The Feeling of Self in the works of William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Antonio Damasio, and in early Buddhist Scriptures:

Notes and Quotations


Allan Combs & Eugene Taylor

The Saybrook Graduate School




The illusory nature of the self is explored in the works of William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Antonio Damasio, and early Buddhist scriptures. In all cases the essential nature of “the feeling of self” is traced to sensory-somatic sensations. James and Wundt seem to have come to this conclusion through sheer force of introspection, as evidently did the Buddha during meditation. Obviously Damasio relies to a greater extent than the others on the findings of modern neurology, and in particular the emerging field of neurophenomenology. In all this it is apparent that intellectual insight into the illusory nature of the self does not lead to enlightenment. An escape from the binding aspects of this illusion would seem to come only with its deconstruction, a task best approached through insight meditation, or other techniques such as self-remembering, directed koan practice, etc. In fact, the majority of practices of the wisdom traditions seem geared exactly in this direction.


James: the nature of mind.


The mind is a system of ideas [feelings, thoughts, perceptions, etc.], each with the excitement it arouses, and with tendencies impulsive and inhibitive, which naturally check or reinforce one another. Varieties; p.185.


James: the nature of the self.


Regarding the innermost self, the very self of selves, James states in the Principles—the chapter on The Stream of Thought:


...Now, what is this self of all the other selves?

            Probably all men would describe it in much the same way up to a certain point. They would call it the active element in all consciousness; saying that whatever qualities a man's feelings may possess, or whatever content this thought may include, there is a spiritual something in him which seems to go out to meet these qualities and contents, whilst they seem to come in to be received by it. It is what welcomes or rejects. It presides over the perception of sensations, and by giving or withholding its assent it influences the movements they tend to arouse. It is the home of interest,--not the pleasant or the painful, not even the pleasure or pain, as such, but that within us to which pleasure and pain, the pleasant and the painful, speak. It is the source of effort and attention and the place from which appear to emanate the fiats of the will.

…Being more incessantly there than any other single element of the mental life, the other elements end by seeming to accrete around it and to belong to it. It becomes opposed to them as the permanent is opposed to the changing and inconstant. PP; p.285/297 V1.  [The second number in each citation is from the original 1890 edition.]


Similarly, in the chapter on Attention, James explores the essential natures of me and I, attributing the former to the body and labeling the latter as a descriptor, which like the self, points to one’s most intimate identity; but an identity that seems illusory:


The nucleus of ‘me’ is always the bodily existence felt to be present at the time. [Though me’s experience extends to include one’s cloths, friends, honors, etc.]

…The I which knows [thoughts] cannot itself be an aggregate; neither for psychological purposes need it be considered to be an unchanging metaphysical entity like the Soul, or a principle like the pure Ego viewed as 'out of time.' It is a Thought, at each moment different from that of the last moment, but appropriative of the latter, together with all that the latter called its own. …thought is itself the thinker, and psychology need not look beyond. PP; p.378-379/399-400 V1.


Later, in the Varieties, James clearly recognized the fluid, dynamic, and changing aspects of the self: 


... It is as if seen from the hot parts of the field [of consciousness] that the other parts appear to us, and from these hot parts personal desire and volition take their sallies. They are in short the centers of our dynamic energy, whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent and passive in proportion to their coldness. Varieties; p.183.


As regards to the ‘location’ of mental objects and dispositions, as well as sensory physical objects, with respect to these hot spots, 


... But a 'here' can change to a 'there,' and a 'there' become a 'here,' and what was 'mine' and what was 'not mine' change their places." Varieties; p.182.


From this perspective, the self can hardly be considered a metaphysical object. And indeed, in the Varieties, James notes:


When I say 'Soul,' you need not take me in the ontological sense unless you prefer to; for although ontological language is instinctive in such matters, yet Buddhists or Humanists can perfectly well describe the facts in the phenomenal terms which are their favorites. For them the soul is only a succession of fields of consciousness: yet there is found in each field a part, or sub-field, which figures as focal and contains the excitement, and form which, as from a center, the aim  seems to be taken. [The “hot parts”] Varieties; p.182.


Evidently James is not alone in these observations about the self, for he quotes no lesser figure than Wundt to say:


So we come to conceive the permanent mass of feeling as immediately or remotely subject to our will, and call it the consciousness of ourself. The self-consciousness is, at the outset, thoroughly sensational...only gradually the second-named of its characters, its subjection of our will, attains predominance.  ...  The most speculative of philosophers is incapable of disjoining his ego from those bodily feelings and images which form the incessant background of his awareness of himself. The notion of the ego as such is, like every notion, derived from sensibility, for the process of apperception itself comes to our knowledge chiefly through those feelings of tension [what I have above called inward adjustments] which accompany it. (Physiologiche Psychologie, 2te Aufl., Bd. Ii, pp. 217-19); {Cited in James, PP; pp. 289-290/302-303 V1}


Interestingly, Wundt seems to have come surprisingly close to Antonio Damasio’s notion of ‘core consciousness’ which arises from the entire felt sensory response of the body to both internal and external stimuli.  Damasio expresses his ideas of the ‘self’ as follows (pp. 174-175):


PROTO-SELF: The proto-self is an interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism moment to moment, at multiple levels of the brain. We are not conscious of the proto-self.


CORE SELF: The transparent protagonist of consciousness, generated for any object that provokes the core-consciousness mechanism. Because of the permanent availability of provoking objects [internal and external], it is continuously generated and thus appears continuous in time.


The mechanism of core self requires the presence of proto-self. The biological essence of the core self is the representation in a second-order map of the proto-self being modified. {Awareness/feelings of changes in the body.}


[The core self is] renewed again and again, thanks to anything that comes from outside the brain into its sensory machinery or anything that comes from the brain’s memory stores toward sensory, motor, or autonomic recall. P. 172.


AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SELF: based on permanent but dispositional records of core-self experiences… [memory]


Like Damasio, James emphasizes the reactivity of the body in creating the sense of self, noting the importance of acts of adjustments and executions: would follow that our entire feeling of spiritual [read “subjective”] activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked. ...the nuclear part of the Self, intermediary between ideas and overt acts, would be a collection of activities physiologically in no essential way different from the overt acts themselves. If we divide all possible physiological acts into adjustments and executions, the nuclear self would be the adjustments collectively considered; and the less intimate, more shifting self, so far as it is active, would be the executions. ... Both would be the result of sensorial and ideational processes discharging either into each other within the brain, or into muscles and other parts outside. PP; pp. 288-289/301-302 V1.


A similar notion was implied by Wundt, above, through his emphasis on feelings of tension or “inner adjustments.”


But Damasio’s emphasis on diffuse neural mapping, like Wundt’s “apperception,” points to a global feeling tone that seems to represent a widely distributed somatic sensory input. James seems aware of this felt quality at the root of the subjective sense of self, describing it in the following passage from the chapter on The Conscious Self: 


...the part of the innermost Self which is most vividly felt turns out to consist for the most part of a collection of cephalic movements of 'adjustments' which, for want of attention and reflection, usually fail to be perceived and classified as what they are; that over and above these there is an obscurer felling of something more; but whether it be of fainter physiological processes, or of nothing objective at all, but rather of subjectivity as such, of thought become 'its own object,' must at present remain an open question. PP; pp 292-293/306 V1.


Here James leaves the essence of the most subtle aspect of the felt self open to question, but clearly stresses that sensations from a major component.


Pushing the idea of the chimerical self further, already in The Principles James anticipates the central philosophical ideas he would later develop under the title of radical empiricism:


...the Thinker, and the existence of this thinker would be given to us rather as a logical postulate than as that direct inner perception of spiritual activity which we naturally believe ourselves to have. 'Matter,' as something behind physical phenomena, is a postulate of this sort. Between the postulated Matter and the postulated Thinker, the sheet of phenomena would then swing, some of them (the 'realities') pertaining more to the matter, others (the fictions, opinions, and errors) pertaining more to the Thinker. But who the Thinker would be, or how many distinct Thinkers we ought to suppose in the universe, would all be subjects for an ulterior metaphysical inquiry. PP; p.291/304-305 V1.


Unfortunately, James died before completing such an inquiry, though he had very much hoped to do so. We know from his later philosophical writings, though, that he did not allow high ontological ground to either mind or matter, but considered both to be aspects of experience.




Principles from Buddhist Psychology and Jamesean thought.


Stream of consciousness and continuity of experience even between lives: 


Buddha's conception of the "stream of consciousness" (vinnanasota) formulated twenty-five centuries ago finds detailed elaboration in a major treatises on psychology by William James…  …[James’] lengthy chapter on “The Stream of Thought” is a modern version of the Buddha’s theory of consciousness presented in his statements scattered all over the discourses, with the difference that the Buddha, on the basis of his experiments in yoga…was not the least reluctant to extend that stream into the past beyond the confines of the present life. K, p.24.


Utilizing this notion of dependence [based in the concept of dependent arising], the Buddha was prepared to explain, not only the interruptions of consciousness within one life, but also between different lives. Thus, the so-called unbroken continuity between two lives is understood by a person who has developed the capacity for retrocognition or memory going beyond those with unconcentrated minds (asamahita citta). K, p.27.

Compare with James: [Upon awakening from sleep] Peter’s present instantly finds out Peter’s past, and never by mistake knits itself on to that of Paul… He remembers his own states, while he only conceives Paul’s. Remembrance is like direct feeling; its object is suffused with warmth and intimacy to which no object of mere conception ever attains. K, p.57 (footnote)


Through this, and other examples, James demonstrates that thought is always unique and continuous in the individual, and in this basic sense it is personal. Further, thoughts are clothed in an intimacy and feeling tone that identify them as our own, and in this sense also are they personal.


The personal nature of the stream of consciousness: 


The dispositions (sankhara) are sometimes taken to mean the "unconscious," but this would imply that they could occur without consciousness. This is not supported by the Buddha's statements. Indeed, every stream of consciousness is a personal stream because of dispositions, feelings, memories and perceptions. K, p.26.  [underlines added]


The importance of sensory action for consciousness: 


The Buddha's statement that consciousness depends upon the sense and sense object indicated that, while recognizing the impact of disposition on the stream of consciousness, he wanted to underscore the priority of sense and sense object in each act of veridical perception. K, P.32.


The solidification of feelings into a sense of self:  


The Buddha did not deny the function of mano [mind/concepts] in producing the “feeling of self,” i.e., the so-called empirical self. Yet he was not prepared to make this self either the pre-condition for all experience or a permanent and eternal entity. For him, mano is one among six faculties that conditions consciousness. [The others being the five Western traditional senses.] So long as the “feeling of self” produced by mano is understood in the same way as the feelings produced by the other senses, i.e., as being dependently arisen, impermanent and changing, the Buddha saw no great danger. Unfortunately, the faculty of mano and the feeling or consciousness produced by it…are susceptible to solidification more than any other faculty or consciousness, and this is the cause of the belief in a permanent and eternal self.

…However, at the time of the emergence of feeling (vedana), these dispositions tend to increase in strength and, instead of manifesting themselves as "interest," they produce attachment to pleasant feelings, aversion towards unpleasant feelings and disinterest in neutral feelings. It is a time when the dispositional tendencies "solidify" (to use a phrase from James) to such an extent that they do not only individuate a persona but go far beyond in producing metaphysical notions of self (atman). K, p.33. [underlines added]




Observations from transpersonal psychology.


Obviously, intellectual insight into the illusory nature of the self as a metaphysical object, to use James’ terms, does not in itself lead to enlightenment. It would seem that an escape from the binding aspects of this illusion comes only with its deconstruction, a task perhaps best approached through insight meditation, or other techniques such as self-remembering, directed koan practice, etc. Indeed, the majority of practices of the wisdom traditions seem geared exactly in this direction. (e.g., Combs, 2002)




Combs, A. (2002). The Radiance of being: Understanding the grand integral vision; Living the integral life. St Paul, MN: Paragon House.


Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.


James, W. (1983/1890). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


James, W. (1987/1902). The varieties of religions experience. In Bruce Kuklick (ed.), William James: Writings 1902-1910. New York: Penguin Putman.


Kalupahana, D.J. (1992). The principles of Buddhist psychology. Delhi, India: Indian Book Center.


Watt, D.F. (2000). Emotion and consciousness: Part II. A review of Damasio’sThe feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness.’ Journal of consciousness studies, 7, No.3, 2000, pp.72-84.


Wundt, W. Physiologiche Psychologie, 2te Aufl., Bd. Ii, pp. 217-19; Cited in James, PP; pp. 289-290/302-303 V1.