William James’s Speculative Audacity: The Notion of Pure Experience


by Jack Flynn

William James is a uniquely American philosopher with a uniquely American philosophy usually labeled “Pragmatism.” This is also the title of one of his major books.   He shares this title with his compatriots, Pierce and Dewey, with some qualifications.  He presented himself  as an empiricist, a scientist, and a philosopher,  but he had profound differences with the English empiricist tradition.  Hence his radical empiricism.  James also found himself at odds with idealism, both of the historical variety, Hegel, and with that of his contemporary, Bradley, among others of the home grown variety, Royce. Rationalism, of whatever nationality, was always subject to his strong criticism; but in all theses instances his criticism was  not necessarily for the same reasons a traditional empiricist might have been critical.

James’s Essays In Radical Empiricism is a late work in which he attempts to pull together and define his own brand of Empiricism in  detailed argument and vivid language;  and, where we find many of his arguments against other empiricists and idealists. It is in these essays that he introduces the startling idea of “pure experience”  and gives a provocative title to the lead  essay, Does Consciousness Exist?  James’s postulate of “pure experience” enabled him to eliminate all the dualisms that had been haunting philosophy since Decartes and positively to provide new acount of consciousness, knowledge, activity, emotions and aesthetic objects.   However, these essays do not represent the systematic philosophy that he had hoped to have completed before he died.  They were assembled and published after his death and represent articles he had written in the last decade or so of his life. This article is analytic and expository rather than critical, attempting first to pull together aspects of a cetral but difficult concept.

James’s radical empiricism can be fairly represented by three principles found neatly articulated  in the opening pages of his  “The Meaning of Truth”; where he states that “Radical empiricism consists first of a postulate, next of a statement of fact, and finally of a generalized conclusion.

(1)      [The postulate] The only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience

(2)      [The statement of fact] 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

(3)      [The generalized conclusion]  Therefore the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience.” (MT, Author’s Preface)

Number one is easily recognizable as a common  empiricist position.  However, number two marks a radical departure because James is asserting his rejection of the foundational atomism of traditional empiricism.  He here recognizes the fact that we have cognitive access not only to disjunctive relations (atomism) but also to conjunctive relations.  Traditional empiricism flatly denies this.  In number three he not only makes the factual assertion that conjunctive relations are directly experienced, but also asserts the general principle that relations account for all the continuity we experience and are in fact every bit as important as things in the makeup of experience and reality.  (For example, the traditional difficulty that empiricist like Hume had with the “self” is no longer there for James since continuity is directly experienced and binds past to the present and projects future activity or goals.) James also distinguishes his empiricism in oppositions to rationalism when he asserts  the importance of parts, of individuals in experience, while rationalists tend to focus on wholes that typically evolve into abstractions:  “Empiricism, on the contrary, lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, or the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the universal as an abstraction. (ERE p 41).”

Having these principles neatly summarized will help in the task of understanding the difficult but key notion in his radical empiricism, namely, “pure experience,” but they can in no way contain the complexity and breadth of his philosophy.  Perhaps the most difficult task in understanding this idea is that of reconciling all the various characterizations James gives to the notion of  pure experience.  One of the main philosophical tasks James undertook was to ride the landscape of distorting dualisms: body/mind, thought/feeling, subject/ object, consciousness/content among the major ones.  He saw his principle of pure experience as abolishing these dualities by a functional analysis of experience.  However, he also sought to build an empiricist ontology on the basis of pure experience and sometimes these two goals allowed confusion.  The following are various ways in which James characterized “pure experience”:

(1)      No event is simply mental or physical but only functionally one or the other as it is related to a prior or later event in a specific way; (ERE p 123)

(2)      All sensible events are made up of the same neutral stuff – pure experience (ERE p 123-4) and

(3)      For every sensible event there are sequences of events such that it qualifies as mental in some of them and physical in others.  (ERE p 124)

The main thrust of the first postulate is epistemological because it undercuts Cartesian dualism by reducing so called mental and physical substances to functions of an epistemological subject who simply takes an experience as having certain properties in relation to a certain context to function a certain way – mental like or physical like according to the specific end in view.

The second postulate is the core ontological principle describing the absolute primal constituent of reality, i.e., a “neutral stuff” called  “pure experience.”  It is not possible to speak of an event as either mental or physical in itself but only functionally in relation to other events of a certain description.  Pure experience is neutral.  This poses a problem for James in his attempt to explain pure experience, since any statement about it cannot, by this account, take a mental or material predicate.  This is where other less circumspect statements he makes help us fill in our understanding, while at the same time raising new difficulties.  He uses a variety of colorful language to help bridge the gap between this pure experience and our common everyday experience.

The following are some of the various ways James attempts to describe pure experience while as much as admitting that it is futile since language inevitably misrepresents it:

First, “Experience in its immediacy seems perfectly fluent.  The active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us, is self-luminous and suggests no paradoxes….When the reflective intellect gets at work, however, it discovers incomprehensibilities in the flowing process.  Distinguishing its elements and parts, it gives them separate names, and what it thus disjoins it can not easily put together. ERE p 92”  A reader might legitimately wonder what exactly he refers to by that “active sense of living which we all enjoy….” before our reflective intellect gets busy and mucks everything up by giving names to things.   In a way it sounds like life might be in certain privileged nurseries, or possibly in a dream of Wordworthian tinged childhood.  Moreover, there is no “self” to enjoy anything here, but only a retroactive projection from the passing moment of experience to what it must have been like.  A bit later he is a little more specific.  ‘Pure experience’ is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. This formulation moves in the direction of an ontological category rather than the description of a psychological state.  James is struggling toward a metaphysical first principle, a simple “given” that is a foundation for all later determinations and psychological states, such as the “stream of consciousness” which he elaborated on in his Principles of Psychology.

Secondly,  James refers to special and/or unique states:  “Only new-born babes, or men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats; full of both oneness and manyness… Pure experience in this state is but another name for feeling or sensation. (ERE p 95)”      In fact what James is referring to here is a state in which there is no self-consciousness, only pure sensation.  There is no consciousness of something that would imply a split revealing a world for a subject.  The experience is one of unity, of no differentiation between self and other.  This is the ground zero state in which organism and environment are united.   The implication is that this must be either be a brief developmental stage of human growth or a state induced by accidental injury or by artificial means, drugs, hypnosis, etc.  As the development of this description continues there is a suggestion that the energetic flux itself has a dual reference; or, in fact, that it is that other pole that is the source of determinate sensations, e.g., red, hot, soft etc..  While it is mainly an attempt to capture in words that original experience of pure sensation, the words echo a complementary reality, an energetic other:

“The great continua of time [and] space…[that] envelope everything, betwixt them, and flow together without interfering.  The things that they envelope come as separate in some ways and as continuous in others.  Some sensations coalesce with some ideas, and others are irreconcilable.  Qualities compenetrate one space, or exclude each other form it.  They cling together persistently in groups that move as units, or else they separate.  Their changes are abrupt or discontinuous; and their kinds resemble or differ; and, as they do so, they fall into either even or irregular series  (ERE p.94-5).”

Thus, the reality that provides the “material” for the pure sensation (which we’ve learned is the “literal sense” of “pure experience” is “full both of oneness and manyness…changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity, can be caught.”  There is a problem here that James does not address directly but an answer can be teased out of the text and this is the question of how much of the determinations come to us as “kinds” or identities of one sort or another and how much of the determination is due to the “conceptual categories” reflecting human interest.  In what other way does James characterize this reality that stands as “other” to sensation, what sensation is of or what causes sensation?  This is an issue that must be addressed after all the various senses of “pure experience have been identified.

In a third sense of “pure experience” James focuses on the meaning of that present moment of sensation that is identified with it.  He recognizes that this present moment (pure sensation) is in a sense a construct (or reconstruction)  since it is past before consciousness can even take note of it, but it cannot be identified solely with the past either since then change, passing into the future would be a problem.  The only conclusion is that “pure experience” is an active process and that any “take” on it is an abstraction made for a specific purpose.  “Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges.  That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can not, I contend be denied.  Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected… we live prospectively as well as retrospectively.  It is ‘of’ the past, inasmuch as it comes expressly as the past’s continuation; it is ‘of’ the future in so far as the future, when it comes, will have continued it. (ERE p 87)”

What is missing here is the role that consciousness plays in the unfolding of pure experience.  For those in that special category (new born and those whose conscious states are altered by accident or drugs) James allows access to pure experience in the literal sense, although they are not self-consciousness during this “experience.” The rest of us have to rely on consciousness and verbalization for experience.  “But the flux no sooner comes than it tends to fill itself with emphases, and these salient parts become identified and fixed and abstracted: so experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and nouns, and prepositions and conjunctions.  Its purity is only a relative term, meaning the proportional amount of unverbalized sensation which it still embodies. (ERE p 94 )”  He discusses the tension between the state of pure sensation and the practical demands of life in this way:

“If now we ask why we must thus translate experience from a more

concrete or pure into a more intellectualized form, filling it with ever

more abounding conceptual distinctions…..The naturalist answer is

that the environment kills as well as sustains us, and the tendency of

raw experience [note the use of “raw” in place of “pure” here] to

extinguish the experient himself is lessened just in the degree in which

the elements in it that have a practical bearing upon life are analyzed

out of the continuum and verbally fixed and coupled together…Had

pure experience, the naturalist says, always been perfectly healthy,

there would never have arisen the necessity of isolating or verbalizing

any of its terms.  We should just have experienced inarticulately and

un-intellectually enjoyed.”

This structure between the experiencing self and the world is completely natural. As a common sense or direct realist, James is committed to the existence of the material world.  Yet the question arises:  Do our “intellectual forms” and “conceptual distinctions” and our “verbalizations” merely grab onto already determined things separating out those that are most important to human survival and well-being or do we in some fashion (idealistic?) also constitute things with these intellectual  forms?  There is no doubt that for James all concepts are functional constructs based on sensation or, more specifically, on perception.  Reality is flux and our concepts freeze its movement according to some interest or end in view.

In addition, there is an important question about whether James has confused  or run together the ordinary sense of material reality with a metaphysical concept of matter as an individuating principle and/or a principle of pure potentiality in the Aristotelian sense.  At one point in the Essays James emphasizes that in his first Essay (Does Consciousness Exist) he tried to show that thought and things “are absolutely homogeneous” with regard to their “material.”  He goes on to state that:   “There is no thought-stuff different from thing-stuff…but the same identical piece of ‘pure experience’ (which was the name I gave to the materia prima of everything) can stand alternately for a ‘fact of consciousness’ or for physical reality, according as it is taken in one context or another. (ERE p 138) “   This emphasizes his anti-dualist position that the difference between thought and material things is not substantial but only functional, while seeming to assert the independence of an ontological principle of matter.  On the other hand, at several points he indicates that experience or, rather, “pure experience” reveals a reality that is fundamentally chaotic.  This would give more weight to the “constituting” function of concepts in ordering experience for the survival and betterment of the human being.  In considering a static view of the universe James retorts that…”the universe we live in is more chaotic than this… (ERE p 141)”  Moreover, he continues:

“…the popular notion that these experiences [affectional] are intuitively given as purely inner facts is hasty and erroneous; and …their ambiguity illustrates beautifully my central thesis that subjectivity and objectivity are affairs not of what an experience is aboriginally made of, but of its classification.  Classifications depend on our temporary purposes.  For certain purposes it is convenient to take things in one set of relations, for other purposes in another set. (ERE p 141)”

Although this statement appears to favor a constructivist role for cognition vis-à-vis the world of pure experience, “taking things in one set of relations” is not identical with constituting these things, James’s realism on this issue needs further clarification.  In another statement we find:  “Taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic.  No one single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it. (ERE p 46)”

In another context, however, James gives an account suggesting a cosmological evolution, in contrast to the epistemological frame of the former example. Here “chaos’ is the metaphysical starting point of a story of speculative anthropology:

“If one were to make an evolutionary construction of how a lot of originally chaotic pure experience (my emphasis) became gradually differentiated into an orderly inner and outer world, the whole theory would turn upon one’s success in explaining how or why the quality of an experience, once active, could become less so, and, from being an energetic attribute in some cases, elsewhere lapse into the status of an inert or merely internal ‘nature.’  This would be ‘evolution’ of the psychical from the bosom of the physical, in which the aesthetic, moral and otherwise emotional experiences would represent a half-way stage. (ERE p38)”

It becomes increasingly clear though that epistemology and ontological are intertwined in the account of pure experience and need to be separated at least for the sake of explanation.  The whole question of James’s epistemology, the nature of percepts, concepts, knowledge, belief, truth, science etc., is something to take up in the second part of this essay.

Book by James consulted for this article:   Essays In Radical Empiricism; The Meaning of Truth; A Pluralistic Universe; Pragmatism.

Secondary Sources: The Divided Self of William James by Richard M. Gale


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