Teixeia.stream of Consciousness and the Epochal Theory of Time (2009)

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Teixeia.stream of Consciousness and the Epochal Theory of Time (2009)
    E UROPEAN JOURNAL OF PRAGMATISM AND AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY   COPYRIGHT © 2009ASSOCIAZIONE PRAGMA  _________________________________________________________________________ ISSN: 2036-4091   2011, III, 1 131   Maria Teresa Teixeira The Stream of Consciousness and the Epochal Theory of Time  Abstract.  The Jamesian notion of the ‘stream of consciousness’is closely related to the epochal theory of time. It also stems from an attempt to resolve the old aporia contained in Zeno’s paradoxes. Time flows like a‘river’ or a ‘stream,’ but still it grows by ‘drops’ or ‘buds.’ These basic units of time are whole and indivisible, but they do not ‘crack’ or ‘di-vide’reality. Other process philosophies also include this notion of a continuous time that, neverthe-less, integrates these interrelated units that account for individualisation without any  breach of continuity. Henri Bergson’s durée and Alfred N. Whitehead’s epochal theory of time clearly illustrate this doctrine. The examination of memory and the status of the past as a positive existence also empha-sise the temporal aspect of reality. Existing reality grows out of its past, which endures in the newborn actuality. William James is widely known as one of the theorizers of pragmatism, and also for his  pioneering work on consciousness. Jamesian pragmatism relates to the rejection of intellec-tualism, and from an early stage to the notion of thought, or consciousness depicted as a continuous flux, like a “river” or a “stream” 1 In William James’s philosophy, rationalism is contrasted to pragmatism: “for rational-ism reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity, while for pragmatism it is still in the making, and awaits part of its complexion from the future” . Later in his philosophical development, James also pictured the world as something unfinished that flows and keeps growing. 2 . What emerges then is what is still in the making, not what is completed and pre-established. Real existence consists of real things, which are in the process of coming into being. We can actually apprehend these things that are ‘still in the making’ by a stroke of intuition. But they are not ready-made and clear-cut; also, they do not lie about awaiting our appropriation of them. Reality is a process of coming into being, a flux that unravels itself so that it can achieve its own existence. Re-ality “ mounts  in living its own undivided life – it buds and burgeons, changes and creates” 3   1 Principles of Psychology , vol. I, p. 239. 2 “Pragmatism and Humanism” in Writings 1902-1910 , p. 519. 3 “A Pluralistic Universe”,  Ibid  . p. 751. . William James can thus be considered as one of the forefathers of process philosophy. His philosophy was certainly an enduring inspiration for other process philosophers such as Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, and it gave rise to a new literary genre: the stream-of-consciousness novel. We can count Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Marcel Proust as some of the most illustrious writers who have explored this technique.  M ARIA T ERESA T EIXEIRA  T HE S TREAM OF C ONSCIOUSNESS AND THE E POCHAL T HEORY OF T IME    _________________________________________________________________________ ISSN: 2036-4091   2011, III, 1 132  In The Principles of Psychology  consciousness and its temporal succession are pre-sented as a continuous str eam. Thought is in a continual change. James depicts thought as something that “goes on” 4 : “Within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly con-tinuous” 5 In chapter IX of his Principles of Psychology , entitled “The Stream of Thought” he writes: “Every thought we have of a given fact is, strictly speaking, unique, and only bears a resemblance of kind with other thoughts of the same fact. When the identical fact recurs, we must think of it in a fresh manner, see it under a somewhat different angle, apprehend it in different relations from those in which it last appeared”. He says that “continuous” should be defined as “that which is without breach, crack, or division.” Consciousness cannot be divided into bits; on the contrary, it flows like a stream. However, we can identify different states of consciousness within the flow. But they are not external or contiguous to one another. There is a relatedness that accounts for the continuity of the flow of consciousness, although there is no recurrence of the same state of consciousness. This is the reason why we never think the same thing twice. James anticipates here what will be established later in the philosophies of Bergson and White-head’s as the irreversibility of time. 6 The novel states of consciousness that emerge can be identified and individualized. They seem to crack the stream of consciousness if we consider them as independent units. In fact, they are discrete units and exhibit a character of discontinuity. However, the flow of consciousness persists; distinctness does not break the continuous, ongoing activity of con-sciousness. “A silence may be broken by a thunder-clap, and we may be stunned and con-fused for a moment by the shock as to give no instant account to ourselves of what has hap- pened. But the very confusion is a mental state, and a state that passes us straight over from the silence to the sound. The transition between the thought of one object and the thought   of another is no more a break in the thought than a joint in a bamboo is a break in the wood. It is a part of the consciousness as much as the joint is a part of the bamboo”. Every state of consciousness is different from every other state of consciousness; there are no frozen, permanent thoughts making their appearance every now and then in consciousness. Also, every thought is a novel state of consciousness, no matter how close it may resemble other thoughts. Recogni-tion is the effort of bringing into consciousness an old idea, so that it can be the “same” idea. This effort must be considered as something extra that adds on to the srcinal idea and thereby introduces novelty. The early James thus seems to consider memory as a psychological effort that recon-structs an old idea. We will see later that, from the very beginning, the idea of an ontologi-cal past is implicit to James’s philosophy in so far as he emphasises the introduction of novelty in his temporal stream of consciousness. Novelty is indeed a character of temporal-ity; novel temporal states emerge from an ontological past that constitutes them in absolute novelty. However, James only admits to an ontological past in his late writings as a conse-quence of Bergson’s influence. 7 James compares the str eam of our consciousness to a bird’s life “made of an alternation of flights and perchings”. 8 . Also he calls “ the resting-places the ‘substantive parts’, and  places of flight the ‘transitive parts’, of the stream of thought” 9   4 Principles of Psychology , vol. I, p. 225. 5  Ibid  . p. 237. 6 P.233. 7 The Principles of Psychology , vol. I, p. 240. 8  Ibid.  p. 243. 9  Ibid. . These transitive parts i.e.  M ARIA T ERESA T EIXEIRA  T HE S TREAM OF C ONSCIOUSNESS AND THE E POCHAL T HEORY OF T IME    _________________________________________________________________________ ISSN: 2036-4091   2011, III, 1 133  the places of flight of the flux account for the unity of thought. This metaphor has fre-quently been misinterpreted. Henri Bergson criticised this distinction in a letter he wrote to William James in January 1903 10 , and in another one he wrote to Floris Delattre years later in 1923 11 Bergson seems to acknowledge this argument in his preface to the French translation of William James’s work on Pragmatism . He writes: “To be sure, our experience is not inco-herent. At the same time as it presents us with things and facts it shows us relationships be-tween the things and connections between the facts: these relations are as real, as directly observable, according to William James, as the things and facts themselves. But the rela-tions are fluctuating and the things fluid  . This is vastly different from that dry universe constructed by the philosophers with elements that are clear-cut and well-arranged, where each part is not only linked to another part, as experience shows us, but also, as our reason would have it, is coordinated to the whole”. He writes that in his durée réelle  there is no flight, and no rest. In other words, there is no instantaneous immobility, no static places of rest. Only transition is real. Reality is continuous and indi-visible change. He considers the stream of thought to have a psychological nature, whereas his durée  is metaphysical. Bergson’s criticism seems to draw a line between his du-réeréelle and James’s stream of thought. On a closer examination, however, Bergson’s durée is in fact quite near the Jamesian stream of thought. The resting-places in the stream of consciousness cannot be considered as “breaks in the thought”. There are no “cracks” in the stream of thought, only soft pat-terns and stream-flows. On the other hand, Bergson’s continuous flux is not homogeneous and its continuity should not be confused with the mathematical continuity of time, which is not true duration. It is but an endless repetition of the same mathematical element. The Bergsonian continuous flux is a dynamic continuity; also, the heterogeneity of duration is the true character of reality. Different states of consciousness succeed one another introduc-ing thereby novelty in this continuity. Hence, there are no two identical states of conscious-ness; they always differ even when they exhibit a close resemblance. For duration carries novelty within itself. James’s resting-places in the stream of consciousness are thus compa-rable to the heterogeneity of the duréeréelle . 12 This heterogeneous, continuous flow can be described as epochal. For it presents dis-continuities that can be identified as distinct phases in the flow of reality, which are not to  be considered as “cracks” in the stream. Process philosophers have developed distinctive epochal theories of time. William James argued that the stream of our experience comes in discrete durational units. Alfred North Whitehead held that “Time is sheer succession of epochal durations”. The resting-places are now “the things that are fluid”, and the places of flight “the relations that are fluctuating”. There are no static  places of rest, no instantaneous immobility; things endure in their inescapable, continuous flow. James’s stream of thought exhibits no clear-cut divisions; the succession of states is a flow from one state to the next: interpenetration, as Bergson would call it. 13 Bergson mostly emphasised continuity. He is often misinterpreted and his continuity is taken for an undifferentiated flow that unravels in ceaseless glide. However, the Bergsonian . Henri Bergson emphasized the qualitative multiplicity characterising the states of our consciousness. However, all three conceptions of consciousness and tem- porality are quite close. 10  Mélanges , p. 579, Correspondances , p. 80. 11    Mélanges , p. 1418, Correspondances , p. 1052-1055. 12 The Creative Mind  , p. 178-179. The italics are mine. 13 Science and the Modern World  , p. 125.  M ARIA T ERESA T EIXEIRA  T HE S TREAM OF C ONSCIOUSNESS AND THE E POCHAL T HEORY OF T IME    _________________________________________________________________________ ISSN: 2036-4091   2011, III, 1 134  flow is multifarious and does not preclude an abundant diversity of states of consciousness. As the flow unravels, it carries all the indestructible past that is present to the novel present that unrolls. The ontological past allows for the emergence of novelty; the emergence of novelty is only possible because temporality is duration. Different states of consciousness endure in such a way that their particular way of enduring characterises and differentiates them absolutely. They draw on the indestructible past for their coming into being; and the ontological past necessitates the emergence of the novel for it reinvents itself as the flow of consciousness is enriched by the novel states of consciousness. This heterogeneous flow is thus epochal; different states of consciousness are identifiable although they are not clear-cut and separate. The Bergsonian durée endures and in so doing characterises absolutely each and every state of consciousness that cannot, nevertheless, be separated from the entire flux. Inseparability and heterogeneity thus describe epochal time. Whitehead emphasises what he calls the atomic character of reality. He is also often misinterpreted. Actual entities, the basic entities of reality, “the final real things” are of a temporal nature; they become and perish because of their temporal nature. This is often a  point where some commentators grossly misinterpret Whiteheadian philosophy. They con-fuse the atomicity of becoming with clear-cut fixity, the indivisibility of becoming with the subsequent coordinate analysis of the actual entity that has attained satisfaction, i.e. com- pletion. Actual entities are “drops of experience”; as such they are individualised and be-come as indivisible wholes. Their atomic character lies in their individualisation and their indivisibility. Each entity is said to be an epochal duration for it is temporal and individual-ised. “The epochal duration is not realised via its successive  divisible parts, but is given with  its parts” 14 Whitehead and Bergson’s ontological pasts are very similar: irrevocability and inde-structibility result from novelty that is ever present in the temporal unravelling of reality. This new concept of temporality greatly diverges from the traditional notion of time that seems to srcinate from Saint Augustine. In Augustine’s doctrine the past does not seem to  be indestructible, nor does it seem to have any existence because past things cannot be found anywhere: “For if there are times past and future, I wish to know where they are. But if I have not yet succeeded in this, I still know that wherever they are, they are not there as future or past, but as present. For if they are there as future, they are there as not yet ; if they are there as past, they are there as no longer. Wherever they are and whatever they are they exist therefore only as present”. Once actual entities have become as temporal wholes, they perish subjec-tively; but they also become transcendent and are thus objectively immortal. This means that the past is immortal and forever irrevocable. It will be the data for future actual entities, i.e. the next actual occasions will prehend previous entities and grow together to form a novel entity. Prehension is appropriation. Novel actual entities appropriate the past so that they can become into a totally novel synthesis. The past is constitutive of novel entities and thus reveals its ontological nature. It conditions them although it does not determine them in an absolute way. 15 . Only the present seems to have existence: the  past is there “no longer” and the future is not there yet. However, Augustine seems to iden-tify some co-existence of the present with the past when he names three distinct times as: “a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future” 16   14 Science and the Modern World  , p. 125. 15 Confessions , Book XI, XVIII, 23. 16  Ibid  . Book XI, XX, 26. . He also emphasises that the three times coexist in the soul and that the “time pre-sent of things past” is memory. In a certain sense, we could say that Augustine’s memory is
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