Nautilus

What William James Got Right About Consciousness

Is consciousness an instinct?

When feeling at sea about definitions and meanings in the mind/brain business, it is always rewarding to dial up William James once again.

William James

More than 125 years ago, James wrote a landmark article simply titled “What Is an Instinct?” He wastes no time in defining the concept:

Instinct is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance…[Instincts] are the functional correlatives of structure. With the presence of a certain organ goes, one may say, almost always a native aptitude for its use. “Has the bird a gland for the secretion of oil? She knows instinctively how to press the oil from the gland, and apply it to the feather.”

The definition seems straightforward, and yet it is cleverly dualistic—an instinct is both a

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