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William James contemplates getting out of a warm bed on a cold morning

October 21, 2012

This morning felt quite ignominious indeed, and naturally it reminded me of William James. From the Principles of Psychology, chapter 26, “Will”:

We know what it is to get out of bed on a freezing morning in a room without a fire, and how the very vital principle within us protests against the ordeal. Probably most persons have lain on certain mornings for an hour at a time unable to brace themselves to the resolve. We think how late we shall be, how the duties of the day will suffer; we say, “I must get up, this is ignominious,” etc.; but still the warm couch feels too delicious, the cold outside too cruel, and resolution faints away and postpones itself again and again just as it seemed on the verge of bursting the resistance and passing over into the decisive act. Now how do we ever get up under such circumstances? If I may generalize from my own experience, we more often than not get up without any struggle or decision at all. We suddenly find that we have got up. A fortunate lapse of consciousness occurs; we forget both the warmth and the cold; we fall into some revery connected with the day’s life, in the course of which the idea flashes across us, “Hollo! I must lie here no longer” – an idea which at that lucky instant awakens no contradictory or paralyzing suggestions, and consequently produces immediately its appropriate motor effects. It was our acute consciousness of both the warmth and the cold during the period of struggle, which paralyzed our activity then and kept our idea of rising in the condition of wish and not of will. The moment these inhibitory ideas ceased, the original idea exerted its effects.

James’s visible presence in contemporary psychology seem mostly limited to 2 roles. Someone finds a quote, puts it as an epigram at the top of their manuscript, and claims that their ideas have roots going more than a century back. Or alternatively someone finds a quote, puts it up as an epigram, and then claims that their ideas overturn more than a century of received wisdom.

But going back and actually re-reading James seriously is usually an enlightening activity. Just from that chapter on “Will” you can draw lines to contemporary research on delay of gratification, self-regulatory depletion, goal pursuit, the relationship between attention and executive control, and automaticity. James’s ideas about all of these topics are nuanced, with a lot of connections but few easy one-to-one mappings (whether supported or falsified) to contemporary research. Every once in a while I get the urge to go back and look at something James wrote, and if no contradictory or paralyzing suggestions stop me, I’m always glad that I did.

One Comment
  1. Roger Giner-Sorolla permalink
    October 21, 2012 4:12 pm

    More often, someone “discovers” something James was onto a century back and gets sole credit for it …

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