The Subject of Consciousness
© C.O. Evans

Chapter 5

The Experiential Self - 5.2.4
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2. The Problems the Theory Solves

[4] I shall shortly point out some of the advantages which the theory I am advocating has over the somatic field theory, but I first want to pair that theory with another one that has recently been suggested, since much of what I have to say is applicable to both. Ayer, in his book The Origins of Pragmatism has produced both a defence and an elaboration of James's theory of the self. At one point he calls it 'our' theory and I shall refer to it as the James-Ayer theory of the self. Ayer's main concern is to produce a theory that will account for the continuity of the self, or in other terms, with the unity of a succession of total temporary states. Now this problem is one that we will come to in the chapter after this one. However, I shall not put off consideration of the James-Ayer theory until then because a number of its aspects are of immediate relevance to the present discussion.

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The significance of James's theory in Ayer's eyes is that he solves the problem left by Hume; namely how to account for the unity of a bundle of perceptions in virtue of which the bundle constitutes a single self. James's solution is that each succeeding member of the series 'appropriates' the preceding member. The appropriation is passed on, or carried over, to each new member in such a way that the current experience appropriates all those that went before it. James recognizes that the experience doing the appropriating has a logically different character to the experiences that are appropriated. He marks this distinction by calling the appropriating experience the Thought. For purposes of exposition Ayer uses the letters T and E to refer to the appropriator and the appropriated respectively, and it will be convenient to follow him in this. The T is defined by James as a subject's 'present mental state 127 and the E is spoken of as a past mental state. From James's own description, therefore, one would gather that the entire total temporary state which formed a subject's present consciousness was a T for all earlier total temporary states. If that were the case James's theory would in no sense provide us with a subject of the sort Jones had in mind when he said that each experience here and now demanded a subject. James's theory would on that rendering seem geared to account for the continuity of the self alone, and have nothing to offer on the question of the subject that is contemporary with a given mental state. It is significant, therefore, that Ayer does not place this interpretation on James's view. Ayer interprets James's intention as being one of differentiating the T from E's which are contemporary with it, as well as from E's which precede it. That means thinking of consciousness as differentiated at any one time into an appropriating T and appropriated E's. Now this suggestion has much to recommend it. In the first place it is not as counter-intuitive as the interpretation which James' own description suggests: one can conceive of an element of a present total temporary state as a thought which is appropriating experiences, but it is impossible to conceive all of one's actual mental state at the time as in some sense a reflective recollection of vanished experience. Further, Ayer points out that James does not think in terms of sharp boundaries between past and present experiences. He describes consciousness as 'sensibly continuous'. 128 With this in mind Ayer makes the following remark:

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So the identifying thought appropriates whatever experiences it feels to be continuous with itself, as well as any other experiences, more remote from it in time, which are marked in its recollection with a similar warmth and intimacy. 129

Having gone this far the logic of the situation demands that recognition be given to the fact that experiences may be compresent. This category is none other than our total temporary state, and Ayer describes it in terms of the relation of 'sensible compresence'. We may take it, therefore, that T belongs to a set of sensibly compresent experiences.

As I understand it, Ayer's formulation is a detailed emendation of James's theory, and one that increases its plausibility. In the process Ayer has quite inadvertently arrived at a position in which it becomes possible to ascribe to each present experience its own subject. For the T which is sensibly compresent with a number of E's is tailor-made to be the contemporaneous subject of those E's. Now James never reached this conclusion, and the reason is that he had not refined his theory sufficiently to be able to reach it. But Ayer had. Why then did he not reach the conclusion? The answer is obvious. For Ayer the problem of personal identity is exclusively the problem of accounting for the unity of successive experiences in a series. The unity of the compresent experiences is independently assured by their relation of sensible compresence. Thus the T as appropriator only needs to be brought in to cover those cases in which experiences are united neither by the relation of sensible compresence nor by that of sensible continuity. I shall in due course link up Ayer's preoccupation with the continuity of the self, with his having failed to keep separate the question of personal identity from that of self-identity.

In the meantime we may simply note that Ayer has missed a golden opportunity to give an interpretation of James's theory which displays its latent power. What I am saying is that Ayer's preoccupation with personal identity causes him to miss the real importance of James's distinction between T and E. Nothing that James says makes it impossible for a T to appropriate an E that is compresent with it. In fact his description of a T as 'the real, present onlooking, remembering, judging thought' actually encourages one to think of it as capable of appropriating compresent experiences. We can even go further and say that for James it has

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to appropriate such compresent experiences, for only if it does so can such experiences be carried forward into future T's.

It is possible that Ayer was put off the track here because James points out that when a T is itself appropriated it has to be 'dead and gone'. In other words it has to become an E. Now I think it is possible that Ayer assumed that every E that a T appropriates has to be 'dead and gone', and this would entail the consequence that T's can only appropriate past experiences. But no such assumption is warranted. The fact that only a past T can be appropriated by a present T does not mean that present T's only appropriate past T's. Their doing so is not incompatible with their also being capable of appropriating present E's in addition to past T's and past E's. This I take to be the case. But then it is a logical feature of T's that they may function as subjects for compresent experiences. They are a form of mental event which not only could be given the role of subject, but which because their function is that of appropriation must be thought of as subjects. From this point of view they are a type of mental event which is much more suited to performing the role of subject than is the somatic field suggested by Gallie and Jones.

It emerges that James's theory contains within it the possibility of satisfying the demand for a subject which Jones laid down. It also has the additional advantage that the subject as so conceived would also account for the continuity of the self from the past, and in this respect it is superior to the somatic field theory which treats the continuity of the self as a delusion produced by the qualitative sameness of background elements in the somatic field.

Certain comparisons and contrasts can now be made between these two theories and the one I offer. All three provide us with a subject of experience such that even an isolated experience can be assigned a subject. In that sense for none of the theories is the self merely a logical construct. Apart from that similarity there is one very great difference between my theory and the other two. On the other two the presence of a mental event with which the self could be identified is something of an accident. As we saw in the case of the somatic field theory it appears to be just a matter of chance that the somatic field is always 'filled'. On James's theory it would also appear to be an arbitrary assumption that within every group of compresent experiences there will be an appropriating Thought. There is no necessity for each and every experience to be appropriated by a Thought. By contrast, no such hiatus plagues my

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theory since I have argued that no experience can be individuated except in so far as it presupposes the existence of unprojected consciousness. There is nothing merely de facto about the presence of unprojected consciousness when an object of experience has our attention. Thus on my theory the presence of a mental event which can assume the role of the subject is a logical necessity. On the other theories it is not. This seems to me to be a major point in its favour.

It is interesting to note that James characterizes the appropriating T in just the way I have pointed out that the subject is often characterized: namely, that a T cannot be an object to itself. We have seen that James says that a T can only appropriate another T that is 'dead and gone'. This is reminiscent of the view that we cannot make of the subject its own object without destroying its nature qua subject, and except in so far as it is an object for a further subject. It is interesting to see in this connection that James says of the Thought: 'A thing cannot appropriate itself; it is itself; and still less can it disown itself', and, ' . . . the thought never is an object in its own hands, it never appropriates or disowns itself. 130 This is just what we would want to say about the subject. It is difficult to see how this could be said of Jones's somatic field, or what reason could be given on that theory for thinking it true. Of James's theory it seems a bit more intuitively obvious that an appropriator cannot appropriate itself, but the obviousness may have more to do with the choice of the word 'appropriate' than with the clarity of the thought behind it. By contrast, on my theory if we treat the act of appropriation as the individuation of an experience as an object of attention, then it is logically necessary that the subject qua unprojected consciousness cannot be appropriated as object of attention. Furthermore, the notion of 'appropriation', which is admittedly obscure, can itself be explicated in terms of the account I have given of the relation between unprojected consciousness and object of attention.

This can be brought out most easily in contrast to Jones's theory. Jones, in dealing with the relation between the somatic field as a whole (the self) and some particular somatic experience, such as a pain in a part of the body, has this to say about the relation:

'And however many of them I may put forth from myself in a given inspection, in order again to relate to "myself" as qualities of

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which I am sensible, there must always be some core of unobjectified somatic content if I am to have a "self" to which I can relate the ones which I notice as being "sensed by me". 131

It can be seen how close to my theory Jones comes without quite reaching it. It will be noticed that he even goes so far as to talk of 'inspecting' a somatic sensation. His line of argument demands the recognition of attention as the factor responsible for the differentiation of the mass of somatic feeling from those particular ones which are said to be sensed by the self. It is also a striking fact that the somatic sensation to be inspected is described by him as something 'put forth' from the self. Here we have the very idea I have been describing, when I said that attention 'detaches' an element from unprojected consciousness and makes of it an object of attention. Neither Gallie nor Jones realize that the phenomenon they were describing could be put down quite simply to the operation of attention. As a result they were unable to free themselves from the belief that the 'core of unobjectified content' could be anything but somatic. It seems to me that Jones's passage calls for a different interpretation from the one he gives: the pain, or whatever, is the pain of a self, not because it comes from a mass of somatic feeling, but because it has been "put forth' from the self by attention. This would have been true whatever the composition of the consciousness from which the pain had been 'put forth'. It is not peculiarly due to the fact that it was put forth from a mass of bodily feeling.

Nevertheless, Jones's description of the inspected sensation as 'put forth' from the self is a very important insight. The reverse of the relation is that the self stands 'over against' the object of attention. It expresses the fact to which I alluded in the introduction when I said that the self occupies its own logical space which was separate from the logical space occupied by the experiences it 'owns'. It is now possible to make sense of the other idea to which I appealed in the introduction when I said that experiences 'appear to' their subject. If we separate consciousness into a subject pole and an object pole, and at the subject pole we place unprojected consciousness, and at the object pole an experience 'put forth' by attention, then we have a state of affairs in which both poles of consciousness contain elements. Thus it is possible for an experience to 'appear to' a self in the sense that it comes into a relation to a separate field of consciousness, and the

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relation is one of 'standing-apart-from'. Without this 'standing-apart-fromness' the notion of the experience being an 'appearing to' does not make sense.

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Footnotes

127. James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, p. 338.
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128. A.J. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism (San Francisco, 1968), p. 2.
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129. Ibid., p. 257.
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130. James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. I, p. 340.]
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131. Jones, 'The Self in Sensory Cognition', pp. 54-5.
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