Lecture Four: Mysticism 4.2

4.2 The field of consciousness


Reversing the order of James’s own discussion, we shall begin from his last lecture, in which he advances his own account of the nature and meaning of religious experience, based on the more descriptive discussion he builds up in his previous lectures.

For present purposes, we shall leave aside James’s elaborate rejection of what he calls the ‘survival theory,’ namely, the idea that religious life is simply some form of relic of more primordial and archaic times, and that should be dispensed with today. In this discussion, James makes two points that we already covered in our previous lectures coming from different angles. First, ‘primitive’ religious forms (among which one might want to include shamanism) are based on dreams, hallucinations, or revelations, and this interweaving of ‘altered’ experiences with religious life seemed to have remained fairly normal up to the modern period. Second, in considering these aspects an anachronism and attempting to discard them using scientific findings, the survival theory draws too sharp a boundary between subjective experience and the scientific objective worldview. This problem is akin to the divide between first-person and third-person perspective introduced in Lecture One and further discussed in Lecture Two. James is vocal about this: ‘it is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places’ (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XX, 499-500). James stresses that a subjective view can never be fully abandoned, and since religious experience is primarily encountered through this subjective view, neither religion nor science can ever be entirely free of it.

These two points illustrate how refreshing James’s discussion on these matters is. Many of the worries and concerns he voices still inform today’s debate, albeit often phrased using different keywords. However, given time and space constraints, we might skip these nuances and move on to the core of James’s reading.

Based on the phenomenology of religious experience that he has provided, James presents the following generalization:

Summing up in the broadest possible way the characteristics of the religious life, as we have found them, it includes the following beliefs:—

  1. That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
  2. That union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
  3. That prayer or inner communion with the spirit thereof— be that spirit “God” or “law”—is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.

Religion includes also the following psychological characteristics:—

  1. A new zest which adds itself like a gift to life, and takes the form either of lyrical enchantment or of appeal to earnestness and heroism.
  2. An assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XX, 485-486)

James suggests that despite the diversity of ideas, creeds, and philosophical or theological views that can be used to flesh out the five points just mentioned, all religious experiences abide to a relatively simple psychological structure: uneasiness and solution, wrongness and salvation. In other terms, the underpinning scheme is soteriological: there is some fundamental problem with the ordinary human condition, but this problem can be met and solved in a way that leads to a transcendence of the ordinary condition.

This point builds on some elements of James’s psychological theory introduced sparsely in his previous lectures and now used to build his account of the facts presented. Two elements are particularly relevant. The first is James’s view that personality, or the sense of self, has a ‘centre.’ In Lecture IX, introducing the topic of conversion, James made the following remark:

When I say ‘Soul,’ you need not take me in the ontological sense unless you prefer to; for although ontological language is instinctive in such matters, yet Buddhists or Humians can perfectly well describe the facts in the phenomenal terms which are their favorites. For them the soul is only a succession of fields of consciousness: yet there is found in each field a part, or sub-field, which figures as focal and contains the excitement, and from which, as from a centre, the aim seems to be taken. Talking of this part, we involuntarily apply words of perspective to distinguish it from the rest, words like ‘here,’ ‘this,’ ‘now,’ ‘mine,’ or ‘me;’ and we ascribe to the other parts the positions ‘there,’ ‘then,’ ‘that,’ ‘his’ or ‘thine,’ ‘it,’ ‘not me.’ But a ‘here’ can change to a ‘there,’ and a ‘there’ become a ‘here,’ and what was ‘mine’ and what was ‘not mine’ change their places. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture IX, 195)

The key point is that the experience of a conscious subject can be represented as unfolding in a space-like field, some parts of which are identified as nearer to the centre of the field, while others as being more remote. James notices that this view can be accommodated even in frameworks in which no substantial soul or self is accepted, like those of Hume or Buddhists (his association between the two seems to go without need for explanation). The aspect that James stresses, though, is that what constitutes the centre is dependent upon the emotional charge or energy associated with certain contents. As the same passage continues:

What brings such changes about is the way in which emotional excitement alters. Things hot and vital to us today are cold tomorrow. It is as if seen from the hot parts of the field that the other parts appear to us, and from these hot parts personal desire and volition make their sallies. They are in short the centres of our dynamic energy, whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent and passive in proportion to their coldness. […] Now there may be great oscillation in the emotional interest, and the hot places may shift before one almost as rapidly as the sparks that run through burnt-up paper. Then we have the wavering and divided self we heard so much of in the previous lecture. Or the focus of excitement and heat, the point of view from which the aim is taken, may come to lie permanently within a certain system; and then, if the change be a religious one, we call it a conversion, especially if it be by crisis, or sudden. Let us hereafter, in speaking of the hot place in a man’s consciousness, the group of ideas to which he devotes himself, and from which he works, call it the habitual centre of his personal energy. It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, or another, be the centre of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideas which he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture IX, 195-196, original emphasis)

Emotional charge (arguably shaped by desire or aversion) determines what gets to the centre of experience, and hence what is appropriated as the core of ‘my’ experience. If this emotional charge is wavering and oscillating, then the sense of self that ensues is equally unstable and struggling, while if the charge becomes constant and unwavering, then the sense of self becomes established and more fixed. Religious conversion is one instance of this process of stabilization, although in James’s account it has its own peculiarity. Non-religious stabilization usually draws from any emotional force directly available to the ordinary scope of consciousness, while religious conversion (the stabilization of the personality centre around a core religious experience) draws from forces that are usually not part of ordinary experience. This is where another important psychological idea of James’s account comes into the picture.

James presents consciousness as a field and argues that its boundaries are fuzzy. James’s terminology on this point is not always fixed, and he usually speaks of ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal,’ more rarely ‘unconscious,’ regions. In his words:

The expression ‘field of consciousness’ has but recently come into vogue in the psychology books. Until quite lately the unit of mental life which figured most was the single ‘idea,’ supposed to be a definitely outlined thing. But at present psychologists are tending, first, to admit that the actual unit is more probably the total mental state, the entire wave of consciousness or field of objects present to the thought at any time; and, second, to see that it is impossible to outline this wave, this field, with any definiteness. As our mental fields succeed one another, each has its centre of interest, around which the objects of which we are less and less attentively conscious fade to a margin so faint that its limits are unassignable. Some fields are narrow fields and some are wide fields. Usually when we have a wide field we rejoice, for we then see masses of truth together, and often get glimpses of relations which we divine rather than see, for they shoot beyond the field into still remoter regions of objectivity, regions which we seem rather to be about to perceive than to perceive actually. At other times, of drowsiness, illness, or fatigue, our fields may narrow almost to a point, and we find ourselves correspondingly oppressed and contracted. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture X, 231)

Let us pause and point out a few remarkable features of this view. First, experience (‘consciousness,’ in James’ terminology) is best conceptualized as a sort of holistic state, in which the overall content that is present affects the nature of the experience, rather than a sequence of discrete units or ‘ideas.’ My experience of what is happening is not a collection of discrete units or bits of information (‘ideas’) that somehow represent different objects independently from one another. Rather, I experience an overall complex situation, within which, depending on the movements of attention and on the underpinning motives and drives that steer it, I can discern relatively discrete units and pick them out for deeper inspection or engagement.

Second, the complex contents (or else the manifold of contents) that appear within a field of experience are not static. In fact, these fields succeed one another in a flow, which seems reminiscent of the theory of ‘mind-moments’ developed in Buddhist Abhidharma (which underpins some of the discussion of gappyness encountered in in Lecture One and Two). Third, the scope of these fields (how broad or narrow they appear) has not only a cognitive implication (how many different contents one experiences, or how complex that content can be), but also an emotional component. The narrower the field, the stronger the sense of constriction; the wider the filed, the stronger the sense of relief. We will see that this point is important. Before getting to it, here is how James continues:

The important fact which this ‘field’ formula commemorates is the indetermination of the margin. Inattentively realized as is the matter which the margin contains, it is nevertheless there, and helps both to guide our behavior and to determine the next movement of our attention. It lies around us like a ‘magnetic field,’ inside of which our centre of energy turns like a compass-needle, as the present phase of consciousness alters into its successor. Our whole past store of memories floats beyond this margin, ready at a touch to come in; and the entire mass of residual powers, impulses, and knowledges that constitute our empirical self stretches continuously beyond it. So vaguely drawn are the outlines between what is actual and what is only potential at any moment of our conscious life, that it is always hard to say of certain mental elements whether we are conscious of them or not. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture X, 232)

The field of experience is thus relatively fuzzy. Ordinary consciousness is consciousness of what is right in the middle of this field, but beyond it there is a vast and potentially unlimited region that at the same time is related with ordinary consciousness (since without subconscious memories and cognitions, ordinary consciousness could not properly work) but also escaping from its reach. On this point, James signals his discrepancy with the more standard psychological view he is referring to so far. Contrary to this standard position, James refuses to characterise what lies beyond the conscious margins as merely non-existent and non-conscious at all. James recalls that

in certain subjects at least, there is not only the consciousness of the ordinary field, with its usual centre and margin, but an addition thereto in the shape of a set of memories, thoughts, and feelings which are extra-marginal and outside of the primary consciousness altogether, but yet must be classed as conscious facts of some sort, able to reveal their presence by unmistakable signs. […] The most important consequence of having a strongly developed ultra-marginal life of this sort is that one’s ordinary fields of consciousness are liable to incursions from it of which the subject does not guess the source, and which, therefore, take for him the form of unaccountable impulses to act, or inhibitions of action, of obsessive ideas, or even of hallucinations of sight or hearing. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture X, 233-234)

This view adds significant depth to James’s analysis. On the one hand, the field of experience has a centre that can and does shift due to the oscillations in emotional charges. The scope of the field itself can also be broader or narrower, and this in turn affects the sorts of emotions that experience elicits. On the other hand, the whole field of ordinary waking experience is surrounded by a vast and largely unmappable space, which directly affects the field. James uses this account to explain the nature of religious experience and any claims to truth based on that kind of experience.

In particular, religious experience seems to turn on a kind of excess, something ‘more’ that goes beyond what is ordinarily available, and which deeply affects and shapes it. Conversion is the process of opening up to this ‘more,’ and religious practice (like prayer) a way of keeping in touch with it. James thus suggests:

Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the ‘more’ with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life. Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with ‘science’ which the ordinary theologian lacks. At the same time the theologian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control. In the religious life the control is felt as ‘higher;’ but since on our hypothesis it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are controlling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XX, 512-513)

What Christians call ‘God’ could be understood as the force that occupies and shapes the space that lies beyond the fragile boundary of ordinary consciousness. James advocates that this power is real, since it produces tangible effects in people’s life. This might not entirely square with more traditional views about the nature of God. As James acknowledges, it would require some other ‘over-belief,’ chiefly the idea that this ‘power’ that lies in subconscious spaces is the absolute world ruler. But the most precious conclusion that results from James’s discussion is his acknowledgment of the need to widen our conception of what counts as conscious experience. As he writes:

The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XX, 519)

From this point of view, religious experience amounts to an enlargement of the sense of self, insofar as it establishes a more stable contact with the regions of experience that are usually inaccessible to ordinary waking experience. This broadening of experience entails a positive emotional component, which is witnessed as an essential ingredient of religious life, and in turn helps consolidate the new personality centre that is established at the moment of conversion.

The idea of a gap between the ordinary waking (narrow) domain of experience and the unfathomable and yet real space that lies beyond its boundaries is robust enough to account for the ‘transcendence’ of ‘God’ with respect to an ordinary individual, without any further need to invoke further ontological divisions. Transcendence is experienced in religious life, and thus it must happen within the overall field of experience, and it does so by enlarging that field. In this respect, the traditional question about the existence of God is somehow defused. In a way, it is positively answered, insofar as there is more to experience than what waking ordinary experience can witness; yet, in another sense, God does not exist in the sense of being ontologically separated from the field of experience as a whole. The latter point results from James’s analysis of religious experience as a witnessing of the union with God, rather than of the separation from it.

However, the remark just quoted invites also a further step, which James does not take, but which we shall take regardless. The kernel of religious experience has relatively little to do with ‘God’ conceived as a self-standing entity and very much to do with ‘me’ and ‘my’ struggle. Of course, according to most of the Christian sources discussed by James, God is the solution to that struggle. However, the whole problem turns around ‘my’ sense of self and its relatively narrow conception. To inject our leading claim at this point, the ordinary self struggles to control its limited domain of experience. The feeling and overwhelming awareness of the impossibility of succeeding at this task is what leads to a crisis of that sense of self, and at this junction a religious experience can arise as a solution. James acknowledges that religious life is very much about the broadening of the sense of self until it gets almost dissolved in the mystical union with God. We can dispense from any further speculation about God as such and take this sort of religious approach as chiefly aimed at producing the dissolution of the sense of self. If the ordinary self is a problem (because its attempt to master experience is doomed to fail), the dissolution of the self is also a dissolution of the most pressing problem, and therefore (in fact) a relief. To support this view, we can review the phenomenology of religious life that James presents and distill further elements from there.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.