"Speaking Terms"

William James on Intelligence


IV. How may our intelligence keep on speaking terms with the universe which engendered it?

William James had a problem (the resolution of which may provide an answer to this final question).

How can many consciousnesses be at the same time one consciousness? How can one and the same identical fact experience itself so diversely? (PU, 207-208)

James sees little room for the resolution of this paradox. Either we must grant that distinct mental states are
able to fuse in the mind, rather than (as James's physiology indicates) remain distinct and contiguous; or we must posit the existence of a soul to be the "knower" of each successive state of consciousness.

In his chapter on "Self" James develops the position that what we call "I", the self as knower, is actually the immediate state

of a stream of consciousness each successive part of which should know, and knowing, hug to itself and adopt, all those that went before, - thus standing as the representative of an entire past stream with which it is in no wise to be identified. (BC, 72)

In his later essays he pinpoints as a central problem the method and means by which such an identity is established.

The conjunctive relation that has given the most trouble to philosophy is the co-conscious transition, so to call it, by which one experience passes into another when both belong to the same self...and to be a radical empiricist means to hold fast to this conjunctive relation of all others, for this is the strategic point, the position through which, if a hole be made, all the corruptions of dialectics and all the metaphysical fictions pour into our philosophy. (RE, 47-48)

This "strategic point" of the conjunctive relation marks the position at which (concerning this one central issue) the dialogue between our intelligence and the universe may break down. James feels that "intelligence" (perhaps the whole western philosophical tradition) has ignored the reality of conjunction ("That secret of a continuous life, which the universe knows by heart and acts on every instant..." (PU, 207) In the apparent absence of a unitive power in experience, "intelligence" has had to posit various theoretical powers to explain why life is the way it is, how we can know things or ourselves. James finds these powers unsatisfying in the light of his physiological findings and his pragmatic method, yet intellectualistic logic would have him deny the reality of conjunctive experiences. In the face of this dilemma, James insists on the pragmatic method, which can be understood as follows.

In section II we defined intelligence as that three-fold
process of Sensation, Cerebration and Action by which an individual pursues future ends and chooses the means to attain them. Intelligence gets off speaking terms with the universe of experience when that process gets short-circuited - usually on the second level. (Though this may also occur on the first level with the presence of disease.) James would insist that the only way to stay on speaking terms with the universe is to keep the process complete: get to the third stage, respond and see if that action helps you toward your chosen ends.

The pragmatic method starts from the postulate that there is no difference of truth that does not make a difference of fact somewhere... (RE, 159)

A second postulate is "the principle of pure experience" (already noted in section I.) which holds that every fact must be experienceable and every experience must be considered a fact. (RE, 160)

We read this in The Principles of Psychology,

Sensations are the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of thought...Only when you deduce a possible sensation for me from your theory, and give it to me when and where the theory requires, do I begin to be sure that your thought has anything to do with the truth. (PP, II.7)

The "sensation" James produces to support his theory of self (composed of a stream of distinct yet conjunctive states of consciousness) is nothing less than the experienced continuity of reality.

...and by reality here I mean reality where things happen, all temporal reality without exception...that distributed and strung-along and flowing sort of reality which we finite beings swim in. That is the sort of reality given us, and that is the sort with which logic is so incommensurable. (PU, 213)

A logical process cannot begin to measure the truth of experience because it is limited to substantive terms and cannot conceive of transitional ones. James says we must "hold fast to this conjunctive relation" (the co-conscious transition) because this experienced continuity of our own self is a fundamental fact, an axiom that gets me out of bed each morning because I remember who I am. This experienced continuity is a pre-condition for the possibility of any kind of knowledge. To deny it is to upset seriously the discourse between intelligence and the universe. James's argument with the western tradition seems to revolve around a dispute over the nature of truth. Any representative of any western philosophical persuasion would probably admit that truth was the goal. (I presume and generalize of necessity from ignorance.) But of all these we get the impression (from James himself) that only James is seeking a useful truth. (BC, 109-110) And that truth would not be one, but many. And those truths would not be immutable, but flowing, Consider his attitude toward essence:

Every reality has an infinity of aspects or properties. (BC, 221)

There is no property ABSOLUTELY essential to any one thing.(BC, 222)

To our vulgarest names we ascribe an eternal and exclusive worth. (BC, 224)

He grants very little ontological, but a great deal of teleological significance to these "essences", these properties plucked from the flux by our sensate and conceptual machinery. He defines essence in its relation to particular phenomena, not standing by itself, absolute and free of accidental "impurities".

The essence of a thing is that one of its properties which is so important for my interests that in comparison with it I may neglect the rest. (BC, 224)

This is a truth useful enough for a lion on the veldt, a general at the front, or a suburbanite with weeds. The essence of any truth is firmly bound to the interest of the truth-seeker and is no end in itself.

One gets the feeling that if "essence" (as traditionally figured) is not a completely wrong-headed concept, it is at least useless. James's project throughout Psychology and the essays has been to describe a way of looking at and speaking to the universe of which we are made so that we may act more successfully within it. At the end of A Pluralistic Universe, he quotes Blondel, "We use what we are and have, to know; and what we know, to be and have still more." Our logic, reason and truth are tools to help us get on in the world. How we use these tools is determined by our interest (BC, 225), that antenna which selects experience from the flux and the personal fringe (as relentlessly as the fovea zeros in on the faintest peripheral motion) that we may not only survive, but flourish in the middle of the stream.

If our intelligence would remain on speaking terms with the universe that engendered it, James suggests, a good dose of humility is in order, So much of James's thought in these works is accompanied by an implicit plea to recognize our limits, to begin with particular experience, evaluate its significance, and act. This action requires a sacrifice (of intellectual ego if nothing else).

My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing, and I can only do one thing at a time...Our scope is narrow, and we must attack things piecemeal, ignoring the solid fulness in which the elements of Nature exist, and stringing one after another of them together in a serial way, to suit our little interests as they change from hour to hour. (BC, 222-223)

Intelligence cannot begin with the big picture because it does not experience the big picture. It must move through the universe with small steps, binding up experience as it goes. James holds that the universe is "many" and (as noted in the first section) it is comforting to think that the end of our intelligence may be to weave an ever-expanding fabric of connective experience, but we can never know the whole truth. There is always something more. There is good reason therefore for a humble tone in our conversation with the universe. Uncertainty comes with the territory. But, in any case,

We cannot aim "generally" at the universe; or if we do, we miss our game. (BC, 223)

And finally,

...if an intellect stays aloft among its abstract terms and generalized relations, and does not reinsert itself with its conclusions into some particular point of the immediate stream of life, it fails to finish out its function and leaves its normal race unrun. (RE, 97)

Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
Mundelein, IL


BC Psychology: The Briefer Course, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana. 1985.

PH Psychology: The Briefer Course, Collier Books, N.Y. 1962. (This text was used for the physiological chapters.)

PP The Principles of Psychology, vols. I and II, Dover, N.Y.

RE Essays in Radical Empiricism, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass. 1967.

PU A Pluralistic Universe, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass. 1967.

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