Mind Self and Society

Section 5 Parallelism and the Ambiguity of "Consciousness"

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"Consciousness" is a very ambiguous term. One often identifies consciousness with a certain something that is there under certain conditions and is not there under other conditions. One approaches this most naturally by assuming that it is something that happens under certain conditions of the organism, something, then, that can be conceived of as running parallel with certain phenomena in the nervous system, but not parallel with others. There seems to be no consciousness that answers to the motor processes as such; the consciousness we have of our action is that which is sensory in type and which answers to the current which comes from the sensory nerves which are affected by the contraction of the muscles. We are not conscious of the actual motor processes, but we have a sensory process that runs parallel to it. This is the situation out of which parallelistic psychology arises. It implies on the one side an organism which is a going concern, that seemingly can run without consciousness. A person continues to live when he is under a general anesthetic. Consciousness leaves and consciousness re-

(28) turns, but the organism itself runs on. And the more completely one is able to state the psychological processes in terms of the central nervous system the less important does this consciousness become.

The extreme statement of that sort was given by Hugo Munsterberg.[1] He assumed the organism itself simply ran on, but that answering to certain nervous changes there were conscious states. If one said that he did something, what that amounted to was a consciousness of the movement of the muscles of his body in doing it; the consciousness of the beginning of the act is that which he interpreted as his own volition to act. There is only a consciousness of certain processes that are going on. Parallelism in this extreme form, however, left out of account just such processes as those of attention and the selective character of consciousness. If the physiologist had been able to point out the mechanism of the central nervous system by which we organize our action, there might be still dominant such a statement in terms of this extreme parallelism which would regard the individual as simply conscious of the selection which the organism made. But the process of selection itself is so complex that it becomes almost impossible to state it, especially in such terms. Consciousness as such is peculiarly selective, and the processes of selection, of sensitizing the organ to stimuli, are something very difficult to isolate in the central nervous system. William James points out that the amount of difference which you have to give to a certain stimulus to make it dominant is very slight, and he could conceive of an act of volition which holds on to a certain stimulus, and just gives it a little more emphasis than it otherwise would have. Wundt tried to make parallelism possible by assuming the possibility of certain centers which could perform this selective function. But there was no satisfactory statement of the way in which one could get this interaction between an organism and a consciousness'. of the way in which consciousness could act upon a

(29) central nervous system. So that we get at this stage of the development of psychology parallelism rather than interactionism.

The parallelistic phase of psychology reveals itself not simply as one of the passing forms which has appeared in psychological investigation, but as one which has served a very evident purpose and met a very evident need.

We do distinguish, in some sense, the experiences that we call conscious from those going on in the world around us. We see a color and give it a certain name. We find that we are mistaken, due to a defect in our vision, and we go back to the spectral colors and analyze it. We say there is something that is independent of our immediate sensory process. We are trying to get hold of that part of experience that can be taken as independent of one's own immediate response. We want to get hold of that so that we can deal with the problem of error. Where no error is involved we do not draw the line. If we discover that a tree seen at a distance is not there when we reach the spot, we have mistaken something else for a tree. Thus, we have to have a field to which we can refer our own experience; and also we require objects which are recognized to be independent of our own vision. We want the mechanism which will make that distinction at any time, and we generalize it in this way. We work out the theory of sense perception in terms of the external stimulus, so that we can get hold of that which can be depended upon in order to distinguish it from that which cannot be depended upon in the same way. Even an object that is actually there can still be so resolved. In the laboratory we can distinguish between the stimulus and the sense experience. The experimenter turns on a certain light and he knows just what that fight is. He can tell what takes place in the retina and in the central nervous system, and then he asks what the experiences aft. He puts all sorts of elements in the process so that the subject will mistake what it is. He gets on the one side conscious data, and on the other side the physical processes that are going on. He carries this analysis only into a field which is of impor-

(30) -tance for his investigation; and he himself has objects out there which could be analyzed in the same fashion.

We want to be able to distinguish what belongs to our own experience from that which can be stated, as we say, in scientific terms. We are sure of some processes, but we are not sure as to the reaction of people to these processes. We recognize that there are all sorts of differences among individuals. We have to make this distinction, so we have to set up a certain parallelism between things which are there and have a uniform value for everybody, and things which vary with certain individuals. We seem to get a field of consciousness and a field of physical things which are not conscious.

I want to distinguish the differences in the use of the term consciousness to stand for accessibility to certain contents, and as synonymous with certain contents themselves. When you shut your eyes you shut yourself off from certain stimuli. If one takes an anesthetic the world is inaccessible to him. Similarly, sleep renders one inaccessible to the world. Now I want to distinguish this use of consciousness, that of rendering one accessible and inaccessible to certain fields, from these contents themselves which are determined by the experience of the individual. We want to be able to deal with an experience which varies with the different individuals, to deal with the different contents which in some sense represent the same object. We want to be able to separate those contents which vary from contents which are in some sense common to all of us. Our psychologists undertake definitely to deal with experience as it varies with individuals. Some of these experiences are dependent upon the perspective of the individual and some are peculiar to a particular organ. If one is color-blind he has a different experience from a person with a normal eye.

When we use "consciousness," then, with reference to those conditions which are variable with the experience of the individual, this usage is a quite different one from that of rendering ourselves inaccessible to the world.[2] In one case we are dealing

(31) with the situation of a person going to sleep, distracting his attention or centering his attention-a partial or complete exclusion of certain parts of a field. The other use is in application to the experience of the individual that is different from the experience of anybody else, and not only different in that way but different from his own experience at different times. Our experience varies not simply with our own organism but from moment to moment, and yet it is an experience which is of something which has not varied as our experiences vary, and we want to be able to study that experience in this variable form, so that some sort of parallelism has to be set up. One might attempt to set up the parallelism outside of the body, but the study of the stimuli inevitably takes us over into the study of the body itself.

Different positions will lead to different experiences in regard to such an object as a penny placed on a certain spot. There are other phenomena that are dependent upon the character of the eye, or the effect of past experiences. What the penny would be experienced as depends upon the past experiences that may have occurred to the different individuals. It is a different penny to one person from what it is to another; yet the penny is there as an entity by itself. We want to be able to deal with these spatially perspectival differences in individuals. Still more important from a psychological standpoint is the perspective of memory, by means of which one person sees one penny and another sees another penny. These are characters which we want to separate, and it is here that the legitimacy of our parallelism lies, namely, in that distinction between the object as it can be determined, physically and physiologically, as common to all, and the experience which is peculiar to a particular organism, a particular person.

Setting this distinction up as a psychological doctrine gives the sort of psychology that Wundt has most effectively and

(32) exhaustively presented. He has tried to present the organism and its environment as identical physical objects for any experience, although the reflection of them in the different experiences are all different. Two persons studying the same central nervous system at the dissecting table will see it a little differently; yet they see the same central nervous system. Each of them has a different experience in that process. Now, put on one side the organism and its environment as a common object and then take what is left, so to speak, and put that into the experience of the separate individuals, and the result is a parallelism: on the one side the physical world, and on the other side consciousness.

The basis for this distinction is, as we have seen, a familiar and a justifiable one, but when put into the form of a psychology, as Wundt did, it reaches its limits; and if carried beyond leads into difficulty. The legitimate distinction is that which enables a person to identify that phase of an experience which is peculiar to himself, which has to be studied in terms of a moment in his biography. There are facts which are important only in so far as they lie in the biography of the individual. The technique of that sort of a separation comes back to the physiological environment on one side and to the experience on the other. In this way an experience of the object itself is contrasted with the individual's experience, consciousness on one side with the unconscious world on the other.

If we follow this distinction down to its limits we reach a physiological organism that is the same for all people, played upon by a set of stimuli which is the same to all. We want to follow the effects of such stimuli in the central nervous system up to the point where a particular individual has a specific experience. When we have done that for a particular case, we use this analysis as a basis for generalizing that distinction. We can say that there are physical things on one side and mental events on the other. We assume that the experienced world of each person is looked upon as a result of a causal series that lies inside of his brain. We follow stimuli into the brain, and

(33) there we say consciousness flashes out. In this way we have ultimately to locate all experience in the brain, and then old epistemological ghosts arise. Whose brain is it? How is the brain known? Where does that brain lie? The whole world comes to lie inside of the observer's brain; and his brain lies in everybody else's brain, and so on without end. All sorts of difficulties arise if one undertakes to erect this parallelistic division into a metaphysical one. The essentially practical nature of this division must now be pointed out.


  1. [See Die Willenshandlung.]
  2. [And, incidentally, from a third use in which "consciousness" is restricted to the level of the operation of symbols. On consciousness see "The Definition of the Psychical, " University of Chicago Decennial Publications, III (1903), 77 ff.; "What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?" Journal of Philosophy, VII (1910), 174 ff.]

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