Defragmenting experience – from James to Merleau-Ponty


Until recent decades, William James was rarely mentioned in the context of the thought of phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The mentioning of James coincided more with the views of pragmatism, radical empiricism, or pluralism, so it was on rare occasions that the word phenomenology was used in connection with the great American philosopher. But recently, James’ findings are increasingly used in attempts to understand phenomenological thought, where he is also considered as a philosopher who contributed to the development of some phenomenological concepts, such as the notion of Husserl’s “horizon”, “object of thought”, and “intentionality”. (Kazashi, 1998). His findings are mentioned both in empirical research of experience and in psychological circles. For example, in the article ‘Towards the source of thought’, Claire Petitmengin (2007) associates James’ concept of the “fringe” as periphery with the pre-reflective dimension. The concept of the fringe is also discussed in the psychological trends of metacognition, including tip-of-the-tongue and the feeling-of-knowing (for example: Norman, Price and Duff, 2010).

Given the rise of interest in James and the use of his concepts in the theoretical queries of phenomenology, as well as in empirical approaches to the study of consciousness and experience, I want to explore the ideas of the stream of thought and fringe awareness from James’s corpus by approaching the idea through the lens of Merleau-Ponty’s thought. My overall goal in this text is to show how the latter’s phenomenological explorations can help to enrich the former’s endeavours.

In the first part of this text, I will focus on the presentation of the chapter titled “Stream of Thought”, in James’ Principles of Psychology. I will elucidate the structure of the stream of thought and some of its ambiguities. In the second part of the text, I will look at these ideas from the point of view of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological position with the aim of a clearer presentation and understanding of peripheral awareness, and at the same time highlighting a broader framework and some problems that James was not aware of or did not pay attention to in his work. I intend to show that, from Merleau-Ponty’s point of view, thinking – or the flow of thought – is not as linear and discrete a phenomenon as James treats it. It is not a matter of separation from reality, which itself is the object of thought and therefore only an abstraction separated from reality itself and the emergence of the phenomenon. Lastly, I intend to indicate the undefined qualities of the periphery of awareness and, through this explanation, loosely present Merleau-Ponty’s position. James’s insights into the flow of thought, and especially into the transitional parts thereof, offer important steps in the direction of further exploration of phenomena located on the periphery, especially if we are to look at his insights contextualized within the whole experiential landscape and the genealogy of the phenomena of our awareness.

(Marsha Heller, Blue Stream, 2019, source: Saatchi Art)

William James’s position: substantive and transitional parts of the stream of thought

In his Principles of Psychology, James (1890) describes consciousness as a river, emphasizing that “consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing joined; it flows” (James, 1890, p. 239).

If we take a closer look at our thoughts, it seems at first that there are associations and separations between parts. These interruptions are usually perceived as a sudden contrast or quality in the flow of successive segments of thought. James (1890) refers to these transitions between thoughts as no more breaking the flow of thought than “a joint in a bamboo is a break in the wood” (James, 1890, p. 240). Within the stream of thought, he observes two types of phenomena that interact with each other: substantive and transitive parts. Substantive parts, on the one hand, are immutable and effable, encompassing the clearest and most direct experiential states. They thus include all “tangible” modalities, such as inner speech, mental representations or images, memories, etc. The main characteristic of these is that their content does not change (much) when we reflect on them. For example, if we remember yesterday evening, the content of that memory remains more or less the same.  Transitional (or transitive) parts, on the other hand, are movements from one content part to another. They represent the connective tissue that moves the stream of thought, creating the relationship and the coupling between substantive parts of consciousness, which act as stable stepping stones within the stream.

To illustrate the substantive and transitional parts of the stream of thought, consider the example of telling a friend about a recent event that happened. When we tell a story to a friend, our stream of thoughts will often be filled with a thought that will illustrate this event in a certain way – this can be a clear memory of the event in the form of a picture, inner speech or narration, video, or perhaps a non-symbolized knowing of the event. Let us assume, for the sake of this example, that the thought takes pictorial form. This mental imagery will change during the narration, each given image replaced by a new image that may be related to the event, or the attention will be redirected back to the friend, to our surroundings, to our flow of narration, perhaps back to the image of that event and so on. All these modalities (mental images, inner speech, awareness of a certain aspect of our surroundings, etc.) have in common that they stay in the focus of our attention for a certain time, remain clear and solid, and can be observed separate from the general act of storytelling. Moreover, in our narration, we can also perceive areas of movement from one thought to another, from the mental imagery back to the friend’s face or to our surroundings – movements between the substantive parts themselves. These movements are what James refers to as transitional parts.

Substantive and transitional parts are an integral part of any experience. In their alternating occurrence, they form a stream from which more complex perceptions, thoughts, feelings, etc. arise. Yet while there is no challenge for a moderately curious observer to pick out individual substantive parts as constituting their stream of thought, singling out transitive parts proves to be a tricky endeavor. For every time we try to perceive these movements or “jumps” from one content to another, it seems that the main goal of all our thinking and action is to reach the next piece of content rather than the space between contents. According to James, the main issue with trying to observe transitional parts is that observation transforms them into stable and immutable substantive parts:

“if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to be itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop, so, instead of catching the feeling of relation moving to its term, we find we have caught some substantive thing, usually the last word we were pronouncing, statically taken, and with its function, tendency, and particular meaning in the sentence quite evaporated. The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks” (James, 1890, p. 244).

Transitional parts are, in observation, characterized by their limits, i.e. the substantive parts on either end of the transition. Yet they are something that lies on a completely different level than the contents of consciousness.  This different level, however, is not completely obscure. James also talks about “the fringe of awareness”, a phenomenon related to (or perhaps emergent from) the transitional parts of the stream of thought. Thus, to better understand transitional parts, we turn to James’ conception of the fringe.

The indeterminacy of the fringe

So far, we have talked about only one aspect of transitional parts of awareness: that they surround and connect content. These transitional parts, which accompany and are connected to the substantive parts, will be called the “fringe” of awareness in the text that follows.

James does not give a clear answer as to what he understands as the fringe of the substantive parts of the stream of thought. In his works, he mentions it on occasion, and when he does, he sketches a preliminary concept, with the desire to enable greater tangibility of the concrete feeling of something “more” than what is given in the respective substantive modality of experience. Moreover, he does not stick to a single term, but uses a number of roughly equivalent synonymous phrases. Examples of such synonyms that can help us understand the quality of this peripheral awareness are, for example: “free water of consciousness”, the “sense of relation and tendency”, a “saintly glow of consciousness”, “transient experiential states” and “vague experiences” (James, 1890). The basic contrast to the concept of fringe is the concept of a theme or a central thought, which for James represents an apparent experience and presents it with synonyms such as “content experiences”, “sensory images” and “core of consciousness”.

He describes the fringe as a feeling of a mild process that is connected to the central thought (i.e., the content of the stream of thought). The broadest function of the fringe is to encompass a set of relational information about a content “core” – i.e. to connect constituent substantive parts into a connected stream of thought with a certain theme. The content core, with which each individual content part of the stream of thought is connected, is perceived as potentialities related to the current thought, representing the “direction(s)” where the thought content can develop further. This process combines a certain thought with other substantive connections and thought contents that are vaguely and only dimly perceived in connection with the thought in question.

Fringe is part of the matter that is being thought, which includes within itself the substantive parts of the stream of thought and vague potentialities that appear to the mind as hazy, vague connections and relations with a certain substantive part. The fringe is most directly perceived in connection with thoughts that appear and develop in the stream of thought. But when we separate the thought from the stream and reflect on it, we can grasp contents that have not yet been perceived, but may be in the future.

According to James (1890, p. 261), the most important element of the fringe is a “feeling of harmony or discord, of a right or wrong direction of the thought” and “a vague sense of the words belonging together” (James, 1890, p. 262), while the whole sentence that follows is “bathed in that original halo of obscure relations, which, like a horizon, then spread about its meaning” (James, 1890, p. 276).

In this conceptualisation, the fringe is presented as a nebulous quality of “regularity” and “conformity” that accompanies a clearly defined content and marks relationships, tendencies, connections and expectations. The fringe of consciousness is presented as a not yet fully defined part of the stream of thought. At the same time, it is not presented as an undifferentiated chaos, but is given to us as an open field of potentiality of various contents, into which a certain content of thought can continue.

(Andrea Mazzocchetti, Stream of Consciousness – 09, 2019, source: Fine Art America)

An overview of Merleau-Ponty’s position

James provides a general claim that the fringe does not itself “contain” perceptual content, and that there are moments in the stream of thought when this peripheral awareness is briefly dominant before the content resumes its full force. These attributes can be understood (in a Merleau-Pontyian way) as a series of Gestalt shifts, which manifest as shifts in the structure of figure and background, with content (as a figure) and periphery (as a background) fluctuating in relative visibility. As this oscillation takes place, it manifests itself in feelings of a “right” or a “wrong” path leading the thought stream.

However, this experiencing of the stream of thought does not take into account all the components of the field of experience, in which we are always pre-reflectively embedded. James focuses primarily on the linear course of the stream of thought, but does not pay attention to the much more primordial bodily and lived domain of being-in-the-world, which Merleau-Ponty (2012) emphasizes, and from which the original conceptual understanding draws its insights. For James, the phenomenon he investigates and observes is always to a certain extent limited and embedded in a selected category. In contrast to that, Merleau-Ponty’s thesis of the primacy of perception invites us to attend to the phenomenon as a whole – as it is given to us and positioned within the context of practical horizons and theoretical contexts (Dilton, 1997).

Merleau-Ponty sets as the starting point of his thought  our everyday involvement and living engagement with the world, which is a  fundamental, pre-reflective knowledge that does not need to be (and indeed, is not) present explicitly in perception. This pre-theoretical and practical being in the world gives itself as our natural encounter with objects that are coupled with our actions – for example, when typing on a keyboard, I am not directly aware of it, I do not perceive it as an object by itself. In this everyday involvement, our original experience of things always finds itself in one or another context, it is an interweaving of various modalities of the phenomenal field and dimensions of experience, which are not limited to mental content and the fringes of thought, but also include, among other things, a level of bodily intentionality and intersubjectivity.

The containment[1]That is to say, the experiencer’s perception as en-owning of both their pre-reflective embeddedness with-in the world and their reflective awareness. of all these different modalities reveals to us that the properties of a thought or a given object – which we tend to think of as separate or “atomized” – is given as inseparable. If we, for example, observe a wooden door, it is easy to think that the brown colour or texture could be treated as an independent quality. But the wood brown colour of the door would not be the same if it were not for that specific woodenness and brownness. Likewise, this brown door colour would not be the same if it were not embedded in the context of the world we live in, which is not the private world of an individual, but a public and shared one. If we look around us, we immediately notice various objects that we encounter in everyday life, such as doors, tables, glasses, chairs, slippers, etc. According to Merleau-Ponty, all these objects pre-reflectively express the community and coexistence of other individuals. They contain implicit references to other persons, even if they are not present at the given moment. This could be because they were created by other people, or it could be related to the work or the projects we ourselves are embedded in, which are ultimately meant to be shared with others.

The objects that we perceive are also not exhausted in our own view, but when we look at them, they include the horizon of other coexisting profiles, such as the perception of an individual who could be standing on the other side of the room or who would be positioned on the right side in relation to where we are situated. For example, when I look at a desktop computer screen, I do not notice what the perspective looks like from the back, but I still experience that part in the background of my perceptual awareness. At the same time, this structure lets me know that the object of perception is always present and given for others, regardless of whether these individuals are actually present. It does not exist exclusively for me, but always also refers to the intersubjective realm.

These examples show that our original understanding is not abstract and theoretical, but embedded in the world and based on our practical efforts in the world. It is this part of our experience that James does not incorporate in his own structural analysis of the stream of thought, which is nevertheless always influencing us and happens (with)in such a pre-reflective perceptual phenomenal field.

(Monique Oliver, Stream of Consciousness, 2020. source: Saatchi Art)

James and the experience error

A quick note on empiricism, intellectualism and the experience error

To better understand the how Merleau-Ponty’s work can enrich James’, we need a quick dive into one of the primary problems of empiricism and intellectualism, as emphasized by Merleau-Ponty (2012).

Namely, both empiricism and intellectualism are supported by an unconditional belief in the perception of objects found “out there”. On the one hand, we have the view of empiricism, which is based on our everyday conception of sensation. This view says that our experience is a reflection of “external” reality—that the things we experience are representations of the objective world out there. On the other hand, we have the position of intellectualism, which is based on our everyday conception of thinking. For intellectualism, experiencing is a projection of our own internal world and this projections is experienced as “out there” (the objects we experience are our subjective constructions). Empiricism neglects the position and action of the individual, while intellectualism neglects the object and the world as it is given to us in the moment before any analysis or reflection. Their common feature is that they take objects that are the end points in the process of perception or thinking as starting points. In doing so, both views overlook the genealogy of the resulting objects and fail to question their underlying experiential structures. This is an attitude based not on a curious study of consciousness, but on a preconceived notion of the world:

“We think we know perfectly well what ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’, ‘sensing’ are, because perception has long provided us with objects which are coloured or which emit sounds. When we try to analyse it, we transpose these objects into consciousness. We commit what psychologists call ‘the experience error’, which means that what we know to be in things themselves we immediately take as being in our consciousness of them. We make perception out of things perceived. And since perceived things themselves are obviously accessible only through perception, we end by understanding neither. We are caught up in the world and we do not succeed in extricating ourselves from it in order to achieve consciousness of the world. If we did we should see that the quality is never experienced immediately, and that all consciousness is consciousness of something. Nor is this ‘something’ necessarily an identifiable object.” (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, p. 5)

Cultivating such a view leads to the so-called experience error. It is the mistake we make when we take what we already know about our object of investigation to be the end product of our investigations into consciousness. In this way, we create a perception out of the things we perceive and end up with only a discordant set of ungrounded objects.

James does recognize to a similar extent that empiricism and intellectualism neglect the the fringe of awareness, since the respective approaches cannot “grab” those elusive transitory parts.  Nevertheless, it seems that James does not completely depart from the approaches of empiricism and intellectualism. When he describes transitory sensations, he refers to them as sensations corresponding to the relations between things. Among other things, he says that under transitory feelings we must also recognize feelings that are usually expressed by the words “and”, “if”, “with”, “but”, and that we should talk about them as easily as we talk about the feelings of the color blue or the feeling of warm air.

Yet it seems James does not fully embrace the holistic approach. That is to say – not to immerse ourselves in concepts and think from that one set point. But rather, to understand and see the entirety of the phenomenal givenness, the embeddedness of concepts in and co-creation of each other. In his case, it is the error of attributing prior concepts to the phenomenon he is investigating and the tendency to explain the phenomenon in the light of the properties dictated by prior concepts. The main source of his contemplations are the assumptions he has about the world and the structure of experience.

James does touch upon these elements of awareness, which he characterizes with feelings of coherence (which are not explicitly perceived, but nevertheless still present in awareness as a background). But from a phenomenological viewpoint, it could be claimed, he, in his endeavor, does not encompass a large enough field of experience, yet strongly influences how the structure of the whole is unfolding. He seems to see phenomena as linear and clearly defined, and therefore easily comes up with abstract ideas and explanations that may not manifest themselves as such in experience. He conceptualizes the stream of thought as an independent phenomenon that is not connected to the entire landscape of experience, which includes, among other things, spatial, bodily and intersubjective awareness. Or at least, he neither touches upon or alludes to it in his work, leaving the reader with no reason to assume the contrary. James neglects the influence of the body, the gestures of awareness, intersubjectivity and the various projects that constitute a solid ground for the unfolding of streams of thought. Because the stream of thought is conceived as divided into various mental contents and transitory states, it must create a way to reunite the separate states, contents, and impressions and form the phenomenon as a whole, such as it presents itself in our experience. Thus, James has to resort to associations and transition states, which he conceptualizes as the glue that holds the parts of a stream of thought together.

To better illustrate the stream of thought, let’s consider at this point an example of my own experience of first following the substantive stream of thought and then trying to stop it. When I think about a certain topic, I want to express the basic content or the feeling of what that specific topic refers to. If I delve deeper into this content, I experience the immersion into it as a certain gesture not unlike physically moving “elsewhere”.  It feels like the content is confining me, not only mentally, but physically as well. In order to begin to digest the content more deeply, various mental images and related content themes to these images begin to appear (which I shall hereinafter refer to as “illustrations”). I follow these illustrations as they move forward and develop, and it feels like they unfold relatively passively (without or with minimal agency from me).

If I try to leave these mental contents behind at a certain point, an interesting state of experience appears in which the contents remain, but this content is experienced as a feeling that something is still in the room and fills it. The basic foundation from which I drew my thoughts before now remains as a feeling that there is something, that something exists somewhere around me. At the same time, the illustrations (in the form of mental pictures, for example) of this content disappear, but I also feel that they are “forcing” themselves to appear again. The state of stopping the stream of thought is also accompanied by an unpleasant and tense physical sensation: I feel as if something has stopped and squeezed in my chest, as if a transparent wall has appeared in front of me, preventing me from moving forward along the path of thought. This wall is accompanied by an extraordinary affective component, the desire to continue unfolding, which I do not feel exclusive in the domain of thought, but extensively physically and spatially around me as tension and saturation of body and air.

(Rein Nomm, The Stream of Consciousness, 2020, source: Fine Art America)

The phenomenal field and bodily intentionality

Merleau-Ponty (2012) asserts that if we want to understand how phenomena are presented to us experientially as a whole, we must return to the basic way of being in the world and giving meaning to the things we encounter in our existence – i.e. to the phenomenal field through which people and objects are originally given to us. The phenomenal field is not present as a sum of discrete objects, but rather a unified, interconnected whole:

“We do not have a given multiplicity along with a synthetic apperception that surveys it and thoroughly penetrates it, but rather a certain perceptual field against the background of the world. Nothing here is thematized. Neither the object nor the subject is posited. In the original field, we do not have a mosaic of qualities, but rather a total configuration that distributes functional values according to the demans of the whole […] What we call ‘sensation’ is merely the most basic of all perceptions and, as a modality of existence, sensation can no more than any other perception be separated from a background that is, ultimately, the world.” (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, p. 251).

In other words, when we look at our experience without objectivist assumptions, we discover that each element of the field of experience determines other elements of the field and is also determined by the meaning of the other elements.

As we saw in the previous example, for me, too, each element determines the other. The flow of thoughts determined the physical positioning and feeling of the space around me, as well as the affective experience of the entire situation. The reverse is also true, in that this same affectivity, which manifested itself as tension and a constricted physical state, affected the flow of thought and stopped it. All these dimensions, however, were not isolated from the purpose itself, which is permeated by the intersubjective dimension, that I do this within a certain project and that the purpose of the exercise at the moment is to write down my observations and present them to others.

As has been implied, an important aspect of the phenomenal field is that it is always related to bodily activity, in that it consists of a perceptual and a corporeal aspect. Thus, the stream of thoughts is always also entangled in bodily activity. This entanglement entails that thought is not something linear, as James portrays it, and that the stream of thought is not separate from the rest of my experience as an object that I can think about in isolation. This object is never given as an abstraction, but is always embedded in the body, the context, the world that surrounds me. The world that I have come to know so far and the felt sense of the world I am yet to know. A stream of thought is not something internal that is supposed to be happening inside a specific thought domain, yet it also does not exist exclusively outside, in the world.

When I think, I experience words flowing, but these words flow through me, my body. They are indeed “composed” of substantive parts, or words, and “silences” that separate the words, the transitive parts. I do not experience these parts as separate and clearly defined – but as a meaningful whole that I want to express.

To better explicate the field of experience within which we are being, let us at this last point look at another example of my first-person account of experiencing a stream of thoughts. When I focus my attention on my experience while trying to develop a thought, I notice that I am focusing on the visual field in front of me, but I cannot see it clearly. I experience the thoughts as a “fog” out there that is obscuring my field of vision. This “fog” is given to me as something tangible, as a feeling, a felt sense that I can grasp – that I can reach out of my body with gestures of awareness towards the sense of a thought that is felt to be in front of me. Words creep out of the field of fog without being clearly perceived, but I perceive them through the laptop keyboard as they unfold and grow on the screen in front of me. The feeling of thought and the flow of words is not just something that happens in my head, but I experience the whole process in and through my body. The feeling is saturated with physical, bodily activity – I reach out from my body towards the sense of available meaning, which unfolds the flow of my thoughts as a whole.

With this first-person descriptions in mind, if we again look at James’ account, we can agree with him that the stream of thought is permeated by a sense of availability of the content we want to express. But I do not experience the stream of thought as divided into content and periphery. The content and the periphery are only fixed theoretical conceptualisations of the primary experiential givenness. It is a divisional fragmenting account of what is in its essence, a holistic experience. While I do concede that cutting up a whole into separate parts is a worthwhile thing to do in order to better understand its machinations, it is important to remember it does not translate clearly into the phenomenological state of affairs.

Furthermore, I, as an experiencing being, cannot say that even now, post festum, the substantive parts can be separated from their fringe. I can say that I was given a specific feeling that is both spatial, felt and perceived, and endows me as a corporeal being with a sense of the possibility of reaching out towards it and grasping it. At the same time, that feeling is also given to me within the whole context, within my projects, the people who surround me and my previous ways of acting with-in the world. All this intertwines and is not unambiguous – in the ocean of thoughts, I cannot find clear and stable insular fragments that I can study independently of others. I always feel rooted in a broader experiential world, unable to completely separate myself from the phenomenon I set out to observe.

Merleau-Ponty’s position and my own personal accounts of the experience presented in this text show that there is a need to clarify and explain James’ notion of the periphery of awareness and the concept of the fringe in the context of the “bigger (experiential) picture”. Reconceptualization, which will try to approach the periphery of awareness in this way, will also further shape a path in the direction of expanding our awareness to the pre-reflective dimension, where we do not find a thinking subject separated from the world, but primarily a bodily subject that is always already rooted with-in the world.


Dillon, M. C. (1997). Merleau-Ponty’s ontology. Northwestern University Press.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. Henry Holt and Company.

Kazashi, N. (1998). On the “horizon”: Where James and Merleau-Ponty meet. V: Immersing in the Concrete (str. 49-64). Springer, Dordrecht.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of perception. Routledge.

Norman, E., Price, M. C. in Duff, S. C. (2010). Fringe consciousness: A useful framework for clarifying the nature of experience-based metacognitive feelings. V: Trends and prospects in metacognition research (str. 63-80). Springer, Boston, MA.

Petitmengin, C. (2007). Towards the source of thoughts: The gestural and transmodal dimension of lived experience. Journal of consciousness Studies, 14(3), 54-82.

*featured image: A man thinking deeply, stream of thought. Made with MidJourney AI, 2022.


1 That is to say, the experiencer’s perception as en-owning of both their pre-reflective embeddedness with-in the world and their reflective awareness.