Stream of Consciousness
A discussion of the literary style known as "stream of consciousness" and an elaboration of this which I am aiming to use on this website.
This is a discussion of a way of writing philosophy, not entirely dissimilar to the literary style called "stream of consciousness" adopted by (among others) Virginia Woolf.
Earlier thoughts on this topic.
This is a discussion of a way of writing philosophy, not entirely dissimilar to the literary style called "stream of consciousness" adopted by (among others) Virginia Woolf.

Fiction and philosophy are not similar, so its not obvious that a technique which works for writing novels can be applied to philosophy. This is nevertheless what I am attempting. To get these two to fit together, something has to give, and what gives is both.

The Technique in Literature
This is what The Penguin Companion to Literature says about Mrs Dalloway:
Mrs Dalloway is the story of one day in the life of the heroine in which the impingement of past on present consciousness enables her to tell the whole of Mrs Dalloway's past by naturally developing flashbacks within consciousness.
A special feature of the novel is that this medium permits an author to place his reader inside the mind of its subject's to experience their thoughts and feelings. In stream of consciousness the entire story is delivered though the consciousness of the subject.
What it isn't
I note here some things which are not part of the literary conception of stream of consciousness. The stream of consciousness is not that of the author, though it may of course be written as if it were. Its fiction. If the author tried to write his own stream of consciousness then he would get into difficulty, for there would be many things in his stream of consciousness which were about the writing, so you might end up with a book about writing a book. The problem is worse than that really, because the stream flows faster than it can possibly be captured on paper. Virginia Wolf might have spent a whole year writing down just one day in the consciousness of Mrs Dalloway. I've no idea how long she took, but a great deal longer than one day.
The Philosophical Aspiration

I first thought of using some kind of "stream of consciousness" technique for philosophical writing back in 1995, and had this (rather vaguely) in mind for several years during the early development of this site. The effect is not so obvious, except perhaps that it may well have contributed to the highly fragmentary and incomplete character of the writings.

I might say it wasn't just about philosophy in those days. I went through this period when I had a continual stream of ideas and I just wanted to find a way to capture this stream. Much more interested in capturing them than in doing anything with them, they were generally the kind of idea that its not so easy to realise. So that's why I thought some kind of "Stream of Consciousness" writing might work for me.

But then, when I had put myself into a better position to make it happen I lost my bottle. I decided that the whole idea was silly, that you really couldn't expect to take ideas out of your head and put them straight down on paper and get something of value. The facility with which the ideas flowed actually made this objection more telling. Ideas were ten a penny. Before you had something worthwhile you had to work hard to sift out the good ones from the bad and to make something out of the good ones.

There followed a period of many years during which I failed to do anything worthwhile with any of my ideas, and during many parts of which the flow dwindled to a trickle. So one of the things I concluded was that the flow of ideas depends on you wanting to do something with them. It doesn't have to be any more than simply writing them down, but if you loose confidence in being able to do anything with the ideas, then they don't come any more.

Main Features
The Personal Nature of Consciousness

Two different people in the same situation may have very different conscious experiences. The difference between the kind of stream of consciousness found in works of fiction like Mrs Dalloway and that of a philosopher or mathematician in deep thought on some difficult problem may be very wide indeed.

The kind of stream of consciousness I am concerned with here is the kind that occurs during thought about the kinds of topic which are addressed on this web site, which is mostly philosophical.

This means, for example, that sense impressions simply do not appear, this is partly because when engrossed in though few of them reach consciousness, and partly because they are irrelevant to the topic in hand. So the stream of consciousness in question is a special kind of stream, and its presentation is selective.

Flow and Structure
The literary form is intelligible as a linear flow only because the kind of consciousness described consists of thoughts, impressions and feelings which are very widely intelligible without context. In the flow of philosophical thought there is a real problem of the intelligibility and communicability of each momentary thought. A philosopher might possibly have spent decades deliberating upon some subject matter. He may have a complex understanding of this area which he continues to evolve. A moment of thought may consist in some new insight which involves and perhaps advances this whole prior complex understanding. This moment might, in the absence of a common understanding of this context, be expressible only by enunciation of the entire prior understanding. There is no limit to how much time and space this might take to communicate (if it is indeed verbally communicable). An attempt at a linear account of this kind of material would be hopeless, because, despite the linear flow of consiousness, there is too great an essential structured context required for its communication or comprehension.

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