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Concepts of consciousness in the psychology and philosophy of William James

posted on 2023-05-26, 21:18 authored by Mackenzie, SL
By the mid-nineteenth century, the empiricist tradition, in conjunction with physiological investigations into the nervous system, had culminated in a mechanical/elementaristic account of consciousness. Darwin's theory of evolution provided the catalyst for the explicit conclusion that man is a conscious automaton. William James enthusiastically accepted the new science but was unwilling to accept the automatist conception of mind. Instead, inspired by Renouvier's doctrine of free will, he set out to construct a naturalistic, evolutionary account of mind wherein consciousness was efficacious both in promoting man's survival and in making genuinely moral changes in the world. This thesis analyzes the major structures of James' psychological and philosophical theories and shows how, in the process of attempting to reconcile his conflicting commitments to Darwin and Renouvier, James transformed selected Darwinian postulates into epistemological constructs. Developed along evolutionary lines, the efficacious, structurally unified stream of consciousness, described in The principles of psychology, was James' first major achievement. But having based his theory of consciousness on a mind/matter dualism, James was faced with the problem of how the mind knows the world, and the basic inconsistencies between Darwinian and Renouvian theory began to assert themselves in the form of a structure/function dichotomy. The dichotomy between the unified structure of consciousness and the two conflicting functions the mind fulfills is most obvious in the theory of volition, constructed to show how the mind acts upon, and thus knows the world. James' refutation of the theory of innervation and his conclusion that all knowledge is mediated through afferent sensations was a major advance, providing the foundation for his evolutionary epistemology, pragmatism. James had originally interpreted the physical world in the mathematical/mechanical terms of Newtonian science: in pragmatism, he began to redefine the physical world in evolutionary terms. Plagued by the problems of the mind/matter dualism on which he had based his psychology, he constructed an evolutionary metaphysic--radical empiricism--wherein he abolished the ontological dualism between thoughts and things, claiming that the thought of an object and the object itself were one piece of pure experience taken in two different functional contexts. But if James' attempt to equate thoughts and things proved unsuccessful, he was nevertheless convinced that the physical world could be described in temporal/mutable terms. Furthermore, he demonstrated that any particular separations between mind and matter were not absolute, while simultaneously showing that some such cuts were a necessary condition for knowledge and action. Finally, there is evidence in his final philosophy that he was returning to the mind/matter dualism of the psychology, having abandoned the excesses of radical empiricism, to come to grips with the problem of reconstructing the now temporal/mutable universe in scientific terms.


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Copyright 1980 the author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s). Appendix 1 appears to be the equivalent of the peer reviewed version of the following article: Mackenzie, L., 1980. William James and the problem of interests, Journal of the history of the behavioral sciences,16(2), 175-185, which has been published in final form at<175::AID-JHBS2300160208>3.0.CO;2-F. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.

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