The Experience Train of William James: Part 1

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 17 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Debora Prieto
11 years ago

Thanks Jeff,

What I see is that there is still duality. Who is having the experience? And in order for something to be experienced, there must be that which is being experienced and that who is experiencing it, whether if it is an outsider, as the witness, or it is happening from within us.

thank you,

Debora.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I am looking into William James and it is great you are writing about him; you always make it so easy to understand, reading a book about him is much more difficult. I just read from him: the necessary truth of two plus two is four doesn’t follow the meaning of the words two and four, but it follows from the relation ‘plus’. I never thought reading a sentence like this would make me re-read a chapter. I will not interfere with your writing about him, but it helps a lot grasping what he is writing about, thank you.

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Is “thinking” an “experience ” for James ?

maybe it is a bit naive to say that “everything is experience”. Thinking, or the input of Theory, is obviously not.

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Well, that’s one of the points I am just learning from Steiner. According to him, thoughts can be the object of experience, but thinking is never. Steiner’s proof goes like follows. When we think about, say an equation of mathematics, in the process of thinking we are aware of the equation, but not of “thinking” itself. Now after we have thought about the equation, we can decide to think about the process of thinking. Then the process of thinking becomes the object of the experience, but still thinking is out of access. There are not many activities like “thinking” [… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

I have checked that Steiner is contemporary to Dewey.
Their two types of system of education look very similar.

But well, Steiner is an enlightened scholar initiated in an old esoteric tradition and advocating evolution of consciousness [ yes, already at the time]. He is a very very special guy, one of the very few truly universal spirits i came across.

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Well, I am not sure Steiner can be categorized as a mystic rather than a philosopher . During the first part of his life he was simply well known as a scholar, and his first book,which I advise, is written by the philosopher-Steiner. He was Editor of the Scientifc works of Goethe, and worked on the Edition and comments on Nietzche ‘s philosophy [ whom he met since he was contemporary of Nietzche]. He was just making a living out of being a philosophical scholar. The fact that he was enlightened and initiated by an unknown Master, and has gained… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

I agree with you that Emerson looks closer to Steiner, because of what you said, that the seed for all that both were doing is mystical. I just notice after my last comment, that I have no clue from where this veneration for geniuses comes from. Even the word “genius” for me is sacred. And I have no clue why we get some prejudice against most of them, as if culture was rejecting them. It is what happened to me with Steiner: I thought he was a weird “mystical esoterical guy who had some alchemic receipes for everything but was… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Sorry then ! my misunderstanding .

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

You are right ! I am used to fight like this especially when I talk to my physicists colleagues, and I always feel I need to pile up the materialists proofs that a guy like Steiner is a genius.

But frankly what is the highest for me in Steiner is his enlightenment and the fact that he puts scientific words on it.
The accomplishments are just the flowers of the seeds of Enlightenment.

Just forgot that you were on my side !

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

Thank you Catherine for pointing out Steiner to us. He is a giant. It is really fascinating to read.

John874
11 years ago

Very nice site!