Reflections on the Principles of Psychology: William James after a Century

By Michael G. Johnson; Tracy B. Henley | Go to book overview

Foreword

Roger Brown

Harvard University

The writing style and contents of James Principles evokes our lasting admiration and on some topics, especially Attention, Stream of Thought, and Consciousness of Self, he was something of a poet. One thing that poetry does is name "what hath oft been thought but ne'er so well expressed." That namelessness is compatible with existence (I: 251) is a famous James dictum, and it is true, but to it one must add that the giving of a good name, not just a lexical tag but a description that brings a universal experience universally to mind, adds something to existence. It makes the experience available to thought, available as an object of thought, available even as an object of experiment.

Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps. (I: 251)

This mental state had not gone entirely nameless before James wrote his description. People would say: "I know the word; it's on the tip of my tongue." What does James's phenomenalist name add? The sense of an active process striving for completing something between the brink of a sneeze and the approach of an orgasm, but, more importantly, an awareness of paradox, of the mystery James always loved, because how can the

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