Sunday, March 18, 2012

Consciousness and Purity

I'm attracted to the idea of our consciousness blending rather than simply being jointed together. If our consciousness were "chopped up in bits," our daily experiences would have no relations to past experiences - including the immediate past. If this were the case, would our relations to ordinary objects be like new every time? Would we have to re-teach ourselves simple things in life? Would every time I ate an apple feel like a new experience, despite how many times I've eaten an apple, because my consciousness would tell me it is a new experience? Thoreau may claim so (only if it was eaten in the wild, its natural habitat), but the fact that our consciousness is not choppy in this way allows for us to relate our current experiences with past experiences, and our current relations to objects with past relations of objects, no matter how much time has passed between. I feel James successfully illustrates this concept through his description of thunder piercing silence when he writes, "For even into our awareness of the thunder the awareness of the previous silence creeps and continues; for what we hear when the thunder crashes is not thunder pure, but thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it. Our feeling of the same objective thunder, coming in this way, is quite different from what it would be where the thunder a continuation of a previous thunder."

Now my question is this: if our consciousness flows like a river through all of our experiences, do we ever really and truly experience something purely? James claims that thunder breaking silence is not pure thunder, for it is "thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it." Therefore, it doesn't seem to me that any clap of thunder is pure; if it's breaking silence the thunder contrasts against the silence, and if it follows another clap of thunder, it contrasts with that clap of thunder. If our consciousness successfully blends itself through experiences in this way every time, how can anything we experience be pure if we are constantly relating experiences and objects to the immediate and far off past?


  1. I agree with post and all about experiences being related to past experiences. I believe that James justifies it through the mind and thought at that time of the experience. He writes "For there it is obvious and palpable that our state of mind is never precisely the same. Every thought we have of a given fact is, strictly speaking, unique, and only bears a resemblance of kind with our other thoughts of the same fact." To me he is stating that even though all of our experiences are connected, our state of mind during that experience is never the same therefore our thoughts of that experience won't be the same either even if it does create similar sensations for us.

  2. I think this is a good question and a particularly hard one. I suppose it makes since that the existence of past experiences and thoughts make it impossible for us to not have some type of background or knowledge when a "new" experience occurs. But at the same time, James says we can never replicate a state of consciousness. Our thoughts will never be exactly the same as previous ones. So while our experiences cannot be completely unique and "new," they cannot be completely old either, in that we will not experience them in the same way as other experiences. That was a lot to wrap my mind around.

  3. Your question about purity is difficult to answer without knowing how James is using the word. If by 'pure' he means unadulterated and exclusive of all else, I suppose the only place an experience like this could exist would be very fleetingly in a transitive thought. The shock of a new experience, for example, might create a momentary gap in consciousness, during which we register that experience purely. However, James doesn't mention anything happening during a time-gap (because technically it is a gap in consciousness, so nothing could happen) so this is really just me speculating. I'm inclined to think he'd say that's impossible, because there could be no forward progress from such a pure thought-- it is as impossible as the idea of an "unmodified brain" (3).

    The idea of purity also reminds me of his "true" table at the end, and in fact, it sort of reminds me of idealism. Without seeing a circle head-on, you can still identify it as a circle, though to you it looks oblong. This is because, according to James, the oblong view is a "perspective" view, while the circular view is the "real" one. He further says, "The mind chooses to suit itself, and decides what particular sensation shall be held more real and valid than all the rest." Though our "true" and "real" understandings of something may be no better than our perspective views, are we not denoting a kind of subjective purity? To put it another way, when James sees two obtuse angles and two acute ones on the surface of his table, yet names it a square, wouldn't the "square" table be purer than the rhombus he sees? Or is it the other way around? Or is it neither way? I'm lost.