I seem to gain the best insight into the ideas of William James when I start by going back to some of his original work in psychology when he was formulating his unique ideas about the stream of consciousness. James looked into his experience and realized, as most of us do, that our experience appears to emerge in discrete moments one at a time. I am aware of this, and then I am aware of that, then this thought crosses my mind, then a feeling arises. Our experience is a stream of successive moments of experience.
If our experience occurs in discrete moments how do we know anything other than the moment we are in? If experience emerges one moment at a time then I am always in the middle of the current moment until it becomes the next. How then can I remember past moments? James realized that we often solve this problem for ourselves by imaging that consciousness is something akin to a witness that is watching all of the moments emerge into being. It is like a floating eyeball that is always aware of the present moment and those that have passed.
For James this kind of duality – a stream of consciousness and a mysterious witness that watched the stream – could not be tolerated. If the stream of consciousness was the experience train that is our reality, then where would this mysterious observe of the stream exist? James did not want to create some super natural or metaphysical realm where the observing “self” could exist. Instead he insisted that we must be aware of our experience from within the experience not from outside of it, but our moments of experience are not discrete separated like blocks in a row. Each moment starts at a low level of intensity, barely perceptible. The intensity of the experience grows until it crests at a peak intensity and becomes what we call the present moment. It then begins to fade and trail off. Each moment of experience has a leading edge fringe and a trailing edge fringe and the moments overlap so that at any given instant we are experiencing not only the peak experience that we call the present moment, but also the trailing edge fringes of moments that have passed and the leading edge fringes of moments that are coming into view. In this way, James explained how we could be aware of the stream of consciousness without having to leave it for some outside vantage point.
All experience happens now, in the present. Memory then is not an act of going back to relook at an experience of the past. It is either the experience of the trailing edge of an experience that has already peaked but is still alive in the present moment or it is the re-emergence in the present moment of an experience similar to one we have had in the past. The point is that experience only builds. It only grows and it only moves forward in time. You can’t get outside of experience and you can’t go backward. You can only go forward the experience train only has one direction and that is forward.
Another question that James thought about was the experience of self-consciousness. Our experience is often one of being aware of something and also being aware of being aware. That is self-consciousness. Again we usually, perhaps without thinking about it, imagine ourselves to be split in two. One version of ourselves is living in the moment having whatever experience we are having and the second version of ourselves is watching us have those experiences. Again James would not allow that the second observing self could exist outside of our experience. The experience of self, as far as James was concerned, was just another experience. Sometimes we are aware of an object and then we are aware of being aware of the object. They are both experiences and they both appear as part of the one train of experience.