The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 2

Consciousness - 2.3.8 [table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

3. Sir William Hamilton and his Critics

[8] J. S. Mill attacked Hamilton for maintaining that the distinction between subject and object was an ultimate deliverance of consciousness which could not be doubted. 34 He conceded that to

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the adult intelligence introspection certainly reveals the Duality of Consciousness which Hamilton had identified, and he also admitted that to such a mind any other possibility was inconceivable. But the essence of his criticism of Hamilton is that he mistakes acquired characteristics of consciousness for original ones.35 Mill argues that it comes to seem inconceivable to us that the distinction between ego and non-ego might not be a necessary condition of consciousness, because the habit of so regarding it has been ingrained from our earliest years. He sums up the position as follows:

These philosophers, therefore, and among them. Sir W. Hamilton, mistake altogether the true conditions of psychological investigation, when, instead of proving a belief to be an original fact of consciousness by showing that it could not have been acquired, they conclude that it was not acquired, for the reason, often false, and never sufficiently substantiated, that our consciousness cannot get rid of it now. 36

Hodgson sides with Mill in denying that consciousness in its original form was polarized into subject and object. He distinguishes three distinct stages of consciousness, which he calls primary consciousness, reflective consciousness, and direct consciousness, in that chronological order. Primary consciousness is a pre-conceptual stage of consciousness, which corresponds with what Mill calls 'original consciousness', and both of them ascribe this form of consciousness to the consciousness of infants prior to the commencement of conceptualization. Primary consciousness is characterized by the absence of any reference to the self, on the one hand, and the absence of any reference to 'things' on the other hand. It is whcn the stage of direct consciousness is reached that consciousness exhibits the typical duality identified by Hamilton. For Hodgson direct consciousness gives us our common sense view of the world. 37

'Experience . . . has no such inner duplicity ; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition.' 38

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James is in agreement with Mill and Hodgson in their denial that consciousness in its pristine state has any inner articulation into a self and that which is presented to the self. Those who, like Mill, Hodgson, and James, deny the existence of any sort of independent entity which we can identify as the self, have the responsibility of explaining how we come to have a conception of self, and precisely what this conception amounts to. Sheer denial is not enough. This fact is acknowledged by the three philosophers I have just mentioned.

In the passage just quoted James said of any dichotomy within consciousness that it comes 'not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition'. How then, in James's opinion, is this addition' effected? He explains:

A given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play(s) the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of "consciousness"; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective "content". In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing. And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective both at once. 39

Alongside this passage let me place one from Hodgson making essentially the same point:

These thoughts and feelings are not only thoughts and feelings, but bundles of constantly connected thoughts and feelings, that is, "things". The connection between them belongs to them. Therefore they are things, as well as, and without ceasing to be, states of consciousness. They have a double aspect; that which was undistinguished has, I now see, a distinction into consciousness and object of consciousness. 40

The point, I think it is true to say, is the one Wittgenstein had in mind when he said, 'I am my world.' 41

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34. J.S. Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (London, 1865), ch. 9, 11 and 12. Mill's views are not found in one place but have to be pieced together from scattered statements.
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35. Ibid. pp. 149-50.
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36. Ibid., pp. 150-1.
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37. Shadworth H. Hodgson, The Philosophy of Reflection (London, 1878), 1] James likewise rejects Hamilton's position:
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38. James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 9.
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39. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
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40. Hodgson, Philosophy of Reflection, I, 111.
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41. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ed. C. K. Ogden (London, 1922), 5.631.
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