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

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

Chapter 11
Consciousness and
Comparative Psychology

Ronald Baenninger
Temple University

When The Principles of Psychology was published academic psychologists considered subjective experience as data for scientific examination. William James's readers encountered thoughtful analyses of mental life--his own and that of others. For James, the irreducible data of psychology included the psychologist, "the thought studied," the "thought's object," and the "psychologist's reality" (I: 184). A century later experimental psychology has weathered a period when such matters were officially relegated to "armchair" psychology, when human subjective experience was removed from the respectable concerns of scientific psychology by the precepts of Wittgenstein ( 1921/ 1961), Bridgman ( 1936), and Watson ( 1913).

As sciences mature they become increasingly arcane to lay persons. When scientific problems are explained and enigmatic phenomena become better understood by scientists, their vocabulary inevitably becomes more specialized and inaccessible to outsiders. The conceptual frameworks and the problems studied become different from what lay people expect specialists in the science to be studying. Physicists no longer study falling bodies, electricity and magnetism, or heat transfer because Newton, Faraday, Rumford, and Joule were so successful in explaining such everyday phenomena. The problems that initially defined the field have been satisfactorily dealt with and are studied by freshmen; current research has to do with questions that only knowledgeable specialists would think of asking. The science becomes defined by questions that are quite different from those that originally defined it. There is a kind of scientific "recency effect," and only those who teach the introductory course can recall the early concerns of their field.

Psychology has been a bit different. We have never really answered the basic questions, those that most lay people think we are studying. The mind, mental life, and conscious experience are what students of introduc-

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