James and Radical Empiricism

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This was originally written in ostensible critique of another student’s paper in a William James seminar; however, it makes little reference to it, and is fully understandable without reading the original piece.

Kayla Rebekah Lane does a sound job of presenting the overall thrust of William James’s “radical empiricism.” This is fascinating material, but challenging and full of gristle; my goal here will be to try to unite some of the disparate ideas that Lane has scrupulously catalogued for us, in the hope that it will answer some of her questions as well as our own.

Before beginning, we should make note of a vexing bit of background noise which necessarily runs inextricably through any such analysis of radical empiricism. Like nearly everything within the broader corpus of James’s pragmatic philosophy, there is a strong flavor of the pragmatic method itself, a sense of ideas being brought to bear chiefly in virtue of their explanatory qualities and only insofar as they are useful in shedding light on things. It is less clear exactly to what extent James intends his models and descriptions to actually describe a concrete nature of reality, in a sense closer to physics or even psychology. That is to say, in placing on the table a Jamesian claim like reality is constituted only in experience, the more forthright critics will ask immediately, “do you mean this as a useful conceptual model—even, as it were, a pragmatic one—or do you literally mean that, objectively and irrespective of utility, this is the nature of the universe?” The question is only partly coherent due to the way it ends up half-embedded in the claim itself, but the point comes across, and is legitimate; certainly the former, weaker claim (“merely a model”) would engender much less contention. The best answer seems to be, predictably, a pragmatic sort. Maybe this is “reality” or maybe it is merely how reality is “known-as”; since we can do no better than the latter anyway, the difference seems pointless to dwell upon, and we will go about our analysis as if it were as true as anything else.

That point set to rest, let me build upon Lane’s work to weld together a unified picture of Jamesian radical empiricism, using a single metaphor built up in several steps.

Step 1: Data

The rawest stuff of James’s reality, and the closest thing to an objective world, is what he calls “pure experience.” Whether or not this is exactly the same as what we would call absolute reality, it is critical to recognize that James views it as—at this stage—wholly universal, and hence objective. Whatever may fall under the umbrella of pure experience, and it is probably an infinite of things, there is no other umbrella to be had.

The analogy I would like to employ is the sort of data that a computer might store. Imagine a physical scene in our reality, such as the room in which I am presently seated. I perceive this arrangement of books and windows in my own particular way, but let us remove my perceptive role, and instead capture it digitally—with a digital camera atop my computer monitor. Software activates, hardware actuates, and information zooms into digital storage upon my hard drive.

What exactly is it that I have stored here? Well, it is information about the visual picture I presented to it, specifically what colors were present and in what arrangement, and it is “encoded” at least enough to represent this information in the form of digital bits. (It is visual information only, which is a failure of the metaphor; what we really want is all of the data there is to have about the physical room.) If I took this data and rendered it directly, for instance by printing it on paper, I would have a very long stream of absolutely meaningless 1s and 0s. It is “quasi-chaos”: not purely chaotic, as it does somehow meaningfully denote reality, but it lacks any comprehensible structure whatsoever (1).

This is about as close as we can get to the “pure experience” that James wants. It is pure data about reality; it is the absolutely contextless “that” of the world. Just like a stream of 1s and 0s, it means nothing and says nothing; it is not books and windows, it is not colors, it merely is.

It is particularly important to note that everything in this room is present in our data, not just the inanimate objects, but also, since I was seated in front of the camera, myself. A person and a bookshelf are represented differently in the data, obviously, but they are not of different kinds; the data mutely accounts for us all.

Step 2: Subjective vs. Objective interpretation

Now that we have an entire reality—senseless, but all of the same stuff—we can begin to shape it. That work will consist in imposing various systems of categories upon the data; using a given lens, or template, we will let the data manifest itself in a particular, structured way. (A concrete example would be the “lens” of the actual imaging software which could render our data as colored pixels on my screen; but we have more interesting structures in mind.)

The first two lenses we can bring to bear go hand-in-hand. Using them together, we begin to see wonderful new things. Through the objective lens, an object manifests itself, roughly rectangular, solid. Through the subjective lens, a mental image manifests—it is a book, by William James, and I must read it for my class tomorrow. All throughout the data, we can apply these two lenses, and receive these two distinct interpretations of books, furniture, clothing—but though the interpretations differ, the data itself is the same. It can merely be seen in two different ways. One way can meaningfully be described as “objective,” which means that it relates to other such objects physically, causally, and temporally; the other can be described as “subjective,” which means that it relates to other such subjective impressions (of other objects and so on), as well as related mental events (2). If we throw a net around these things, we can call it a person, or knower, which happens to be me. (Obviously, many of the things in this net will belong “only to me,” having nothing to do with books or furniture; for instance, the objective brain and body in the room, and my mental events involving non-books. But with our [unrealistically omniscient] camera, these are all present and accounted for as well.)

It should be clear now that we have built up an entire system of ontology which makes no basic distinction between mental and physical things; the distinction, to the extent that it exists, lies merely in two ways of understanding the same fundamental stuff. “The two ‘places’ of [physical and mental] existence are merely different contexts,” Lane puts it; “one a mental state, your ‘field of consciousness,’ and one a physical state, the room” (3).

At no point is there any problem of demonstrating how these things might relate to one another. As raw data, nothing relates whatsoever; relation is only created when we apply an interpretive lens, and since that interpretation is wholly of our own creation, its internal relations merely exist in whatever arrangement we prefer. To quote James: “In a world where both the terms and their distinctions are affairs of experience, conjunctions that are experienced must be at least as real as anything else” (4).

Step 3: Differentiation of perspectives

Now we can settle the last brick into place, which will be the production of different individual perspectives. We have already seen that “a ‘mind’ or ‘personal consciousness’ is the name for a series of experiences run together by certain definite transitions, and an objective reality is a series of similar experiences knit by different transitions.” The final step should be clear; for “if one and the same experience can figure twice [mentally and physically] . . . one does not see why it might not figure thrice, or four times, or any number of times . . . by running into as many different mental contexts.” (5) In short, the machinery for multiple perspectives is already in place; the same process used for the solitary individual need merely be multiplied.

Lane interprets this to mean that James asserts an objective reality (6), quoting him, “our minds meet in a world of objects which they share in common” (7). Here I disagree, and our model should show why. No more or less objective reality obtains now than did at the beginning of our story, as “pure experience” (our raw data); that is still the only available coin if we wish to speak of the purely objective. If that is objective reality, so be it, but it bears little relation to my mind or yours.

Rather, according to our model, the “world of objects [we] share in common” seems merely to be those matters upon which both of our subjective templates agree. Anything present in my framework which is also present in yours, we will consider real, at least as far we are concerned. If I see a book, and you see a book, done deal; in fact, if I see a book, I will generally assume that you see a book unless your behavior contradicts it (8). But since we are working with the same original material, including the same book-stuff and very similar human-stuff, our lenses will generally be quite alike indeed. (Like a Venn diagram—where the intersection of our “circles” amounts to our shared reality—we will each also have some non-shared matters with no external access: my internal mentation is an example. [9])

Lane quotes Ellen Suckiel, raising the question of where in radical empiricism we can find a shared reality (10). Per the above, it should be clear how a thin-but-objective reality (“pure experience”) exists, and how a de facto, pragmatic shared reality (the overlap of our respective models) also obtains. If the question is pushed into the realm of skeptical or solipsistic inquiry, there is no metaphysical defense, but the pragmatic tactic (“so what?”) shunts it aside effectively.

Step 4: Differentiation of utility

I will not dwell on it, because it is not central to radical empiricism and is better treated elsewhere; but one more layer of interpretation can be applied, and that is the different models which any one observer can bring to bear, differentiated solely by their respective usefulness. This idea is more or less part-and-parcel to James’s general idea of pragmatism, and indicates that a given lens, or way of understanding, is most “correct” as it is most appropriate for serving your needs. In this way, any one knower can use the most “advantageous” (5) from a toolbox of different paradigms to streamline his work, such as “substituting” a simpler idea for a more complex one (6, 7) in the manner of symbol-manipulation.


The model I have laid out seems to adequately capture the majority of James’s remarks on the topic of radical empiricism. His style makes it difficult to evaluate his views comprehensively, and at some point one wonders if one is simply putting words in his mouth with any unified take on his work. However, this description of radical empiricism does seem to hold, logically and ontologically, and I have to disagree with Lane that its lack of clarity is its greatest weakness. Ironically, its most glaring weakness may be to attack using the pragmatic method.

But that is another story.


1. James, William. “World of Pure Experience,” 63.
2. ——— . “Does Consciousness Exist?” 9.
3. Lane, Kayla Rebekah. “Public Paper: James’s Doctrine of Pure Experience.” 2.
4. James, William. “World of Pure Experience,” 59.
5. ibid. 80.
6. Lane, Kayla Rebekah. “Public Paper: James’s Doctrine of Pure Experience.” 4.
7. James, William. “World of Pure Experience,” 79.
8. ibid. 69. “To continue thinking unchallenged is, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, our practical substitute for knowing in the completed sense.”
9. ibid. 68, 73.
10. Lane, Kayla Rebekah. “Public Paper: James’s Doctrine of Pure Experience.” 5.
11. James, William. “World of Pure Experience,” 63–64.
12. Lane, Kayla Rebekah. “Public Paper: James’s Doctrine of Pure Experience.” 3.
13. James, William. “World of Pure Experience,” 61.