How Two Minds Can Know One Thing – James

How Two Minds Can Know One Thing

Excerpt from Essays in Radical Empiricism

by William James

Only the essay referenced by Sylver Quevado in his editorial and report are reproduced here. 

(Numbers on the left in brackets [123] are page numbers from the Longmans, Green and Co. edition of Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe in one volume, published in 1943. All footnotes have been renumbered and moved to the end of the paper.)




IN [the essay] entitled 'Does Consciousness Exist?' I have tried to show that when we call an experience 'conscious,' that does not mean that it is suffused throughout with a peculiar modality of being ('psychic' being) as stained glass may be suffused with light, but rather that it stands in certain determinate relations to other portions of experience extraneous to itself. These form one peculiar 'context' for it; while, taken in another context of experiences, we class it as a fact in the physical world. This 'pen,' for example, is, in the first instance, a bald that, a datum, fact, phenomenon, content, or whatever other neutral or ambiguous name you may prefer to apply. I called it in that article a 'pure experience.' To get classed either as a physical pen or as some one's percept of a pen, it must assume a function,

and that can only happen in a more complicated world. So far as in that world it is a stable feature, holds ink, marks paper and obeys the guidance of a hand, it is a physical pen. That is what we mean by being 'physical,' in a pen. So far as it is instable, on the contrary, coming and going with the movements of my eyes, altering with what I call my fancy, continuous with subsequent experiences of its 'having been' (in the past tense), it is the percept of a pen in my mind. Those peculiarities are what we mean by being 'conscious,' in a pen.

In Section VI of another [essay](2) I tried to show that the same that, the same numerically identical pen of pure experience, can enter simultaneously into many conscious contexts, or, in other words, be an object for many different minds. I admitted that I had not space to treat of certain possible objections in that article; but in [the last essay] I took some of the objections up. At the end of that [essay] I said that a still more formidable-sounding

objections remained; so, to leave my pure-experience theory in as strong a state as possible, I propose to consider those objections now.


The objections I previously tried to dispose of were purely logical or dialectical. no one identical term, whether physical or psychical, it had been said, could be the subject of two relations at once. This thesis I sought to prove unfounded. The objections that now confront us arise from the nature supposed to inhere in psychic facts specifically. Whatever may be the case with physical objects, a fact of consciousness, it is alleged (and indeed very plausibly), can not, without self-contradiction, be treated as a portion of two different minds, and for the following reasons.

In the physical world we make with impunity the assumption that one and the same material object can figure in an indefinitely large number of different processes at once. When, for instance, a sheet of rubber is pulled at its four corners, a unit of rubber in the middle of the sheet is affected by all four of the

pulls. It transmits them each, as if it pulled in four different ways at once itself. So, an air- particle or an ether-particle 'compounds' the different directions of movement imprinted on it without obliterating their several individualities. It delivers them distinct, on the contrary, at as many several 'receivers' (ear, eye or what not) as may be 'tuned' to that effect. The apparent paradox of a distinctness like this surviving in the midst of compounding is a thing which, I fancy, the analyses made by physicists have by this time sufficiently cleared up.

But if, on the strength of these analogies, one should ask: "Why, if two or more lines can run through one and the same geometrical point, or if two or more distinct processes of activity can run through one and the same physical thing so that it simultaneously plays a role in each and every process, might not two or more streams of personal consciousness include one and the same unit of experience so that it would simultaneously be a part of the experience of all the different minds?" one would be checked by thinking of a certain peculiarity by

which phenomena of consciousness differ from physical things.

While physical things, namely, are supposed to be permanent and to have their 'states,' a fact of consciousness exists but once and is a state. Its esse is sentiri; it is only so far as it is felt; and it is unambiguously and unequivocally exactly what is felt The hypothesis under consideration would, however, oblige it to be felt equivocally, felt now as part of my mind and again at the same time not as a part of my mind, but of yours (for my mind is not) yours), and this would seem impossible without doubling it into two distinct things, or, in other words, without reverting to the ordinary dualistic philosophy of insulated minds each knowing its object representatively as a third thing, -- and that would be to give up the pure- experience scheme altogether.

Can we see, then, any way in which a unit of pure experience might enter into and figure in two diverse streams of consciousness without turning itself into the two units which, on our hypothesis, it must not be?


There is a way; and the first step towards it is to see more precisely how the unit enters into either one of the streams of consciousness alone. Just what, from being 'pure,' does its becoming 'conscious' once mean?

It means, first, that new experiences have supervened; and, second, that they have borne a certain assignable relation to the unit supposed. Continue, if you please, to speak of the pure unit as 'the pen.' So far as the pen's successors do but repeat the pen or, being different from it, are 'energetically'(3) related to it, and they will form a group of stably existing physical things. So far, however, as its successors differ from it in another well- determined way, the pen will figure in their context, not as a physical, but as a mental fact. It will become a passing 'percept,' my percept of that pen. What now is that decisive well- determined way?

In the chapter on 'The Self,' in my Principles of Psychology,

I explained the continuous identity of each personal consciousness as a name for the practical fact that new experiences(4) come which look back on the old ones, find them 'warm,' and greet and appropriate them as 'mine.' These operations mean, when analyzed empirically, several tolerably definite things, viz.:

1. That the new experience has past time for its 'content,' and in that time a pen that 'was';

2. That 'warmth' was also about the pen, in the sense of a group of feelings ('interest' aroused, 'attention' turned, 'eyes' employed, etc.) that were closely connected with it and that now recur and evermore recur with unbroken vividness, though from the pen of now, which may be only an image, all such vividness may have gone;

3. That these feelings are the nucleus of 'me';

4. That whatever once was associated with them was, at least for that one moment, 'mine' -- my implement if associated with

hand-feelings, my 'percept' only, if only eye-feelings and attention-feelings were involved.

The pen, realized in this retrospective way as my percept, thus figures as a fact of 'conscious' life. But it does so only so far as 'appropriation' has occurred; and appropriation is part of the content of a later experience wholly additional to the originally 'pure' pen. That pen, virtually both objective and subjective, is at its own moment actually and intrinsically neither. It has to be looked back upon and used, in order to be classed in either distinctive way. But its use, so called, is in the hands of the other experience, while it stands, throughout the operation, passive and unchanged.

If this pass muster as an intelligible account of how an experience originally pure can enter into one consciousness, the next question is as to how it might conceivably enter into two.


Obviously no new kind of condition would have to be supplied. All that we should have to postulate would be a second subsequent

experience, collateral and contemporary with the first subsequent one, in which a similar act of appropriation should occur. The two acts would interfere neither with one another nor with the originally pure pen. It would sleep undisturbed in its own past, no matter how many such successors went through their several appropriative acts. Each would know it as 'my' percept, each would class it as a 'conscious' fact.

Nor need their so classing it interfere in the least with their classing it at the same time as a physical pen. Since the classing in both cases depends upon the taking of it in one group or another of associates, if the superseding experience were of wide enough 'span' it could think the pen in both groups simultaneously, and yet distinguish the two groups. It would then see the whole situation conformably to what, we call 'the representative theory of cognition,' and that is what we all spontaneously do. As a man philosophizing 'popularly,' I believe that what I see myself writing with is double -- I think it in its relations to physical nature, and

also in its relations to my personal life; I see that it is in my mind, but that it also is a physical pen.

The paradox of the same experience figuring in two consciousnesses seems thus no paradox at all. To be 'conscious' means not simply to be, but to be reported, known, to have awareness of one's being added to that being; and this is just what happens when the appropriative experience supervenes. The pen-experience in its original immediacy is not aware of itself, it simply is, and the second experience is required for what we call awareness of it to occur.(5) The difficulty of understanding what happens here is, therefore, not a logical difficulty: there is no contradiction involved. It is an ontological difficulty rather. Experiences come on an enormous scale, and if we take

them all together, they come in a chaos of incommensurable relations that we can not straighten out. We have to abstract different groups of them, and handle these separately if we are to talk of them at all. But how the experiences ever get themselves made, or why their characters and relations are just such as appear, we can not begin to understand.. Granting, however, that, by hook or crook, they can get themselves made, and can appear in the successions that I have so schematically described, then we have to confess that even although (as I began by quoting from the adversary) 'a feeling only is as it is felt,' there is still nothing absurd in the notion of its being felt in two different ways at once, as yours, namely, and as mine. It is, indeed, 'mine' only as it is felt as mine, and 'yours' only as it is felt as yours. But it is felt as neither by itself, but only when 'owned' by our two several remembering experiences, just as one undivided estate is owned by several heirs.


One word, now, before I close, about the corollaries of the view set forth. Since the acquisition of conscious quality on the part of an experience depends upon a context coming to it, it follows that the sum total of all experiences, having no context, can not strictly be called conscious at all. It is a that, an Absolute, a 'pure' experience on an enormous scale, undifferentiated and undifferentiable into thought and thing. This the post-Kantian idealists have always practically acknowledged by calling their doctrine an Identitats-philosophie. The question of the Beseelung of the All of things ought not, then, even to be asked. No more ought the question of its truth to be asked, for truth is a relation inside of the sum total, obtaining between thoughts and something else, and thoughts, as we have seen, can only be contextual things. In these respects the pure experiences of our philosophy are, in themselves considered, so many little absolutes, the philosophy of pure experience

being only a more comminuted Identitatsphilosphie.(6)

Meanwhile, a pure experience can be postulated with any amount whatever of span or field. If it exert the retrospective and appropriative function on any other piece of experience, the latter thereby enters into its own conscious stream. And in this operation time intervals make no essential difference. After sleeping, my retrospection is as perfect as it is between two successive waking moments of my time. Accordingly if, millions of years later, a similarly retrospective experience should anyhow come to birth, my present thought would form a genuine portion of its long-span conscious life. 'Form a portion,' I say, but not in the sense that the two things could be entitatively or substantively one -- they cannot, for they are numerically discrete facts -- but only in the sense that the functions of my present thought, its knowledge, its purpose, its content and 'consciousness,' in short, being inherited, would be continued practically

unchanged. Speculations like Fechner's, of an Earth-soul, of wider spans of consciousness enveloping narrower ones throughout the cosmos, are, therefore, philosophically quite in order, provided they distinguish the functional from the entitative point of view, and do not treat the minor consciousness under discussion as a kind of standing material of which the wider ones consist.(7)

1 [Reprinted from The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods , vol II, No. 7, March 30, 1905.]
2 "A World of Pure Experience," above, pp. 39-91.
3 [For an explanation of this expression, see above, p. 32.]
4 I call them 'passing thoughts' in the book -- the passage in point
goes from pages 330 to 342 of vol. I.
5 Shadworth Hodgson has laid great stress on the fact that the minimum of consciousness demands two subfeelings of which the second retrospects the first. (Cf. the section 'Analysis of Minima' in his Philosophy of Reflection, vol. I, p. 248; also the chapter entitled 'The Moment of Experience' in his Metaphysic of Experience, vol. I, p. 34.) 'We live forward, but we understand backward' is a phrase of Kierkegaard's which Hoffding quotes. [H. Hoffding: "A Philosophical Confession," Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. II, 1905, p. 86.
6 [Cf. below, pp. 197, 202.]
7 [Cf. A Pluralistic Universe , Lect. IV, 'Concerning Fechner,' and Lect. V, 'The Compounding of Consciousness.']

Scroll to Top