William James on the Emotions, Mimicry, and the Social Self




You are really getting under my skin!”  This exclamation begs a series of psychological and philosophical questions: What is the nature and development of human emotion?  How does emotion arise in social interaction?  To what extent can interactive situations shape our embodied selves and intensify particular affective states?  With a mind to these questions, William James begins to investigate the character of emotions and to develop a model of what he terms the “social self.”  James’ studies of biofeedback and mimicry begin to explain how affective states develop and how it might be possible for something to “get under one’s skin.”  I situate these studies in the history of psychology between the psychological schools of structuralism and behaviorism.  More importantly, I suggest continuity between James’ Psychology and recent research on mirror neurons, reentrant mapping and emotional mimicry in the fields of clinical psychology and cognitive neuroscience.  This research supports and extends James’ initial claims in regard to the creation of emotions and the life of the social self.  Finally, I propose that James’ work in the empirical sciences should be read as a prelude to his metaphysical works that speak of a coordination between embodied selves and wider environmental situations. 


I.  James’ Philosophy of Mind: A Mediating Movement

In his lecture, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” William James provides a quick rendering of the history of philosophy.  In broad strokes, he separates this genealogy into two basic camps, two prevailing philosophic temperaments: the “rationalistic” and the “empirical.” These temperaments are described and presented in a sort of laundry-list style:

Rationalistic (going by the ‘principles’)                                                 Empiricist (going by the facts)

Intellectualistic                                                                                                Sensationalistic

Idealistic                                                                                                          Materialistic

Optimistic                                                                                                        Pessimistic

Religious                                                                                                          Irreligious

Free-willist                                                                                                        Fatalistic

Monistic                                                                                                            Pluralistic

Dogmatical                                                                                                       Sceptical.[i]      


James’ pragmatism attends to both these seemingly antagonistic temperaments.[ii]  His is a philosophy of mediation, a type of mediating third between the two opposing dispositions of the philosophic canon. [iii]  Its middle-of-the-road position often leaves this pragmatist open to the hit-and-run tactics of philosophic criticism; he is neither rational enough for the rationalist, nor empirical enough for the empiricist. 

            James’ “divided-self,” his tendency to reflect the tenets of rationalism and empiricism, seems to underpin The Principles of Psychology and grounds his discussion of the emotions and the self.  In light of current work in the cognitive sciences, I will argue that the “two-faced” character of pragmatism, often cited in critical readings, is aptly suited in a description of mental life.  Secondarily, I will suggest that this description can serve as a kind of bridge between certain schools in the history of psychology.  In particular, I will look at the way in which James seeks to mediate between the psychological interiority highlighted in structuralism, born from the rationalist’s conception of mind, and the external character of mental phenomena emphasized in behaviorism, the logical extension of the empiricist’s research program.

James’ description of the emotions as developing in the interaction between the interiority of the feeling subject and the organism’s objective behavior reflect the mediating character of his psychological modeling and of his philosophy as whole. His description of the social self and reflex action underscore a similar mediation and provides a basis to extend the emotions into the social realm.  The self, for James, is a process, a continuous bridging between the empirical conditions of the self and what the rationalist tend to call the “individual subject.”   I will highlight the way in which James’ hypotheses on the emotions and the social self have been supported and extended by modern physiology and cognitive neuroscience.  James’ account of the emotions seems to stand as a descriptive model for what has recently been described by many physiologists as the phenomena of biofeedback and neural reentry.  Similarly, his notion of the “social self” - its situation and formation – is supported by contemporary investigations of mirror neurons, social mimicry, and interactive communication.  


II.  The Emotions: Interactive Becoming


If we could see every wheel in the physical mechanism whose working the mental processes are accompanying, we should still find no more than a chain of movements showing no trace whatsoever of their significance for mind…(All) that is valuable in our mental life still falls to the psychical side.

(Wilhelm Wundt, 1873)


In framing the pragmatic account of the emotions, it is necessary to first describe the prevailing psychological model of James’ day: Willhelm Wundt’s structural model of psychic affects developed in the early 1870s.  Wundt’s sentiment concerning mental activities suggests a deep-seated commitment to preserving the modern philosophic notion of mind and body as being separate, if not necessarily opposed.  The founder of psychological structuralism accepted Spinoza’s concept of psychophysical parallelism – for every internal state there is a corresponding external behavior.   Understanding these external and embodied signs, however, could never deliver one to a comprehensive knowledge of mental activities; “seeing the wheels in the physical mechanism” was, on his account, wholly insufficient to address psychic phenomena.  Wundt’s methodological move to introspection seems to speak to inadequacy of a strictly empirical psychology.  The structuralist’s account of the emotions rested on the belief that an organism feels a given emotion prior to any corresponding physical expression or conception of that emotion as such.   

            It seems accurate to say that James brings into question the mere “parallelism” between external behavior and internal motional state.  This questioning, however, does not necessarily reflect the sort of biological reductionism and materialism that characterizes the work of such empiricists as Hume, Berkeley, and B.F. Skinner. In the final section, It will become clear how stark the contrast is between James’ interactive model of the thinking self and that of the modern behaviorist.   

In the Psychology, James addresses the “coarser” and the “subtler” emotions in turn.  His presentation is, at least in part, strategic.  James believes that the “coarser” emotions, extreme in their form and expression, demonstrate the functionalist’s stance that, “(t)he bodily changes follow directly the perception of an exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.”[iv]  For James, the search for a strictly mental emotion comes up empty-handed; the “internal state” of the frightened individual is inextricably bound to the embodied act of fleeing the site of fear.  That is to say, that being afraid is not antecedent to the expression of fear.  In underscoring the nature of coarse emotions, James writes:

If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no mind-stuff out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains.  [v]

Whereas a structuralist would suggest that one cries because he/she is sorry, James insists that it is “more rational” to say that, “we feel sorry because we cry.”[vi]

            Initially, such a theory would seem to stand against common sense.  James, however, asserts that the way that one comes to understand the emotions of others – and the emotions more generally – is by correlative actions of the organism.  Watching two men argue in a nearby café, a bystander assumes that the men are angry, irritated, upset.  This would be a safe assumption. Evolutionarily speaking, bystanders who have failed to make such inferences place themselves, very literally, in unsafe positions.  An obvious objection seems to surface in this discussion.  One might protest: Is it not the case that one ‘knows’ she/he is, in her/his own person, angry before any physical manifestations of violence is expressed.  James’ response might be two-fold.  First, what one “knows,” on James account, is not a practical knowledge of anger for it has not yet shown itself as such.  James’ second response might be a bit more complex and is undoubtedly more satisfying.  He observes: “Each fit of sobbing makes…sorrow acute.  Everyone knows how panic is increased by flight and how giving way to the symptoms of grief and anger increases these passions themselves.”[vii]  It seems right that demonstrable behavior does - in some way - determine the emotions that are so frequently framed as internal states.  James, however, leaves open a vital question, separating himself from the strictly empirical accounts of the mind.  The questions remain: “Who, exactly, is behaving?”  “Who controls the sobbing that controls the sorrow?”

             On this note, the way in which this emotional determination occurs needs to be distinguished from the strict and “deterministic” way described by the behaviorists of the 1970s.  In assuming a more empirical approach to the emotions, James does not abandon the “free-willist” disposition of the rationalist nor the inner freedom of the structuralist. The determination of the emotions, for James, is realized between the internal and the demonstrable, between freedom and necessity, between the strictly private and the simply social.   They are equally determined by external reactions and internal affects; they are determined in tandem.  For researchers such as Skinner, however, this determination of the emotions by the empirical causes is one of logical identity; observable action becomes the whole of the mental schema.   Felt affect simply drops out of the Skinnerian description of the mind.  

In About Behaviorism, Skinner asserts that the mentalist’s problem that James sought to mitigate can be wholly “avoided by going directly to the prior physical causes while bypassing intermediate feelings or states of mind…(by) consider(ing) only those facts which can be objectively observed in the behavior of one person in his relation to his prior environmental history.”[viii]  Skinner concedes that one may say that he “feels like going,” that he “wants to go"; these testaments to an inner life, however, are purely accidental in the behaviorist’s view of psychic life.  He writes: “Whether or not a person feels or otherwise observes the likelihood of a response, the simple fact is that at some point a response occurs.”[ix]  If a detailed investigation of the particular chain of physical reactions can be conducted and is found to be causally “lawful,” “nothing is lost by neglecting the supposed nonphysical link.” [x]  In the “The Uselessness of Inner Causes,”  Skinner derides the mentalist sensibility of the Western cannon, commenting that the he exploration of the emotional and motivational life of the mind has been described as one of the great achievements in the history of human thought, “but it is possible that it has been one of the great disasters.” [xi]  The traditional view of the mind has been disastrous precisely to the extent that it has the appeal of the arcane and magical rather than of the scientific and falsifiable.  To avoiding another “disaster,” Skinner arrives at the firm belief that, “(w)hat an organism does will eventually be seen to be due to what it is, at the moment it behaves, and the physiologist will someday give us all the details.” [xii] 

While James’ examination of emotional acts may provide a kind of ground for Skinner’s project, it is necessary to identify the ways in which their conclusions part philosophic company.  James assumes a behavioral perspective as an attempt to balance and extend, but not wholly eliminate, the value of an internal psychic life.  Avoiding the behaviorist’s reductive approach, James seeks to round out the concept of emotions, a concept that had been traditionally described as linear and unilaterally causal.  James expresses his unwillingness to simply dismiss the existence of felt affects.  His confidence in ultimate and comprehensive behavioral model is half-hearted at best.  He writes: “To sum up, we see the reason for a few emotional reactions; for others a possible species of reasons can be guessed; but others remain for which no plausible reason can be conceived.” [xiii]  According to James, the emotions should be categorized according to the purposes of a particular inquiry.  Under certain circumstances, an internal account seems appropriate; under others, a behavioral schema seems more suited.  In the end, James adheres to the conjunctive relation of pragmatic inquiry; that is to say, he allows for the possibility that internal states and external behavior coexist and, in truth, co-evolve.


III.  Biofeedback, Reentrant Mapping, and the Creation of the Emotions

            James’ observation that emotional life emerges in the co-evolution of internal affects and external behavior sets the stage for an extensive investigation by contemporary biologists, physiologists, and psychologists into the phenomenon that is generally referred to as “biofeedback” and “reentrant neural mapping.”  Barbara Brown describes the phenomenon of biofeedback in the following manner:

Bio-feedback is simply the feedback of biological information to the person whose biology it is…There are perhaps millions of individual feed-back systems in the human body…which operate by their ability to detect changes in the environment of their operation, and then make internal adjustments so that their functions remain both optimal and continuously appropriate to the demands of the environment.[xiv]

Experimenters often cite the mechanical example of a thermostat to exemplify the structure and function of organic feedback; the machine both acts and reacts.[xv]  A thermostat on a given heater both affects, and is affected by, the temperature of its environment. The forthcoming discussion of reentrant mapping suggests that organic feedback takes on a similar, although far more adaptive and creative, form.   Information about the external environment is sensed by any of the five senses and relayed to the control center, often considered the brain, where it is integrated with other relevant information, and when it is significant enough, central control initiates a command for appropriate body reactions.    This basic loop between input sense, brain process and output reaction is partitioned again and again by intermediary loops that function in corresponding fashion. Organ system maintenance and cell regulation can be modeled along similar lines. [xvi]  Indeed our bodies are in an environment and are the environment for internal structures-systems.  As W.B. Cannon notes in the early part of the 20th century, the continual execution and adjustment of certain bodily states is necessary in maintaining a type of homeostasis in and with an organism’s environment.[xvii] 

We will examine the inter-action between the organism and its environment in the next section. First, however, another aspect of intra-personal feedback deserves our attention.  In his later writings, James explores the possibility of religious experience, and in so doing, stumbles across the phenomenal states of the mystic and the yogi.  It is not necessarily interesting that James identifies these individuals as gaining access to wider religious sphere. What is of interest, at least in our present discussion, is that these individuals enter the “religious loop” only in so far as they are acutely aware of the biological looping that is occurring within their bodily forms.  Brown and others have identified the way in which yogis “learn” to slow their hearts, and even stop them for short periods.[xviii]  The practitioners describe this process as a two-fold calming of the emotions.  The slowing of the heart calms the “subject,” who, in turn, slows the heart. In this case, it is relatively simple to imagine the way in which this feedback deepens the yogi’s affective state.  Remember that James, intimately familiar with depressive states, employs the example of sobbing to make a similar point.  One sobs, and is sobbed; sadness deepens with every stomach-wrenching wail.  That is to say, one controls, and is controlled by, the outward action of the organism. 

This understanding of emotional feedback is reflected in recent medical studies on the maintenance of pain through psycho-physical practices.[xix]  James seems to foreshadow Green’s empirical work, writing that, “(i)f we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward movements of those contrary dispositions which we prefer to cultivate.”[xx]   He elaborates, highlighting the experience of theatrical actors who feel the emotion of the stage only through the playing of a given affect. It seems that this feedback would, in turn, give rise to a more sincere performances. James seems to suggest the importance of facial feedback in the embodiment of the emotions, and contemporary neurological studies seem to lend credence to this stance.  In The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio identifies the face, skull, neck, oral cavity, and pharynx (coincidently all structures intimately conjoined with the expression of the emotions) as providing a disproportionably large amount of input to the spinal chord and the rest of the central nervous system.  Echoing James’ suspicion, Damasio writes that, “(w)e use the spinal cord both to enact a part of some emotions and to bring back to the brain parts of the enactment of these emotions.”[xxi] This large amount of feedback speaks to the deepness of internal emotional feeling and the maintenance and revision of complex emotional states.

It is important to note that a simple thermostatic feedback is unable to account for the character of the organic feedback systems described above.  Gerald Edelman and other cognitive scientists have suggested that the coordinated feedback and creative adjustments of neural systems can be best described by a process of reentrant mapping.  Such a mapping depends upon the anatomical precondition of “the remarkable massively parallel reciprocal connectivity of the brain areas.”[xxii] Neural reentry refers to a process by which functionally related cortical areas (such as the sensory motor cortex and linguistic/semantic nodes) co-ordinate and “get in time.”[xxiii]  The “parallel reciprocal connectivity” that characterizes the nervous system cannot be described by mechanical feedback, but as the harmonization of living systems that are receptive and projective - adapt and grow - in tandem and over time.     Studies of reentry indicate that neural activation and development is not determined by preset or mechanistic parameters.  Instead reentry defines an emergent process of growth and harmonization whereby neural systems set the limiting and enabling conditions on the related areas of activation.       


IV.  Widening Circles: Bodily Comportment and James’ Social Self

To this point, we have addressed the intra-personal loop between internal states and external behavior, between an actor’s felt experience and the performative aspect of his feeling.  It is worth noting that the examples such as the yogi and the mystic are helpful, yet anomalous descriptions of the affected/affecting character of the emotions.  The experience of the yogi is anomalous insofar as the practitioner’s emotions arise in a controlled environment, divorced from the social context of everyday life.  The example of the actor seems more suited in our description of the phenomenology of the emotions.  The actor’s felt impulse determines, and is determined by, his given action, but this action determines, and is determined by, the actions and impulses of others.  The emergence of the human affect is always already on the stage of social life.  Before he/she knows it, the subject is interacting with an omnipresent audience; indeed, before he/she knows it, the subject is adjusting in this interaction and feedback.  The pragmatists underline the remarkable similarity between intra-personal and inter-personal feedback; here it is appropriate to present James’ notion of the emotions in tandem with his idea of the social self as form of bodily comportment to highlight this similarity.

            In The Duality of the Mind, Robert Sun surveys the project undertaken by cognitive neuroscience to create computational and biological models to explain how a living- feeling agent arises as, and within, social relations. Sun opens his discussion by returning to the definition of bodily “comportment” as defined by the phenomenological movement of the early 20th century, by such authors as Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.  He also explains how the idea of “comportment” echoes the philosophic and phenomenological sensibilities of earlier thinkers such as Brentano and James.  This term is meant to capture the pre-reflective interaction between an organism and its environment and the way in which this interaction provides the limiting and enabling conditions of subjectivity.[xxiv]  Subjective consciousness is not over or above the world, but rather, at all times, in the thick of things.  Mental life is only and always found in a particular individual – but also, in a particular worldly situation.  Heidegger, like James, rejects the subject-object distinction of modern philosophy and comments that being-in-the-world and  “comportment has the structure of directing-oneself-toward and being-directed-toward.”[xxv]  That is to say, that in the real world, one’s emotions are affecting and the affected by the conditions in which one finds oneself. Sun notes that computational models are realistic only to the extent that they are relational and multi-modal, only when they try to take account of the worldly and experiential conditions in which consciousness can arise. 

            James anticipates and sets the stage for phenomenologists and nueroscientists in reopening a question that had been prematurely closed by structural psychologists and Cartesian philosophers: “Our bodies themselves, are they simply ours or are they us?”  More simply put, is the human mind to be regarded as “subject” or “object?”  The answer for James is typically two-sided.  An individual moves, but is also moved in certain phenomenological and social situations. When James suggests that “a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his,” he is highlighting the inter-subjective emergence of a feeling-consciousness between the human organism and “his ancestors, his friends, his reputation and his works…his wife and his children.” If these points (and persons) of interaction “wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away he feels cast down.” [xxvi]  In light of James’ extensive understanding of human evolution, one has to wonder about the relation of the individual to “his ancestors.” One thing, however, is certain: these relations are not solely his to control or possess, but rather his to respond to and his to encounter.   James seems to recognize that the internal emotional state of a person is not only affected by the external postures, gestures and actions of oneself, but also by those of other individuals. We are undoubtedly conditioned to act upon given social circumstances.  When these circumstances change, however, we are forever effected, if only ever so slightly.   

            On more than one occasion, James expresses the belief that the inner lives of things, and particularly selves, can be experienced in immediate and felt relation.  Once again, in search of the shared inner life of individuals, James turns a discerning eye on the interaction (the action-between) and conversation (the turning-together) of individual bodies.  He seems to suspect that the outer effects of being-with-others hold the key to the understanding of shared internal states.  James quotes Burke’s description of a kind of empathy as arising through a certain type of bodily interaction, writing:

This man (a physiognomist)…had not only made very accurate  observations of human faces, but was very expert at mimicking such as were in any way remarkable. When he had mind to penetrate into the inclinations of those he had to deal with, he composed his face, his gestures, and his whole body, as nearly as he could, into the exact similitude of the person he intended to examine; and then carefully observed what turn of mind he seems to acquire by the change. [xxvii] 

The inextricable connection between the mind and body is once again made explicit.  In this case, however, another, and perhaps more mysterious, suggestion is being expressed. He implies that the body is always situated in a social context, a context whose inner nature can be “opened up” through embodied interaction.  The internal states of others can, in some way, become our own through bodily con-versation. 

This “turning-together” of bodies is, at once, a meeting of the minds.   In other words, bodies seem to hold a type of mediating position between the internal states of the individual and between internal states of various individuals.  This mediation is both for-ourselves and for-others.   Citing the work of his colleague, Fechner, James elaborates:

One may find by one’s own observation that the imitation of the bodily expression of a mental condition makes us understand it far better than the merely looking on….When I walk behind some one I do not know and imitate…his gait and carriage, I get the most curious impression as feeling as the person himself must feel.[xxviii]

Contemporary theorists have extended these remarks and have aimed to identify the pervasive and unconscious character of social mimicry, its deep biological basis, and its implications for sociality, cooperation, empathy, and procedural memory.  A brief look at this literature seems warranted.  As Damasio often notes, James did not have the scientific wherewithal to flesh out many of his hypotheses.[xxix]  It is, in some respects, our responsibility to either put some meat on the bones of his theories or let them lay as deservedly dead.  In this case, some recent work seems to revive his initial observations.  


IV.  Getting Under My Skin: Mimicry and Mirror Neurons 

                James’ discussion of mimicry is usually couched in terms of the conscious human manipulations of an actor or researcher.  Biologists have recently broadened the scope of mimicry, noting the prevalence and purpose of mirrored activity in the animal kingdom at large.[xxx]  This sort of behavior is framed as both unconscious and automatic.  Echoing James, researchers have begun to draw the connection between this activity and the prosocial behavior found in most primates and especially human beings.[xxxi]  Individuals tend to mirror the postures and mannerisms of those with whom they interact.  This performative doubling occurs most poignantly between intimates but also between strangers.[xxxii] 

Before moving on, it seems appropriate to recognize a critical voice amongst this scientific research.  One might claim that the studies on facial and social mimicry can lead to a reductionism in which felt emotional states are removed from the researcher’s description.  An individual can react to an environment, and even mirror its patterns and structures, without positing a corresponding life or agency to this social or phenomenological situation.  In these models, the other is not necessarily granted agency but merely observed as changing, as being naturally volatile.  This is a criticism that is often brought against “the scientific” James.  I will argue in the following section that a closer look at James’ metaphysics might provide a type of answer to such critiques.  For now, however, I will continue to address the contemporary research that seems to be conducted in the spirit if not the letter of James’ research project.  Such research also begins to address such concerns.    

In a move to connect this external mimicry with felt and shared internal states, Neuman and Strack observe that people report assuming the moods of social confederates, even when these confederates are, for the most part, unrelated.[xxxiii]   The assumption of these moods is correlated with a disposition to mimic the facial expressions of compatriots. In 2002, Sonnby-Borgstrom hypothesized that a correlation existed between automatic mimicry and emotional empathy, that is, the ability to feel the felt emotional state of another individual.  Differences between subjects high and low in emotional empathy were investigated.  The parameters compared were facial mimicry reactions, as represented by electromyographic (EMG) activity when subjects were exposed to pictures of angry or happy faces, and the degree of correspondence between subjects' facial EMG reactions and their self-reported feelings. The comparisons were made at different stimulus exposure times in order to elicit reactions at different levels of information processing. Her results are interesting in light of the discussion of shared emotional states and external performance:

The high-empathy subjects were found to have a higher degree of mimicking behavior

than the low-empathy subjects, a difference that emerged at short exposure times that represented automatic reactions. The low-empathy subjects tended already at short exposure times to show inverse zygomaticus muscle reactions, namely "smiling" when exposed to an angry face. The high-empathy group was characterized by a significantly higher correspondence between facial expressions and self-reported feelings. [xxxiv]


She found no significant difference between the high- and low-empathy subjects in their reported feelings when presented a happy or an angry face. She concludes that, “the differences between the groups in emotional empathy appeared to be related to differences in automatic- somatic reactions to facial stimuli rather than to differences in their conscious interpretation of the emotional situation.” [xxxv]

            The mechanism by which external/social mimicry translates into shared internal dispositions remains somewhat unclear, but has been slowly brought to light in the studies of mirror neurons by Rizzolati and others in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  Gallese identifies a set of neurons in the premotor cortex of humans and some primates that provide the capacity for near instantaneous response on an unconscious level both to external and internal cues.  Through a mapping of particular brain areas, researchers discovered nerve nets that were activated both by the subject’s observation of meaningful action as well as by the actual performance of the action.  It could be said that the social realm in which emotions are embodied and action takes place, very literally, gets under one’s skin.  In a colloquial sense, neuronal activation does not make a distinction between the actions and intentions of another and the actions and intentions of oneself.  Interestingly, the visual stimuli most effective in triggering these mirror neurons were the subject’s observations of actions “in which the experimenter’s hand or mouth interacted with objects.”[xxxvi]  From an evolutionary perspective, this should come as no real surprise; the mouth and hands are obviously crucial in the acquisition of food and integral to the sociality of most mammals.

The crucial point here is that these neural nets are unique in their ability to respond to, to be activated by, and to anticipate, what comes next through the subject’s observations of complicated procedures.  Again, to speak loosely, the neurons anticipate the agency of others just as they would anticipate the agency of oneself.  Kohler’s recent studies discover that neurons in the premotor cortex fire and are suppressed when an animal performs a specific action and when it hears a related sound; most of the neural nets discharge when one observes or hears the actions of another.[xxxvii] This study highlights the way in which the emotions and the self, traditionally framed as intra-personal and insular, might arise in and through that body’s interaction with the social sphere.  It is not too great of a conceptual leap to say that the way one feels often corresponds to the collective feeling of his social circle.   One also feels, to a certain extent, the way one is felt about.   Notice that the self does not get recognition, have recognition, or enjoy recognition.  The self is recognition. 


V.  Reflex Act and "Subjectivity" of the Situation 

            Earlier I voiced the criticism that James fails to recognize the living agency of the environmental situation in which human agency, its mind and emotions, emerges.  A certain reading of James’ metaphysical texts may shed light on the seemingly problematic and seemingly reductionist sentiments in Psychology.  Here, James comments that there are two distinct, yet related ways of investigating the psychic state:

First, the way of analysis: What does it consist in?  What

is its inner nature?  Of what mind-stuff is it composed?  Second,

the way of history: What are its conditions of production, and its

connection with other facts?[xxxviii]

In the previous sections I have attempted to show how an investigation of the internal reflex states, and in particular those that affect the emotions, leads naturally to a discussion of the conditions – historical and social - in which this emotional self arises.  The intra-personal reflex of emotional biofeedback, is always enmeshed in a living, breathing, active environment that unfolds in ever-widening reflex loops.  In other words, biofeedback and neural reentry is already a rough mirroring, and a partial mimicking of an environment.  In his aptly titled, “Reflex Action and Theism,” James alludes to the perfect fit between the reflex act of the human body and the reflexive pulse of the world in which this body comes to pass.  He asks his listener to recognize the expansive cycling, affected and affecting, of the world “whose form is no higher than that of the life that animates his spinal cord - nay indeed, that animates the writhing segments of any mutilated worm.”[xxxix] 

            Without succumbing to idealism, modern science has attempted to shake its reputation of reductionism by highlighting the way that the reflexive looping of organisms and the universe at large are both complimentary in form and profoundly interpenetrating. In a comment that is usually regarded as moment of religious hand-waving, James suggests that the human ability, and indeed propensity, to con-verse with the “subjectivity” of his situation must be acknowledged as one of the few divine commandments.  He writes:

                        To co-operate with…creation by the best and rightest response seems

                                all that he wants from us.  In such co-operation with his purposes, not

in any chimerical speculative conquest of him (or his creation), not in

any drinking of him up, must lie the real meaning of our destiny.[xl]

In the spirit of James’ work, it seems fitting that the empirical and phenomenological studies of the human organism, its mind, and its emotions, aim to describe the way in which the human is “co-operating” with the dynamic situation in which it finds itself.  This situation - either natural or social - may provide a key, or at least a mirror, to understand our own internal states.  A study of this embodied situation may reveal the unique character of mental and emotional agency.  Indeed this may be the case for it is slowly becoming clear that the agency of the world, in all of its particularity, is continuous with, although not identical to, our own.

Interestingly, James does not seem to restrict the realm of mind to the strictly human, often alluding to the intimate connection between the non-human and human.[xli]  It is difficult to determine the extent to which James wants to attribute the character of the “mental” to this internal meaning of otherness, but he seems to suggest that such an attribution might be in order.  He is, however, rightfully hesitant for he understands the ontological implications of such a philosophic move.  In 1873 James writes: “Sight of elephants and tigers at Barnum’s menagerie whose existence, so individual and peculiar, yet stands there, so intensely and vividly real, as much as one’s own, so that one feels again poignantly the unfathomableness of ontology, supposing ontology to be at all.”[xlii]

                The empirical studies addressed in the previous section help to transfigure the status of the social situation from an alien “it” to an intimate and pervasive “thou.”  James, the scientist, was deeply interested in this “thou,” but seems ill-equipped to give an exhaustive empirical account of its nature.  James, the mystic, was not only interested in the character of this “thou,” but also deeply concerned by the manner in which this wider subjectivity was intimate, accessible, and forever bound to a particular human self.  It seems that we have reached a junction at which point both the empiricist and the metaphysician can catch a glimpse of this “thou” and recognize the way in which this “thou,” this “you,” is already in a certain sense under my skin. 







[i]  William James, “The Present Dilemma of Philosophy,” in Pragmatism (New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1907) 12.

[ii]  Ibid. 13.

[iii] Ibid.  14.

[iv] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol II, (New York: Dover, 1950). 494.

[v] Ibid.  451.

[vi]  Ibid. 450.

[vii] Ibid. 462.

[viii]  B.F. Skinner.  About Behaviorism.  (New York: Knopf, 1974).  13. 

[ix]  Ibid. 14.

[x]  Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. 164.

[xii]  Ibid.  249.

[xiii] William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol II, (New York: Dover, 1950).  484.

[xiv] Barbara B. Brown.  New Mind, New Body – Biofeedback: New Directions for the Mind. (New York: Harper and Row, 1974). p. 4.

[xv] Beata Jenks.  Your Body: Biofeedback at its Best.  (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1977) 19.

[xvi] Ibid. 5

[xvii] W.B. Cannon.  Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage  (New York: Appleton, 1929)  43.

[xviii] Barbara B. Brown.  New Mind, New Body – Biofeedback: New Directions for the Mind. (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) 216.

[xix] William Green.  Beyond Biofeedback.  (New York: Hutton, 1979)  250.

[xx]   Ibid. 463.

[xxi] Antonio Damasio.  The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.  (New York: Harvest, 1999) 287-290. 

[xxii] Gerald Edelman.  “Neural Dynamics in a Model of of the Thalamocortical System.”  Cerebral Cortex.  7, 1997.  229.

[xxiii] Ibid. 236.

[xxiv] Ronald Sun.  The Duality of the Mind: A Bottom Up Approach to Cognition.  (Mahew: Lawrence Publishing, 2002) 143.

[xxv] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.  (San Francisco: Harper, 1962)  320, 322. 

[xxvi] Ibid. 291.

[xxvii] Ibid. 464.

[xxviii] Ibid.  464.

[xxix] Ibid. 282.

[xxx] William Wickler.  Mimicry in Plants and Animals, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968).

[xxxi] H. Giles and P.F. Powesland.  Speech Style and Social Evalutaion.  (London: Academic Press, 1975).

[xxxii] T. Chartrand and J. Bargh.  “The Chameleon Effect.”  The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893-910. 

[xxxiii] R. Neuman and F. Strack.  “Mood Contagion”  The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 211-223. 

[xxxiv] M. Sonnby-Borgstrom.  Automatic mimicry reactions as related to differences in emotional empathy.”  The Scandanavian Journal of Psychology, 48, 433.

[xxxv] Ibid. 

[xxxvi] V. Gallese.  “Action recognition in the premotor cortex.”  Brain, 119, 593-609. 

[xxxvii] E. Kohler.  “Hearing  sounds, understanding actions: Action representation in mirror neurons.”  Science, 297, 846.

[xxxviii] Ibid. (italics mine) 913.

[xxxix] William James, “Reflex Act and Theism” in William James Writings 1879-1899 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984)  559.

[xl] Ibid. 562

[xli] James, William.  Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals.  (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988)  139. 

[xlii] James William.  The Letters of William James. ed. Henry James. vol. I, (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920) 224.