Musing on “Consciousness” with William James & Alfred North Whitehead

William James (from “A World of Pure Experience,” Part 2, p. 568):

“With this we have the outlines of a philosophy of pure experience before us. At the outset of my essay, I called it a mosaic philosophy. In actual mosaics the pieces are held together by their bedding, for which bedding the Substances, transcendental Egos, or Absolutes of other philosophies may be taken to stand. In radical empiricism there is no bedding; it is as if the pieces clung together by their edges, the transitions experienced between them forming their cement. . . The metaphor serves to symbolize the fact that Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges. That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can not, I contend, be denied.”

What are we to make of this mystery of mysteries, consciousness? Is it thing or process? Entity or function? Origin or terminus? Who knows

In a qualified sense, I agree with the transcendental idealists that consciousness, as a condition of possibility, cannot itself be objectified. But nor can it be simply subjectified! James dissolves the false choice with his insistence on a pure experience without any fixed -jections, a flow or stream or living tissue of experiential connection that always grows at its edges, only terminating temporarily, for as long or as briefly as we, the knowing agent, remain satisfied with the relay linking this with that. 

Who am I in this flowing, growing tissue of relational experience? James does not mean to rob us of our agency in the process of de-entifying consciousness. The lack of solid subject or object need not leave us wallowing in dejection. On the contrary, James’ aim is to eject us from the solipsistic implications of a supposedly transcendental or substantial subjectivity. Experience is no longer mine or yours exclusively (though not to worry, we may still be afforded moments of privacy!), it is the world’s way of weaving itself together. For Whitehead, togetherness is always togetherness in experience; there is no other way to be together. One can easily detect the resonances with James in the following excerpt, from Process & Reality, p. 189: 

“All metaphysical theories which admit a disjunction between the component elements of individual experience on the one hand, and on the other hand the component elements of the external world, must inevitably run into difficulties over the truth and falsehood of propositions, and over the grounds for judgment. The former difficulty is metaphysical, the latter epistemological. But all difficulties as to first principles are only camouflaged metaphysical difficulties. Thus also the epistemological dif­ficulty is only solvable by an appeal to ontology. The first difficulty poses the question as to the account of truth and falsehood, and the second difficulty poses the question as to the account of the intuitive perception of truth and falsehood. The former concerns propositions, the latter con­cerns judgments. There is a togetherness of the component elements in individual experience. This ‘togetherness’ has that special peculiar meaning of ‘togetherness in experience.’ It is a togetherness of its own kind, ex­plicable by reference to nothing else. For the purpose of this discussion it is indifferent whether we speak of a ‘stream’ of experience, or of an ‘occasion’ of experience. With the former alternative there is togetherness in the stream, and with the latter alternative there is togetherness in the occasion. In either case, there is the unique ‘experiential togetherness.’

“The consideration of experiential togetherness raises the final metaphysical question: whether there is any other meaning of ‘togetherness.’ The denial of any alternative meaning, that is to say, of any meaning not abstracted from the experiential meaning, is the ‘subjectivist’ doctrine. This reformed version of the subjectivist doctrine is the doctrine of the philosophy of organism.”

So neither Whitehead nor James is rejecting the importance of subjectivity; rather, they are dissolving the subject’s hard edges, making its boundaries porous to the world, allowing it to partake in the tissue of experience that makes the togetherness of things possible. Consciousness, after all, is a knowing with, essentially it is a withness, perhaps the witness of withness!, not a substantial bedding but a relational field of pure experience. 

Is there a place for theory in James radical empiricism? How do we make sense of the scientific knowledge claimed by astronomers or biologists of times and spaces seemingly far removed from the instant field of the present? We may need Whitehead’s help here. There is a certain approach to modern science that Whitehead calls “scientific materialism” that has tended to bifurcate Nature into its “primary” and “secondary” characteristics, the “primary” being the quantifiable aspects of objective, extended physical stuff, and the “secondary” being the qualitative, subjective aspects of this stuff: colors, scents, aesthetic value, etc. Galileo is perhaps the first modern thinker to formalize this bifurcation, and it proved immensely useful in the further elaboration of the new scientific method, which simplified dramatically the blooming, buzzing confusion of Nature so as to abstract those aspects that could be measured and mathematically modeled. While the early founders of the scientific method and world view (Galileo, Descartes, Newton, et al.) did not yet pretend that the subjective side of reality, our consciousness, could be reduced to the objective side, matter, they did insist upon positing a rather incoherent fissure fracturing the universe right down the middle. In Whitehead’s terms, this left us with two Natures, the subjective dream-image and the objective scientific conjecture. We only directly experience the former, while the latter is a speculative construction (i.e., we do not have any direct experience of electrons, rather we perceive their effects and speculate upon their nature based upon experimental tests). In the 20th century, largely as a result of the invention of microprocessors and computers, scientific materialists did start to argue that the mind is reducible to the brain, nothing more than the software running on physiological hardware. For scientific materialism, there is thus, in Whitehead’s terms,

“the Nature apprehended in awareness and the Nature which is the cause of awareness. The Nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The Nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent Nature.”

The Concept of Nature, p. 30-31

James’ radical empiricism is an intervention upon this way of conceiving of our relation to Nature, whereby a speculative conjecture is given causal and explanatory priority over firsthand concrete experience. But does James go too far? How are we to make sense of the obvious power of the scientific method if we are limited to the “instant field of the present”? 

James himself would not deny the validity of scientific explanations, he would just caution against holding scientific truths as final. Rather, the theories which for now continue to work, i.e., to make accurate predictions, are “true enough.” Not true in some objective or universal sense, but pragmatically true, as good as we can do for now. James ends up reducing knowledge of Nature to instrumental knowledge. 

Whitehead goes further, building on James’ important criticisms and insights to produce what has been called a “speculative empiricism.” Whitehead is still pragmatic and radically empirical in orientation, but he recognizes a way forward to secure an open-ended form of metaphysical systematicity that James, the mosaic philosopher suspicious of all system, was not willing to follow. Whitehead sought out the “all-embracing relations” that might allow us to understand how the feelings of warmth and visual apprehension of the red glow of a fire might hang together with the agitated molecules of carbon and oxygen that science tells us are the cause of these qualities. 

“Time and space would appear to provide these all embracing relations  which the advocates of the philosophy of the unity of Nature require. The perceived redness of the fire and the warmth are definitely related in time and in space to the molecules of the fire and the molecules of the body.” 

The Concept of Nature, p. 33

Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysical scheme is thus an attempt to make good on James’ return to experience while also leaving room for the systematic relations in time and space of those aspects of Nature formerly divided into subjective and objective, or qualitative and quantitative, dimensions by scientific materialism. Whitehead, like James, sought to understand Nature in terms of pure experience. But Whitehead makes more explicit than James the fact that this tissue of pure experience exhibits a certain texture or systematic structure that mathematical intuition can unveil and understand. Thus, in Whitehead’s terms, 

“It is by reason of this disclosure of ultimate system that an intellectual comprehension of the physical universe is possible. There is a systematic framework permeating all relevant fact. By reference to this framework the variant, various, vagrant, evanescent details of the abundant world can have their mutual relations exhibited by their correlation to the common terms of a universal system. Sounds differ qualitatively among themselves, sounds differ qualitatively from colors, colors differ qualitatively from the rhythmic throbs of emotion and of pain; yet all alike are periodic and have their spatial relations and their wave-lengths. The discovery of the true relevance of the mathematical relations disclosed in presentational immediacy [i.e., sense perception] was the first step in the intellectual conquest of nature. Accu­rate science was then born. Apart from these relations as facts in nature, such science is meaningless, a tale told by an idiot and credited by fools. For example, the conjecture by an eminent astronomer, based on measure­ments of photographic plates, that the period of the revolution of our galaxy of stars is about three hundred million years can only derive its meaning from the systematic geometrical relations which permeate the epoch. But he would have required the same reference to system, if he had made an analogous statement about the period of revolution of a child’s top. Also the two periods are comparable in terms of the system.”  

Process & Reality, p. 327

So, we can have direct experience of the spinning top on the table before us, and we can link by analogy the experienced rhythms of its motions to the revolution of the galaxy, dimly apprehended via sense perception of the night sky, but speculatively grasped via mathematical reflection. This can be achieved without severing the tissue of experience. 

1 Comment

  1. Matt,

    I suppose you are not like me re Jamesian paucity, but see below, her essay was very useful for me, maybe for you in making further and direct J-W connection.

    Daryl ………

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