Michael Maher.

Psychology: empirical and rational online

. (page 49 of 63)
Online LibraryMichael MaherPsychology: empirical and rational → online text (page 49 of 63)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Mr. James's doctrine had been extinct, dead, and buried for
over six hours, yet I speedily became aware that the TJiinker
who had laboured on the subject was still present and alive
within me. It would be interesting to learn by what " verifiable
experience " it can be shown that there was, during my sleep,
a continuous stream of "judging Thoughts " or " pulsations
of cognitive consciousness," each before it died handing over
to its successor the contents of Mr. James's hundred pages.
This difficulty is still further increased by the phenomena of
" double consciousness " to which we shall return.

(3) It is scarcely necessary to criticize the analog}^ sug-
gested with respect to the " inheritance " or " appropriation "

^1 James admits that his theory " must beg memory." (p. 539.)
But this is precisely what it has no right to beg ; especially when, as
we shall see presently, this psychologist attacks the pcymaiient soul as
needless, on the ground that his own theory gives a suffieient account of
the facts ! The truth is, consistent phenomenism is just as impossible in
empirical psychology as it certainly is in physical science.


of past " selves " by the present Thought. The reader can
easily think out for himself the impossibilities involved. The
transmission of " ownership " of a herd of cattle through a
succession of herdsmen is possible, because the cattle are
permanent objects which exist during the transmission,
because they are distinct and separable from their dying
owners, and because the ownership in virtue of which a man
can legally buy and sell his cows is different in kind from his
" ownership " of his own past existence.

(4) Finally to compare the theories of Mill and James :
In a psychological analysis of the cognition of our personal
identity an account has to be given of two things — the
knowing agent and the object known. Mill's proposition that
the knowing agent is " a series of states," James easily shows
to be absurd ; whilst his own statement that each single act
of knowledge is the knowing agent, possesses, as we have
observed, a certain superficial plausibility. But when we turn
to the account of the object known — the entire past experi-
ence of the agent — the situation is completely reversed.
That the whole collective existence of a person is reahzed
and known by, or rather in the course of, his entire series of
conscious states is, it might be urged, "verified by experience."
But the doctrine that each "pulse of cognitive conscious-
ness," whether waking or sleeping, appropriates, contains,
and possesses the life history of the individual, Mill could
fairly retort, is one of those hypotheses which its own author
elsewhere describes as " paroxysmal unintelligibilities." _

Conclusion. — After reflecting on these two empiricist
theories of personal identity, the reader will probably con-
clude that the vulgar " common-sense" account of the matter
is not to be so summarily disposed of as Professor James
implies. That account, which has survived the attacks of
many centuries, maintains that the same real, abiding, indi-
visible being, the " soul " which was the subject of my past
experiences, still exists within me; and that owing to the
modifications it underwent in those experiences, it possesses
the power to reproduce many of them — not all simultaneously,
but in succession — and to recognize them along with its own
identity in successive thoughts.

James's attack on the Soul.— Having examined
the adequacy of the Harvard professor's account of
our mental experience, it will now be easier to estimate
the worth of his objections against the vulgar "common
sense" doctrine. For it must not be forgotten that
the force of these difficulties depends mainly on the


sufficiency of the rival explanation of the unity of
consciousness. The psychologist — even the scientific
psychologist — must choose some coherent theory of con-
scious life. The question to be decided is : Which is
the most rational interpretation of the facts ?

1. In the first place, then, James argues, the
hypothesis of a substantial soul is quite unnecessary in
Psychology. " /^ is needless for expressing the actual subfeciive
phenomena of consciousness as they appear. We have formu-
lated them all without its aid by the supposition
of a stream of thoughts, each substantially different
from the rest, but, cognitive of the rest and appro-
priative of each other's content. . . . The unity, the
identity, the individuality, and the immateriality that
appear in the psychic life are thus accounted for as
phenomenal and temporal facts exclusively, and with
no need of reference to any more simple or substantial
agent than the present Thought or * section ' of the
stream." (Op. cit. p. 344.)

Assuredly if " the unity, individuality, and identity "
of our mental life are all adequately expressed and
satisfactorily accounted for by James's theory, the
doctrine of a Soul may be dismissed as gratuitous.
If concepts, judgments, reasonings, emotions, and
recollections can be intelligibly conceived and described
without the implication of their inhering in or pertain-
ing to anything more permanent or substantial than
themselves, whether material or immaterial, then the
psychologist has no need of the hypothesis of a Soul.
But we trust we have advanced sufficient reasons to
show that this is not the case, and that neither the
''unity, individuality, nor identity" of a man's mental
life can be conceived or expressed without the impli-
cation of some more permanent unitary being within
him which is its root and source.

2. Further, he urges, even if a metaphysical hypothesis be
needed by the psychologist, that of a substantial spiritual
soul is worthless. It affords no help in rendering intelligible
anything which needs accounting for. "The bald fact is
that when the brain acts, a thought occurs. . . . What
positive meaning has the Soul when scrutinized, but the


ground oj the possibility of thought. . . . And what is the
meaning' of this ( — the statement that brain action excites
or determines this possibihty to actuahty) . . . but giving
a concrete form to one's behef that the coming of the thought
when brain-processes occur, has some sort of ground in the
nature of things? If the word Soul be understood merely
to express that claim, it is a good word to use. But if it be
held to do more, to gratify the claim,— for instance, to connect
rationally the thought which comes, with the (cerebral)
processes which occur, and to mediate intelligibly between
their two disparate natures, — then it is an illusory term."
It may be used as a provisional term like that of Substance
to express the belief that there is more in reality than a mere
phenomenon, " more than the bare fact of co-existence of a
passing thought with a passing brain-state. But we do not
answer the question ' What is that more ? ' when we say
that it is a ' Soul ' which the brain-state affects. This kind
of more explains nothing." (P. 346.)

To this objection we would reply that the formulation of
the problem needing solution, given in the proposition " the
bald fact is that when the brain acts, a thought occurs,"
ignores the very nodus of the difficulty which the Soul — or at
all events, the Soul viewed as an abiding substantial being
— is invoked to account for. That nodus is the unity of con-
sciousness throughout the whole series of thoughts zvhich go to make
up our psychic existence. The soul is not invented as a sort
of plastic medium to explain the connection between a
transitory thought and the concomitant brain-change. Belief
in a permanent substantial Mind existed long before men
knew of the existence of such cerebral processes. It is m
order to give a rational account of the connexion of thought
with thought, of the past thought which has perished with
the present which is living and the future unborn thought ;
it is to render the consciousness of our persisting identity
intelHgible that spiritualist philosophers have insisted on
the fact of an abiding substantial soul. And the permanence
of such a real individual immaterial being as basis of our
consciousness, does provide at any rate a coherent account
of each man's internal experience. On the other hand, we
venture to assert, first, that the notion of thoughts and
feehngs inhering in nothing is absurd and unthinkable ; and
secondly, that even were a succession of such psychological
monsters possible, they could never constitute that enduring
self-conscious personality which each of us calls " I."

Furthermore, we readily admit that the proposition,
" Thought is an activity of the Soul," like any other merely
verbal statement, " explains nothing," unless its terms have


been defined or are already understood. But when, after a
careful examination of all the relevant data furnished by
experience, the Soul is defined by the psychologist as A real
being, immaterial and indivisible in its nature, abiding in duration,
individual in character, the agent and source of sensation and
vital activity as well as of thought and volition, the word Soul
is assuredly not an " illusory term " vaguely expressive of the
belief that there is more in reality than the mere phenomenon.
And when the psychologist has shown that the application
of these predicates to the agent and subject of our mental
activities is justified and necessitated by the analysis of these
activities, he has provided us not with " an explanation which
explains nothing," but with the proof of the objective validity
of that conception which alone renders " the unity, the
identity, the individuality, and the immateriality, that appear
in our psychic life" intelhgible.

3. The argument for a spiritual soul deduced from the
Freedom of the Will, Professor James disposes of in summary
fashion. At best "it can only convince those who believe
in free-will ; and even they will have to admit that spontaneity
is just as possible, to say the least, in a temporary spiritual
agent like our Thought, as in a permanent one like the
supposed Soul." {Ibid. p. 346.)

The first statement is quite true, and the second partially
so. The rejection of Free-Will undoubtedly involves the
repudiation of one of the chief arguments for the spirituality
of the soul; whilst by subverting the notions of personal
merit and responsibility as universally accepted, it destroys
the principal rational ground for belief in a future life ; and
deprives of their meaning, as we have seen, many of the
chief ethical notions of mankind. Moreover, since presum-
ably God could create and then immediately destroy a
spiritual being endowed with free-will, it does not seem
impossible that " a temporary spiritual agent " might enjoy
" spontaneity." We may also speak of a volition or voluntary
election as being "free." Nevertheless the argument from
free-will retains all its force. A volition, or an act of choice, is
not " an agent," but ''the act of an agent,'' and its own freedom
consists in its being freely exerted by that agent. Now,
because an action without an agent is unthinkable, spiritualist
philosophers may postulate the soul as the cause of the action.
Further, the doctrine of Free-will teaches that our conscious-
ness reveals to us something more than "Thoughts" endowed
with " spontaneity." It dwells on the reality of deliberation,
reflexion, sustained resistance to temptation, on responsibihty
for past conduct — and especially on the rationality of remorse.
But these experiences — on some of which James himself


elsewhere so admirably insists (see p. 401) — are just the facts
for which there is no room in the theory that makes each
passing Thought the " Self." If the Soul of each man be a
real individual being persisting throughout life, which has
freely acted and formed good or bad habits in the past, there
is an intelligible foundation for the moral convictions of
mankind. But if " the only verifiable Thinker " be the passing
Thought, it is somewhat difficult to see the justice of chas-
tising the present " pulsation of consciousness " in the
Brockton murderer, for a malevolent " pulsation " long since
extinct ; nor why the present " pulsation " ought to repent for
its wicked predecessor from which it is " substantially
different." 1=^

4. Fortunately, Professor James has indicated his
own metaphysical creed as to the constitution of that
something *' more " which lies behind our mental states.
This helps us better to compare the value of the doctrine
of a spiritual substantial soul with other final explana-
tions of the basis of our mental life. " For my own
part," he tells us, *' I confess that the moment I become
metaphysical and try to define the more, I find the notion
of some sort of an anima mundi thinking in all of us to
be a more promising hypothesis, in spite of all its
difficulties, than that of a lot of absolutely individual
souls." (Ibid. p. 346.)

Amongst the " difficulties " of this " more promising
hypothesis " we would suggest the following : [a) The
complete absence of all evidence whatsoever of the
existence of such an anima mimdi or world-soul. Con-
sciousness assures us of the reality of some sort of
anima or mind within ourselves ; and, arguing from
analogy, we ascribe a similar anima to other organisms
like our own. But obviously in the case of the material
world the parity totally fails. Nothing more unlike a
human brain or a living organism than the physical
universe could well be conceived, {b) Again, the notion
of such an anima mtmdi is incoherent in itself and in

^2 James's use of the term "verifiable," seems at times to imply
that nothing is to be admitted as real by the psychologist which is
not apprehended and "verified" by some particular sense. This
was Hume's doctrine, and leads to absolute scepticism alike in
physics, psychology, and metaphysics.


conflict with all that we actually know of the nature of
mind. This anima mundi is vaguely described as a
universal consciousness thinking in each one of us. Of
a personal consciousness we know something ; of a
universal or impersonal consciousness which is unaware
of itself, or of the various persons whom it may
constitute, we can frame no conception. The most
essential features of the mind, at least as gathered from
experience, are its tmity and individualistic character. It
reveals itself to us as ens indivisum in se sed divisum ab omni
alio — a being undivided in itself but separated off from
all other beings. What kind of a mind or soul then is
that which, unconscious of itself, is split up into a
number of other selves each unconscious of the rest ?
{c) The h3^pothesis which interprets our conscious
existence as merely a fragment of a universal mind,
would seem to be a formal acceptance of Pantheism.
It implies that our individuality is only apparent. It
would logically be forced to transfer to this universal
soul the responsibility for all our thoughts and volitions.
Indeed, in this theory we would seem to have little
more reality or personality of our own than the modes
of the Divine Substance of Spinoza. But we must not
be unjust to Professor James. We feel sure from his
other writings that he would repudiate these conclusions.
He believes in the freedom of the will ; and in his essay
on Human Immortality, he seeks to find place for a future
life; though we fanc}^ few will be satisfied with the meta-
physical speculations by which it is supported. ^^

^^ His view, as expressed in that work, seems to be that there
exists throughout the universe, or rather behind the veil of matter,
a reservoir of universal consciousness, which trickles or streams
through the brain into living beings, somewhat as water through a
tap, or light through a half-transparent lens. Each tap, or lens,
shapes or colours the incoming flow of thought with its various
individualistic peculiarities, "and when finally a brain stops acting
altogether, or decays, that special stream of consciousness which it
subserved will ^'anish entirely from this natural world. But the
sphere of being that supplied the consciousness would still be
intact ; and in that more real world with which even whilst here it
was continuous, the consciousness might, in ways unknown to us,
continue still." [Ibid. pp. 37, 38.) In addition to the difficulties


^ H 11 M.i. ■-■ - ■ - ■■ ■— — ■ ■ ■■-■.■■■■ ■ » ■ ■■-■I- . .,. „ - _ .1.. — - — , . -,.

Double Consciousness. — Mental pathology, fre-
quently styled Psychiatry, has recently brought into
prominence certain abnormal phenomena of memory
and self-consciousness, which from their connection
with the philosophical problem of personal identity have
attracted much interest. In these cases of so-called
"double-consciousness" or "altered personality," the
unity of psychic life is ruptured and two or more
seemingly dissociated mental existences present them-
selves, sometimes in alternating sections, sometimes — it
is alleged — simultaneously in the same individual.

The celebrated case of Felida X., methodically observed
during several years by Dr. Azam of Bordeaux, will illustrate
the general character of the phenomena.^^ Born in 1843, of
hysterical tendency, she enjoyed normal health until 1857.
During that 3^ear she fell into a swoon which lasted only a
few minutes ; on recovering consciousness, however, her
whole character seemed changed. The original Felida is
described as serious, of somewhat morose and obstinate
disposition, unobservant, and of mediocre abilities, but excep-
tionally industrious. Felida 2, on the contrary, was gay and
boisterous, very sensitive and pliant, idle yet observant, and
of seemingly more than average talents. In her secondary
state Felida could remember the experiences of her previous
life, and otherwise appeared quite normal. After some months
in this condition, another attack restored her to her original
state. The dulness, sullenness, and habits of work all
suddenly returned ; but there was complete forgetfulness of
every incident which had occurred since her former fit. For
over thirty years she has now passed her life in alternate
periods of her primary and secondary states. In the " second "
condition she retains the memory of both states ; but during

above indicated in regard to the absence of evidence, and the inco-
herence of the notion of such a universal consciousness, it is
sufficient here to repeat Mr. James's complaint against the doctrine
of his opponents that " it guarantees no immortahty of a sort we
care for." It is in the perpetuity of our own personal individual
consciousness that each of us is primarily interested, not in that of
" the sphere of being " which originally provided the supply.

^^ See Revue Scientifique, May, 1876. Felida's history down to
1887 is also given by Binet, Alterations of Personality (1892), pp. 6 —
21. For other cases see also Pierre Janet, L'Automatisme psycholo-
gique (Edit. 1899), pp. 70—130, 300—350; and James, op. cit,

PP- 375—400-


- ■ — — - - - ■ - -

the "primary" epochs there is complete amnesia respecting
the "second." Thus Fehda i was quite unaware of even
such events as the First Communion of her children and the
death of her sister-in-law, which occurred during the "reign"
of Felida 2. The " primary " periods are consequently
inconvenient and disagreeable to her, and as time has gone
on the duration of the " secondary " intervals has come
gradually to predominate. They now form her normal con-
dition. Felida has thus been endowed with hvo consciousnesses,
one of which is "split off" from the other. ]\I. Binet's
argument runs thus: "Two fundamental elements constitute
personality — memory and character," but in Felida there is
a change of character and memory, therefore " Felida is
really two moral persons ; she has really two Egos." ^^

In hypnotism a similar phenomenon is produced when a
"personality" is artificially created by suggesting to the
subject that he or she is some other personage. Occasionally
the part is remembered and consistently maintained through-
out successive hypnoses, although the experiences of the
suggested character are, it is alleged, often completely
forgotten during the waking state. In fact, the deeper forms
of the hypnotic trance constitute such a "secondary" psychic
existence " split off" from the main current. Natural or
spontaneous somnambulism gives us illustrations of the same

Besides this dnaMty of successive consciousnesses the theory
of the Doppel Ich advocated by Max Dessoir and others,
insists upon the reality of at least two simultaneous conscious-
nesses, each held together by its own chain of memories, but
" split off " from each other. Various actions usually styled
automatic or reflex are maintained to be the outcome of the
" secondary consciousness." The power of distractedly
following a consecutive train of thought whilst reading aloud,
or playing an instrument, or performing other complex opera-
tions, the working of the involuntary inspiration of the poet,
abnormal " automatic writing," the struggle between reason
and appetite, the " higher " and " lower " self, as well as all
forms of sub-conscious mental activities have been claimed as
evidence of the reality of a genuine current of consciousness
"split off" from the main stream and lost to normal memory.
It is argued from these various groups of facts that the old
philosophic conception of a single unchanging Self in man
must be abandoned, that self-consciousness instead of being
a unity is really multiple, or at least double in its ultimate con-
stitution, and that our seemingly indivisible personal identity is

i^ Cf. Binet, op. cit, p. So and p, 20.


merely Si fusion of diverse factors. As M. Binet urges : " What
is capable of division must be made up of parts. If a
personality becomes double or triple it is a grouping or
resultant of many elements. "^^

Criticism. — We would first observe that the more
remarkable cases like that of Felida are extremely rare,
and that theories built on such abnormal and obscure
phenomena are necessarily very frail. At the same
time we allow that the difficulty is not solved by merely
calling such cases " abnormal ; " and, whilst admitting
the obscurity of the problem, it seems to us that the
psychologist is bound to indicate what explanation his
principles offer for such facts, when these are duly
authenticated. Unfortunately the temptation to make
such histories startling by exaggerating their abnormal
aspect betrays itself even in " scientific " reports.
Thus it is often asserted that all the events of one state
are completely forgotten in the other, yet further
inquiry discloses that a mass of common experience
such as knowledge of the meaning of language,
familiarity with persons, objects, localities, and the like,
are retained in both. On the whole, increased care in
the observation of these cases goes to connect the most
extraordinary with the normal, and also seems to prove
that in at least one of the psychic existences portion
of the experiences of the other are remembered._ This
fact alone would prove real identity of the person in both

2. With respect to the alleged alterations of the
" self," we must recall the important distinction between
the abstract notion of my personality and the perception
of my concrete self already dwelt upon. (P. 365.) We
there pointed out that besides the immediate appre-
hension of self as present in our mental activities, each
of us possesses a habitual representation of hiniself in the
form of a complex conception elaborated by intellectual

i6 Op. cit. pp. 348, 349. Similarly Ribot : "The unity of the
Ego is the cohesion of the states of consciousness." {Les Maladies de
la Personalite, ad fin.)

17 Cf. Ladd, Philosophy of Mind, pp. 164—168.


abstraction. This idea presents to me a quasi objective
view of m3^self, emphasizing the states, experience, and
character by which the total Ego is externally dis-
tinguished from other persons rather than the subject
as distinguished from these states themselves. This
objective concept of self as an individual history is
based on memory. Consequently a dislocation of

Online LibraryMichael MaherPsychology: empirical and rational → online text (page 49 of 63)