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‘Stream of consciousness’. You may have heard the term, but where did it come from, and what does it mean? The answers are perhaps surprising, and lead us to a forgotten modernist writer whom Virginia Woolf, among others, praised.
It is often claimed that the term ‘stream of consciousness’ was coined by philosopher and psychologist William James, brother of novelist Henry James, in his book The Principles of Psychology (1890). Sure enough, James himself gives us this impression when he uses the phrase when discussing conscious thought: ‘A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let’s call it the stream of thought, consciousness, or subjective life.‘ But this was not the first use of the phrase by a psychologist, and James was actually borrowing (to put it politely) an expression that had been coined some years…
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