus, no Transcendental Ego, but a bodily feeling of Me-ness, felt by the stream of thought.

 If they [bodily feelings] really were the innermost sanctuary… it would follow that all that is experienced is, strictly considered, objective; that this Objective falls asunder into two contrasted parts, one realized as ‘Self,’ the other as ‘not-Self;’ and that over and above these parts there is nothing save the fact that they are known, the fact of the stream of thought being there as the indispensable subjective condition of their being experienced at all (I, 304).

James has here proposed a subtle but devastatingly significant switch in the structure of subjectivity.  Rather than a central core of "Me" which stands opposed against an objective world, James says that there is a stream of thought, an awareness of Me and not-Me and of our interactions, together in the same world.  The stream is primary, the basis of subjectivity, and the Self, whether our body, our thoughts, or even our feeling of volition, is simply one of its objects.  It is a stream of thought which is aware of the core feeling of Self that, for James at least, is based in the body – not some ineffable core that might inhabit the body, watch the stream, and direct its flow.  Physiologically speaking, the stream of thought is what James calls a "brain-state," the momentary neuronal condition of this human animal.

            Yet we surely feel "the birthplace of conclusions and the starting point of acts," whatever it may be.  We make decisions, guide our thoughts and our body, and choose what to attend to.  James tells us that much of this selective attention is passive, the product of association with other items that have been of interest in the past.  Thus the flux of experience and the past history of our consciousness lead us on through life, carving the channel of the stream of thought.  Only occasionally is voluntary attention necessary: "What is called sustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring the topic back to the mind.  The topic once brought back, if a congenial one, develops; and if its development is interesting is engages the attention passively for a time" (I, 420). 

This voluntary attention, rare as it may be, is incredibly important for James.  Just a moment, here and there, of prolonged attention or hesitation about a particular idea may be the fulcrum about which our whole life pivots, and the means by which, despite the physiological systems of association and ideo-motor action that guide so much of the stream of thought, the voluntary effort of the will finds its expression (I, 453).

            This seems to be a case where some "effort of the Will" gets behind the stream of thought, so to speak, to turn its course and force its way, a contradiction to what James has already said about the structure of the stream of thought and subjectivity.  Our feelings of interest, attention, and action, he has said, are part of the stream, and there is no homunculus, no spiritual faculty, to which the stream answers. 

James is very aware of this contradiction, and he gives a thorough and convincing argument that our subjective feeling of effort in attention may be the result of processes of association too deep in the brain for introspective awareness to grasp (I, 450-452).  The stream holds an awareness of the shifts in our attention, and an awareness that these shifts satisfy interests that had, in the past, been prominent and were still felt in what James calls the "fringe" of thought, through a process of passive association which would not require some mysterious active faculty of the will.  

            Despite the elegance of this genealogical explanation for voluntary attention, James is horrified by its implications.  "But the whole feeling of reality," he writes, "the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life, depends on our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago" (I, 453).  What are we to think of our lives if our feeling of control over our thoughts and bodies is simply the outcome of "brain-tracts" and well-worn "paths of association," determinate and predictable? 

            Thus we face a contradiction between a naturalistic, fully embodied, and quite simple and elegant psychology and the mysterious, ineffable, spontaneous, and dualistic force of will that James, for moral and existential reasons, contends for.  But if we embrace James’ embodied psychology, if we ignore his insistence on the heroic will, we face another contradiction between his naturalistic theory and our felt sense of agency and control over our lives.  Is there a way out of this double bind?  Can we accept James’ embodied, naturalistic theory of mind, and also have a meaningful sense of agency, morality, and Selfhood?

            What to do?  First, we would do well to reflect on James’ assertion that the vast majority of our thought and action is not consciously directed.  Even when we feel ourselves focusing on a thought, or deciding between two actions, James finds that the continuation of our thought or the execution of our action rises up suddenly and becomes reality for the stream, without being forced by conscious fiat.  James shows clearly that we are not exercising control of our body or our thoughts at every moment, or even very often.

Though this holds for almost every ripple and bend in the stream of thought, it is here that James contends for the occasional effort of the will in forcing a slight focus of our attention so that the desired thought or decision will come.  Yet as we have seen, this is inconsistent with the non-homuncular stream of thought and could be accounted for by the neuronal activity of association.  James draws the line between free will and determinism exactly here, where spontaneous acts of will meet the passive, uncontrolled wanderings of the mind.  I believe that it is a spurious line, and that the crisis that drove James to argue for it need not be a crisis. 

            First, James’ language gives him away, especially in his chapter on the will.  When he turns to the effort of voluntary attention and the upsurge of the will, his writing suddenly becomes almost puritanical.  The "dead heave of the will" is a "cold-water bath," goes against the "self-preserving instinct which our passion has," and only "the strong-willed man… hears the still small voice unflinchingly" (II, 563).  The will is something that, apparently, only strong men of great moral fortitude are able to exercise in a world that constantly tempts them with the passivity of immoral life. 

When a dreadful object is presented, or when life as a whole turns up its dark abysses to our view, then the worthless ones among us lose their hold on the situation altogether, and either escape from its difficulties by averting their attention, or if they cannot do that, collapse into yielding masses of plaintiveness and fear… But the heroic mind does differently… The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate; and the effort which he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life.  He can stand this Universe.  He can meet it and keep up his faith in it in the presence of those same features which lay his weaker brethren low… And thereby he becomes one of the masters and the lords of life (II, 578-579).

It is for the possibility of such original heroism that the heroic will must exist.  Yet must our subjectivity be defined by our strength in confronting a world which is fundamentally opposed to us, as James describes here?  I hope not.  If one sees oneself as responding to a world which one is a part of and belongs to, then such heroic, hierarchical, confrontational, and dualistic language, while perhaps moving for some of James’ contemporaries, is empty and even repulsive.  Certainly such situations of heroism and diffident toughness do arise in our life, but our ability to stand up to them could be but another consequence of the paths of association that have formed in our brain, and of the thoughts and actions which they call up, rather than some original force of will that defines us as superior to "the worthless ones." 

            So the supposed crisis of "determinism versus freedom" is perhaps eased, if not yet resolved, if one holds a non-dualistic ontology in which there is no fundamental opposition between oneself and the world which must be accounted for and worshipped.  Indeed, perhaps it is a human/nature dualism that goes to the heart of James’ problem.

            James’ intent in The Principles of Psychology is to engage in psychology as a science, to describe, in a naturalistic manner, the mind of this human animal.  It is a project no different in its basic character than how a zoologist might describe the motives for a spider constructing its web.  The spider has the wisdom of its genes, and perhaps what it has learned in the world, and adapts them to the contours of the surface where it works.  Surely there is a reason for every one of the spider’s movements, and for every curve and angle in its web, and the zoologist can probably make some theory for why a spider moves as it does and why its webs are typically just so, without invoking a heroic upsurge of the spider’s will. 

            James’ theory of the stream of thought presents a similar explanation for humans.  It is a coherent picture, true to introspective analysis and close to the findings of modern neuroscience, of how human thought and action might come about.  This includes the possibility that some genealogy of our every thought and action might, in fact, exist, and this is the "determinism" that concerns James so.  Humans are animals, and in this respect we are no different from the rest – we are bodies, with brains, and a world to interact with, just like the spider. 

            That there are reasons for human thought and action is no great admission to make, and is quite different from presenting the algorithm that predicts the actions of a robot.  The latter is what James is intent to argue against; he calls it "the mechanical theory," and allies himself, instead, with "the spiritual theory."  James’ sudden spiritualism here is a reaction to the Cartesian mechanism (although he does not describe it as such) which, he thought, was the only alternative.  Yet this mechanism, and the Absolutism that demands a totalizing explanation from any theory, are both ontologically suspect, to say the least.  It seems to me that a bit of each of these crept into James’ own stream of thought, and that their implications for being human under his own theory understandably repelled him, creating his need for the heroic will. 

            Without this Absolutism or this spiritual/mechanical, human/nature dualism, the theory of the stream of thought becomes more tenable, and its implications less disturbing.  The stream of thought, as James has said, is but a logical postulate, not a felt experience.  Like matter is a logical postulate that might help to explain the concrete things we touch and see, the stream of thought, and all the rest of James’ theories which help to explain human thought and action, are just that: theories, words.  They are not the body-mind-world that we live and feel, they are not experience itself.  We do experience "the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life," the sense that "things are really being decided from one moment to another" (I, 453).  A scientific psychology that attempts to explain the physiological grounds for this "sting and excitement" need have no absolute monopoly over our view of reality, for the theory itself is only part of the stream.  There is much more to our openness upon the world, and upon ourselves, than this. 

            It is on our felt experience as a whole, on the whole stream of thought, that we build philosophies and establish moral systems.  That stream may contain a certain scientific theory, such as James’, while it also contains our felt sense of agency and Selfhood, and our empathic feeling for the agency and Selfhood of others.  If James’ theory were singled out from the stream as the absolute basis for morality, then as he warns, there would be no moral accountability at all, since no one could be held accountable for their actions if they were but "the dull rattling off of a chain forged innumerable ages ago" (I, 453). 

            Yet we do experience moral feelings between ourselves and others – indeed, from another scientific standpoint, we have certainly evolved, as the intensely social animals that we are, to experience such a feeling.  Of course, if one takes James’ introspective analysis seriously as it becomes part of our stream of thought, then one might learn to be more lenient in one’s moral judgments, since the other is perhaps not in absolute control of his every thought or action, as we often suppose. 

            In fact, James’ theory might help to give an embodied and naturalistic explanation for morality.  Once we learn of moral expectations, as we must to survive and flourish in the social groups we depend on, then they become part of our neural makeup, often present in the fringe of thought as associations that influence our present thoughts and actions.  This moral theory would need no absolute good or evil, as James invokes to explain the need for absolute and inexplicable free will (II¸ 573), and would not need James’ steadfast and heroic puritanical will to choose good over evil. 

            If James’ theory were taken as The Absolute Explanation for human thought and action, if our feeling of effort and Selfhood were to "fall under the overwhelming reign of deterministic law" (II, 572), then this feeling would indeed be an illusion, not a ground of meaning and richness in our life, and we would all face the existential crisis that James himself dealt with.  Perhaps it was James’ misfortune to live in a time and a culture where the hubris of Absolutism was an expectation for any thinker, and where heroism, manliness, and puritanical endurance and denial were the greatest ways to live a worthy life.  I, at least, feel lucky to not be so burdened.  As James does say,

Psychology will be Psychology, and Science Science, as much as ever (as much and no more) in the world, whether free-will be true in it or not.  Science, however, must be constantly reminded that her purposes are not the only purposes, and that the order of uniform causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating, may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claims at all (II, 576). 

Perhaps it is possible today to interpret the world pluralistically, to accept the situated truth from one perspective, that of James’ scientific psychology, while also embracing the truth of another perspective, or a "wider order," that of our lived experience of agency and Selfhood.  Perhaps one can embrace one’s status as an animal and relinquish the conscious control of all thought and action, as James’ theory of the stream of thought encourages us to do, while still relishing the felt experience of a Self who acts in a world.  This experience, after all, is what our sort of animal happens to live in, and it is the ground for all of our theories, our morals, our philosophies, and our humanity.



James, William.  The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I and II.  Dover, New York, 1890.