June 17, 2012

Is it a blooming buzzing confusion?

Among writers of fiction and students of human behaviour there are recurrent attempts to capture experiences radically different from one's own, say, that of animals, newborns, people suffering from severe forms of autism, etc. These attempts often reveal philosophical prejudices. A classical case in point is William James's account of what he takes to be a baby's experience of the world (or rather, perhaps, the way in which this account has often been read): 

The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must... The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion...  (The Principles of Psychology, p. 462.)

Evidently, readers have found this to be a striking account of the baby’s world as they conceive of it. The main point James wishes to make here is that the baby doesn’t distinguish between the inputs of different senses. The implication is that older children and adults do distinguish between them. Well, do we normally? In what sense? Suppose the building in which I am sitting undergoes a seismic tremor. I feel the floor and my chair shaking, see the furniture moving slightly, hear the windows rattle, etc. My experience of the tremor is made up of all these sensory inputs. Does this mean that I am confused? If I am, it is not because of the way these inputs fuse. On the contrary, it may be because of the way they combine that I am able to grasp what is happening.
                      (The fact that I may be agitated or shocked by the tremor, I submit, does not mean that I am necessarily confused about it.)
                      On the other hand, we may, after the fact, try to sort out the different sensations we had. We may do so because we have learnt to speak about the different senses, to speak of colours as things to be seen, sounds heard, shapes and movements seen or felt, etc. We may succeed to a greater or lesser extent in our effort to sort them out.
The baby does not have access to this verbal repertoire – will not ask herself: ”to what extent was that something I heard or something I felt?” etc. Does that mean that the baby is confused? Of course not; on the contrary, we might say, it is only because we have learnt to ask those questions that we may be confused about the contributions of the different senses – though this, as I said, need not mean that we are confused about what we are witnessing.
                      I suspect the reason James’s account has had such great appeal is that he appears to express an idea which we may feel it tempting to embrace: the newborn child, confronting an unfamiliar world, is bound to find her impressions bewildering. Yet that I would claim is a misleading picture of the baby’s experience. The experience of birth is probably shocking, as the experience of an earthquake is, but that does not mean that it is confusing. (I am not sure whether James is to be taken as saying that the baby is confused, or whether his point is simply that her sense impressions are all bundled together.)
Things bewilder us when we are trying to make sense of them. We are bewildered because we do not know how to go about finding answers to our questions. (“I don’t know my way about”, Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 123.) The baby, however, as yet has no questions. She has not reached the stage of confusion – nor is there, I would suggest, any particular age at which we may be more confused than at any other.


  1. Wow. At first I thought you had just not actually read the chapter where this quote is from, but then I looked at your profile and now that seems implausible. I literally don't know anyone else who misunderstands this passage so badly, even though it apparently "has often been read" this way.

    If you want to understand it better, I suggest you reread the Chapter and then learn about the basics of perception and especially about information theory. Because "whether James is to be taken as saying that the baby is confused, or whether his point is simply that her sense impressions are all bundled together" is actually irrelevant once it's understood what entropy is and how a lack of discrimination in perception (what this chapter is about) inevitably leads to high entropy, whether consciously accessed or not.

  2. Could you explain how you think ideas about entropy bears on my account? I was trying to make my point in plain language, and I suppose if there's something wrong with it that should also be expressible in plain language.

    1. Entropy is a measure of confusion. In the information theoretic sense, both you during the earthquake as well as the baby when first confronted with the world are confused. This subsumes confusing two (to us) separate things (as in not being able to keep them apart) just as being startled by (or unable to consciously explain) what is going on.

      James' main point is not about distinguishing senses, but that, in the baby's world, there is nothing to be distinguished yet, even if it is experienced via (to us) different senses. Classical associative theory would have it that we learn by figuring out which things go together in the world, but those things are not primitives. Associating a chair with sitting involves "discrimination carried to a high pitch" as in figuring out what a chair and sitting are in the first place. In other words learning involves associating things, but also, maybe even more importantly, dissociating them.

      Your example about comprehending the earth quake presupposes that the different sensory inputs you receive (the things that happen) have been discriminated from each other, which is only possible *because* they usually do not occur together (otherwise, and again that is James' point, they would be but one thing or a great blooming, buzzing confusion), which you have learned from experience and which the baby, by assumption, cannot have.

    2. I wonder if we are talking at cross purposes here. My suggestion was that neither we in the earthquake (necessarily) nor the baby are confused, in the ordinary sense. The baby isn't because she is not yet prepared to wonder or ask questions, we because, even if we may not be able to separate the inputs of different senses, we may be clear that we are experiencing an earthquake (especially if we have been in earthquakes before). Whether we are confused in an "information theoretic" sense is a different matter, of which I have little knowledge. I'm prepared tp take your word for it, but anyway that wasn't what I was talking about.