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The "blooming, buzzing confusion" of William James

I investigate the origin of a well-known quote by William James, which refers to "a baby's first experience of the world." Includes excerpts from James' Principles of Psychology (1890)

7 min read
The "blooming, buzzing confusion" of William James
Photo by Shelby Miller / Unsplash

I ran across a heavily used quote by William James – the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” which he describes as a baby’s first experience of the world.

A quick Google check seemed to show that nobody ever gives any of the context around the quote. Heck, about one time in three, they don’t even get the three word excerpt right. So, I went to James’ Principles of Psychology (1890) to see what might be useful to know.

The passage in question comes in the middle of James’ chapter titled, “Discrimination and comparison.” James began the chapter with a massive direct quote from John Locke, and used it to dive into a discussion of how a mind can make parts out of the wholeness of the world. The problem of how to break of the world was a serious drawback to the ideas of those thinkers like Hume and Locke, who supposed that the mind operated by recording associations between concepts and perceptions:

The truth is that Experience is trained by both association and dissociation, and that psychology must be writ both in synthetic and in analytic terms. Our original sensible totals are, on the one hand, subdivided by discriminative attention, and, on the other, united with other totals, -- either through the agency of our own movements, carrying our senses from one part of space to another, or because new objects come successively and replace those by which we were at first impressed. The 'simple impression' of Hume, the 'simple idea' of Locke are both abstractions, never realized in experience (487, emphases in original).

This is a recurring idea in psychology, and of course later became one of the thrusts of Chomsky’s critique of behaviorism. How can these discriminations be made? – particularly, given the “poverty” of information about how to make them? That is the problem James takes up. Continuing:

Experience, from the very first, presents us with concretized objects, vaguely continuous with the rest of the world which envelops them in space and time, and potentially divisible into inward elements and parts. These objects we break asunder and reunite. We must treat them in both ways for our knowledge of them to grow; and it is hard to say, on the whole, which way preponderates. But since the elements with which the traditional associationism performs its constructions -- 'simple sensations,' namely -- are all products of discrimination carried to a high pitch, it seems as if we ought to discuss the subject of analytic attention and discrimination first (ibid).

I rather like that point – that what we think of as “simple sensations” actually involve “discrimination carried to a high pitch.” It reminds me of information-theoretic analyses of the processing potential of the retina and optic nerve, which take gigabits of information per second and discard most of it so that the signal can squeeze through a rather narrow bandwidth to the brain. That’s “discrimination carried to a high pitch” indeed, totally upstream of the brain’s access to the resulting signal.

James’ disadvantage, from the perspective of today, is that he framed the problem as one essentially of making out the parts of real objects. How can the mind make out parts that really are there composing things in the world? This frame had a long pedigree – back to Plato’s forms – but depends on assumptions about the nature of things and concepts that most of us probably wouldn’t want to be stuck defending.

The noticing of any part whatever of our objects is an act of discrimination.

You see, it’s a very rigid idea of what objects are game for us to notice, and how we come to be aware of them. He is led, through considering things like the effect of chloroform on sensation and perception, to a “law” about the operation of concepts of part and whole in the mind:

[A]ny number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind which has not yet experienced them separately, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. What makes impressions separate we have to study in this chapter. Although they separate easier if they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct nerves are not an unconditional ground of their discrimination, as we shall presently see. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. There is no other reason than this why "the hand I touch and see coincides spatially with the hand I immediately feel" (488, emphases in original).

So there you see – the “blooming, buzzing” quote is there putting a pretty bow on what, by itself, seems to be a nonsensical “law”. No wonder nobody ever bothers to give its context!

I think James has attended very carefully to the prosody of this passage – it has the rhythm of blank verse. Consider:

Although they separate easier if
they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct
nerves are not an unconditional ground
of their discrimination, as we shall
presently see. The baby, assailèd
by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once,
feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing
confusion; and to the very end of life,
our location of all things in one space
is due to the fact that the original
extents or bignesses of all the
sensations which came to our notice at once
coalescèd together into one
and the same space.

Very interesting. As I read through it, it reminded me of The Tempest. The main problem is that line with “sensations”, which really is metered like two blank verse lines run together, but with no good way to divide them. I, for one, find it amusing to think of William James adding the voiced “-ed” to his prose!

After this beginning, James built up a theory of the discrimination of parts of objects from sensation. He addresses at several points the theories of the spiritualists, who had held that a non-material element of being must explain many if not all aspects of mind. I don’t want to expand this little post into a full consideration of James’ theory – which really should be carried out together with subsequent literature on the topic. But there is an interesting passage in which he explains how, by contrasting present experience with discriminations previously made, the mind might build a picture that seems more than the sum of simple experiences:

As our brains and minds are actually made, it is impossible to get certain [sensed experiences] m's and n's in immediate sequence and keep them pure. If kept pure, it would mean that they remained uncompared. With us, inevitably, by a mechanism which we as yet fail to understand, the shock of difference is felt between them, and the second object is not n pure, but n-as-different-from-m. It is no more a paradox that under these conditions this cognition of m and n in mutual relation should occur, than that under other conditions the cognition of m's or n's simple quality should occur. But as it has been treated as a paradox, and as a spiritual agent, not itself a portion of the stream, has been invoked to account for it, a word of further remark seems desirable.
The sensationalists and the spiritualists meanwhile (filled both of them with their notion that the mind must in some fashion contain what it knows) begin by giving a crooked account of the facts. Both admit that for m and n to be known in any way whatever, little rounded and finished off duplicates of each must be contained in the mind as separate entities. These pure ideas, so called, of m and n respectively, succeed each other there. And since they are distinct, say the sensationalists, they are eo ipso distinguished. "To have ideas different and ideas distinguished, are synonymous expressions; different and distinguished meaning exactly the same thing," says James Mill. "Distinguished!" say the spiritualists, "distinguished by what, forsooth? Truly the respective ideas of m and nin the mind are distinct. But for that very reason neither can distinguish itself from the other, for to do that it would have to be aware of the other, and thus for the time being become the other, and that would be to get mixed up with the other and lose its own distinctness. Distinctness of ideas and idea of distinctness, are not one thing, but two. This last is a relation. Only a relating principle, opposed in nature to all facts of feeling, an Ego, Soul, or Subject, is competent, by being present to both of the ideas alike, to hold them together and at the same time to keep them distinct" (499-500).

Thus, James described two opposing positions about the nature of discrimination. Then he shows that, in his account of events, why the conception of a binary comparator (for the spiritualists, a Subject) is multiplying entities beyond necessity:

But if the plain facts be admitted that the pure idea of 'n' is never in the mind at all, when 'm' has once gone before; and that the feeling 'n-different-from-m' is itself an absolutely unique pulse of thought, the bottom of this precious quarrel drops out and neitehr party is left with anything to fight about. Surely such a consummation ought to be welcomed, especially when brought about, as here, by a formulation of the facts which offers itself so naturally and unsophistically (500, emphasis in original).

There is much more, of course. I wanted to quote that later passage to contrast it directly with the “blooming, buzzing confusion” quote that lies a dozen pages before it.

James appears to adopt the position that a plenitude of temporal data is available to the unschooled mind, from which it may rapidly build up a rather complex set of contrasts to distinguish objects and experiences. The metaphor of an infant subjected to a “buzzing confusion” seems to deliberately omit the very large temporal contrasts that present themselves to the infant’s senses.

Likewise, we probably don’t need to know much about visual processing to imagine that the great contrasts naturally presented within the “blooming confusion” of the visual field might likewise lead to natural comparison and distinction.

In a world giving our senses gigabits per second, we will necessarily have a hard time showing a “poverty” of data from which the mind might make useful distinctions. The “blooming, buzzing confusion” is a pretty metaphor, but is easily refuted as a serious model of experience.

history of psychologypsychologymindperceptionquotes
John Hawks

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I'm a paleoanthropologist exploring the world of ancient humans and our fossil relatives.

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