William James on the Selectivity of Consciousness According to Human Interests

A couple of days ago, I noted humanism‘s affinities with pragmatism, and quoted William James to cement that claim. Today, I want to point to James’ treatment of consciousness to show how fundamental human interests are in his philosophy of mind. (This post is cribbed from Patrick Kiaran Dooley‘s Pragmatism as Humanism: The Philosophy of Willam James, Nelson-Hall Publishing, Chicago, 1974, pp. 42-52. All James quotes below are taken from Dooley’s citations from Principles of Psychology.)

For James, our consciousness influences our behavior and our actions by selection from data presented to it (via attention); what guides and regulates this selection and attention are our practical, aesthetic, religious and ethical interests. We first become aware of the world via sensational contact with it (these sensations are already knowledge for James). This data of awareness of the world around us is then enriched by differentiating it and noticing relationships among its different aspects. But these relationships that we notice, the aspects we attend to, are not just those that are presented to us most frequently; they ‘stand out’ because they are of interest to us. We perceive that which we attend to and we attend to that which interests us. In sensory attention:

The only things we commonly see are those which we preperceive and the only things we preperceive are those which have been labeled for us, and the labels stamped on our mind.

In perceiving, consciousness is selective in isolating a group of sensible qualities which, because ‘they are most constant, interesting or practically important, we regard as the most essential constituents of the thing.’ It also selects among these to appoint some as typical or ‘correct’ representatives of the object in question:

Out of all the visual magnitudes of each known object we have selected one as the real one  to think of and degraded all the others to serve as its signs. This ‘real’ magnitude is determined by aesthetic and practical interests.

Some representations are promoted to the status of ‘true’; others to that of ‘signs.’ This follows simply from the fact that ‘true representations’ are perceived from the most practically advantageous positions.

For James there is no such thing as a pure sensation; all is interpreted first. We do not experience the world passively but actively act on the data available to us. Our attention does a great deal of work: by settling again and again on the most ‘useful’ presentations it turns them into ‘experience.’ But it is driven by our interests, which determine the how and the what of our experiences.

And this then further leads to our construction of what is real, of what we consider reality – the ‘common sense world.’ Here objects appear of interest and importance to us. To call an object ‘real’ is merely to indicate a reference to ourselves because our cognitive relationship to the world is ‘affective’, not dispassionately objective:

[We] give what seems to us a still higher degree of reality to whatever things we select and emphasize and turn to with a will.

The affective component of our selves thus determines what we consider ‘real’: the objects of our beliefs are related to our interests. This extends to all levels, so that even the most ‘basic’ entities of the world are those that bear an acute relation to our interests, ranging from the most practical to the most sublime. In our conceptions of the world, we are constantly selecting and rejecting according to these:

Whichever one of these aspects of its being I temporarily classify it under, makes me unjust to other aspects. But as I am always classing it under one aspect or another, I am always unjust, always partial, always exclusive. My excuse is necessity–the necessity which my finite and practical nature lays upon me.

   Our purposes determine our conceptions of the world, its so-called ‘essential properties’ but:

Reality overflows these purposes at every core. Our usual purpose with it, our commonest title for it, and the properties which this title suggests, have in reality nothing sacramental. They characterize us more than they characterize things. 

Thus even in the most basic sizing up of the world, in our determinations of ‘what is,’ we cannot eliminate the human. We are mixed up in the cement of the universe.

4 thoughts on “William James on the Selectivity of Consciousness According to Human Interests

    1. Tom,

      Pragmatism, The Will to Believe, and The Varieties of Religious Experience would be good starting points. You can follow up with The Meaning of Truth. There is also the Essays in Radical Empiricism. James is a fantastic writer; well worth a read.


      1. Also check out A Pluralistic Universe…it was the last thing he wrote, in 1909 I believe, and is a nice synthesis of his ideas in Pragmatism and the Essays in Radical Empiricism.
        And excellent entry, Samir Chopra! I’m very much inspired by the radical empiricist tradition and just wrote a short bit on fact/value dichotomy that you might be interested in checking out 🙂

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