William James believed that there was no central entity or ego that embodied the "I" in "I feel" or "I think". That the continuous stream of thoughts and sensations generated the illusion of their being a central entity doing the thinking and perceiving, but that no such entity existed.

Here's James as quoted in Russell's "The Analysis of Mind"

I believe (he continues) that 'consciousness,' when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether. It is the name of a nonentity, and has no right to a place among first principles. Those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumour left behind by the disappearing 'soul' upon the air of philosophy"(p. 2).


"I have mistrusted 'consciousness' as an entity; for seven or eight years past I have suggested its non-existence to my students, and tried to give them its pragmatic equivalent in realities of experience. It seems to me that the hour is ripe for it to be openly and universally discarded"

This seems to me to be a variation on the bundle theory of the self, as proposed by Hume and the Buddha among others.

Yet William James also believed in freewill. But for there to be freewill, doesn't there have to be a central personal identity that is free to do the willing in the first place?

My questions:

  1. Is William James stream of consciousness indeed a bundle theory of the self?
  2. Does the concept of will necessarily require a subject that is doing the willing?
  3. How can a bundle theory/stream of consciousness model of self and personal identity (or any theory that denies the existence of a central "I" in the mind) be compatible with freewill?
  • This reminds me of Hume's bundle theory of the self in the Enquiry, and the Buddhist arguments that the self doesn't exist.
    – Cicero
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 22:31
  • Uhm, William James' dismissal of "consciousness as an entity" is possibly not a dismissal of consciousness as such. Depends what the man means by "as an entity". Could be referring to other philosopher's ideas. Consciousness itself is roughly measurable. Enough so that we have anesthetist, people who specialize in the temporary removal of consciousness, rendering people unconscious. So if James meant consciousness itself, and not some special notion of it, then he were very much at odds with reality. Sorry I don't know anything about your questions: I can reason, but I don't know things. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 4:04
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf, are you not mixing different meanings of the word consciousness here? the consciousness of a patient that gets knocked out by anesthesia is not necessarily the consciousness that James, or Searle or Descartes or Chalmers are talking about.
    – nir
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 7:09
  • @nir: Could be that I'm mixing meanings, yes. I think only the persons you refer to could definitely say if it's so. On the other hand, it could be that with the qualification "as an entity" William James is referring to such ideas about consciousness. I think about that (if it is that) as analogous to the idea that when I'm playing a song by Foo Fighters (say) on my laptop, it is there, yet nowhere to be found in the physical machinery, and when I stop it, it has moved, because it was there, and no longer is there. I mean, that's thinking of the song playing as an entity. Silly. :) Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 7:27
  • 2
    @AlexanderSKing, why would a compatibilist notion of free will be incompatible with a bundle view of the self? According to the Wikipedia, Hume believed in both; Did you mean libertarian free will?
    – nir
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 7:29

5 Answers 5


James was not the first one to realize that central "I" or "consciousness" as an entity is not in any way helpful in explaining the will, or any other mental faculties. It is just a homunculus in the head that moves all the problems along, with no explanatory power, and potential for infinite regress: what is the central "I" of the central "I"? The only theories that have a hope of explanation are the ones that dissociate the "I" into underlying processes, in particular decision making ones where the will is concerned, whether indeterministic ("free") or not.

At this James made one of the major advances by introducing the two stage model of free will (1884),

"With chance in a present time of random alternatives, leading to a choice which grants consent to one possibility and transforms an equivocal ambiguous future into an unalterable and simple past... James’s two-stage model effectively separates chance (the indeterministic free element) from choice (an arguably determinate decision that follows causally from one’s character, values, and especially feelings and desires at the moment of decision)."

Bundle theory, with "temporary captains" a la Dennet, does not appear clearly in James, but one can see the seeds of it in his descriptions of how alternatives are generated for the first stage:

"We learn all our possibilities by the way of experience. When a particular movement, having once occurred in a random, reflex, or involuntary way, has left an image of itself in the memory, then the movement can be desired again, proposed as an end, and deliberately willed... A supply of ideas of the various movements that are possible left in the memory by experiences of their involuntary performance is thus the first prerequisite of the voluntary life."

By the way, Dennet, a clear bundle theorist, also subscribes to a two stage model. Of course, the model does not resolve all the riddles, a typical criticism is to say that the first stage is not willed, and the second stage is not free. But it does serve as a point of departure even for radical libertarians, like Kane.

  1. Is William James stream of consciousness indeed a bundle theory of the self?

To put it crudely he doesn't rely on the notion of an immaterial soul, but as an empiricist only what he can observe by introspection; so on the whole, yes; it wouldn't surprise me if he had been directly or indirectly influenced by Hume.

  1. Does the concept of will necessarily require a subject that is doing the willing?

It's thinking along these lines that prompted Kant to devise a philosophy that posited a unity of apperception; that rescued the fragmentary subject.

Schopenhauer reframed Kants philosophy of the noumenon and phenomenal worlds as will (wille) and representation (vorstellung); and this wille is not of something (say God or Nature) but a wille that is self-subsistent.

  1. How can a bundle theory/stream of consciousness model of self and personal identity (or any theory that denies the existence of a central "I" in the mind) be compatible with freewill?

Again Kant provided an answer to this in his first critique by making the subject central - his famous copernican revolution.

  • @M U , can you elaborate on 2 and 3? I thought the revolution was more about epistemology: Yes Kant did bring the mind into play, but only in how it interacts with reality. So far I haven't read anything "philosophy-of-mind specific" about Kant. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 16:04
  • 1
    @Alexander S King Comprehensive reference on Kant's model of the mind is Andrew Brook's book books.google.com/books/about/… See also Kitcher's Kant on Self-Identity jstor.org/stable/2184668?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 3:42
  • @alexanderking: so I've heard; but part of Kants project was reframing metaphysics critically; avoiding the dogmatic philosophy of Liebniz-Wolff and the scepticism of Hume (whom apparently he hadn't read first-hand); basically Kant finds a third way between the bundle-theory of Hume (who isn't a strict bundler since he relies on Lockean psychologism to recreate the illusion of continuity); Kant I suppose can be said to have done the same - but more rigorously and through different means. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 17:17

I'll post a very unpretentious answer, just to get the ball rolling here.

It seems to me that there is an extremely interesting question hidden behind this one, a question that is very difficult to formulate, but that I believe can be formulated - if enough context is added, so that it becomes expressible.

It wouldn't be a question that begins with doubt, for a simple reason. The common problem with all these exercises of doubt, is that there has to be some kind of self to do the doubting - even if there is no need for a subject to do the "willing". My reply to your second question is that if action (or will to act) required subjectivity, that would be a strong statement in favor of the conception of body and soul as distinguishable things. Not something to take lightly.

On the other hand, if action (or will) does not require a subjective stance, what to make of responsibility (my way of phrasing your third question)? It can be argued that there is responsibility (and thus a self that is not empty or inconsequent) in how reality is reunited in concept ("bundled", if you will), and interpreted. There may be responsibility in judging what happened, and then taking a stand. Even if there wasn't anybody there at first, there will necessarily be someone right after the action took place, precisely as a (partial) result of the action that took place, able to contemplate where it came from, and own it. Some say that the ethics of psychoanalysis, according to Lacan, is derived from this assumption.

What buddhists have to contribute to the problem of consciousness as illusion is a practice of abandonment. Not exactly a thesis, mostly a path. So that would be one important difference between these two approaches, in my view, and my (indirect) answer to your first question.

  • 1. why does doubt require a self? how do you define it in a way which requires a self? I can imagine for example a computer AI system having what can be plausibly described by its programmers as justified internal warnings about the status of some conjecture. 2. why do you bundle will and action? a machine can act; does it necessarily have free will?
    – nir
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 7:20
  • To address your remarks: 1. To assume that programmers understand what they create is a very optimistic assessment of the profession... And doubt is a state of mind. We can argue that these things do not exist (states of mind), but that's beside the point, here. Anyway, if an AI organism is in doubt, it would be able to prove its existence to itself, which is the only proof that matters of such a thing. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 12:40
  • 2. That a machine can move doesn't mean it is animated. In general, proofs that something can be done by somebody that is not an agent, because it can be done by a "machine", have to be very carefully put in context. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 12:45
  • Finally: sometimes, the best (more elegant and productive) way to challenge an answer is to provide a different one. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 12:47
  • I apologize for my previous response; it was over the top...
    – nir
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 20:38

I would claim that as it has matured into the modern psychoanalytic and cognitive theories James' stream of consciousness allows for a definition of the self, but does not require it. Actions are perceived as having agents, but those agents are not necessarily individual conscious beings.

There is a standard "social psychology" example of a crowd breaking into a riot based upon mutual observation of one another's growing emotionality, without any orchestration or purpose.

Who decides that a sports victory requires tearing down parts of buildings, destroying cars or trampling the elderly? Chicago and Edinborough somehow contain meta-beasts within them capable of causing that to happen. "We are so happy that too bad for you." (This is far from unique. I could have chosen Black Friday, but I am down on men today.)

This kind of thing is clearly an example of a thing with a narrative following a stream of impressions and acting. But that thing is hardly a 'self', even though there appears to be a 'will' that has decided there should be a riot, how it should spread, and how long it should continue.

That will expresses, if anything, more freedom than an individual. Any individual rioting mob member could choose to resist the action. He does not appear to be a mechanism driven deterministically by alcohol and testosterone, incapable of simply stopping. There is an ongoing re-engagement in the process that seems open to random change originating from any participant. And eventually, sanity takes hold of a critical mass of those involved and ends the process.

Theories of action that incorporate this perspective, have to see agents of many orders, which appear to have a composite will, but only some of which have a regulating mechanism akin to a self.

From this point of view:

1) No, a stream of consciousness does not require a self, and theories of psychological agency have to allow for conscious behavior involving both symbolism and emotion, that is not necessarily centered and guided by an established, unifying structure.

2) Yes, agency still requires an agent. Participation in action requires some attachment to the process or its goal. But that will does not need to be a cohesive and contained agenda that persists across time, it can arise almost randomly and assemble its agenda ad hoc, even if it provides a consistent motivation toward further action.

3) There is no reason to see this diffuse, animal will as being any less free than a centralized and planned one. It is as open to having random factors affect its agenda as any individual, and perhaps more so.

Going the opposite direction, toward Daniel Dennett's notion of "Brains made of Cells in Cells", we can see our own intelligence as arising out of a similar sort of mob action, with the freedom resulting from competition for resources within the brain, at a level below consciousness.

So the 'how' question is somewhat moot. Free will without a self, happens. And the two may even be inversely related. For traditional psychoanalysts, the self, with its sense of responsibility, may be a force that removes freedom from the will, for its own good.

If there is any non-determinism in the world, it probably infects competitive interactions most directly, as they concentrate differences that create advantages -- evolution runs on luck and it mines that luck out of every interaction.

If all of our emotional decisions are determined by some competitive interaction, it is wills with structure, not freedom, that are the harder thing to explain.


William James desperately wanted to believe in free will; the belief itself rescued him from a deep depression spurred, in part, by buying into material determinism. But when he later came to reflect on free will, a reflection that he related in The Principles of Psychology, and that he called a "paradigm of volition," he came up short. My essay on this, "A Variety of Religious Experience: William James and the Non-Reality of Free Will," is included in Benjamin Libet's anthology The Volitional Brain: Toward a Neuroscience of Free Will. The essay is available for free on my website, jonathanbricklin.orgenter image description hereenter image description here

  • @Alexander S King- If James was not self-conscious, which would clearly indicate the existence of consciousness, how was he able to recall what 'he' said to his students '8 years ago', as referred to in the body of your question?
    – user37981
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 16:34
  • For James "the passing Thought itself is the thinker." Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 0:16

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