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Two Reflections on William James, Duality and Radical Empiricism

By Anonymous


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These reflections on William James (1842-1909) explore how his radical empiricism was an approach to the duality of concsiousness and objects of consciousness. In a nutshell, James' radical empiricism was an attempt to account for the world using as building blocks only what arises in expereince. Motivated partly as an answer to F.H. Bradley's (1846-1924) absolute Idealism (only mental entities are real), James' work on these issues is closely related to the issue of solipsism and the existence of other minds. My two reflections in are based on readings of two of James' essays: "Does Consciousness Exist?" and "A World of Pure Experience," which are the principal works in James' book Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).

Here's a line from James: "The instant field of the present is always experience in its 'pure' state, plain unqualified actuality, a simple that, as yet undifferentiated into thing and thought, and only virtually classifiable as objective fact or as someone's opinion about fact." By the way, James knew Swami Vivekenanda.

One interesting note that arises in theese reflections is that in trying to account for the world, and reconstruct the world from the phenomenal, empirical data, James runs into the problem of solipsism. On one hand, he wants to allow as constructional material only what occurs in experience. On the other hand, he wants to reconstruct the notion of other minds in common-sense terms. These two projects generate some tension, and issues I discuss in the Second Reflection below.

First Reflection - non-technical    (Go Back to Top)

James's anti-dualistic aims include that of identifying a kind of fundamental "stuff" on which the subject-object distinction is superimposed. Given this goal, his choice of the expression "pure experience" as a label for that stuff is infelicitous. One can argue that, at least given ordinary linguistic conventions, experiences presuppose an experiencer. James, however, takes his pure experiences to exist prior to any sort of subject of experience. One might defend him by pointing out that there is nothing inherently wrong with flying in the face of linguistic convention, as long as one replaces with new meanings the conventional meanings of the words one is using in novel ways. There is, however, a deeper, related problem that is not so easily addressed. This problem emerges in his strategy for avoiding what he takes to be solipsism.

Before we can examine this problem, some stage setting will be necessary. According to James's conception of radical empiricism, the philosopher should not accept anything that cannot be experienced. This prohibition underlies his claim that consciousness does not exist. From a purely phenomenologial point of view, there is no basis for claiming its existence; the transcendental ego, the conscious witness of experience, is simply not to be found in experience. Nor, from James's point of view, is matter.

In rejecting matter as well as consciousness, James parts company with both realism and idealism as they are traditionally conceived. He is particularly interested in dispensing with the British idealists' conception of an absolute subject. On the other hand, he does try to reinterpret or reconstruct the notions of subjectivity and objectivity, and even the notion of a mind. The heart of his reconstruction lies in his conception of a context.

James' strategy is to make subjectivity and objectivity relational. The same experience, from his point of view, can be both subjective and objective. What makes it subjective is that it is located in a context made up of certain other experiences--such as thoughts, memories, and emotions--which we commonsensically think of as mental. What makes it objective is that it is embedded in a context made up of certain other experiences, percepts, that we commonsensically interpret as being perceptions of material objects. The same experience can be embedded in more than one context, just as, in a striking image, James notes that the same point can lie on more than one line.

James also employs the notion of a field in this connection. For James, there is only the field of pure experiences, which include thoughts, feelings, memories, perceptions, and so on. This field can be divided up into subfields in various ways. The same experience can be located in different subfields. Along with feelings of exhiliration, an Empire State Building-percept is located in what for James is the subjective subfield that constitutes my mind. The same percept, I take it, is also located in an objective subfield that consists of other perceptions, but no feelings or memories. But these subfields are just the results of imposing boundaries on sets of experiences. This is the sense in which, for James, the subject-object distinction is superimposed on the nondual stuff of pure experience.

Now one might ask what or who imposes these boundaries. I presume James's reply would be that certain thoughts do this. Thoughts, for James, are experiences, unlike the transcendental subject he rejects. And he speaks of thoughts as knowers. His conception of knowledge is itself a relational one, but we don't need to go into it here. The main point, on this interpretation, is that the objective and subjective worlds are for James simply the product of thoughts.

Now we are in a position to return to the problem I mentioned earlier, the problem that arises in relation to James's treatment of solipsism. In what I have so far said about James's view there is nothing to prohibit the same experience from entering into more than one mind. Nevertheless, James is still sufficiently attached to common sense to think that, at least as far as percepts are concerned, this never quite happens. His percepts retain something of what commonsensically we would think of as the perspectival character of perception. Thus, in "A World of Pure Experience," James asks, "Is natural realism, permissible in logic, refuted then by empirical fact? Do our minds have no object in common after all?"

James is concerned here with what he takes to be Berkeley's predicament, that of a "congeries of solipsisms," as he puts it, in which "our minds" never "meet in the same." Now James's reply is extraordinary. Although he had asked whether our minds have any object in common, his immediate answer is, "Yes, they certainly have Space in common." I say this answer is extraordinary because space is generally not taken to be an object. Nor is it at all clear that we have an experience of space. In fact, one can argue that space is no more to be found in experience than consciousness--a point that takes on a certain resonance against the background of the spatial metaphors that are sometimes used in relation to consciousness.

If we do not have an experience of space, then James's radical empiricism precludes him from being able to appeal to it as he does. On the other hand, James might well claim that we do have an experience of it. His insistence that we don't just experience objects, but the relations between them, could be seen extending to spatial relations. But to think in these terms about the current problem won't help, because spatial relations between "my" percepts and spatial relations between "yours" may not be the same. And what James wants is for our minds to overlap in some way. (Besides it isn't clear that we do have an experience of the relation of, say, betweenness.)

James writes, "The percepts themselves may be shown to differ; but if each of us be asked to point out where his percept [of Memorial Hall at Harvard] is, we point to the same place." This remark resembles the common sense realist claim that if we're asked to point to Memorial Hall, we will point to the same place. But James cannot avail himself of the space of the common sense realist. A space containing physical objects is not available to him. In what space is there a "place" to which we can both point in James's system? I doubt that James can answer this question satisfactorily.

Second Reflection - a bit technical

In my first comment, I challenged James's radical empiricism on the grounds that his way of dealing with solipsism by talking about a shared space is incompatible with his stricture against admitting anything that isn't experienced. Within a mind (qua his reconstruction of minds as in effect fields of certain sorts of experiences) there may well be experiences of spatial relations. But since James doesn't seem to think that these relations exist apart from their relata, we are not in a position to conclude that the space associated with one mind is identical with that associated with another.

Now, interestingly enough, Russell, who was familiar with James's work, and who, like James, was a phenomenalist, grappled with this very problem. In "The Relation of Sense-Data to Physics" (published in 1914, about 10 years after James published "Does Consciousness Exist?"), Russell outlines a procedure for constructing what he calls a "perspective space" from the "private spaces" that are in his view associated with individual minds. This perspective space, in his view, is the space of physics. One can think of it as a three dimensional space augmented with other dimensions as follows. Associated with each point in the initial three dimensionsal space is a perspective, and each of these perspectives is itself three dimensional.

Russell's phenomenalist constructional project received two significant elaborations: one is Carnap's Aufbau, his "Logical Stucture of the World;" the second, developing Carnap's strategies in a technical way, is Goodman's The Structure of Appearance. Quine's critique of Carnap's effort in "Two Dogma's of Empiricism" was the American nail in the constructional project's coffin--the British nail is Austin's Sense and Sensibilia, and the Austrian nail is Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. But what seems to be overlooked even in America is the fact that the roots of the project lie in James.

Whether or not these critiques of the constructional project are fully adequate is not an easy question to answer. But even if the constructional project could be sucessfully carried out, it is not obvious that it would help James. For James's radical empiricism prohibits him from admitting anything that cannot be experienced. And it is far from clear that the Russellian space of perspectives described earlier, or its heirs, can be experienced. Russell and his followers were not radical empiricists, so they did have to face this problem; they were much more willing than James to accept hypothetical constructs.

Contemporary American attempts to revive James--such as Richard Rorty's and Hillary Putnam's -- have focused more on his pragmatism than on his radical empiricism. To the extent that these two facets of his philosophy can be separated, neo-pragmatism need not trouble itself with the problem we have been considering.

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