What is stream of consciousness History and Descriptive Properties

Stream of Consciousness

The term “Stream of Consciousness” was coined by William James in the late 19th century to refer to how thoughts emanate from and circulate in the conscious mind . By this concept, James analyzed the wide variety of thoughts that we know and how they shape the stream of consciousness.

Next, we’ll see what William James’ idea of ​​stream of consciousness consists of, what its attributes are, and how our thoughts are shaped.

History of Stream of Consciousness

In 1889, the American William James published one of the works consecrated as one of the fathers of psychology: “The Principles of Psychology” (The Principles of Psychology). In this book, he explored and described consciousness in terms of a “stream” or “current”, that is, as a continuous succession of experiences through which we select or direct our attention to certain stimuli.

Among other things, James was concerned, like many other scientists and philosophers of the time, to explore the content of consciousness and to know the way in which we carry out that complex action that we call “thought” and what it is. more: how we realize (become aware) that we are thinking.

He called it “stream” , to make a metaphorical reference to a kind of caravan of ideas, images, feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc., that constantly appear and disappear in our consciousness.

According to this idea, all the previous elements, contrary to what was thought, are not so separate and differentiated from each other; They are part of the same conscious stream in which past and current thoughts are connected.

There is then an overlap of our cognitive experiences , where the current experience may be the easiest to immediately recognize, but it turns out that past experiences are still present, and the next ones gradually come into the flow.

That is, mental states follow. There are no “isolated thoughts”, but they are all in the same continuous stream of consciousness, regardless of temporality and even what we can anticipate or decide.

4 Descriptive Properties of the Stream of Consciousness

According to Tornay and Milan (1999), the four descriptive properties that James attributes to the stream of consciousness are the following:

  • Each state of mind tends to be part of a personal consciousness.
  • Within personal consciousness, states of mind are constantly changing.
  • Personal awareness is continuous
  • Consciousness fixes interest on some parts of its object to the exclusion of others, and chooses between them.

How do we think?

William James said that consciousness, and more specifically thought, follows a process that apparently is necessarily directed by intelligence . However, according to the psychologist, the “thinker” figure does not necessarily need to manifest itself as a leader.

Rather, thought action is a goal-oriented process, which is fundamentally driven by the feeling of satisfaction we experience when we achieve those goals.

Thought would then be an automated process that was consolidated as a logical result of our evolution, that is, it does not want the existence of an independent or spiritual entity that guides this process. In other words, far from the existence of an entity (ourselves) separate from our consciousness, dictating the paths it follows; The conscious state is rather a process driven by our desire to experience satisfaction, under the belief that our thoughts cause us to accomplish something.

Determinism and free will

Inevitably, some issues raised with determinism and free will in human beings are derived from this. We could quickly conclude that, for James, humans experience, feel and think in automata.

However, James suggests that human beings are, rather than automatons, organs of selection . This is because, although we cannot consciously select what will initially appear in our consciousness, we can choose which element we will or will not keep there once it is present; or what stimulus we remain attentive to and what not.

Although this has been a discussion present in much of his work, James moves the free will debate into the fields of philosophy, clarifying that psychology, as a science, must be added to a more deterministic tradition of consciousness.

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