Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Pure Experience, the Response to William James: An Introduction

Eugene I. Taylor & Robert H. Wozniak

©1996 Eugene Taylor & Robert H Wozniak. All rights reserved. Previously published as Taylor, E.I. & Wozniak, R.H. (1996 ). Pure experience, the response to William James: An introduction. In E.I. Taylor & R.H. Wozniak (Eds). Pure Experience: The Response to William James (pp. ix-xxxii). Bristol: Thoemmes Press.

Posted March 2000

"I throw my description into the bubbling vat of publicity where, jostled by rivals and torn by critics, it will eventually either disappear from notice, or else, if better luck befall it, quietly subside to the profundities, and serve as a possible ferment of new growths or a nucleus of new crystallization."[1]

William James
"A World of Pure Experience"

At his death, William James (1842-1910) was variously described as "the greatest of American psychologists," "the most famous American philosopher since Emerson," "the most powerful and convincing" apologist for psychical research, and a man whose "death leaves vacant a place in the world of English letters which no living writer and thinker can fill."[2] History has generally served to confirm this evaluation.

James's Principles of Psychology, Varieties of Religious Experience, and Pragmatism[3] are still widely read and discussed. Modern analyses of James's writings abound[4] and his place in intellectual history seems assured. Yet for all the attention that James's work has received, there are core elements in his thinking that were largely ignored or misunderstood both during his lifetime and in the years following his death. These are the basic psychological, metaphysical, and epistemological principles of "pure experience" that collectively bear the label "radical empiricism."

The goal of this volume is to introduce James's doctrine of "pure experience" and illustrate the extent to which the basic import of his ideas was sidestepped by his contemporaries. To do this, we reprint James's two fundamental papers of 1904, "Does consciousness exist?" and "A world of pure experience" and responses to these papers appearing between 1904 and 1915.[5]

As will be readily apparent, the two James papers do not make easy reading. While James was a brilliant stylist whose popular writing was a model of clarity and persuasive power, he was also a complex, sometimes contradictory thinker whose technical writing could be subtle in the extreme. This is particularly true of the two papers of 1904, both of which not only present ideas that are likely to run counter to the reader's habits of thought but do so in a fashion that is largely non-linear.[6]

To increase the accessibility of James's papers, we will devote the first portion of this introduction to an analysis of the core ideas from which James fashioned his radical empiricism and illustrate this analysis with material taken from the documents themselves. The remainder of the introduction will focus on the response to James. After offering suggestions as to why James's views were not more favorably received and accurately interpreted, we will summarize some of the issues raised and misconceptions perpetrated both by those who were critical and those who were generally sympathetic to James's overall program.

The Basic Documents

In September of 1904, in two closely related articles published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods,[7] James articulated a metaphysical perspective designed to provide a radical reformulation of certain fundamental problems of philosophy and psychology. Termed "radical empiricism," James's metaphysical arguments brought to mature formulation a series of ideas that had long been developing within his thinking.[8] Roughly speaking, these ideas can be grouped under three headings: a) the continuity of experience; b) the metaphysics of "pure" experience; and c) the epistemology of experienced relations.

The continuity of experience. James's argument for the continuity of experience first appeared in 1884 in a seminal paper, "On some omissions of introspective psychology."[9] In an analysis that became the basis for his famous account of the stream of thought,[10] James criticized "orthodox" empiricism for reducing experience to a succession of stable, distinct, substantive elements-ideas, images, percepts, sensations-elements that can be held before the attention and introspectively examined. For James, this punctate, discontinuous view of experience, which overlooks and falsifies "immense tracts of our inner life,"[11] is completely at odds with the dynamic, flowing, stream-like quality of consciousness. Experience, in James's view, is every bit as much an affair of transitions and relations as it is of the substantive ideas and images on which empiricist analysis has traditionally focused:

"...When we take a rapid general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness...our mental life, like a bird's life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings...The resting-places [substantive parts] are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations [transitive parts], static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest..."[12]

James's argument for the continuity of consciousness in experienced relations lies at the very heart of his radical empiricism. In 1909, for example, in the preface to The Meaning of Truth, James characterizes the essence of radical empiricism in terms of a postulate, a statement of fact, and a generalized conclusion that make the centrality of experienced relations abundantly evident. His postulate is "that the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience." His statement of fact is "that the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves;" and his generalized conclusion is that "the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience."[13]

James's postulate places him squarely within the tradition of empiricism; but his statement of fact and his generalized conclusion take empiricism to its logical extreme. "To be radical," as James puts it, "an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as 'real' as anything else in the system."[14]

Without the argument for continuity grounded in the fact of experienced relations, as we will see, neither James's metaphysics nor his epistemology of pure experience would have made any sense. As he put it himself:

"...continuous transition is one sort of a conjunctive relation; and to be a radical empiricist means to hold fast to this conjunctive relation of all others, for this is the strategic point, the position through which, if a hole be made, all the corruptions of dialectics and all the metaphysical fictions pour into philosophy."[15]

The metaphysics of pure experience. James's metaphysics of pure experience is aimed directly at the dualisms of mind and body and knower and known (subject and object, thought and thing, representation and represented, consciousness and content). In its classical form, mind/body dualism dates from the appearance of Descartes' Meditationes de prima philosophia.[16] For Descartes, everything that exists is made of one or the other of two radically different substances-body and soul. The essence of body is extension; that of soul is thought. Body is spatial and tangible; soul unextended and intangible. Ever since Descartes posed the problem in this fashion, the issue of how spatial body can affect or be affected by unextended soul has bedeviled Western thought.[17]

By the 19th century, however, the dualism of body and soul had been transformed into one of knower and known or consciousness and content. The essence of this dualism lay in a reification of consciousness and a separation of consciousness from its content. The phenomena of consciousness were viewed as entering consciousness as content and consciousness itself was construed simply as that within which the phenomena of consciousness occur, within which, as James puts it, "awareness of content" takes place (see, especially, James's analogy to the separation of pigment from the menstruum of paint).[18] It is this reified consciousness, separated from its content, whose existence James denies; and it was to transcend this dualism of consciousness and content that James articulated his doctrine of "pure experience."

To deny the existence of "consciousness" is not, for James, to deny the existence of thoughts, but "to deny that the word ['consciousness'] stands for an entity," to deny that there is any "aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which our material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made."[19] In place of this substantial dualism, James proposes what might best be called a radically pluralistic monism of pure experience. There is, he says, "only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and...we call that stuff ' pure experience.'" For James, in other words, all that which exists is pure experience and pure experience is all that exists. In contrast to the dualism of consciousness and content, in other words, James argues for a monism of pure experience.[20]

That this is monism in only the most limited sense, however, becomes apparent when James addresses the nature of this "pure experience:"

"...there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made. There are as many stuffs as there are 'natures' in the things experienced...Experience is only a collective name for all these sensible natures...there appears no universal element of which all things are made."[21]

James's view, in short, is only monistic in the sense that "pure experience" is the only existent; it is radically pluralistic in that "pure experience" is infinitely variegated in its nature. It is, as James says, simply "made of that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not."[22] It is "the instant field of the present...plain, unqualified actuality or existence, a simple that."[23] Pure experience is just exactly what it is, whatever it is that is experienced, in the here and now, in all its multiplicity, exactly as it is experienced.

It is only in retrospect, when pure experience is "'taken,' i.e., talked-of, twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively, by a new retrospective experience"[24] after the fact that the same indivisible portion of experience assumes the character of subject and object, knower and known. And for James, this reflective taking of experience in different contexts reflects the pluralistic nature of relations within experience rather than a dualism of substance. Section II of "Does consciousness exist?" is devoted to this analysis and there is no better way to make the point than to quote James directly:

"Experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition-the addition, to a given concrete piece of it, of other sets of experiences, in connection with which severally its use or function may be of two different kinds...a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play(s) the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of 'consciousness'; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective 'content.' In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing. And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective both at still preserved in this account, but reinterpreted...(as) an affair of relations...outside, not inside the single experience considered..."[25]

In the immediacy of a given "bit" of pure experience, in other words, there is no inner dualism of knower and known. Separation of knower and known occurs when a given "bit" is abstracted from the flow of experience and retrospectively considered in the context of different relations, relations that are external to that experience taken singly but internal to the general flow of experience taken as a whole. For James, the dualism of knower and known is an external dualism of experienced relations not an inner dualism of substance. This is the fundamental metaphysical postulate of James's radical empiricism.

The epistemology of experienced relations. Relations in experience also lie at the heart of James's epistemology. Since experience is all that exists and all that exists is experience, James faces none of the problems posed by representational epistemologies that must somehow bridge the dualistic chasm between knower and known. For James, "knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter...the relation itself...(being) a part of pure experience."[26]

When knowing is perceptual, a kind of knowing that James calls "knowledge by acquaintance," the relation is one of identity. "The mind enjoys direct 'acquaintance' with a present object." To know is to experience-directly, immediately, and purely. There is no separation of knower and known. Indeed, in a real sense, there is no knower and known, there is only experience. Knower and known only separate out of the experience retrospectively, as we saw above, when "the self-same piece of experience (is) taken twice over in different contexts."[27]

When knowing is "conceptual,"[28] a kind of knowing that James calls "knowledge about," the relation is one of corroborating continuity in experience. One experience (e.g., an idea, an image, a thought) knows another (e.g., its perceptual referent) when these "two pieces of actual experience...(exhibit) definite tracts of conjunctive transitional experience between them."[29] One experience knows another, in other words, when there is continuity between them, when experience leads seamlessly from one to the other through a series of transitions in which later experience corroborates that which has gone before. As James summarizes it:

"In this matching and corroborating, taken in no transcendental sense, but denoting definitely felt transitions, lies all that the knowing of a percept by an idea can possibly contain or signify. Wherever such transitions are felt, the first experience knows the last one. Where they do not...intervene, there can be no pretense of knowing...Knowledge thus lives inside the tissue of experience. It is made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time. Whenever certain intermediaries are given, such that, as they develop towards their terminus, there is experience from point to point of one direction followed, and finally of one process fulfilled, the result is that their starting point thereby becomes a knower and their terminus an object meant or known."[30]

With this final stroke, James completes his reformulation of the problem of knowing. Knowing is nothing more nor less than a particular kind of relationship within the flow of experience; the epistemology of radical empiricism proves to be every bit as radical and empiricist as its metaphysics.

The Response to James

James's attempt to sell his wider view was fraught with numerous difficulties. He had evolved the doctrine of "pure experience" as a way to transcend the shortcomings of the analytic, associational empiricism of the "new" scientific psychology. By transforming the problem of knower and known, James effectively pulled the ground out from under the distinction between consciousness (as the medium of introspection) and the contents of consciousness (as scientific subject matter) on which the "new" psychology was based.

In reformulating the problem of knower and known, James also challenged a number of long and dearly held principles of Western scientific thought-that mathematical and causal laws exist in independence of the human mind, that objects continue to have an existence when they are not in the field of vision, and that subject and object should be rigidly distinguished in order to safeguard scientific objectivity. Since objects depend on the immediate, here-and-now consciousness of the perceiver, objectivity, for James, is not the supression of the subject, but the recognition that what we see is a seamless enterprise between the internal and the external. All perception, all knowledge, all science, in other words, exists only in a relational context within experience, dependent on human consciousness as knowing.

James also had a profound distrust of purely rational analysis-the "language about language" that constitutes much of philosophical discourse.[31] With our inveterate penchant for such analysis, he thought, we tend to fall easily into the error of treating reality as it must be, rather than experiencing it as it is.[32] Our sciences, as a result, have restricted themselves only to what can be measured, ignoring vast domains of human functioning-creativity, intuition, psychic experiences, religious visions. The arts and humanities as well are made to take second place to advances in mathematical logic and industrial technology. Even in James's time, the thrust and temper of modern culture was technocratic, bent on reifying the methods of reductionistic scientism in a world view that James most decidedly did not share.

Not surprisingly, under these circumstances, James found himself ignored by psychologists offended by his challenge to the very foundations of their discipline and castigated as a throw back for reintroducing philosophy into psychology just when psychology seemed to be achieving an independent status as a science. When James turned to the philosophers as a possible audience for his analysis, he was dismissed as an amateur. Lacking any systematic training in the classics, James was neither a disciple of Kant nor a quoter of Aristotle; he refused to submit to the rules of logic; and, worst of all, his view that knowing is an affair of relations within our own experience was solipsistic in its implication that certain knowledge of existence beyond the self is impossible.

As if these obstacles to the acceptance of James's theory were not already severe enough, there were others that, if anything, were even more difficult to overcome. First, at the time the papers on radical empiricism appeared in 1904, James was involved in numerous controversies surrounding the interpretation of pragmatism. After first enunciating the pragmatic idea before the Philosophical Union at Berkeley in 1898,[33] for example, James had a difference of opinion with his compatriot Charles Sanders Peirce, the originator of the pragmatic maxim, over James's misinterpretation of what Peirce had originally intended. Peirce had conceived of pragmatism as a rule of logic; James took it as a blueprint for action.

As pragmatism gained momentum, controversies of this sort multiplied; and much to his surprise, James found himself at the center of an internationally recognized, if contentious, movement that was to define the core of American populist philosophy during the Progressive Era.[34] All of this made heavy demands on his time and energy at a period when he was in declining health. Distracted on several fronts, he died before he could pull the various strands of radical empiricism together into any sort of systematic statement. Only a handful of published papers and notes and the outline of a book remained of this, his great unfinished arch.[35]

One end result of this fragmentary effort was that relatively few scholars attempted to follow James's metaphysical thinking and those that did tended to adapt the material he left entrepreneurally to further their own cause. Another was that James came to be best remembered for his pragmatism, not his radical empiricism.

A second factor weighing against the acceptance of James's doctrine of pure experience was that even in his own time (and still today) philosophers misplaced James in the tradition of Western thought. The center of gravity of the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Western European and Anglo-American definition of reality has been the doctrine of rationality and the supremacy of the intellect. Within this tradition, the philosophical pantheon is filled with Greek logicians and ethicists, Scholastic disputants, French encyclopedists, and German idealists. James is frequently critiqued against this rationalistic standard and found wanting. Furthermore, within this genealogy, James is often placed with the British empiricists, running from Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and James Mill, through John Stewart Mill to Bain.[36]

While it is true that James's radical empiricism revived a moribund tradition of English empirical philosophy, the philosophical tradition to which he actually belongs is, in our opinion, an entirely different one. James is tied neither to English empiricism nor to German idealism, but to a lineage that is more uniquely American and underived; namely, that of Swedenborgian and transcendentalist thought.

James was weaned on an intuitive psychology of personality transformation promulgated by his godfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a Swedenborgian emphasis on the spiritual evolution of consciousness put forward by his father, Henry James, Sr.[37] The Swedenborgian doctrine of The Rational can be seen in James's insistence that logic rests on deeper substrates of experience; the doctrine of Use can be seen in James's interpretation of pragmatism, and the transcendentalist reinterpretation of Swedenborg's doctrine of Correspondences can be found transmuted in James's emphasis on the contextualization of the object in a world of pure experience. While James had undoubted affinities with the British empiricists,[38] he was, from the beginning, a quintessentially American thinker.

In the 1860s, as James's professional career began to unfold, he took the spiritual psychology he had inherited from Emerson and Henry James, Sr. and tempered it with the scientific logic of Charles Sanders Peirce and the positivism of Chauncey Wright. Together Wright and Peirce introduced James to the modern philosophy of science. Through Wright, James took up the study of consciousness in the context of Darwin's theory of natural selection and, from Peirce, James first learned of German psychophysics. During this period, well before they all began to meet as the Metaphysical Club after James began teaching at Harvard in 1872, Wright and Peirce also interpreted the British empiricists to James. Indeed, it was out of these conversations that pragmatism was to develop.[39]

Finally, there was still a third obstacle to the acceptance of James's radical empiricism. By 1904, psychologists had come to believe (and still believe) that James had abandoned psychology following the publication of his Principles of Psychology in 1890. In the Principles, James had emphasized a view of psychology as an empirical science that approached its subject matter, states of consciousness, from a positivistic point of view.[40] The major thrust of the Principles was James's positivistic emphasis on a cognitively oriented experimental psychology whose subject matter was consciousness conceived as a field within which we become aware of objects that are in focus at the center.

But the Principles also contained another center of gravity, one that emphasized the fact that there is also a margin, a penumbra or halo that surrounds all our thoughts, warming our bare cognitions and making them our own. This is the domain of the emotions, largely hidden from view, the reservoir of our habits and reflexes, and also the source of our intuitions. Here James hinted at nothing less than what has since been called the reality of the unconscious.

In the decade following publication of the Principles, James went on to develop this second thesis. He continued researches into psychic phenomena that he had begun in the 1880s, visiting mediums, conducting experiments in hypnosis and automatic writing, and experimenting with thought transference, all of which he summarized in his Presidential address to the Society for Psychical Research.[41] Delving into the scientific literature on the experimental psychology of the subconscious, he studied trance states and the pathology of the emotions.

In his unpublished 1896 Lowell lectures on Exceptional Mental States,[42] James suggested that beyond the margin lay not only the forgotten and repressed but alternative states of awareness both pathological and transcendent. He developed a dynamic theory of the subconscious that shed light on individual psychopathology as well as personal growth and he analyzed the pathological workings of the subconscious in the social sphere. The text of James's Lowell Lectures reflects the rich perspective on exceptional mental states that emanated from the Boston School of Abnormal Psychology.[43] Until the spread of psychoanalysis, the Boston School was the dominant force in developing scientific psychotherapy in the English speaking world.

Finally, during this period, James also launched a six year study in the psychology of religion that culminated in The Varieties of Religious Experience.[44] There he developed the theme that the subconscious was the doorway to the awakening of ultimately transforming experiences, the highest of which was the mystical. Mystical consciousness, he suggested, was a state of deep and profound awareness. Once experienced, it led to dramatically changed lives and might, in all probability, be the very source of discursive intellect.

Rather than abandoning psychology in the decade after the Principles, in other words, James was actually pioneering the psychology of the abnormal, psychotherapeutics, parapsychology, and the psychology of religion.[45] In doing so, however, James left reductionism and positivism far behind, delving deeply into a domain where most laboratory psychologists have never been able to follow. When James pointed to the reality of a dynamic sphere of experience beyond the bounds of everyday waking material reality, American academic psychology faltered, leaving exploration of this sphere to the generations of depth psychologists and psychoanalysts to follow.

Naysayers. The immediate response to James's theory was decidedly mixed. Some were sympathetic; many were perplexed; only a few-Peirce, Dewey, and Flournoy-understood the main thrust of the message. The general tone of James's harshest critics was chastising even to the point of condescension. Many imagined when they wrote that they had dealt sufficiently with aspects of radical empiricism to discount it. In reality they often had little grasp of James's views.

Most objections were of two broad types, reflecting either an inability to shed the presuppositions of dualism or an inability to come to terms with the non-rational. Those for whom dualism was an article of faith had difficulty, for example, with the suggestion that there is no world of objects that is independent of consciousness or they foundered on the problem of representation, the implicit assumption in much of Western philosophy and psychology that external objects are grasped by the senses and then duplicated, or represented, in the interior domain of the mind. Those steeped in the precepts of rationalism found James's emphasis on the non-rational to be illogical. For them the abandonment of rational order meant anarchy, chaos, and insanity; and they could imagine no alternative.

In 1905 and again in 1908, for example, Boyd Henry Bode attacked James's concept of "pure experience" from a dualistic, representationalist perspective.[46] Pure experience, he argued, cannot possibly be all that exists since knowledge of pure experience implies a state different from that of pure experience itself. Furthermore, since consciousness can come and go independently of objects, James could not be right in claiming that the object is dependent upon consciousness. Finally, as truth exists apart from the human mind, consciousness cannot be defined in terms of context. Radical empiricism fails for Bode because it cannot adequately account for an external world common to a multiplicity of individuals.

The problem with such a critique, needless to say, is that it proceeds from assumptions (i.e., that knowledge is something other than a relation within experience, that consciousness is separate from the world of objects, and that truth is extramental) that are completely foreign and, therefore, inappropriate to James's way of thinking. James is faulted, in other words, for failing to account for that which he has explicitly set out to deny.

Another who critiqued James from the position of dualism was the psychologist George Malcolm Stratton.[47] From a representationalist standpoint, Stratton argued for the existence of a material world separate from consciousness, a world of objects that consciousness must model. Differentiating public from private events, Stratton indicated the extent of his misinterpretation of James by claiming that James was in agreement with him in distinguishing between the mental and the physical in terms of their respective modes of behavior.

Charles Hubbard Judd,[48] also a psychologist, compared the thought of James to that of Wilhelm Wundt, the titular founder of the "new" laboratory psychology. Although Judd believed that he saw numerous points of agreement between Wundt and James, he recognized their radical disagreement on the problem of representation. In Wundt's thinking, as in that of psychology more generally, the mind is construed as modeling the world of objects; for James, consciousness participates in the creation of objects. Wundt also differed from James in arguing that space, rather than experience, is the primary and most commonly accepted fact.

Perhaps the most egregious philosophical misinterpreter of James was Bertrand Russell.[49] Although Russell thought James "profoundly original" and "profoundly interesting," he nevertheless believed that James had failed, because his theory was incapable of providing grounds for the analysis of experience (an oxymoron for a radical empiricist) and because he found it impossible to "believe that empiricism, however radical, requires that we should deny the difference between mind and matter...."[50]

James was also attacked by critics as irrational. George Holland Sabine, for instance, accused James of being incomprehensible according to the rules of logic.[51] Although he came close to seeing that James was getting at something beyond discriminative thought, some "archetypal consciousness," which Sabine called the whole of present experience "as it comes," he rejected it as having "nothing to do with logic, or even the psychology of the adult human mind."[52]

James Earl Russell made a parallel point. To him, radical empiricism was appealing but illogical. Truth he thought, was independent of experience, and to identify them as James did forced one to ignore "most of those relations which logical thought recognizes and asserts."[53] Finding James "solipsistic," Herbert Nichols rejected James's primary postulates as "incredible" and his secondary postulates as "superfluous and contradictory."[54] And Evander Bradley McGilvary went back to the Principles to find contradictions in James's thinking.[55]

Fellow travelers. Among those responding to James's views on pure experience were a number who shared or thought they shared one or another aspect of his view. Some wished to explain James to the world; some wished to associate their own ideas with his; and some seem to have been inspired by James to clarify their own thinking. Where they differ with James, they do so with sympathy and not derision. Foremost among these, and rightfully so since he had been such a large influence on James's philosophic career, was Charles Sanders Peirce.

On September 28, 1904, Peirce wrote to James: "Your article about consciousness comes to me very apropos as I am writing about consciousness and have been reading up about it as well as my library (!) permits." Peirce then continues, however, to note that he was floored by the paper at its outset because he could not get past James's statement that consciousness was treated by some authors as an "entity." The block was so severe, he suggests, that he could read no further.

Peirce was, of course, being metaphorical, because his analysis continues on for several pages. In this letter, Peirce acknowledges the immediacy of our feelings, the immensity of the world of thought that we know exists within us but that always lies outside the immediate field of our awareness, and our sense of the future-all of which must be accounted for in any definition of consciousness. He ends by proclaiming that "the conception of the real is derived by a mellonization of the constraint-side of double-sided consciousness. Therefore to say that it is the world of thought that is real is, when properly understood, to assert emphatically that reality of the public world of the indefinite future as against our past opinions of what it was to be."[56]

In reply, James confesses that he does not "understand a word of your letter;"[57] and this prompts Peirce to respond with an even longer missive.[58] In it, he reviews the definition of consciousness to be found in writers such as George Frederick Stout, Lester Ward, Mary Whiton Calkins, Alexander Bain, and Josiah Royce and continues with his objections to James's use of the word "entity." More importantly, however, Peirce also indicates that he sees quite clearly where James's thought is leading:

"As I understand you then, the proposition which you are arguing is a proposition which I have called phenomenology, that is, just the analysis of what kind of constituents there are in our thoughts and lives, (whether these be valid or invalid being quite aside from the question). It is a branch of philosophy I am most deeply interested in and which I have worked upon almost as much as I have upon logic."[59]

That this is not the direction which Peirce himself would take, however, is equally apparent from his emphatic assertion in the same letter that phenomenology "has nothing to do with psychology." James, in effect, wanted to fudge the boundary between the sciences; Peirce wanted to keep the barriers rigid. James wanted to say that phenomenology and psychology observe the same facts; Peirce maintained that they merely observe the same world. James wanted to base his psychology on phenomenology; Peirce insisted that psychology should stand on logic.[60]

Two of the most important supporters of James were Ralph Barton Perry and Henri Bergson. Perry was a protégé of James's at Harvard, a younger family friend, a budding philosopher, and already at that time James's designated biographer. Perhaps the most telling fact about Perry's interpretation of James was that he danced around James's position without explicitly stating it.[61] He could cast James into the context of philosophy in the Western humanistic tradition; he could situate him in the line of British empiricism; he could even place him in the context of the history of philosophy at Harvard, but there was a distinct limit to how far Perry could get into the interior of James's thought.

Bergson was, of course, a major philosophical force in his own right. A friendship between James and Bergson had sprung up after James began reading Bergson in the late 1890s and they began a correspondence, finally meeting in 1905. In their letters they agreed that they were in sympathy with one another; but Bergson also went on to describe some of the ways in which his ideas were not identical to James's.[62] Despite some intellectual differences, however, the bond between them was quite strong and Bergson supervised the translation of several of James's philosophical works into French, as James had supervised the translation into English of Bergson's Creative Evolution.

Of all James 's supporters, the two who seemed to resonate with him best were John Dewey and Theodore Flournoy. Dewey came closest to James by taking a position he called "immediate empiricism." From this standpoint, he maintained that "the adequacy of any particular account is not a matter to be settled by general reasoning, but by finding out what sort of an experience the truth-experience actually is."[63] Flournoy was the first to recognize that radical empiricism lay at the heart of James's metaphysics. In his rendition of radical empiricism, he remained true to James's conceptions, identifying experience with "a field of consciousness, including its objects thought and felt, plus an attitude in regard to these objects, plus a sense of self to which these attitudes belong"[64] and accurately representing James's position that immediate experience at any actual instant is but a subset of pure experience.

A Concluding Note

James was well aware that by airing his ideas, he was subjecting them to the whims of Darwinian selection. The fact was, nothing in their history had prepared Western philosophers and psychologists for radical empiricism. As the reaction to his writings showed, it is exceptionally difficult to suspend our logical categories and see the immediate moment shorn of our labels of it. Indeed, we are not yet even prepared in some high circles of philosophy and psychology to acknowledge the full reality of the unconscious. Nor are we yet able to comprehend an approach to exceptional states of consciousness. Indeed, we cannot even make sense of non-western epistemologies, let alone admit that they might have something important to say to the Western outlook about ways of seeing reality that we cannot yet fathom.

Yet we have in James's radical empiricism a position that goes right to the heart of the Western viewpoint, exposing its limits. In this he resembles, not chaos and anarchy, as some of his rationalist critics might have supposed, but more the position in Western philosophy of European existentialism and phenomenology, or the metaphysics of Far Eastern psychology: the Upanishadic tat of the Hindu texts; the Theravada Buddhist image of moment consciousness as a string of pearls; the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination (pratityasammutpada); or Zen suchness (tathata).

Despite the colossal misunderstanding that befell the doctrine of "pure experience," James's personal reputation as a towering figure in American letters has remained largely unsullied. He had few if any equals in American philosophy or psychology when he died; and, as history has shown, his subsequent influence in the twentieth century has been enormous.

He is connected to the cubist movement through Gertrude Stein. He has been influential in defining the subject matter of the cognitive revolution in psychology. His ideas shaped those of psychologists such as Robert S. Woodworth, Edward C. Tolman and James J. Gibson. The macropersonality theorists of the 1930s and 40s-Gordon Allport, Gardner Murphy, and Henry Murray-were all Jameseans. The European existentialists and phenomenologists claimed him for decades until the influence of his radical empiricism was once again felt in American psychology through the existential and phenomenological psychotherapies of the humanistic movement in psychology during the 1950s and 1960s. Even more than in his own time, his ideas about consciousness have been resurrected by modern neuroscientists such as Karl Pribram and Roger Sperry, who drew upon James's work for their own formulations. Finally, the geneticist Francis Crick, reviewing the philosophical implications of biological advances in our understanding of consciousness, has invoked James as a guiding philosopher who had said it all a hundred years ago.

The documents of radical empiricism are undoubtedly instructive from an historical standpoint. They help to clarify the nature of James's philosophy and psychology; and they provide a case study in misinterpretation and distortion. But radical empiricism is not merely an historical curiosity. It may yet serve to guide us to a deeper understanding of the rich and complex human spirit. Perhaps in this regard James was actually a psychologist of the more distant future.[65]


[1] James, W. (1904). A world of pure experience. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 1, 533-543, 561-570., p. 533. [WPE]

[2] Dewey, J. (1910). William James. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 7, 506; the Paris correspondent to the London Times, quoted in Allen, G.W. (1967). William James: A Biography. New York: Viking Press. p. 493; McDougall, W. (1911). In memory of William James. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 25, 16; Editors (1910). Notes. Philosophical Review, 19, 694.

[3] James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Co.; James, W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.; James, W. (1907). Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Popular Lectures on Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.;

[4] See, for example: Bird, G. (1986). William James. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Cotkin, G. (1990). William James, Public Philosopher. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Johnson, M.G. & Henley, T.B. (Eds.), (1990). Reflections on the Principles of Psychology. William James After a Century. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Myers, G.E. (1986). William James. His Life and Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press; Wernham, J.C.S. (1987). James's Will-to-Believe Doctrine. A Heretical View. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

[5] James, W. (1904). Does "consciousness" exist? Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 1, 477-491 [DCE]; WPE.

[6] This is rather unusual for James. His writing (cf., the Principles of Psychology) is often a model of linear argumentation.

[7] DCE, WPE.

[8] See, for example, James, W. (1884). On some omissions of introspective psychology. Mind, 9, 1-26 [OIP]; James, W. (1885). On the function of cognition. Mind, 10, 27-44; and James, W. (1895). The knowing of things together. Psychological Review, 2, 105-124.

[9] OIP

[10] James, W. (1890). op. cit., pp. 224-290.

[11] OIP, p. 2

[12] OIP, pp. 2-3.

[13] James, W. (1909). The Meaning of Truth. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. p. xii-xiii; see also WPE, p. 534

[14] WPE, p. 534.

[15] WPE, p. 536.

[16] Des-Cartes, R. (1641). Meditationes de prima philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animae immortalitas demonstratur. Parisiis, Apud Michaelem Soly.

[17] See, for example, Wozniak, R.H. (1992). Mind and Body: René Descartes to William James. Bethesda, MD and Washington D.C.: National Library of Medicine and American Psychological Association.

[18] DCE, pp. 479-480; This dualism, which served implicitly as rationale for introspective method in the "new" psychology, is nicely exemplified in Wundt's famous programmatic statement on psychological methodology: Wundt, W. (1862). Beiträge zur Theorie der Sinneswahrnehmung. Leipzig und Heidelberg: C.F. Winter (translated into English as Wundt, W. (1961). Contributions to the theory of sensory perception. In T. Shipley (Ed.), Classics in Psychology. New York: Philosophical Library. pp. 51-78.

[19] DCE, p. 478.

[20] Ibid.

[21] DCE, p. 487.

[22] Ibid.

[23] DCE, p. 485.

[24] Ibid. Note that for James the use of language to "take" or "talk" retrospectively of an experience retrospectively creates a new, second-order experience one-step removed from the original direct experience itself. When language is used to talk not of experience but of other language, as often happens, for example, in philosophical or theoretical scientific discourse, the actual facts of pure experience may easily be lost.

[25] DCE, p. 480.

[26] DCE, p. 478.

[27] WPE, p. 538.

[28] Or, more properly, the "knowing of perceptual by conceptual experiences," DCE, p. 486.

[29] Ibid. In this section, James also distinguishes between the known as an actual and the known as a possible experience, reducing the latter to the former.

[30] WPE, pp. 539-540, see especially James's Memorial Hall example.

[31] See Footnote 21.

[32] James referred to this as "vicious intellectualism"-"the treating of a name as excluding from the fact named what the name's definition fails positively to include." See James, W. (1909). A Pluralistic Universe. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. p. 60.

[33] James, W. (1898). Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results. The Annual Public Address before the Union, August 26, 1898. Berkeley: The University Press.

[34] In the United States, pragmatism was developed by John Dewey and others at the University of Chicago, Josiah Royce and James at Harvard, and Edward L. Thorndike at Columbia. In England, it was championed by F.C.S. Schiller and William McDougall; in Switzerland by Théodore Flournoy; in Italy by Giovanni Papini, Giulio Cesare Ferrari, and Giovanni Vailati; and in France by Henri Bergson. During this period, Jamesean pragmatism was even discussed as far east as India and China.

[35] In 1912 Ralph Barton Perry gathered much of this material together to create the posthumously published: James, W. (1912). Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. Unfortunately, the Essays do not appear to have been widely read or reviewed.

[36] Perry, R.B. (1935). The Thought and Character of William James. Boston: Little, Brown.

[37] James acknowledged the influence of Emerson in numerous places, among them: James, W. (1880). Great men, great thoughts, and the environment. Atlantic Monthly, 46, 441-459; James, W. (1983). William James on Exceptional Mental States. The 1896 Lowell Lectures. Reconstructed by Eugene Taylor. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Chapter 8: Genius; and James, W. (1903). Address at the Centenary of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Printed at the Riverside Press for the Social Circle in Concord. pp. 67-77. His debt to Henry James Sr. was chronicled in: James, H. (1885) The Literary Remains of Henry James. Edited with an Introduction by William James. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company.

[38] This was no accident. Both Mill and Bain dined at Carlyle's table in the 1840s when Emerson first introduced Henry James, Sr. to Carlyle's circle.

[39] James wrote a eulogy for Wright, who died in 1875: James, W. (1875) Chauncey Wright. Nation, 21, 194; the influence of Peirce continued throughout James's life. While historians of pragmatism readily acknowledge the influence of John Stewart Mill and Alexander Bain on the Metaphysical Club, few take note of the Swedenborgian influence and Emerson is only mentioned in passing.

[40] This followed from his belief that, to launch itself, every science needs to be positivistic; but to grow and change, a science must eventually scrutinize the philosophical assumptions under it operates.

[41] James, W. (1896). Address of the President before the Society for Psychical Research. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 12, 2-10.

[42] James, W. (1983). op. cit.

[43] Also known as the Boston School of Psychotherapy

[44] James, W. (1902). op. cit.

[45] Taylor, E.I. (1996). William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[46] Bode, B.H. (1905). 'Pure experience' and the external world. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 2, 128-133; Bode, B.H. (1908). Some recent definitions of consciousness. Psychological Review, 15, 255-264.

[47] Stratton, G.M. (1906) The difference between the mental and the physical. Psychological Bulletin, 3, 1-9; and Stratton, G.M. (1906). The character of consciousness. Psychological Bulletin, 3, 117-124.

[48] Judd, C.H. (1905). Radical empiricism and Wundt's philosophy. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 2, 169-176.

[49] Russell, B. (1906). Some difficulties with the epistemology of pragmatism and radical empiricism. Philosophical Review, 15, 406-413; and Russell, B. (1910). Review of Essays in radical empiricism. Mind, ns. 26, 571-575.

[50] Russell, B. (1910). op. cit., p. 575.

[51] Sabine, G.H. (1905). Radical empiricism as a logical method. Philosophical Review, 14, 696-705.

[52] Ibid., p. 702.

[53] Russell, J.E. (1907). Some difficulties with the epistemology of pragmatism and radical empiricism. Philosophical Review, 15, 406-413., p. 407.

[54] Nichols, H. (1906). Professor James's 'hole.' Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 3, 64-70., p. 70.

[55] McGilvary, E.B. (1907). The stream of consciousness. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 4, 225-235. Completely misunderstanding the crucial role played in James's thinking by the fact of continuity in the stream of consciousness, McGilvary objected, for example, to the suggestion of a succession of egos in the stream of consciousness.

[56] Peirce, C.S. (1904). Letter to W. James, Sept. 28, 1904. James papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[57] James (1904). Reply to C.S. Peirce, September 30, 1904.

[58] Peirce, C.S. (1904). Letter to W. James, Oct. 3, 1904. James Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[59] Ibid.

[60] By 1904 James had become acquainted with Husserl's phenomenology through his colleague, William Ernest Hocking; Peirce probably had not. It is also interesting to note that James is called a "proto-phenomenologist" by modern historians of existentialism and phenomenology, since the word phenomenology is reserved exclusively by them for that which is Husserlean (See Taylor, E.I. (1991). William James and the humanistic tradition. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 31, 56-74).

[61] Perry, R.B. (1904). Conceptions and misconceptions of consciousness. Psychological Review, 11, 282-296., p. 289.

[62] See also Pitkin, W.B. (1910). James and Bergson: Or, who is against intellect? Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 7, 225-231; and Kallen, H.M. (1910). Discussion: James, Bergson and Mr. Pitkin. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 7, 353-357.

[63] Dewey, J. (1905). The postulate of immediate empiricism. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 2, 393-399., p. 395.

[64] Flournoy, T. (1917). The Philosophy of William James (orig. French edition 1911). New York: Henry Holt and Co., p. 94.

[65] In this regard, see Taylor, E.I. (1994). Radical empiricism and the conduct of research. In W. Harman & J. Clark (Eds.), New Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Sausalito, CA: Institute of Noetic Sciences; Taylor, E.I. (1995). Radical empiricism and the new science of consciousness. History of Human Sciences, 8, 47-60; Taylor, E.I.(in press). A potential renaissance of humanistic psychology? Journal of Humanistic Psychology; and Taylor, E.I. (in preparation). Radical empiricism for psychologists: An emerging new chapter in the history of James scholarship. In R. Rieber & K. Salzinger (Eds.), Psychology: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives (2nd edition). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.