From ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’, by William James (1907)


“To deny plumply that ‘consciousness’ exists seems so absurd on the face of it — for undeniably ‘thoughts’ do exist — that I fear some readers will follow me no farther. Let me then immediately explain that I mean only to deny that the word stands for an entity, but to insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function. There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this  quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing. ‘Consciousness’ is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. Whoever blots out the notion of consciousness from his list of first principles must still provide in some way for that function’s being carried on.

My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ‘pure experience,’ then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its ‘terms’ becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known. This will need much explanation before it can be understood. The best way to  get it understood is to contrast it with the alternative view; and for that we may take the recentest alternative, that in which the evaporation of the definite soul-substance has proceeded as far as it can go without being yet complete. If neo-Kantism has expelled earlier forms of dualism, we shall have expelled all forms if we are able to expel neo-Kantism in its turn.
For the thinkers I call neo-Kantian, the word consciousness to-day does no more than
signalize the fact that experience is indefeasibly dualistic in structure. It means that not
subject, not object, but object-plus-subject is the minimum that can actually be. The subject-object distinction meanwhile is entirely different from that between mind and matter, from that between body and soul. Souls were detachable, had separate destinies; things could happen to them. To consciousness as such nothing can happen, for, timeless itself, it is only a witness of happenings in time, in which it plays no part. It is, in a word, but the logical correlative of ‘content’ in an Experience of which the  peculiarity is that fact comes to light in it, that awareness of content takes place. Consciousness as such is entirely impersonal — ‘self’ and its activities belong to the content. To say that I am self-conscious, or conscious of putting forth volition, means only that certain contents, for which ‘self’ and ‘effort of will’ are the names, are not without witness as they occur.
Thus, for these belated drinkers at the Kantian spring, we should have to admit consciousness as an ‘epistemological’ necessity, even if we had no direct evidence of its being there.
But in addition to this, we are supposed by almost every one to have an immediate
consciousness of consciousness itself. When the world of outer fact ceases to be materially present, and we merely recall it in memory, or fancy it, the consciousness is believed to stand out and to be felt as a kind of impalpable inner flowing, which, once known in this sort of experience, may equally be detected in presentations of the outer world. “The moment we try to fix our attention upon consciousness and to see what, distinctly, it is,” says a recent writer, “it seems to vanish. It seems as if we had before us a mere emptiness. When we try to introspect the sensation of blue, all we can see is the blue; the other element is as if it were diaphanous. Yet it can be distinguished, if we look attentively enough, and know that there is something to look for.”


Experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity; and the separation of it into  consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition — the addition, to a given concrete piece of it, of other sets of experiences, in connection with which severally its use or function may be of two different kinds. The paint will also serve here as an illustration. In a pot in a paint-shop, along with other paints, it serves in its entirety as so much saleable matter. Spread on a canvas, with other paints around it, it represents, on the contrary, a feature in a picture and performs a spiritual function. Just SO, I maintain, does a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of ‘consciousness’; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of  an objective ‘content.’ In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing. And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective both at once. The dualism connoted by such double-barrelled terms as ‘experience,’ ‘ phenomenon,” ‘datum,” Vorfindung’ — terms which, in philosophy at any rate, tend more and more to replace the single-barrelled terms of ‘thought’ and ‘thing’ — that dualism, I say, is still preserved in this account, but reinterpreted, so that, instead of being mysterious and elusive, it becomes verifiable and concrete. It is an affair of relations, it falls outside, not inside, the single experience considered, and can always be particularized and defined.


Consciousness connotes a kind of external relation, and does not denote a special stuff or way of being. The peculiarity of our experiences, that they not only are, but are known, which their ‘conscious’ quality is invoked to explain, is better explained by their
relations these relations themselves being experiences — to one another.


To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system. Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement.

From ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’, by William James (1907)

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