William James

William James

William James and Théodule-Armand Ribot on forgetting

Forgetting.–In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important a function as remembering. ‘Total recall’ (see p. 261) we saw to be comparatively rare in association. If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing. It would take as long for us to recall a space of time as it took the original time to elapse, and we should never get ahead with our thinking. All recollected times undergo, accordingly, what M. [Théodule-Armand] Ribot calls foreshortening; and this foreshortening is due to the omission of an enormous number of the facts which filled them. “We thus reach the paradoxical result,” says M. Ribot, “that one condition of remembering is that we should forget. Without totally forgetting a prodigious number of states of consciousness, and momentarily forgetting a large number, we could not remember at all. Oblivion, except in certain cases, is thus no malady of memory, but a condition of its health and its life.”
William James in Text-book of Psychology, Chapter XVIII – “Memory”, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1892), p. 300.

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"Forgetting.-In the practical use of our intellect"

William James on establishing habits

A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain. As the author last quoted [Julius Bahnsen in Beiträge zu Charakterologie mit besonderer Berücksichtigung pädagogischer Fragen, (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1867)] remarks:

“The actual presence of the practical opportunity alone furnishes the fulcrum upon which the lever can rest, by means of which the moral will may multiply its strength, and raise itself aloft. He who has no solid ground to press against will never get beyond the stage of empty gesture-making.”

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use. Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.
William James, in Habit, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1890), p. 60.