William James and the Epochal Theory of Time

by Richard W. Field

Richard W Field received his MA. at Michigan State University in 1981 and is currently a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 260-274, Vol. 13, Number 4, Winter, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author explores the nature of time in the thought of William James and compares his solutions with those of Whitehead.

Some years ago Victor Lowe stressed the importance of understanding William James’s philosophy and psychology in order to understand the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (3:125). Lowe’s point is well founded, for William James’s works contain many insights which have important affinities to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. This becomes evident upon reading chapter IX of The Principles of Psychology, "The Stream of Thought," and James’s later work Essays in Radical Empiricism. Lowe argued convincingly that James’s insistence, in these works, that transitions in the flow of consciousness are felt relations paved the way for Whitehead’s doctrine of prehensions. As Lowe says, "If we persevere in [the denial that transitions are felt] after reading James’s psychology and radical empiricism, it is probably useless to take Process and Reality in hand" (3:125).

However, the similarities between the work of James and Whitehead are not restricted to the latter’s doctrine of prehensions. Equally important is the close resemblance of their respective theories of time. James, like Bergson, had understood the flow of experience as being continuous. However, there are several difficulties with this view, difficulties which led James to the theory that experience, and time itself, must proceed in discrete units. This later theory of James’s bears close resemblance to the epochal theory of time offered by Whitehead in Process and Reality.

I shall explore in this paper the development of James’s thought concerning the nature of time. An important inclusion in this discussion will be a comparison of James’s early thought on this subject, found in The Principles of Psychology, and Bergson’s theory of time. I believe that the later development in James’s thought concerning the nature of temporal succession answers some crucial difficulties of Bergson’s theory. An understanding of these difficulties is, therefore, useful in casting light on the nature and value of James’s solutions to them, and the purpose of Whitehead’s similar solutions in his own metaphysics.


James, in "The Stream of Thought," insists that upon introspection we find the temporal succession of consciousness to be a continuous stream. This is the basic insight on which he built his theory of time. We find no sharp cuts or breaks In consciousness; the flow is continuous.

The basis for this view is an understanding of the richness of the content of conscious life. For the associationists, a school of thought descended from Humean psychology, all that can be found in the flow of consciousness are the various sensations and the more pale ideas, juxtaposed to one another, but with no relation except this juxtaposition to bind them. Thus Hume reduced causation to the repeated temporal contiguity of sensations, for he found nothing more in consciousness to bind a cause with its effect. For James this understanding left all but the most obvious constituents of the flow of consciousness out of the picture (PP1 230-32). All that the associationists had found were the terms or relata of conscious life, but they failed to see the relations which bound these terms together. For James relations are no construction of the mind; they are felt. We have actual feelings of relation which bind the substantive parts of consciousness together. "If there be such things as feelings at all, then so surely as relations between objects exist in rerum naturâ, so surely, and more surely, do feelings exist to which these relations are known" (PP1 245).

James likens the stream of thought to the life of a bird (PP1 243). There are the perchings or times of rest which signify the substantive parts of consciousness, those parts which the associationists did take note of. But then there are also the flights which are interspersed between the perchings, which signify the transitive parts of consciousness, the feelings of relations which the associationists denied, but which bind the fabric of conscious life together. Take, for example, the sentence "The sky is blue." The sentence consists grammatically of four words printed on the page next to one another. But how must we take account of our experience when we read this sentence? If we simply listed the words in the order in which they appear in the sentence, there would still be something unaccounted for in our reading of the sentence. We do not read the words as a series of isolated sensations insulated from one another and merely find a temporal contiguity between the constituent words. Rather we find the words intimately related in thought as we read them. As we come to the word ‘blue’, the word ‘sky’ still reverberates and colors the feelings we have. In other words, the sentence flows through our thought as one continuous and unified whole, not as a series of isolated and discrete sensations. We might attempt to represent this point visually by saying that we do not read " ‘The’ ‘sky’ ‘is’ ‘blue’," but rather we read "The-sky-is blue." The sentence enters our thought as a togetherness, not a series of distinct parts.

Of course, the transitive parts of the stream of thought are hard to catch hold of, and so it is understandable that the associationists left them out of their account. Our attempts to isolate and grab hold of the transitive in consciousness are thwarted by the very nature of the project, for to isolate them we must arrest the flow of thought. But arrested thought no longer is transitive; there is no transition about it at all, only stasis. As James explains, "as a snow-flake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop, so, instead of catching the feeling of relation moving to its term, we find we have caught some substantive thing, usually the last word we were pronouncing, statically taken, and with its function, tendency, and particular meaning in the sentence quite evaporated" (PP1 244).

There is one more related point of James’s which must be taken account of to understand the continuity of the stream of thought. We never find in consciousness simply a thought, but a thought with its relations. All thoughts are found in their relations, intimately tied to a psychic context, and the nature of the thought is colored by the relations it holds. To speak in metaphysical terms, all relations in the stream of thought are internal relations. Consequently, we find that the substantive parts of this stream overflow their banks, so to speak, and color the other parts. There is an infusion ofqualities and feelings in one another; the feelings infect one another. We do not find silence simply followed by a thunder-clap, but rather we hear, as James puts it, "thunder-breaking-upon-silence-and-contrasting-with-it" (PP1 240). We do not simply hear the E played on the piano, but we hear it in contrast with the C played a moment before. These examples indicate a general feature of all conscious life: feelings and qualities do not exist in discrete juxtaposition, but rather intermingle and penetrate each other.

Also mixed in with the intermingling of feelings are what James calls the ‘feelings of tendency’ (PP1 249-58). These are feelings of anticipation, feelings of what will be but is not yet. For example, "If I recite a, b, c, d, e, f, g, at the moment of uttering d, neither a, b, c, nor e, f, g, are out of my consciousness altogether, but both, after their respective fashions, ‘mix their dim lights’with the stronger one of d . . ." (PP1 257). We do not, then, merely have in the present feeling a mingling of the immediate past, but also the immediate future anticipated.

Conscious life is for James, then, much richer than the associationists believed. The latter understood the stream of thought atomically, since, according to their theory, all one can find in consciousness are the substantive terms, not the relations. The terms exist side-by-side, but are not related by anything other than this spatial and temporal contiguity. However, for James the terms of consciousness manifest themselves as related to other terms. This relatedness accounts for the continuity of the conscious flow. There are not sharp divisions in the stream of thought, no mere succession of unrelated states, but a flow from one state to the next. "Consciousness … does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described" (PP1 239).


James’s theory as outlined in "The Stream of Thought" bears a remarkable resemblance to Bergson’s philosophy. Bergson also insists that the flow of consciousness is an undivided continuity. A major difference, however, between Bergson’s theory and James’s notion of the stream of thought as outlined in his Psychology is a matter of stress: whereas James, in the Psychology, was hesitant in extending his conclusions beyond the flow of our experience itself,1 Bergson was always concerned primarily with what is revealed in our experience about the nature of reality, and in particular the nature of time. For Bergson introspection of our own mental lives, what Bergson calls ‘intuition’,2 reveals the continuous flow as it manifests itself in reality. "The consciousness we have of our own person in its continual flowing, introduces us to the interior of a reality on whose model we must imagine the others. All reality is, therefore, tendency, if we agree to call tendency a nascent change of direction" (CM 188).

However, it should be pointed out that although James in the Psychology concentrated his attention on the stream of thought as discovered through introspection, his theory of neutral monism was being developed prior to the publication of the Psychology.3 This theory gave James the bridge to cross over from introspective psychology to metaphysics, a bridge which he utilized in his later writings. Thus, as we shall see in more detail later, James’s theory as a whole did make the extension into considerations of the nature of reality as a whole.

Bergson’s explanation for the misleading notions of time held by past philosophers is somewhat different than James’s. James criticizes the associationists for their failure to take note of relational feelings, a failure which led to an atomistic understanding of experience. In other words, James believed that the associationists were poor empiricists, failing to report the complexities of conscious life. Bergson, however, criticizes the rationalists’ arguments which led to the mathematical notion of time: the notion that time is composed of a series of instants. Such an understanding of time was implicit in Newtonian physics. According to this view, it makes sense to speak of the universe at an instant, that is, a space devoid of any temporal extensiveness. These instantaneous ‘cuts’ of the universe across time may be organized in thought in a series so that we may speak of the universe at time t1, t2, t2, an so on. Likewise, so the Newtonian view holds, the temporal succession of the universe is simply a series of instants. Bergson likens this view to a movie -- a series of static snapshots of the universe temporally contiguous to one another (CM 18). There is nothing, upon this view, that is essential in the felt temporal succession we find in experience. As we can speed up or slow down the film, likewise we can conceive of the series of instants as running on faster or slower into the future -- nothing in the nature of the series excludes this possibility.

However, Bergson believes that this Newtonian understanding of time is misleading. Bergson’s objection is that this view spatializes time by reducing it to a juxtaposition of instants. The paradigmatic example of this error is the notion of the time line, in which instants of time are translated into points juxtaposed in space. Time is reduced to the external relatedness of geometric points.

We set our states of consciousness side by side in such a way as to perceive them simultaneously, no longer in one another but alongside one another; in a word, we project time into space, we express duration in terms of extensity, and succession thus takes the form of a continuous line or chain, the parts of which touch without penetrating each other. (TFW 101)

But the error in this view becomes obvious, for Bergson believes, like James, that upon introspection of our conscious lives we find the components of consciousness related internally; we find a penetration of the felt past and the anticipated future in the present. The upshot of Bergson’s critique of the spatialization of time is, then, very similar to James’s critique of the associationists. The flow of experience does not reveal a discrete series of unrelated parts: the parts come as related.

The flow of experience and the infusion of the parts of experience are felt, for both James and Bergson, within the boundaries of a durational present. James called this duration the ‘specious present’. For James, the specious present is a duration of twelve seconds or so (PP1 613) in which the constituent feelings of the stream of thought are found in immediate awareness. At the backward end of this duration the feelings fade into the past; at the forward end they shade into the anticipated future. The psychic present is, then, durational -- it is not an instant of time in the Newtonian sense discussed above. "The practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time" (PP1 609).

Instrumental in our experience of the specious present is the activity of what James calls ‘primary’ or ‘elementary memory’. Primary memory assures the survival of the immediate past in the present moment of experience, as distinct from ‘secondary memory’ which recalls a more distant past into present experience. "An object of primary memory is not... brought back; it never was lost; its date was never cut off in consciousness from that of the immediate present moment (PP1 646f). The specious present is a product of this primary memory which holds for a time the images of passing consciousness in a felt immediacy.

For Bergson also there is a felt present which is durational. "The real, concrete, live present -- that of which I speak when I speak of my present perception -- that present necessarily occupies a duration" (MM 176). Also like James, Bergson believes it is the activity of memory which accounts for the durational present. Bergson, in Matter and Memory, speaks of this activity of memory as the ‘contracting’ of the past into the present, or ‘tension’ (MM ch. 4). Thus for Bergson also there is a survival of the past in the present brought about by memory, and this survival provides for our experience of a present which is durational.

However, Bergson does not make the distinction between primary and secondary memory in order to explain the division between the present and the past. For Bergson there is no natural boundary between them; they are continuous with one another. This is a consequence of the indivisible continuity of our experience itself. We find no natural divisions in the continuity of experience. "The preservation of the past in the present is nothing else than the indivisibility of change" (CM 155). Consequently, the past always remains a real and active force in the present; it is always there to be reckoned with (CM 150-55). On the other hand, we do make a common-sense distinction between the past and the present. This distinction is made on the basis of our attention, and our attention is guided by practical interest. In other words, the practical concerns of life require us to attend to the tasks at hand, and not to that which is over and done with, that is, that which no longer has any interest to us (CM 151f.). "Our present falls back into the past when we cease to attribute to it an immediate interest" (CM 152). There is, then, no natural boundary between the past and the present.

It is not even inconceivable, according to Bergson, for the whole of a person’s past to be thrust into the immediate awareness of the present. For James this would be quite impossible, for our attention cannot extend beyond roughly a twelve-second duration. This is the boundary of the specious present (PPI 612f.). But for Bergson attention is directed by interest. Remove practical interest, and it becomes quite possible that our normal distinction between the past and present would cease to be a psychic fact. If such an eventuality actually took place, experience "would . . . include in an undivided present the entire past history of the conscious person, not as instantaneity, not like a cluster of simultaneous parts, but as something continually present which would also be something continually moving" (CM 152).

James, like Bergson, believed that the past has an efficacy over the present; the past is in the present in the sense that it has an influence in the present. Milic Capek criticizes James for not agreeing with Bergson on this point, suggesting that for James "the images of stream and perishing prevail suggesting a past ‘flowing away’ and disappearing in the abyss of non-being (1:343). However, I believe that James’s view concerning the status of the past is not so different from Bergson’s. Consider:, "Experience is remolding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date" (PP1 234). Capek also cites from this passage in James (1:351); however, he dismisses it for the wrong reasons. It is very true, as Capek points out (1:351f.), that James (lid not extend, in the Psychology, his conclusions beyond the aspects of the stream of consciousness in the way Bergson did. However, James did believe that the influence of the past is felt in the present. All that James wished to deny is that the remote past is experienced in the present with the same immediacy and vividness as that which falls within the boundaries of the specious present, unless, of course, it is recalled by secondary memory. Although for Bergson it is conceivable that the past could be experienced as fully immediate and vivid, the influence of the past in the present does not turn on such an experience, for the past does slip into obscurity, according to Bergson, when we do not attend to it. I believe, therefore, that James and Bergson are in essential agreement on this point.


The philosophy of Bergson and the theory of the stream of thought of the early James are strikingly similar, and the more so considering that their thought developed independently (TCWJ2 599f). Both affirmed the continuity of experience as a basic truth revealed when we introspect or, to use Bergson’s term, ‘intuit’ the nature of conscious life.

However, there is a problem with this view if we simply leave it at this. For a continuum can be sliced up indefinitely into as many segments of that continuum as we wish. What we end up with in this process is an infinite number of segments. Now, consider the continuum of the flow of consciousness. We might cut out of this flow one second of time. However, we need not stop here; we can further slice this duration at one half the second, then one quarter, one eighth, one sixteenth, and so on. This series of cuts can simply be generated ad infinitum by doubling the denominator of each progressive fraction. When we slice up a certain duration of time in this way, all we get is smaller durations, durations which approach instantaneity but nevertheless always have some positive magnitude. Now the question arises: How can any process in time be accomplished through an infinite number of durations of positive magnitude?

This is the problem set by Zeno of Elea in the fifth century BC. Zeno had several versions of this paradox, perhaps the most famous of which is the race of Achilles and the tortoise. Consider such a race. Both Achilles and the tortoise begin the race at some time ti. At the start of the race, however, the tortoise is allowed a slight edge over Achilles, beginning the race a bit ahead of him. At time t2 Achilles reaches the tortoise’s starting place, but the tortoise has moved on, although his lead has been diminished somewhat. At time t3 Achilles reaches the tortoise’s position at time t2, but once again the tortoise has moved on, although again the tortoise’s lead is diminished. This progression can be represented diagrammatically as follows.


It is apparent that the diagram above represents the first three members of a series which shall progress ad infinitum. The paradox of Achilles and the tortoise simply gives us a convenient and commonsensical way of generating an infinite series like the series of fractions described above. The implication Zeno drew from this paradox was that Achilles could not catch up with the tortoise. The general implication of generating such an infinite series is that any process taking place over a continuum cannot be accomplished, for this would mean successively achieving an infinite number of states or positions in that process. In other words, for the process to be completed infinity itself would have to be transcended.

Bergson believed that such an argument is fallacious, for the paradox we are drawn into is simply the consequence of identifying time with space (CM 144f., TFW 112-15). Space can be infinitely divided. We can take, for example, a line segment, and divide it as much as we wish. The limit of such division is the mathematical point, but so long as we start with a spatial quantity of some positive magnitude, this limit shall never be reached. Consequently, space is infinitely divisible. But time, for Bergson, is not divisible as space is. It is, rather, a fluid and continuous flow which cannot be sliced up endlessly. Zeno has identified Achilles’ motion with the positions he occupied in space, and has fallen into the paradox through the mathematical analysis of these positions.

To proceed as Zeno is to admit that the race can be arbitrarily broken up like the space which has been covered; it is to believe that the passage is in reality applied to the trajectory; it is making movement and immobility [i.e., space] coincide and consequently confusing one with the other. (CM 145)

Bergson, then, finds Zeno’s paradox flawed. In identifying time with space we identify it with a series of externally related and discrete points, and this denies the internal relatedness and infusion of conscious states which both Bergson and James insisted were the characteristic features of conscious life. Thus, if we only consider the course which Achilles ran, Zeno can make his case, but so long as we concentrate our attention on the race as run, the paradox cannot arise.

James came to realize the affinities between his own thought and that of Bergson’s in 1902 upon reading Bergson’s Données immédiate de la conscience (TFW) and Matière et mémoire (MM) (TCWJ2 603f.). James’s admiration of Bergson’s philosophy grew thereafter, until in 1908 James gave the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford, subsequently published as A Pluralistic Universe. Concerning these lectures James wrote to Bergson, "It amounts practically to a critique of intellectualism, and a vindication of the immediately vécu flux -- in short, to Bergsonism" (TCWJ2 622). Thus James joined Bergson in defending an ‘intuitive’ methodology and criticizing the cognitive constructions of intellectualist philosophy.

However, James did not simply adopt Bergson’s philosophy. This can be seen in his discussion of Zeno’s paradox in A Pluralistic Universe (PU 102-04), and in his last book, published posthumously, entitled Some Problems of Philosophy (SPP 80-95). For Bergson Zeno’s paradox posed no problem if we refuse to identify time with space. Our intuitive understanding of the flow of our conscious lives shows the error of the paradox -- the flow of consciousness is a continuity and not a mathematical succession of points. However, though this answer might be adequate for the critique of the spatializing of time (PU 113f.), James showed that it was not sufficient to answer completely the problem raised by Zeno.

The problem which Zeno raised with his paradox is, as we have seen, the problem of the infinite. James, in Some Problems of Philosophy, draws the distinction between two types of infinitely conditioned things: (1) "Things conceived as standing," such as space and past time; and (2) "Things conceived as growing," such as motion and change (SPP 85f.). With a standing class of infinite magnitude the existence of each of the members of the class is accomplished. The existence or previous existence of each member is, then, a given. However, with a growing infinite the existence of each term is not accomplished, but is being accomplished in serial order. As James puts it, in this case we do not have an accomplished fact, but a task (SPP 88).

According to James, the first type of infinity, that of standing things, does not prove to be troublesome logically or conceptually so long as we take it distributively and not conjunctively. That is, if we consecutively number each member of a standing class of infinite magnitude, we need only conceive of each member as awaiting a corresponding number. The process of numbering shall simply go on ad infinitum as does the series of positive integers. It is only when we consider an infinite class conjunctively, that is, when we conceive of it as a certain sum total of things, that we get into conceptual difficulties. If we consider an infinite standing class conjunctively, we are led into a contradiction, for to speak of all the members of a class is to speak of a bounded total or finitude. Consequently, in taking a class of infinite magnitude in respect to all of its members, that is, the sum total of the things constituting the class, we surreptitiously introduce the concept of finitude and predicate it of the infinite. But so long as we consider each thing in the class, and not all things in it, we are not thrown into these difficulties (SPP 86).

But when we consider the second type of infinity, that of things growing, we come upon graver difficulties. In this case we cannot take the infinite distributively if we are to consider the growing process as continuous. The continuous process is infinitely divisible, and thus if the process itself is of some positive magnitude, then each part of the process will be of a positive magnitude and will, in turn, be itself divisible. The process is, then, only accomplished if the infinite number of parts of the process are successively surmounted. However, the process accomplished is a completed fact with all of its parts surmounted. Here lies the difficulty, for if we take each part distributively and count off each part as it is accomplished, the process itself can never be completed since, by definition, an infinite series cannot be completed. We have, then, an antinomy, for if we suppose a finite process to be continuous, then that process can never be accomplished. Achilles will never catch the tortoise since to do this he would have to accomplish the impossible -- he would have to reach the end of an unending series (SPP 87f.).

The solution to this antinomy is the denial that the processes of things growing are continuous in the sense of being infinitely divisible. Thus, James postulated that the flow of experience must come in discrete durational units. But more than this -- all temporal process must be accomplished through durational units. As James explains in A Pluralistic Universe,

All our sensible experiences, as we get them immediately, do . . . change by discrete pulses of perception, each of which keeps us saying ‘more, more, more,’ or ‘less, less, less,’ as the definite increments or diminutions make themselves felt. . . . [All our sensible experiences] come to us in drops. Time itself comes in drops. (PU 104)

The continuity of experience and, by extension, of time itself must, then, be reinterpreted. It is not an infinitely divisible continuum, but rather a series of durational quanta. As Whitehead puts it, "There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming" (PR 35/ 53).

It may be asked how this view differs from the discrete sensations of the associationists or the discrete mathematical instants of the intellectualists which James and Bergson criticized. The answer is that the durational units are internally related. Just as we find the various conscious states of our experience enter into the constitution of one another, so the units of becoming must be related in this way. Whitehead speaks of this internal relatedness as ‘prehension’. Each durational unit prehends those units which have gone before, and is prehended by subsequent units. Thus even though the units are discrete, they are not insulated from one another. The qualities of one unit pervade the constitution of those units which succeed it (cf. SMW 101-06).

The real problem behind Zeno’s paradox is overlooked by Bergson. The difficulty which he pointed out was the result of a confusion of what James called the infinite of things standing with the infinite of things growing, that is, a confusion of space and time. But James showed that the difficulties which arise in the paradox still arise even if we do not ‘spatialize’ time. Consequently, Bergson never saw the need to postulate the succession of units or drops of experience to explain the continuity of the experiential flow.

A clearer view of James’s theory might be had if we draw some of the implications of the theory. What does it mean to say that experience comes in drops? First of all, it means that there must be some unit of experience which is unchanging. If this were not so, then Zeno’s paradox would once again arise. For if we were to say that James’s drops of experience included a changing process, then once again this process would have to be completed over an infinite number of component durations. Thus the basic units of experience come into being and die away to be succeeded by others, but they do not change.

Secondly, this view means that when we try to measure the duration taken up by a process there will be a certain limit to what is in principle measurable in itself. This is a necessary consequence of this theory, since the measurement of time is only possible if there is some change of state taking place, whether this change is in the process being measured or in the instrument of measurement itself. Since there is no change in the basic units of temporal succession, we cannot measure their duration in themselves. We might be able to determine what fraction of time they took up of a longer duration which is measurable. Thus we could on hindsight see they are indeed durational. But when we try to measure the duration of a process, there will be a limit to the accuracy we can achieve. It is as if upon experiencing a year’s time we can look back on a day of that year and determine that its duration was 1/365th of the duration of the year. Yet when we try to measure the duration of the day itself, our instruments fail us. If we start our clock at the beginning of the day, it will not register a unit of time as having past until the day is over and a new day is beginning. This result is not a consequence of the inaccuracy of our instruments, but is a consequence of the nature of time itself. There is, in other words, a basic limit to physical time beyond which we cannot go. We can in imagination take smaller and smaller fractions of a certain duration, a process which will lead us finally to 1/_ of the duration, or the Newtonian instant. However, there is nothing real in the world itself which corresponds to this instant. Real time cannot be divided in this fashion.

A third implication of this theory is that the continuous change of experience is accomplished through the succession of the basic durational units or drops of experience. The continuity of our experience is, then, not the continuity of the infinitely divisible, for in this sense of continuity we must say that the flow of experience is discontinuous. Rather, it is the continuity of a series which has no gaps between its members. As James puts it, experience is continuous in the sense that "anything is continuous when its parts appear as immediate next neighbors, with absolutely nothing between" (SPP 95). In this way experience, like time itself, is a becoming of continuity.


Both James and Bergson insisted that if we look inward and come to understand the nature of our inner conscious lives we find consciousness in a state of continuous flux. But James realized something which Bergson did not -- that we cannot simply insist that the flow of consciousness is continuous; we must make sense of the continuity. This led James to the theory that the stream of consciousness, and time itself, must come in discrete durational units which in themselves do not involve change.

Bergson seems to have felt the need at times to postulate a durational unit of a similar type as James’s. In Matter and Memory he speaks of a quasi-instantaneous sensori-motor present (MM 177f.), and also of the vibratory nature of matter (MM 276). However, these suggestions are tempered by Bergson’s sharp distinction between the sensori-motor present and memory (which is not quasi-instantaneous) on the one hand (MM 179f.), and his insistence that the vibrations of matter are continuous with one another on the other (MM 276). Bergson does not seem to be, in these passages, adopting the Jamesian view of time, but is still insisting on the radical continuity of time without offering an explanation of this continuity.

Bergson’s insistence on this radical continuity of time leads him to startling and seemingly contradictory positions. Consider, for example, this passage.

There is no mood . . . no matter how simple, which does not change at every instant, since there is no consciousness without memory, no continuation of a state without the addition, to the present feeling, of memory of past moments. That is what duration consists of. Inner duration is the continuous life of a memory which prolongs the past into the present. . . . Without that survival of the past in the present there would be no duration but only instantaneity. (CM 179)

Several questions arise here. First, this passage seems to contradict Bergson’s notion of the sensori-motor present. Would not this present still exist even if memory ceased? It would seem that if there is a sensori-motor present then if memory ceased we would be left in Russell’s ‘solipsism-of-the-moment’, but not in instantaneity.4 But a graver difficulty arises with this passage, for it seems that we have here a surreptitious renewal of the mathematical notion of time. The notion of continuity being used in this passage seems to be the mathematical continuity which James rejected as not being the empirical continuity of experience. In this passage Bergson seems to allow for the slicing up of the ‘continuous life of memory’ ad infinitum, leading towards the obliteration of memory, and with it consciousness, in instantaneity. This passage consequently invites the paradox of the growing infinite which led James to deny the mathematical continuity of time.

I believe that in the final analysis the value of Bergson’s work was that of an innovator. His ideas swept away the prejudices of dogmatic philosophical tradition and demanded an accounting of the inner conscious life and the universe itself, as we find it, not as philosophers have believed it ought to be or must be. James also seems to have found the primary value of Bergson’s philosophy in this. As James wrote to C. A. Strong in 1907, Bergson "has killed the beast Intellectualism dead!" (TCWJ2 604). In so doing, and in his suggestive theory of intuition, Bergson led the way to the further metaphysical developments of James, Whitehead, Dewey, and others in the first half of the twentieth century.

But it is in James’s theory of time, and not Bergson’s, that we find the adoption of the same basic solution to the problem of continuity which we find later in Whitehead’s metaphysics. In the Psychology itself we can find ideas which are the harbingers of both James’s theory of durational units of time, and Whitehead’s metaphysics. We have seen how this is true of "The Stream of Thought." But also in chapter X, "The Consciousness of Self," we find several suggestions which were later developed by James and Whitehead. For example, James, in this chapter, postulates that it is the passing thought which is the thinker, and it is the succession of these thoughts which constitutes the stream of consciousness (PP1 342). This notion seems to allude to an epochal theory of time. Also James, in this chapter, speaks of successive thoughts as appropriating or repudiating the contents of earlier thoughts (PP1 340), a notion which Whitehead later takes up in his distinction between positive and negative prehensions.

But perhaps the most interesting idea to arise in this chapter is James’s suggestion that the stream of thought is made up of bits of knowledge or, as James puts it, bits of ‘sciousness’, which include knowledge of other objects only, not themselves. Dewey also pointed this passage out with some interest (2:590f.), but I do not believe he fully understood its import. It is not James s suggestion, as Dewey believes, that there is no mental state at all which is the ‘subject’ or ‘knower’, but rather that the knower and the knowledge are one and the same, that is, identical, and that this bit of knowledge does not know itself as an object. "Each ‘section’ of the stream, says James, "would then be a bit of sciousness or knowledge of this sort, including and contemplating its ‘me’ and its ‘not-me’ as objects which work out their drama together, but not yet including or contemplating its own subjective being" (PP1 304). This brilliant speculation of James’s is a necessary consequence of the epochal theory of time. As we have seen, one implication of this theory is that the basic durational units of time do not change in their own constitutions. If we furthermore accept the notion that these units are internally related, in the sense that the earlier drops of consciousness enter into the consciousness of subsequent drops, it follows that these units or drops of consciousness cannot know themselves. If this were not the case, then these units of consciousness would change, for added to the constitution of the drop taken from the other objects of knowledge there would have to be the knowledge of itself as distinguished from the knowledge of its objects. Consequently at some point during the duration the knowledge would have to be added to its constitution -- the drop of experience would have to change -- which is impossible upon the epochal theory of time.5 As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, "No actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfaction; for such knowledge would be a component in the process, and would thereby alter the satisfaction" (PR 85/ 130). This point of the knower’s being the knowledge while not being aware of itself is central to the epochal theory of time, and the theory of prehension.

The later developments of James’s theory of time, proposed in A Pluralistic Universe and Some Problems of Philosophy, bear remarkable resemblance to Whitehead’s epochal theory of time. Whitehead also argues this theory by using Zeno, although he uses a sophistication of Zeno’s arrow paradox, and not, as James, the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise (PR 68f./ 105-07). Basically the insight of the epochal theory of time might be put in this fashion: that what becomes and what changes are not the same things. What becomes are the durational units or drops of experience, which Whitehead calls ‘actual entities’. What changes is the series of these drops or actual entities as they come into being and perish through the passage of time.6 Bergson did not make this distinction. For him becoming and change were one and the same. But James and Whitehead saw insuperable difficulties in the confusing of becoming and change, and it is their insight into these difficulties, and their solution, which gave rise to a more adequate understanding of the nature of time.7



CM -- Henri Bergson. The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison. Totowa: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1965.

MM -- Henri Bergson. Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1911.

PP1 -- William James. The Principles of Psychology, vol. I. 1890; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1950.

PU -- William James. A Pluralistic Universe. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1977.

SPP -- William James. Some Problems of Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

TCWJ2 -- Ralph Barton Perry. The Thought and Character of William James, vol. II. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1935.

TFW -- Henri Bergson. Time and Free Will, trans. F. L. Pogson. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.

1. Milic Capek. "Stream of Consciousness and ‘Durée Réele’," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 10 (1950), 331-53.

2. John Dewey. "The Vanishing Subject in the Psychology of James," Journal of Philosophy 37 (1940), 589-99.

3. Victor Lowe. "William James and Whitehead’s Doctrine of Prehension," Journal of Philosophy 38 (1941), 113-26.



1James does indicate at times in "The Stream of Thought" his belief that the flow of conscious life indicates the features of reality as a whole. See, for example, the quotation already cited in which James indicates that relations of objects are known through our feelings of relations.

2 For a discussion of ‘intuition’ see CM, introduction (Part II).

3 See William James, "The Function of Cognition," The Writings of William James, John J. McDermott, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp.136-52. This article was first published in 1885, five years prior to the publication of the Psychology.

4 See also James’s discussion in PP1 643-45. James makes it clear in his discussion of primary memory that the existence of memory requires the existence of a substantive state of mind, which would suggest that if memory ceased there would still he a durational state of mind. I believe that James’s response to Richet (p. 644n) would be an appropriate response to Bergson: "Professor Richet has . . . no right to say . . .:‘Without memory no conscious sensation, without memory no consciousness’. All he is entitled to say is: ‘Without memory no consciousness known outside itself’."

5In response to this point it might be objected that awareness or knowledge of self is not necessarily something added to the drop of experience, but is, on the contrary, constitutive of it throughout its duration. However, this is tantamount to saying that any experience includes a reflexive awareness of the experience itself. This view leads to difficulty, for awareness or knowledge is always awareness or knowledge of some object. Thus, such a reflexive awareness would have to be aware of the experience as object, which cannot be the case if the awareness and the experience are one and the same. If it is rebutted that we need not speak of the experience as the object of knowledge of this reflexive awareness, then this view boils down to a recommendation for a radical shift in our understanding of what we mean when we speak of an ‘awareness of’ or ‘knowledge of’ something, a shift which is unwarranted.

6.I am indebted to Steven Nofsinger for suggesting this distinction to me as a way of distinguishing Bergson’s and Whitehead’s philosophies.

7 I would like to extend my gratitude to Drs. S. Morris Eames and Winston Wilkinson for their many helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.