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Susanne Langer and William James: Art and the Dynamics of the Stream of Consciousness
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.4 (2001) 272-285

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Susanne Langer and William James:
Art and the Dynamics of the Stream of Consciousness

Donald Dryden
Duke University

1. The Natural Sciences and the Phenomenology of Consciousness

A naturalistic approach to the study of the mind that takes consciousness seriously must have resources for carrying out a systematic exploration of the phenomenology of conscious experience. If the phenomena of consciousness can be adequately understood only within the larger framework of organismic and evolutionary biology, then a naturalistic theory should be able to work out phenomenological distinctions for the description of human experience that are more consonant with the results of the neurosciences and evolutionary theory than any that are currently available (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991). But if phenomenology and the natural sciences are to be treated with equal respect (Flanagan 1992), then we can expect phenomenological explorations of consciousness to make demands on biological theory as well; and a complex interplay between the work of phenomenological analysis and developments in psychology and the biological sciences will likely lead to significant reformulations of the basic terms in both domains.

For a naturalistic theory of consciousness, the objects of study are the phenomena of subjective experience--the first-person, experiential perspective, the "what-it-is-like-to-be" (Nagel 1979) of events that centrally involve the brain/mind embodied in a living organism, which in [End Page 272] turn is situated within a particular ambient or life-world. But as William James recognized more than a century ago, the intricate dynamic patterns of immediate experience--the comings and goings of sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions, fantasies, and thoughts that compose the fabric of mental life that he called the stream of consciousness--are difficult to observe because of their very immediacy. Because the constantly moving stream of conscious experience will not stand still to be looked at, it usually passes unrecorded, its dynamic forms never attaining the kind of stable formulation that would catch and hold them, making them available for study and, eventually, for more systematic understanding.

In The Principles of Psychology, in his famous chapter on "The Stream of Thought," James observed that one of the most obvious characteristics of conscious experience is that it is constantly changing, with brief periods of rest punctuating periods of passage or transition in which the movement seems to be directed from one point of rest toward another: "Like a bird's life," he wrote, "it seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings" (1890, 243). The periods of rest he called the substantive parts of the stream--the definite images, the terms of thought, the clear and distinct ideas that keep their form long enough to be singled out, lifted from the stream, and named.

Words are well suited to the substantive parts of the stream, but the transitive parts--the periods of transition--are more difficult to catch hold of. "The rush of the thought," James observed, "is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can arrest it. . . . The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly to see how the darkness looks" (244).

James believed that the momentary resting points of experience, which lend themselves so well to naming, "form but the very smallest part of our minds as they actually live" (James 1890, 255), but they have long occupied the center of attention in psychology because their clarity and distinctness give them such a natural affinity to language. The moving passages of experience, on the other hand, correspond to what James called the "innumerable relations and forms of connection between the facts of the world," relations which "are [so] numberless, [that] no existing language is capable of doing justice to all their shades" (244-45). "It is just this free water of consciousness," James maintained, "that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the...