Great contemporary writer Gertrude Stein raises the question of whether consciousness exists. Stein ,alongside William James and Jonah Lehrer, predecessors of Stein’s take on consciousness, spark the timeless debate of whether objectivity and consciousness can co-exist. William James’ “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” is an article that focuses on whether the conscious state of man can work together on a parallel plane with objects. Lehrers’ Proust Was a Neuroscientist explains in great detail the many writers, including Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, who discovered the truth about the human mind and conspired (separately) to figure out the “tangible truths'” of neuroscience. Together, these psychologists and philosophers have helped shape and question concepts and ideologies that work together in order to figure out or debate whether the mind and body/object can co-exist on the same level.

William James, psychologist and philosopher of the early 1900’s has formed his idea on whether consciousness exists from Kantian ideologies. His article “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” is living testimony to his experiences and thoughts about whether in fact the human mind and objectivity correlate.  James’ opening statement claims, “‘Thoughts’ and ‘things’ are names for two sorts of objects which common sense will always find contrasted and will practically oppose each other”(477).  Already, one can see that James believes that thoughts (the human mind) and things (which can metaphorically be any object including the body) are contrasted. He separates mind from body and claims that they do not necessarily work together but have an opposing relationship; he doesn’t see mind and body as one entity.

James later goes on to expand the idea of thoughts and things having a polar relationship by pulling from renowned 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ideologies. Kant believed that all objects are formed and determined by our experience with that object. In a way, William James and Immanuel Kant believe that the bipolar relation of the human mind and body is needed to create a balance in the stream of consciousness, or the untouched flow of thought and awareness of the mind in its conscious state.

In addition, James then continues to explain the crux of his argument on whether consciousness does indeed exist. James affirms, “I believe that ‘consciousness,’ when once it has evaporated to this estate of pure diaphaneity, is on the point of disappearing altogether”(477). James is clearly confirming that the state of consciousness will be forever ‘lost,” in a sense, once it has crossed over into the realm of transparency. In other words, consciousness is a “nonentity,” therefore intangible, and “those who still cling to it are clinging to a mere echo, the faint rumor left behind by the disappearing ‘soul’ upon the air of philosophy”(477).  Consciousness is not an independent, separate, self-contained existence, but should be considered to be a function of “knowing.”

James also further discusses consciousness by defining its purpose and task. James states, “Consciousness is supposed to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known” (478). Consciousness is not a something that only exists, but it also has a function, a purpose. James believes consciousness is the act of knowing. If we fix our attention on just seeing what consciousness is then we’ll never be able to see it, or understand what it is for that matter. The main idea of consciousness is the mere fact that we know it exists. Consciousness is brought into existence by us questioning and acknowledging that it’s “realness.”

Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons aims to break barriers of the ideas of consciousness. In Randa Dubnick’s review of Stein’s book, she (Dubnick) claims that Stein’s book serves as some sort of literature experiment of the intersection of consciousness with object (29). Tender Buttons is a book that focuses on the abstracts of color and movement. Dubnick also states that the subject matter that Stein mentions in Tender Buttons is the actual tangible intersection of the object with consciousness (30). As we talk about the object, we conform it to our experience and our knowledge which is what Stein demonstrated in her book, therefore she brings consciousness and objectivity together on the same level.

Stein differs from William James in a way because she tries to put consciousness and objectivity together to work for her in Tender Buttons. Stein even states in her book, “It is so easy to exchange meaning, it is so easy to see the difference”(21). Perhaps what Stein was referring to was that it is so easy to give meaning to any object and conform it to the writer’s own thoughts and ideas, and the difference can be seen through the object itself. The object is as different and unique as the writer, therefore writing is artistic. Her mind holds the paints, and her objects are the canvas.

What Stein does in Tender Buttons is that she shows one just how different and unusual (unusual to people who don’t understand what statement Stein is making) an ordinary object can be, and once taken and twisted around to fit another identity, that object is seen through a different light. In a sense, what Stein does in her book is Kantian because of her experience with the certain objects she mentions and because she is forming those objects out of her very own experience. For example, as Dubnick puts it, “Tender Buttons is the linguistic moment in the writer’s consciousness”(31).

Furthermore, there are a lot of relativities and suppositions in Tender Buttons. It is known that Stein’s book is a representation for the abstract, but she happens to have some relations to the objects she mentions. For example, Stein states for the object which is a plate that, “if the party is small, a clever song is in order.”  If the number of amount of guests is few, then one shall play a catchy song that everyone knows in order to get the party started. The plate is just an abstract of what Stein is really talking about; she is just talking about everything that relates to that plate such as: parties, size, texture, price, washing it, and etc.

Aside from meshing objects and consciousness together, Stein manages to bring art to her literature. She is in her conscious state, and the literature seems to reflect that because of lack of grammar and her ability to find relations to an object she writes about. She experiments with words for style, and, to not make it sensible, she doesn’t use any nouns. Stein pushes the boundaries of literary works because Tender Buttons is an influential piece of literature that impacted by other contemporary writers.

In one part of Stein’s book, she mentions the word “suppose” at least eight times. Perhaps these suppositions Stein mentions are just mere flaws that question the idea of consciousness and objectivity working together on the same level, and not having a bipolar relationship like James mentions. Stein purposely abandons the conventional description of the object and still concerns the object as her “model,” much like cubists do (Dubnick 33). What Stein does that’s so unconventional is that instead of the usual descriptive relationship between object and word, Stein lets the object evoke images and not the other way around.

Moving on, scientist Lehrer takes a different approach on questioning the existence of consciousness in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Focusing on Chapter 1 of his book, Lehrer uses Walt Whitman to discuss the idea of thoughts and things like William James discussed in his piece. Lehrer states that Whitman believes that “we do not have a body, but that we are a body”(1). This sentence brings about the debate of whether consciousness exists and how it exists exactly. From Whitman’s point of view, the mind and soul are one single entity. Whitman’s concept of mind and body being one was a controversial idea because during his time, phrenologists and scientists followed the Cartesian idea of the soul being found in the head, while Whitman believed that the soul is everywhere inside the body. Lehrer makes his idea clearer when he compares Whitman’s ideology to his work. Lehrer claims, “Like Leaves of Grass, which could only be understood in its totality, Whitman believes that his existence could only be comprehended in unity and not by singling out a certain part to be examined”(5).

In addition, Whitman states in one of his poems in Leaves of Grass, “Was somebody asking to see the soul? / See your own shape and countenance/Behold the body includes and is the meaning, the main/Concern, and includes, and is the soul” (1). Whitman strongly believes that the soul is the body. The body is the main concern which includes the soul. By stating this Whitman refutes the Cartesian ideology of mind being separate from body.

Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is so important and influential to American writers because not only is it a revolutionary style of prose and free verse that other American writers emulate, but it raises questions about previous ideas about philosophers like Renee Descartes and Immanuel Kant. The leaves represented the pages in Whitman’s collection of poems and the grass represented the little value of his poems. One should take notice in the irony of Whitman’s title of the book because it is a collection of poems that is not only full of American pride, but it helps prolong the debate of whether or not the mind is separate from the body whether thoughts and things are one single entity.

In conclusion, Gertrude Stein, Jonah Lehrer, and William James ultimately work together in order to question whether consciousness and object co-exist on the same plane. James takes on a Kantian view in order to bring about his point of thoughts and things, but in then supports the fact that consciousness is about the state of mind and knowing. Lehrer takes James’ idea of consciousness as the function of knowing and, with respect to Walt Whitman, he debates whether thoughts and things, mind and body, are actually one entity. Gertrude Stein takes that same consciousness and objectivity to produce Tender Buttons.  It is one of Stein’s best works in order to bring art, specifically cubism, to her writing. Tender Buttons can be considered a tangible piece of literature that explores consciousness and objectivity.

Works Cited

James, Williams. The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. 1, No. 18 (Sep. 1, 1904), pp. 477-         491.Journal of Philosophy, Inc. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2011942. 06/01/2010 19:59. SUNY Albany. E-Reserve.       07/03/2010. <http://eres.ulib.albany.edu.libproxy.albany.edu/eres/coursepage.aspx?cid=4943&page=docs#.&gt;

 

Dubnick, Randa. The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language and Cubism. University of Illinois Press Urbana          and Chicago.

 

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. Dover Publications Inc. New York.1997.

 

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Carlyle Fraser Library. New York. E-Reserve. SUNY Albany.                                     <http://eres.ulib.albany.edu.libproxy.albany.edu/eres/coursepage.aspx?cid=4943&page=docs#.&gt;

 

 

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