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William James’ “stream” metaphor

Recent discussions with colleagues about the 'flow of experience' and the implications for research have caused me to reconsider Williams James' (1909, p. 165 - 166) words about the "stream of consciousness:"

It is, the reader will see, the reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention. Mr. Galton and Prof. Huxley have, as we shall see in the chapter on Imagination, made one step in advance in exploding the ridiculous theory of Hume and Berkeley that we can have no images but of perfectly definite things. Another is made if we overthrow the equally ridiculous notion that, whilst simple objective qualities are revealed to our knowledge in 'states of consciousness,' relations are not. But these reforms are not half sweeping and radical enough. What must be admitted is that the definite images of traditional psychology form but the very smallest part of our minds as they actually live. The traditional psychology talks like one who should say the river consists of nothing but pailful, spoonful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of wither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the images is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it, - or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood. [Emphasis added].

For me the dynamic coupling of perception and action is the source of the stream that James is describing.  Although there are significant exceptions (e.g., Gibson), Psychology as a field has tended to ignore the dynamics of human experience and continues to study isolated buckets of water from the stream in hopes that one day the buckets will add up to an understanding of the stream.  In pursuit of 'experimental control' over the phenomena, I fear that experimental psychology first squeezes all the interesting dynamics out of the phenomena that they hope to understand.

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