- Ontology after Philosophical Psychology: The Continuity of Consciousness in William James’s Philosophy of Mind by Michela Bella
Ontology after Philosophical Psychology: The Continuity of Consciousness in William James’s Philosophy of Mind
Lexington Books: Lanham, Maryland 2019. xiv + 255 pp. (incl. index).
Michela Bella’s Ontology after Philosophical Psychology: The Continuity of Consciousness in William James’s Philosophy of Mind offers a detailed survey of James’s thought using “continuity” as its focal lens. Because the book presumes significant familiarity with James and frequently includes dense exegesis of his work’s most technical aspects, it is primarily for specialists. It will particularly interest James scholars studying the entanglement of the metaphysical with the psychological and epistemological.
Combining “historical” and “theoretical” points of view, Bella tracks “James’s gradual translation of psychological experimental observations of the continuity of thought into an ontological perspective according to which continuity constitutes a feature of reality” (ix). Bella writes: “one of the aims of this book is to show to what extent the issue of continuity is interconnected and multifaceted” (123). As such, I count at least seven different senses of continuity at play.1 Most prominent is James’s notion of the continuity of consciousness as a “stream” first advanced in the Principles. Bella reads latter innovations as efforts to think through this stream’s implications: how do we reconcile it with a discrete sense of self?; how is the stream of consciousness related to the external world?; what are the epistemic implications of this relation?; ultimately, what are the implications for the nature of reality? As Bella puts it, “[James] was looking for a way of integrating continuity— which he first discovered as the synthetic unity of consciousness—while still remaining loyal to his natural realism” (100). [End Page 105]
The book is divided into four chapters, the first two more historical and the latter two more theoretical. Chapter One (“The Activity of Mind: Experimental Psychology and the Reception of Darwinism”) situates James’ seminal psychological work in relation to the influence of Darwin. Contending that from an early date James’s inclination towards “naturalistic realism” made him an “evolutionist”, Bella shows how James nevertheless challenges then orthodox interpretations, in particular that of Herbert Spencer, for being overly deterministic. She then unpacks different implications of continuity within the “stream” of consciousness. Most obviously, there is the continuity of consciousness in denying the discrete sense impressions of atomistic empiricisms. But there is also “the continuity existing between our psychological functions and the world” (52). This latter sense follows James’ claim that “our relations to the world are sensibly felt” such that “we do not need to postulate any noumenic entity to justify this natural process” (52). In denying the need for a transcendental ordering agent, James claims that sensations are “rich enough to be organized in themselves and to form an orderly world” (45). This explains why he maintains “it is possible to detect an element of voluminousness in every sensation [as the] ‘original sensation of space’” (49).
Chapter Two (“Pluralistic Synechists”) continues historical work in studying relationships with three prominent interlocutors: Charles S. Peirce, Henri Bergson, and Ernst Mach. The chapter impressively modulates between exegesis of each interlocutor’s complex work and surveying similarities and differences with James. Detailing Peirce’s investigations into the logic of continuity, Bella complicates reductive caricatures of the James/Peirce relation while nevertheless identifying important differences. Most acute is the question of the mediate or immediate character of sensation. From Peirce’s perspective, James does not properly distinguish between feeling (as firstness) and thought (as thirdness). But James thinks the distinction between sensation (as immediate) and perception (as cognitive) allows him to admit the inferential and indirect function of perception while nevertheless not denying the continuity of processes of sensation between organism and world. In relation to Bergson, Bella shows how, despite their mutual regard and stated affinities, the two are oriented around different problems. Bergson is always most interested in metaphysics, whereas James begins in psychology: “This is the reason why James seems to have stumbled in the direction of the mind-world continuity, whereas Bergson was looking...