In the Preface to Pragmatism James asserted, “There is no logical connexion between pragmatism ... and radical empiricism. The latter stands on its own feet. One may entirely reject it and still be a pragmatist.”1 In 1904 and 1905, prior to the presentation of the popular lectures on pragmatism, James had published a series of articles in the Journal of Philosophy, and in the very year Pragmatism appeared, he had collected these articles together in an envelope on which he inscribed the title “Essays in Radical Empiricism.” However, James never published them together in a single volume. Instead, he followed Pragmatism with the volume, The Meaning of Truth, which contains only some of the essays assembled in the envelope and which omits such basic articles as “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” and “A World of Pure Experience.” Indeed, the publication of Essays in Radical Empiricism was a posthumous affair, executed by the greatest interpreter of James’s philosophy, his biographer Ralph Barton Perry.
In the Preface to The Meaning of Truth James linked radical empiricism more firmly to pragmatism than he had done in the earlier work. He claimed that “the establishment of the pragmatist theory of truth is a step of first-rate importance in making radical empiricism prevail.”2 But he did not alter his judgment that while pragmatism is an independent doctrine, radical empiricism is a dependent one, logically supported by pragmatism. From the perspective of later philosophical developments James’s judgment appears to have been mistaken. For radical empiricism has proved to be a durable philosophical doctrine, permeating other movements such as natural realism and logical empiricism, quite independently of pragmatism.
James employed the term radical empiricism in two senses. In its broad sense, radical empiricism designates a philosophic method, or attitude, not too unlike pragmatism. In this broad sense the term is used in the Preface to Will to Believe. Here James described his method as empiricism in that it “is contented to regard its most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience;” as radical “because it treats the doctrine of monism itself as an hypothesis ....”3 Thus before James had arrived at his formulation of pragmatism as the method which settles metaphysical disputes by reference to the practical consequences of the disputed concepts and principles, he had applied the radical empiricist method to metaphysical doctrines such as monism. In effect he regarded metaphysical propositions as empirical hypotheses offered tentatively and subject to test by experience.
The technical sense of radical empiricism subsumes its broad sense. As James put the matter in the Preface to The Meaning of Truth: “Radical empiricism consists (1) first of a postulate, (2) next of a statement of fact, (3) and finally of a generalized conclusion”4 Let us consider each in turn.
The postulate of radical empiricism holds that “the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience. (Things of an unexperienceable nature may exist ad libitum, but they form no part of the material for philosophic debate.)”5 In James’s judgment, “To be radical, 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.”6 Radical empiricism, he was careful to note, is not a metaphysical claim that transempirical objects are intrinsically absurd. Rather it is a “methodological postulate,”7 or, as he sometimes put it, “the principle of pure experience.”8
As a methodological postulate, radical empiricism does not merely refer all concepts and theories to experience for their meaning and verification; it demands that resort be made to particular experiences. James often compared rationalists as men of principles with empiricists as men of facts, and he sided with the latter; for James distrusted universals and favored particulars, and principles are universals, facts particulars. Empiricism, he insisted, remands us to the particular facts of experience, to sensation. It maintains that “the deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience.”9
James’s version of radical empiricism as a methodological postulate is, no doubt, a sophistication of the empiricism latent in Anglo-American philosophy. The immediate ancestor of the postulate, however, was not Locke, Hume, Berkeley, or Mill; it was the forgotten British metaphysician, Shadworth Hodgson, who exerted immeasurable influence on the formation of James’s thought. Hodgson had held “that realities are only what they are ‘known as.’”10 James borrowed this inelegant formula to denote his own procedure in dealing with alleged transcendent entities or principles. Thus he could ask: “What would the self-transcendency affirmed to exist in advance of all experiential mediation or termination, be known-as P”11 The principle of pure experience, radical empiricism as a methodological postulate, contends in effect that realities are what they are “experienced as.”
As a methodological postulate radical empiricism has much in common with pragmatism.
The pragmatic method starts from the postulate that there is no difference of truth that doesn’t make a difference of fact somewhere; and it seeks to determine the meaning of all differences of opinion by making the discussion hinge as soon as possible upon some practical or particular issue.12
Radical empiricism asserts:
Nothing shall be admitted as fact ... except what can be experienced at some definite time by some experient; and for every feature of fact ever so experienced, a definite place must be found somewhere in the final system of reality. In other words: Everything real must be experienceable somewhere, and every kind of thing experienced must somewhere be real.13
But radical empiricism is more than a methodological postulate: it is also a statement of fact. “The 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 things themselves.”14 Adherence to radical empiricism as a methodological postulate discloses the fact that relations are experienced. “Any kind of relation experienced,” James stressed, “must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.”15
Prepositions, copulas, and conjunctions, “is,” “isn’t,” “then,” “before,” “in,” “on,” “besides,” “between,” “next,” “like,” “unlike,” “as,” “but,” flower out of the stream of pure experience, the stream of concretes or the sensational stream, as naturally as nouns and adjectives do, and they melt into it again as fluidly when we apply them to a new portion of the stream.16
James’s acknowledgment of the reality of conjunctive relations marks the main departure of radical empiricism from traditional empiricism. For traditional empiricism “has always shown a tendency to do away with the connections of things, and to insist most on the disjunctions,”17 as Locke’s ideas, Berkeley’s subjectivism, and Hume’s distinct existences, with the reduction of causation to habitual sequence, all pulverize experience into discrete pieces devoid of conjunctive relations.
At bottom radical empiricism demonstrates how much alike traditional rationalism and traditional empiricism are in their misconception of the nature of experience. Both take experience to be intrinsically a mess of discrete qualitative elements. Because experience exhibits degrees of unity and continuity which traditional empiricism could not explain by means of the psychological principles of the association of ideas and other poorly defined habits of the mind, rationalism historically seized the opportunity to inject its own doctrine of a transcendental Self which imposes order upon the chaos of experience by its a priori synthesizing activities and by applying a priori categories. But if, as James contended, experience already contains within itself the conjunctions requisite to whatever unity and continuity it exhibits, there is no need to presuppose transcendent entities, principles, and activities.
Although James’s radical empiricism advances a conception of experience different from the conception which both rationalists and empiricists before him held in common, he nevertheless arrived at his revolutionary conception within the empirical tradition. As he pointed out in his 1884 article on “Some Omissions in Introspective Psychology,” later incorporated in the chapter on “The Stream of Thought” in the Principles of Psychology, the employment of the empiricists’ introspective method, liberated from the fixed notions fostered by ordinary language, discloses the connections in experience as well as the disconnections. Just as the traditional empiricists are guilty of neglecting the conjunctions in experience, the rationalists are equally guilty of ignoring the disjunctions. By contrast with both erroneous positions, radical empiricism “is fair to both the unity and the disconnection. It finds no reason for treating either as illusory. It allots to each its definite sphere of description, and agrees that there appear to be actual forces at work which tend, as time goes on, to make the unity greater.”18
The generalized conclusion to which radical empiricism leads is strictly metaphysical. It is that in the light of the postulate and of the fact, therefore, “the parts of experience hold together next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no extraneous trans-empirical connective support, but possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure.”19 James never fully elucidated this conclusion, although he took it up again in A Pluralistic Universe, but in less technical form than he himself desired. The best pages of Essays in Radical Empiricism deal, then, not so much with the formulation of a metaphysics as with the application of the method of pure experience to particular topics.
Certainly, James’s most striking application of the method of radical empiricism in the Essays appears in the revolutionary article, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” As we noted above, the answer to the question is that consciousness exists not as an entity but as a function between parts of experience. This thesis concerning the existence of consciousness has crucial implications not only for psychology but also for metaphysics. Once and for all the dualism of subject as mental substance and of object as physical substance is banished. Consciousness is a relation between parts of experience. Experience is no longer conceived to be split into two separate orders of substance. There is, James asserted, “only one primal stuff in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed;” this stuff he called “pure experience,”20 the materia prima of everything.21 James did not mean, how-ever, that there is a general stuff of which experience at large is made. “There are as many stuffs as there are ‘natures’ in the things experienced.”22 “Experience is merely a collective name for all these sensible natures ....”23
The central point of the pure experience theory is “that ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ are names for two groups into which we sort experiences according to the way in which they act upon neighbors.”24 On the inner side is consciousness, which is but a relation between parts of experience. The object of consciousness is the same object that exists in the physical world apart from consciousness. As an object of consciousness, it is a part of experience that fits into the flow of thought. As an object in the physical world, it remains a part of pure experience, but one that is causally effective in relation to other physical objects. Thus the same object may belong to different contexts: the context of a particular consciousness and the context of the physical world.
James’s theory is not without difficulties, and he valiantly sought to resolve them. At the level of perceptual experience the identification of the object of consciousness with the physical object is epistemologically the position designated as naive realism. Mental percept and physical thing are one. However attractive this simple position may be, it cannot long withstand the critical objections that perceptual errors may occur which can in no plausible way be identical with physical objects and that, even in veridical perceptions, the percepts of the same observer at different angles of perception or distances from the object differ, as yet more sharply do the percepts of different observers. In meeting these objections, James abandoned naive realism for perspectival realism. The varying percepts are related to a single object when they are focused on a common location in space. “The percepts themselves may be shown to differ: but if each of us be asked to point out where his percept is, we point to an identical spot.”25 The theory of pure experience is hinged, at the perceptual level, to Space as a matrix of fixed loci.
Another problematic area in James’s radical empiricism may be discerned in his account of conceptual knowledge. In some of his earliest articles which later made up chapters in The Principles of Psychology, James had taught that perceptual experience is a flux out of which attention carves concepts. In his last work, Some Problems of Philosophy, James devoted Chapters Four to Six to delineating the role and nature of concepts in contrast with percepts. Whereas percepts are continuous with the flux of consciousness, mean nothing but what they immediately are, are present in a much-at-once, which contains innumerable aspects and characters, with duration and intensity; concepts are discrete, have meanings beyond what is immediately given and are pristine, self-identical, timeless slices of the flux of experience. “Each concept means just what it singly means, and nothing else ....”26
Conceptual knowledge is knowledge about (savoir) and is mediate; perceptual knowledge is immediate knowledge by acquaintance (connaître). On the whole James undertook to account for conceptual knowledge in terms of perceptual experience. In perceptual knowledge, as we have seen, the self-same experience is counted twice over in different contexts, in the mental context and in the physical context. Conceptual knowledge is, however, not similarly explained. Since conception involves a more complicated situation than does perceptual it may be explained in two ways. In one type of explanation, concept and percept are treated as “two pieces of actual experience belonging to the same subject, with definite tracts of conjunctive transitional experience between them,”27 such that the meaning of the concept consists of the percepts to which it leads. In the second type of explanation, “the (conceptually) known is a possible experience either of that subject or another, to which the said conjunctive transitions would lead, if sufficiently prolonged.”28 As James interpreted conceptual knowledge in the Essays in Radical Empiricism, it is always reducible to pieces of actual experience belonging to the same subject. Conceptual knowledge, in other words, is a way of moving through parts of experience until the particular intended percepts are encountered. This interpretation of conceptual knowledge as mediate but reducible to immediate experience is both pragmatic and radically empirical. Concepts are instruments for getting about in experience; their meanings are the sensible particulars to which they lead.
However, James’s theory of concepts has another side, which bursts out of the nominalistic framework of Pragmatism because it concedes that conceptual meanings themselves have a kind of independent being. This side may be designated critical realism, and it has received its clearest statement in Some Problems of Philosophy. Continuing the pragmatic theme, James emphasized the three distinct parts concepts play in human life. First, they are practical. “They steer us practically every day, and provide an immense map of relations among the elements of things, which, though not now, yet on some possible future occasion, may help to steer us practically ....”29 Second, they are creative. “They bring new values into our perceptual life, they reanimate our wills, and make our action turn upon new points of emphasis ....”30 Finally, they comprise a separate order of being, almost Platonic in character. For as James went on to say:
The map which the mind frames out of them is an object which possesses, when once it has been framed, an independent existence. It suffices all by itself for purposes of study. The ‘eternal’ truths it contains would have to be acknowledged even were the world of sense annihilated.31
Naturally James shied away from the metaphysical implications of a separate realm of essences or of eternal truths. He was quick to argue that “concepts are secondary formations, inadequate, and only ministerial,” and that “they falsify as well as omit, and make the flux impossible to understand.”32 Nevertheless, James’s theory of concepts contained a suggestion which critical realists, such as George Santayana, were to elaborate into the metaphysical realm of essence.
Radical empiricism was never a precisely defined theory, but it was a fertile one. Whereas it is the natural predecessor of the logical empiricism that prevails today in American thought, it also germinated the varieties of realism, whether naive or perspectival or critical, which have flourished in recent decades.