<<

. 26
( 41 .)



>>

ground” and therefore need to be studied also inwardly through more
acute efforts of introspection. Indeed, he argued that critics rejected his
theory largely because they were introspectively unable to discern the
feelings of bodily changes he identi¬ed with emotion.20
James™s theory suffers from further problems. He was not always ade-
quately clear in distinguishing between mere bodily changes and the
feeling of those changes as what causes or constitutes the emotion (note
his remarks cited three paragraphs above). More seriously, in trying to
de¬ne what emotion is, James did not suf¬ciently distinguish the organic
constitution of emotion from the emotion™s intentional content or object,

19 James, “The Physical Basis of Emotion,” 351, hereafter PE.
20 James claims “there is no limit to the number of possible different emotions which may exist ” and
that “the emotions of different individuals may vary inde¬nitely, both as to their constitution
and as to objects which call them forth” (PP, 1069). He thus urges us to “discriminate
also between the various grades of emotion which we designate by one name,” though
recognizing that these grades should share “enough functional resemblance” to warrant
their common name, which should not be understood as designating a ¬xed essence in
an ontological or “entitative” sense (PE, 351, 354). Resisting the claim that his theory
is materialistic, James stresses that “our emotions must always be inwardly what they are,
whatever be the physiological ground of their apparition” (PP, 1068), and he defends
his theory by claiming that its critics are insuf¬ciently skilled at “introspection” to detect
or “localize” the bodily feelings involved in emotional excitement, hence they conclude
that this excitement must have a nonorganic source (PE, 360“362). James therefore
insists that we should “sharpen our introspection” to improve our ability of localizing
feelings (PP, 1070) and that many more people should provide careful reports of such
introspective “observations” (PE, 357).
Deeper into the Storm Center 149

which can also be thought to de¬ne an emotion because it is what the
emotion is about. This failure, we recall, forms the crux of Wittgenstein™s
attack on James™s theory. My bodily sensations of trembling, loss of breath,
muscle contraction may essentially contribute to my emotion of fearing
an approaching lion (rather than my mere judging the lion to be danger-
ous), but the object of my fear is really the lion, not these bodily changes
or my feelings of these changes.
Though his more sober reformulation gives such objects a vital role “as
elements . . . in [the] total ˜situations™” that generate or constitute emo-
tion,21 James™s dominant tendency is to identify emotion with the single
dimension he considered most distinctive “ “the organic feeling which
gives the rank character of commotion to the excitement” we feel in the
“seizure” of strong emotion and which distinguishes the emotional com-
motion of real fear from the mere cognitive recognition of danger (PE,
361). This organic feeling of excited commotion, James rightly argues,
depends on the bodily changes we feel in reaction to the object (or total
situation) that frightens us. However, the fact that this bodily feeling is
distinctive of the emotion does not justify inferring, as James does, that it
simply “IS the emotion,” as if to imply that the cognitive element is inessen-
tial. Such an inference commits what Dewey called “the fallacy of selective
emphasis,” taking one element that can be rightly emphasized as distinc-
tively important in a given phenomenon but then wrongly concluding
that it is all that is essential or de¬nitive of that phenomenon.22
Despite his problematic overstatements, James is clearly correct in
af¬rming an important bodily dimension to our emotions. Damasio™s
recent neurophysiological research con¬rms this, though Damasio is
even less careful than James in suggesting a simple bodily essentialism
about emotion. Damasio de¬nes “the essence of emotion as the collection


21 PE, 350. The core of James™s theory of emotion, in terms of the context of psychological
theory of his day, was that the emotions were the product of afferent nerve currents
based on sensorial input from the outside world and from our bodies rather than being
the pure product of efferent nerve currents going out toward the body and based on a
purely cognitive judgment of the mind. So James also de¬ned “the length and breadth”
of his theory in a most modest “unpretending” way by the proposition that our emotional
consciousness is always mediated by these incoming currents, some of which are “organic
sensations” (PE, 359“360).
22 John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981),

31“32. Dewey did not, however, invoke this fallacy in his very appreciative critical analysis
of James™s theory of emotion. For a brief discussion of Dewey™s critique, see Gerald Myers,
William James: His Life and Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 535“
536.
Body Consciousness
150

of changes in body state that are induced in myriad organs by nerve
cell terminals, under the control of a dedicated brain system, which is
responding to the content of thoughts relative to a particular entity or
event.” Many of such changes are perceptible to an external observer,
but some can only be perceived internally by the subject, who may also
not perceive them. Damasio reserves “the term feeling” for “the percep-
tion” or “the experience of those changes” (DE, 139). This formulation
problematically implies that we can be in an emotional state and not
even feel it, which would not be the case in the more precise version of
James™s theory, where to have the emotion is to feel the bodily changes,
though we could feel them and still not identify ourselves as having the
emotion. For instance, we could feel angry (by feeling the appropriate
bodily changes), yet not realize that we are angry or what we are angry
about. The key insight to retain from James and Damasio is that the bod-
ily changes resulting from the perception or thought of what provokes
us emotionally are not mere gratuitous or subsequent expressions of that
emotion but, rather, are part of its formative core as a mental state.
There are important pragmatic consequences to be drawn from James™s
theory. If there is an essential connection between our emotions and bod-
ily changes, then improved awareness of the feelings of these changes can
provide a tool for better recognizing our emotions. We can be anxious
or distressed without really knowing it; of course, we feel something, but
we do not explicitly recognize the feeling and thus do not identify it as
anxiety or distress. But if we are sensitive to our body signs, we can recog-
nize our emotional disturbance and deal with it, even before we know the
precise thing or situation outside our bodies about which we are anxious
or upset. James does not elaborate this pragmatic application of somaes-
thetic awareness, though he should have. Instead, he recommends man-
aging the emotions, by other means, by actions aimed at transforming
the bodily feelings involved in emotion.
Realizing that strong feelings can often be dangerously destructive
(and undoubtedly aware of the ravages of his own bouts of depression),
James is not an indiscriminate advocate of emotion.23 But he does af¬rm
passion™s productive dimension far more than do most philosophers.

23 Gerald Myers (William James, 227“230) describes James attitude toward emotion as
“ambivalent,” because James recognized emotions could sometimes be detrimental and
because he did not explicitly regard them as part of the most spiritual core of the self.
But that hardly amounts to serious ambivalence. In holding emotion to be essential to
his ideal of a full human life of rich experience and thought, James must have regarded
emotion as essentially a positive feature, even if some emotions could be negative in their
consequences.
Deeper into the Storm Center 151

Rather than a sign of error and irrationality, strong feeling provides prima
facie experiential evidence of reality and truth. In this basic experiential
sense, “reality means simply relation to our emotional and active life” (PP, 924);
what is most real for us is what we care most passionately and actively
about,24 even if such judgments of the real can be overruled by subse-
quent experience. Moreover, James argues, passion is not the enemy of
reason but rather its potent aid in pursuing a line of thought. “If focal-
ization of brain activity be the fundamental fact of reasonable thought,
we see why intense interest or concentrated passion makes us think so
much more truly and profoundly. The persistent focalization of motion in
certain tracts is the cerebral fact corresponding to the persistent domina-
tion in consciousness of the important feature of the subject. When not
˜focalized,™ we are scatter-brained; but when thoroughly impassioned, we
never wander from the point. None but congruous and relevant images
arise” (PP, 989“990).
Once again, Damasio offers a scienti¬cally updated version of James™s
argument. Since there is no single “Cartesian theater” where all brain
input meets together for simultaneous processing, human thinking works
“by synchronizing sets of neural activity in separate brain regions, in effect
a trick of timing,” involving “time binding” of images occurring in differ-
ent places but “within approximately the same window of time.” But this
requires “maintaining focused activity at different sites for as long as nec-
essary for meaningful combinations to be made and for reasoning and
decision making to take place. In other words, time binding requires pow-
erful and effective mechanisms of attention and working memory” (DE,
94“96). Damasio argues that emotions (through their somatic dimen-
sion) not only work “as a booster for continued working memory and attention”
but also facilitate “deliberation by highlighting some options” and elim-
inating other possibilities (DE, 174, 198). Without emotion™s “somatic
markers” to give an energizing boost and helpfully selective bias to our
thinking, we could not reason as quickly, effectively, and decisively as we
do. We would get lost in all the logical possibilities of action and their
possible consequences and thus would “lose track” or direction (DE, 172“
173). Pure rationalist cold-bloodedness, like the cold-bloodedness of the
brain-damaged patients Damasio treats, would make the “mental land-
scape” of working memory not only “hopelessly ¬‚at” but also “too shifty
and unsustained for the time required . . . of the reasoning process” in
any complex matter of thinking or decision making (DE, 51).

24 “Coercivenessover attention” (a common experiential way of de¬ning reality) is also
explained by James as “the result of liveliness or emotional interest” (PP, 928, 929).
Body Consciousness
152

James™s physiological-psychological argument for the productive role
of passion in our reasoning seems to issue (nine years after its formulation
in Principles of Psychology) in a far more striking and questionable episte-
mological claim: “wherever there is con¬‚ict of opinion and difference of
vision, we are bound to believe that the truer side is the side that feels
the more, and not the side that feels the less.”25 This view, which may
be more deeply rooted in James™s ethics of respect for individuals than
in his psychological arguments about the focusing power of feelings, is
clearly contestable, since we know how strong feelings often distort our
judgments. Passion may indeed hold us steadily on track, but it may be a
track that takes us further from the most rational direction or balanced
perspective for treating a problem. James™s assertion is best construed as a
pragmatic overstatement of the more convincing claim that we should be
more prone to pay attention to opinions that people feel strongly about
and to give them, at least prima facie, the bene¬t of the doubt.

Personal Identity and the Spiritual Self
Even when considered as essentially mental events, emotions have always
been associated with bodily passions and thus have never been regarded
(not even by James) as the most spiritual expression of mind. The spiritual
core was instead identi¬ed with one™s will and the active consciousness
directing one™s attention or stream of thought. James™s somatic philoso-
phy thus reaches its radical peak by asserting that bodily feeling rather
than “any purely spiritual element” provides our sense of “the active element
in all consciousness” that manifests our subjectivity and “spontaneity,”
and “that is the source of effort and attention . . . and . . . the ¬ats of the
will” (PP 284“287). Arguing from his own efforts of introspection, James
asserts that when observing the activity of this core “Self of selves,” in its
key mental acts of “attending, assenting, negating, making an effort,” and
so on, “all [he] can ever feel distinctly is some bodily process, for the most part taking
place within the head,” or “between the head and throat ” (PP, 287, 288). These
feelings, James explains, include the adjustments of the cephalic sense
organs associated with the thought (such as pressure and orientation of
the eyeballs) as well as muscular contractions of the brow, jaw, and glottis.
James next maintains, that, if his experience is typical of human thought
in general (and he presumes he is not psychologically aberrant), then
“our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is

25 WilliamJames, “On a Certain Blindness,” in Talks To Teachers on Psychology and To Students
on Some of Life™s Ideals (New York: Dover, 1962), 114.
Deeper into the Storm Center 153

really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked”
(PP, 288).
This argument does not prove that the core spiritual self of active will
and consciousness is itself bodily; nor did James intend it to. Given the
psychological focus of his Principles, James did not presume to pronounce
on the metaphysical reality of this spiritual self but only on how this inner-
most “nuclear self” (PP, 289) is actually felt in experience, for he held
that we do indeed feel its activity, and feel it somatically. Though James
admits the commonsense experience of “most men” would not identify
the feeling of mental activity in terms of localizable bodily feelings, he
claims the reason is simply our inadequate attentiveness and acuity in
somatic introspection. It is “for want of attention and re¬‚ection” that
these “cephalic motions” or “bodily activities” of thought “usually fail to
be perceived and classed as what they are” (i.e., bodily feelings), so we
assume they are felt in a purely spiritual way (PP, 288, 291“292).
Besides the feeling of one™s core spiritual self, the body provides the ini-
tial core of self-interest; and the eventual range of such interest effectively
determines the ethical scope of the self. For evolutionary reasons of “sur-
vival,” James argues, a person™s “own body . . . ¬rst of all, its friends next, and
¬nally its spiritual dispositions, MUST be the supremely interesting OBJECTS for
each human mind” from which “other objects may become interesting derivatively
through association” (PP, 307“308). Our interest in friends and mental
powers ultimately derives from their relation to caring for the body™s
needs as necessary for basic self-survival. “My own body and what ministers
to its needs are thus the primitive object, instinctively determined, of my egoistic
interests” from which other interests (including altruistic ones) evolve to
greatly enlarge the self (PP, 308).
Bodily feelings are also claimed to be the nucleus of our sense of con-
tinuous self-identity and of the very unity of consciousness with which
the thinking “I” is identi¬ed. What gives us, asks James, the sense that
I am the same self that I was yesterday and that my present thought
belongs to the same stream of consciousness as my earlier thoughts? He
answers this psychological question (distinct from the epistemological
question of what guarantees the truth of this sensed unity) in terms of feel-
ings of “warmth and intimacy” that the present self (or current thought)
feels toward its past counterparts; and these feelings James identi¬es as
bodily: “we feel the whole cubic mass of our body all the while, it gives
us an unceasing sense of personal existence” (PP, 316). “The past and
present selves” are uni¬ed by “a uniform feeling of ˜warmth,™ of bodily
existence (or an equally uniform feeling of pure psychic energy?) [that]
Body Consciousness
154

pervades them all . . . and gives them a generic unity,” though “this generic
unity coexists with generic differences just as real as the unity” (PP, 318).26
Even the unity of consciousness of my present thought (which can then
appropriate past thoughts and selves as being mine) must, James argues,
be grounded in the body. Because my present thought™s unity cannot be
explained as pure awareness of itself (since the pure thinking “I” cannot
be conscious of itself as an object), this unity must instead derive from
“the most intimately felt part of its present Object, the body, and the central
adjustments, which accompany the act of thinking, in the head. These are
the real nucleus of our personal identity” (PP, 323).
This somewhat tortured account of how the unity of consciousness
rests on embodied feeling is greatly simpli¬ed when James gives up the
more traditional dualistic language of his Principles of Psychology for the
experiential monism of his radical empiricism, which simply denies that
consciousness exists as a special spiritual entity, though it still exists as a
function of thinking or knowing. In other words, consciousness exists in
the sense that we surely have thoughts, but not in the sense that thoughts
are tied together by a continuous substance called consciousness that
is independent of its content or objects. My consciousness or “stream
of thinking,” James asserts, relying once again on his introspection, “is
only a careless name for what, when scrutinized, reveals itself to consist

<<

. 26
( 41 .)



>>