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

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

Chapter 12
The Stream of Consciousness
Since James

Howard R. Pollio

University of Tennessee

Mention the phrase stream of consciousness, and you are soon likely to find yourself talking about James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or even Edward Dujardin. If the surname James occurs at all, it is as likely to be attached to Henry as to William. This seems an odd, if predictable, state of affairs since the term stream of consciousness was coined by William James in his attempt to describe the nature of mental life, as he put it, "from within." Over the years, and they were not all that many, the concept of stream of consciousness was lost to psychology once James Joyce turned Leopold Bloom loose in the quasi-real, quasi-mythic city of Dublin and gave Molly Bloom license to engage in a soliloquy on practically everything.

How is it psychology lost, or gave up, its claim to the Jamesian stream of consciousness? Perhaps the major reason concerns James's view that the stream of consciousness was designed to describe the flow of psychological phenomena "from within." Except for a brief flirtation with the study of consciousness by the introspectionists (whom James chided for chopping it up into analytic fictions known as mental elements) psychology from about 1916 until at least 1960 was ruled by the view that the view "from within" was subjective and unscientific. The only valid perspective for psychology was "from without," and the only proper subject matter was that which is viewable from without: behavior. Both the topic of mental life and the concept of stream of consciousness fell into disfavor and were lost to psychology in a long half-century of Watsonianism.

Stream of consciousness, however, is not an empty term. Everyone understands what is meant by it even if they are unable to provide a point-atable referent. Perhaps it was for this reason that the study of consciousness prospered in a number of settings not quite so constrained by Bridgeman's

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