Now, in a world of objects thus individualized by our mind’s selective industry, what is called our “experience” is almost entirely determined by our habits of attention. A thing may be present to a person a hundred times, but if one persistently fails to notice it, it cannot be said to enter one’s experience. We are all seeing flies, moths, and beetles by the thousand, but to whom, save an entomologist, do they say anything distinct? On the other hand, a thing met only once in a lifetime may leave an indelible experience in the memory. Let four people make a tour in Europe. One will bring home only picturesque impressions—costumes and colors, parks and views and works of architecture, pictures and statues. To another all this will be non-existent; and distances and prices, populations and drainage-arrangements, door and window fastenings, and other useful statistics will take their place. A third will give a rich account of the theaters, restaurants, and public halls, and naught besides; while the fourth will perhaps have been so wrapped in his own subjective broodings as to be able to tell little more than a few names of places through which he passed. Each has selected, out of the same mass of presented objects, those which suited their private interest and has made their experience thereby.
If now, leaving the empirical combination of objects, we ask how the mind proceeds rationally to connect them, we find selection again to be omnipotent. All Reasoning depends on the ability of the mind to break up the totality of the phenomenon reasoned about, into parts, and to pick out from among these the particular one which, in the given emergency, may lead to the proper conclusion. The genius is one who will always stick in a bill at the right point, and bring it out with the right element—“reason” if the emergency be theoretical, “means” if it be practical—transfixed upon it.
If now we pass to the aesthetic department, our law is still more obvious. The artist notoriously selects her items, rejecting all tones, colors, shapes, which do not harmonize with each other and with the main purpose of her work. That unity, harmony, “convergence of character,” as M. Taine calls it, which gives to works of art their superiority over works of nature, is wholly due to elimination. Any natural subject will do, if the artist has wit enough to pounce upon some one feature of it as characteristic, and suppress all merely accidental items which do not harmonize with this.
Ascending still higher, we reach the plane of Ethics, where choice reigns notoriously supreme. An act has no ethical quality whatever unless it be chosen out of several all equally possible. To sustain the arguments for the good course and keep them ever before us, to stifle our longing for more flowery ways, to keep the foot unflinchingly on the arduous path, these are characteristic ethical energies. But more than these; for these but deal with the means of compassing interests already felt by us to be supreme. The ethical energy par excellence has to go farther and choose which interest out of several, equally coercive, shall become supreme. The issue here is of the utmost pregnancy, for it decides a person’s entire career. When we debate, Shall I commit this crime? Choose that profession? Accept that office, or marry this fortune? —our choice really lies between one of several equally possible future Characters. What we shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment. Schopenhauer, who enforces his determinism by the argument that with a given fixed character only one reaction is possible under given circumstances, forgets that, in these critical ethical moments, what consciously seems to be in question is the complexion of the character itself. The problem with us is less what act we shall now resolve to do than what being we shall now choose to become.
Taking human experience in a general way, the choosings of different people are to a great extent the same. The race as a whole largely agrees as to what it shall notice and name; and among the noticed parts we select in much the same way for accentuation and preference, or subordination and dislike. There is, however, one entirely extraordinary case in which no two people ever are known to choose alike. One great splitting of the whole universe into two halves is made by each of us; and for each of us almost all of the interest attaches to one of the halves; but we all draw the line of division between them in a different place. When I say that we all call the two halves by the same names, and that those names are “me” and “not-me” respectively, it will at once be seen what I mean. The altogether unique kind of interest which each human mind feels in those parts of creation which it can call me or mine may be a moral riddle, but it is a fundamental psychological fact. No mind can take the same interest in one’s neighbor’s me as in one’s own. The neighbor’s me falls together with all the rest of things in one foreign mass against which one’s own me stands cut in startling relief. Even the trodden worm, as Lotze somewhere says, contrasts its own suffering self with the whole remaining universe, though it has no clear conception either of itself or of what the universe may be. It is for me a mere part of the world; for it, it is I who am the mere part. Each of us dichotomizes the Kosmos in a different place
William James was one of the founding fathers of contemporary psychology and an influential thinker in the domains of religion, philosophy and morality. His most famous works include Principles of Psychology, The Will to Believe, Human Immortality and The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Excerpted from “Classics in the History of Psychology,” an internet resource developed by Christopher D. Green, York University, Toronto, Ontario (http://www.yorku.ca/dept/psych/classics/James/jimmmy11.htm).