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chie¬‚y of the stream of my breathing. The ˜I think™ which Kant said must
be able to accompany all my objects, is the ˜I breathe™ which actually
does accompany them.” Though noting the presence of other “muscular
adjustments,” James concludes that “breath, which was ever the original
of ˜spirit,™ breath moving outwards, between the glottis and the nostrils, is,
I am persuaded, the essence out of which philosophers have constructed
the entity known to them as consciousness” (RE, 19).
This argument is not convincing. Relying merely on James™s introspec-
tion, it also seems to confuse the question of how consciousness is felt
with the questions of how and whether consciousness exists. That we feel
something through our breathing movements does not mean that this
something is essentially no more than such movements. Of course, this
distinction is undermined if we are metaphysically committed to the view
that things can be nothing more than the way they are currently felt in
one™s experience. But why should one accept this view, especially given
James™s critique of our poor ability to recognize what we actually feel? Why,

26 James™s skepticism about such a feeling of pure psychic energy is indicated by his placing
it both in parenthesis and under the shadow of a question mark.
Deeper into the Storm Center 155

moreover, does James decide to limit the breath of thought to exhalation;
for surely we can also feel our inhalations when we think. Though James
surely exaggerates in de¬ning breath as the essence of consciousness (for
we clearly continue to breathe when we are unconscious), his overstate-
ment does have pragmatic shock value in underlining an important truth:
the powerful in¬‚uence of breathing in the activity and effort of thinking.
Mind-body disciplines, from ancient yoga and Zen to modern Feldenkrais
Method, have effectively demonstrated this truth in practice by deploying
focused breathing to insure a steady calmness that is crucial to sharpen-
ing consciousness so that one can perceive and think more clearly and
deeply, yet with greater ease, even in situations of urgency and pressure.27


The Will
Philosophy often celebrates the will as the purest and strongest expression
of human spirituality. Descartes, for example, de¬ned it as the soul™s “prin-
cipal activity” and our “only . . . good reason for esteeming ourselves,”
since the will™s freedom “can never be constrained.”28 Having identi¬ed
thinking with the processes of breathing and subtle bodily movements
in the head and throat, James might be expected to propose a bodily
account of the will. But here James™s somaticism of mental life comes to
a sharp halt. Will, he insists, is a purely mental phenomenon that does
not in any way involve the body™s activity in executing what is willed. “In
a word, volition is a psychic or moral fact pure and simple” (PP, 1165).
Why this exception for volition? Perhaps because free will loomed
much larger than an abstract philosophical issue for James; it formed the
essential cornerstone of his entire life of perfectionist striving. His early
ambitions had long been defeated by deep bouts of depression that were
generated not simply by “bad nerves” and multiple physical ailments, but
by the philosophical specter of materialist determinism that threatened
to condemn his whole future to a life sentence of despondency. If there
was no free will for James to enlist to ¬ght against his physical and mental
miseries, then their hold on him would be inescapably paralyzing. The

27 See, for example, Moshe Feldenkrais, “Thinking and Breathing,” ch. 12 of Awareness
Through Movement (New York: Harper and Row, 1972). Advocating the importance of
proper breathing for the better overall functioning of the individual, Alexander Tech-
nique also urges a reeducation of our typically faulty breathing habits through “conscious
control” of our breathing mechanisms until we establish better breathing habits. See F.
M. Alexander, Man™s Supreme Inheritance (New York: Dutton, 1918), 315“339.
28 The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 2 vols. trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D.

Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1:333,343,384.
Body Consciousness
156

way out of this “crisis in [his] life,” James records in a diary entry of April
1870, was through the appeal of Charles Renouvier™s “de¬nition of free
will “ ˜the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have
other thoughts.™” “My ¬rst act of free will,” James momentously decides,
“shall be to believe in free will,” and this faith then inspired his life.29 His
monumental Principles of Psychology, a product of that faith, continues to
af¬rm its power to make us “the lords of life,” though James concedes that
his belief in free will rests ultimately on ethical grounds, not psychological
proof (PP, 1177, 1181).
If the will is purely mental, in what does it consist? James claims “atten-
tion with effort is all that any case of volition implies” (PP, 1166). It is
entirely a matter of focusing the mind™s attention on one idea rather than
another; and this chosen attention alone, barring physical constraints,
should be enough to initiate the voluntary action, because “conscious-
ness is in its very nature impulsive” or prone to act on its ideas (PP, 1134).
The act of willing “is absolutely completed when the stable state of the
idea is there”30 ; so the consequent “supervention of motion [in the body]
is a supernumerary phenomenon” that is not part of the willing proper
(PP, 1165). The effort felt in dif¬cult cases of exercising one™s will is sim-
ply that of forcing oneself “to ATTEND to a dif¬cult object and hold it fast
before the mind ” when strongly inclined to think of other things (PP, 1166).
“Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will,” and “the volitional
effort lies exclusively within the mental world. The whole drama is a men-
tal drama. The whole dif¬culty is a mental dif¬culty, a dif¬culty with an
object of our thought” (PP, 1167, 1168).
This psychic purism of the will is especially unconvincing because
undermined by James™s own previous arguments that clearly implicate the
body in volition. If effort of attention is the essential phenomenon of will,
then James should remember his arguments that such effort essentially
involves bodily means. Not just attention to sensory input but even atten-
tion to purely intellectual ideas is constituted through bodily activities of


29 Cited in Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James, abridged edition
(Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1996), 121, hereafter TCWJ.
30 James elsewhere notes that a further mental act of “express consent ” to the idea attended to

is sometimes needed (PP, 1172), for example, in cases when the “act of mental consent”
is needed to overcome or displace antagonistic ideas in the mind (PP, 1134). Though
James ¬rst claims that the mere “¬lling of the mind by an idea . . . is consent to the idea”
(PP, 1169), he later identi¬es “express consent ” and “the effort to consent” as being some-
thing more than mere attention to the idea (PP, 1172). In any case, this further act of
consent is likewise construed as entirely mental.
Deeper into the Storm Center 157

concentration (such as those “adjustments” felt in the head and throat)
that James describes and defends through introspection and other evi-
dence. So if “strain of the attention is the fundamental act of will” (PP,
1168), it must have a clear bodily component or expression.31
The body is also implicated in James™s account of voluntary action,
which forms part of his analysis of will. In such action, James insists, there
must be a “kinaesthetic idea . . . of what the act is to be,” an idea “made up of
memory-images of these sensations” of movement with which the willed act
is associated (PP, 1104). But we cannot make sense of these kinaesthetic
images without invoking the bodily movements and feelings essential for
experiencing such images and thus “equally essential” for recalling them.
Thus, our mental imagining or remembering of the act of picking up a
ball would include motor images of the relevant muscular contractions
needed for the movement (PP, 708).
Similar considerations challenge the Jamesian claim that all bodily mat-
ters relating to execution are irrelevant to successful cases of willing, that
“the willing terminates with the prevalence of the idea; and whether the
act then follows or not is a matter quite immaterial, so far as the willing
itself goes.” James argues for this by asking us to consider three cases. “I
will to write, and the act follows. I will to sneeze, and it does not. I will
that the distant table slide over the ¬‚oor towards me; it also does not. My
willing representation can no more instigate my sneezing-centre than it
can instigate the table to activity. But in both cases it is as true and good
willing as it was when I willed to write” (PP, 1165).
This argument is highly questionable, since most people cannot even
make sense of willing the table to move, as James, in a note, is forced
to concede (PP, 1165). He thinks the reason is that their belief in the
impossibility of successfully achieving the desired result renders them
psychologically unable to will. But this cannot be the right explanation,
because I also know I cannot make myself sneeze or ¬‚y; yet, I can make real
sense of willing those things. What is the difference? I can will to sneeze

31 James insists, in a note, that the will™s “effort of attention” or “volitional effort pure and
simple must be carefully distinguished from the muscular effort with which it is usually
confounded” (PP, 1167). But these muscular efforts are described as “peripheral feelings”
of “exertion,” which suggests that they are different from the central cephalic movements
of adjustments in attention, which involve such little muscular contraction that they are
barely detected by most people and hardly could count as exertion, even if they bespeak
effort. James, moreover, provides no way (not even in terms of his own introspection)
of distinguishing the purely mental volitional effort from the muscular effort of which
he speaks. He also admits the body™s necessary role in expressing volition, since “the only
direct outward effects of our will are bodily movements” (PP, 1098).
Body Consciousness
158

or to ¬‚y because I have some bodily sense (however vague or misguided)
of how I might do this. I have a kinaesthetic idea of what it is like to
sneeze and I can visualize or call up that idea in willing myself to sneeze. I
also have a vague (even if confused and largely empathetic) kinaesthetic
sense of what ¬‚ying is like (perhaps from experiences of jumping, diving,
¬‚ying in planes, watching birds or ¬ctional ¬‚ying superheroes that give
me bodily ideas of lift-off ), so that I can somehow make sense of willing
myself to launch into ¬‚ight. With making a distant table levitate or slide
toward me, I draw a kinaesthetic blank as do most people (though James
perhaps knew psychics who could provide an array of motor images to
draw on).
The repressed idea of the will™s bodily effort revealingly breaks through
in his discussion of this problematic case. “Only by abstracting from the
thought of the impossibility am I able to imagine strongly the table sliding
over the ¬‚oor, to make the bodily ˜effort™ which I do, and to will it to come
towards me” (PP, 1165). If dif¬cult acts of willing involve strong efforts of
imagination, then they involve some sense of bodily activity and means.
Modern somaesthetic disciplines, such as the Alexander Technique and
the Feldenkrais Method, draw the pragmatic conclusion that our powers
of volition can be rendered more effective by paying better attention
to our bodily feelings of willed action and to the precise bodily means
demanded of the action we wish to perform.


III
James studied, practiced, and discussed many different methods of
improving somatic experience, but perhaps his greatest contribution
to pragmatic somaesthetics can be found in his scattered but insightful
remarks on what we could call somaesthetic introspection, the examina-
tion of one™s own bodily feelings. A grand master at observing and vividly
describing such feelings, James may have ¬rst acquired this skill through
his sadly recurrent experience of diverse (and often subtle) psychoso-
matic ailments. But his powers of somaesthetic perception were further
honed by his tireless experiments of introspection conducted within the
framework of his scienti¬c research in psychology. As Gerald Myers notes,
introspection along with physiology were the two pillars of James scien-
ti¬c method in psychology.32 In the early years of this modern science
that James helped create, researchers were frequently obliged to perform

32 See Myers, William James, 54, 224.
Deeper into the Storm Center 159

their observations and experiments on themselves by having themselves
undergo an experience and then examining, often through introspec-
tion, its mental effects.33
“Introspective Observation,” James af¬rms with unfortunate overstate-
ment, “is what we have to rely on ¬rst and foremost and always” in the study of
mind (PP, 185), though admitting it is neither infallible nor all seeing.
It is just as “dif¬cult and fallible” as “all observation of whatever kind” is (PP,
191).34 Like John Stuart Mill, James argues that introspection essentially
means retrospection, since, in our ever-moving stream of thought, we
can objectify and report on a speci¬c mental event only by the time it has
just passed (into the present act of introspection) but is still fresh in our
memory. Moreover, because such re¬‚ective reporting requires descrip-
tive or classi¬catory language, introspective observation can err not only
in misremembering but also in misdescribing what it perceives. Knowing
we are sometimes motivated by mental states we are not clearly conscious
of, James repeatedly maintains that introspection is typically too super-
¬cial to detect all that the mind is actually feeling or doing. Recall how
he defends the role of somatic feelings in emotion and thought by argu-
ing that these feelings are simply overlooked because our introspection
is insuf¬ciently careful or acute. Moreover, any introspective focus will
necessarily relegate some mental states to an unobserved background.
Though aware of its limitations, James regards introspection as too pre-
cious a tool to reject, at least for the ¬‚edgling science of psychology that
possessed too few other resources. Urging that the introspective accounts
of diverse individuals should be multiplied, pooled, tested, and compared
to distinguish a common core of general truth from the scattered chaff of
idiosyncratic experiences, James further claims that an individual™s own

33 Lotze, Wundt, M¨ unsterberg, Mach, and other psychologists James cites in his Principles
of Psychology did the same, and James employs their introspective ¬ndings, noting where
his own experience converges and differs.
34 The article on “Introspection, psychology of ” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

(London: Routledge, 1998), 4:843 wrongly claims that for James there are no “aspects of
mind that are hidden from introspective awareness.” What James asserted was that there
could be no mental state without some consciousness that experienced it, but not that
those states were always introspectively observable. For he realized that they may be too
faint to be noticed or they may be blocked or repressed from an individual™s introspective
consciousness, as in hypnosis, multiple personality, and other such cases. James, however,
did not share the Freudian notion of a general unconscious and rejected the idea of
mental states that do not occur in any consciousness whatever. For more on these points,
see Myers, William James, 59“60, 210“211. There is a continuing debate about whether
introspection can be viewed as observation, since it is obviously different in signi¬cant
ways from the visual observation of external objects.
Body Consciousness
160

personal efforts of introspection could be improved through more atten-
tive, disciplined, and precise exercise of awareness. Most importantly, his
psychological analyses of attention, sensation, discrimination, and com-
parison provide key clues for concrete pragmatic strategies to improve
such awareness.
1. The ¬rst way James guides us toward better introspection is by point-
ing out the “baleful” (PP, 237) dif¬culties we actually have with it; for
unless we realize how and why our introspection is problematic or inad-
equate, we will have no clear direction for improving it. James notes how
the vague, nameless “feelings of tendency” and “psychic transitions” that
exist in our stream of consciousness are “very dif¬cult, introspectively, to
see” (PP, 236), because our attention always tends to focus on the “sub-
stantive” “resting-places” in that stream, which are ¬xed by words or by
clear, enduring “sensorial images” (PP, 236, 240, 244). Such nameless
feelings include bodily ones that are vaguely felt but not usually (or easily)
noticed by introspection. In contrast to the sharp throb of a toothache or
the prick of a pin (substantive, named feelings), there are subtle ¬‚eetingly
felt tendencies that escape our naming and explicit attention: a slight tilt
of our head, a faint expectation, a vague loosening of our pelvis, a gentle
easing of facial muscle tone as we open ourselves to some inviting person
or situation.
James also indicates more speci¬c problems of somaesthetic introspec-
tion. Feelings of “the beating of our hearts and arteries, our breathing,
[and even] certain steadfast bodily pains” are hard to focus on since they

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