William James’s view of the world through the lenses of Pragmatism and Radical Empiricism is overlaid by Jaron’s ideas.
I came to study William James about five years ago. I first encountered James back in 1976-1977 while I was working on my BA in Religious Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
We were assigned James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience. It was there that I first came across the idea of mystics and mystical experience.
It was only in 2015/2016 that I had ventured into the used bookstore Moe’s that I came across a full set of William James’s books, including some of the major secondary sources. That began my intensive study of James. I have read all of his books and re-read a select few of them two or three times. I have been accumulating and reading many published secondary texts that have reviewed and explored James’s writings. I find him to be clear, insightful, and an extra-ordinary thinker who was ahead of his time.
Alfred North Whitehead OM FRS FBA (born: 15 February 1861 – Died: 30 December 1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher. He is best known as the defining figure of the philosophical school known as process philosophy, which today has found application to a wide variety of disciplines, including ecology, theology, education, physics, biology, economics, and psychology, among other areas.
In his early career, Whitehead wrote primarily on mathematics, logic, and physics. His most notable work in these fields is the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910–1913), which he wrote with former student Bertrand Russell. Principia Mathematica is considered one of the twentieth century's most important works in mathematical logic and placed 23rd in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the twentieth century by Modern Library.
He later became interested in the history of philosophy and scientific endeavors and well as philosophy in general.
In Whitehead’s book Modes of Thought, (Macmillian, 1938) within the first chapter, "Importance." Lecture One, he wrote this concerning the importance of William James:
“In Western Literature there are four great thinkers, whose services to civilized thought rest largely upon their achievements in philosophical assemblage; though each of them made important contributions to the structure of philosophic system. These men are Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, and William James.
Plato grasped the importance of mathematical system; but his chief fame rests upon the wealth of profound suggestions scattered throughout his dialogues, suggestions half smothered by the archaic misconceptions of the age in which he lived. Aristotle systematized as he assembled. He inherited from Plato, imposing his own systematic structures.
Leibniz inherited two thousand years of thought. He really did inherit more of the varied thoughts of his predecessors than any man before or since. His interests ranged from mathematics (pg 4) to divinity, and from divinity to political philosophy, and from political philosophy to physical science. These interests were backed by profound learning. There is a book to be written, and its title should be, 'The Mind of Leibniz'.
Finally, there is William James, essentially a modern man. His mind was adequately based upon the learning of the past. But the essence of his greatness was his marvellous sensitivity to the ideas of the present. He knew the world in which he lived, by travel, by personal relations with its leading men, by the variety of his own studies. He systematized; but above all he assembled. His intellectual life was one protest against the dismissal of experience in the interest of system. He had discovered intuitively the great truth with which modern logic is now wrestling.”
I agree with Whitehead's recognition of the importance of James. James was a genius, a deep and thoughtful thinker who tried to describe the big picture of humanly conceived and experienced reality as well as offering an understanding of how we think, feel, and experience that reality. He literally wrote the textbook on Psychology for the United States with his two-volume text The Principles of Psychology. He laid the foundation for a new school of thought which was inspired by but diverged significantly from, the writings of Charles Sanders Pierce. This newly developed system James called Pragmatism. James also laid another system of thought which involved the idea that James called ‘Pure Experience’ and it was the centerpiece of his conception of Radical Empiricism. James in print stated that these two systems should be evaluated on their own terms, but I, and others, see them as a unified and coherent vision.
James did not write in a systematic and didactic style akin to Aristotle, James wrote in a style more reminiscent of Plato. Hence for many systematic philosophic thinkers then tend to dismiss or overlook James and instead go for Dewey or Pierce to discover an understanding of Pragmatism. This is a mistake. James laid out a clear system for those who are willing to read clearly and are open to unlocking seemingly contradictory statements by recognizing the subtle play and importance of context in James’s presentations.
James understood that we believe what we need to in order to live a life that is meaningful for us. We will believe things on the basis of faith and trust. That the people we come to trust will tell us the truth. That they have checked things out and are relaying to us true facts about the way the world actually is. We expect our beliefs to match how the world actually is in reality. We make descriptions of our world which are metaphorically like making a map of the Territory that we are exploring.
Humans make and make use of static finite maps of the infinite dynamic Territory. I use the term maps to refer to any symbol and/or symbol system that humans make as a result of their interaction with the Territory. Maps attempt to point towards, describe and understand the workings of things and events experienced via the senses.
James’s idea of Radical Empiricism was the recognition that we are both and always a part of the external physical world and an observer of that world. Everything we understand about ourselves and the world around us comes to us through our experiences of ourselves and the world which is facilitated by our body’s sensory systems.
The continuum of the Hard Sciences, such as physics, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and biology, etc., investigates and attempts to describe and understand inanimate objects and events, while the Soft Sciences, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, zoology, etc., investigates animate objects and events. The middle ground between the two roughly corresponds to the category of plants and other non-mobile living things. For each of them, the more grounded in sensory observations the closer to verifiable accuracy a map will be. The less grounded the statements are in observations the more speculation is involved and the more the possibility that the statements cannot be verified with complete accuracy.
The Hard Sciences create the most verifiable maps that point to the reality of how the world actually works. They make use of the most privileged human symbol system ever devised – mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. These systems point toward the very structure of reality.
The pragmatic success of science is found in the technologies that are the applications of the theories that sciences have to offer to explain the workings of the world. Technology usually is derived from the Hard Sciences. Technology proves that we can explain how the world actually works.
Now science is a process and ongoing attempt to describe and understand the world and ourselves. Scientific theories, the maps of the Territory that scientists make, result in conclusions that are called facts. A fact is something that is known and proven about the world using the tools available to the scientists in a specific time and place.
For example, Newton in 1704 could make a statement about the relationship of the light from the sun and come up with a result of a factual statement that was very specific. This statement could be verified and shown to be true using similar tools at that time. Now, with technological changes, a similar observation using the ideas described by Newton could be made today. The results should be different. This is what we should expect. New tools give us new insights. This does not mean that Newton made a false statement, it simply means that to believe today in Newton’s specific results would be to make a mistake. The principles that Newton laid out are still pragmatically useful. They still help to describe the world and its workings. It is just that Newton’s maps do not fully describe the Territory. No single map can ever do that. Every map needs to be verified continually. The difference in our results today is caused by the tools we have available today which Newton did not. So the results, the facts will change, but the principles, the theories of science at any time can still be useful guides to reality if they get results that can be verified using whatever tools we have at any specific point in time. To fail to understand this idea, that facts will change given the use of new tools, is to fail to understand how science works. The science of the past can guide us today if the theories, the maps, still point to how the world works despite the fact that the resulting numbers change with the use of new tools.
Another example. Before Copernicus’s heliocentric theory of the relationship of the Earth and the Sun, people using a model that placed the Earth at the center of the solar system were still able to get pragmatically useful results. Their understanding of the relationship of the Earth and the Sun was in error but this did not prevent them from predicting eclipses or the positions of the planets and the stars as they observed them in the sky. They were able to make observations of the sky to aid in successful navigation on the seas. Thus the science of the day was pragmatically useful despite being mistaken in the underlying description of how the world worked. Thus demonstrating that science can be a pragmatically accurate system to map out the Territory when it can be shown to be valid utilizing the tools available at a specific time and place. If you get the results that your scientific theories expect at the time that you make the observations then your theories are shown to be valid at that time. If the results you expect are not the results you get then that theory has been shown and proven to be in error and needs to be corrected.
A statement that cannot be verified is just an opinion or a faith statement. These do not necessarily describe or point to the reality of the external world. They can be important statements that can be inspiring and help to make life more meaningful. Hence James’s idea and defense of our beliefs in his essay entitled ‘The Will to Believe’.
Here are some quotes from some of William James’s writing to describe his ideas.
William James: Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907, Harvard University Press 1978 paperback edition
Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement’, as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality’. …Where our ideas cannot copy definitely their object, what does agreement with that object mean?
Pragmatism…asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, ‘what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experiential terms?
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. This is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known as.
This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation.
But what do the words verification and validation themselves pragmatically mean? They again signify certain practical consequences of the verified and validated idea.
Between the coercions of the sensible order and those of the ideal order, our minds is thus wedged tightly. Our ideas must agree with realities, be such realities concrete or abstract, be they facts or be they principles, under penalty of endless inconsistency and frustration.
True ideas lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse. …all processes must lead to the face of directly verifying sensible experiences somewhere, which somebody’s ideas have copied.
So, James is stating that there is a communal eternal reality that is available to us to experience via our bodily senses. What is true is events, objects, and interactions, processes that occur that someone, somewhere can experience with their sense or have done so. The foundation of all humanly experienced and conceived reality is based in and on our sensory experiences. Our bodies are directly part of reality and thus can directly offer information about reality. James coined the term ‘percepts’ for these events of experience.
Then there are ideas that describe those experiences, those events and explain them. These James referred to as concepts. Many of those concepts/ideas can themselves be verified. Then finally there are ideas that can make a difference in our lives that we cannot verify but they make a difference in how we live our lives. These are ideas of faith, religious ideas, and ideals. They make a difference to us and they thus have a sense of truth in their utility to assist us to lead meaningful lives.
This is where I derive my continuum of True and Truth, Fact and Faith. Something is true and is a fact if it can be verified. Something that inspires but can not be verified is a truth and a faith statement.
From William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, 1912, pp22-25, from the essay: Does ‘Consciousness Exist?’
“The two collections, first of its cohesive, and, second, of its loose associative, inevitably come to be contrasted. We call the first collection the system of external realities, in the midst of which the room, as ‘real’, exists; the other we call the stream of our internal thinking, in which, as a ‘mental image’, it for a moment floats. The room thus again gets counted twice over. It plays two different roles, being Gedanke and Gedachtes, the thought-of-an-object, and the object-thought-of, both in one; and all this without paradox or mystery, just as the same material thing may be both low and high, or small and great, or bad and good, because of its relations to opposite parts on an environing world.
As ‘subjective’ we say the experience represents; as ‘objective’ it is represented. What represents and what is represented is here numerically the same; but we must remember that no dualism of being represented and representing resides in the experience per se. In its pure state, or when isolated, there is no self-splitting of it into consciousness and what the consciousness is ‘of’. Its subjectivity and objectivity are functional attributes solely, realized only when the experience is ‘taken’ i.e., talked-of, twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively, by a new retrospective experience, of which that whole past complication now forms the fresh content.
The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure experience’. It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that. In this naïf immediacy it is of course valid; it is there, we act upon it, and the doubling of it in retrospection into a state of mind and a reality intended thereby, is just one of the acts. The ‘state of mind’, first treated explicitly, as such in retrospection, will stand corrected or confirmed, and the retrospective experience in its turn will get a similar treatment; but the immediate experience in its passing is always ‘truth’, practical truth, something to act on, at is own movement.
…Consciousness connotes a kind of external relation, and does not denote a special stuff or way of being. The peculiarity of our experiences, that they not only are, but are known, which their ‘conscious’ quality is invoked to explain, is better explained by their relations—these relations themselves being experiences—to one another.
Were I now to go on to treat of the knowing of perceptual by conceptual experiences, it would again prove to be an affair of external relations. One experience would be the knower, the other the reality known; and I could perfectly well define, without the notion of ‘consciousness’, what the knowing actually and practically amounts to—leaning towards, namely, and terminating-in percepts, through a series of transitional experiences which the world supplies.