A Philosophy of Pure Experience

Here is my second post exploring some of the ideas that are informing me as I prepare for my presentaion at the Science and Nonduality Conference.

William James over the course of his life developed an anti-dualistic philosophy that he called Radical Empiricism. James believed that the universe had to be made up of only one kind of “stuff” not two. He looked at the state of philosophy of his time and saw that the Cartesian split between mind and matter was not only alive and well, but, in his opinion, had been strengthened and advanced by Kant and his followers. By introducing the conception of a transcendental apperception as a sort of background of pure consciousness that was necessary to unify our perception of reality Kant had protected the idea of the human soul that had come under heavy attack as the ideological onslaught of the Enlightenment had matured. Kant had placed this fundamental dualism on firm enough footing to survive into the modern world. James for his part would not accept any dualism as an inherent part of reality and developed his philosophy of Radical Empiricism because he felt that the English school of Empirical thought had not been radical enough.

In his essay A World of Pure Experience James distinguishes Empiricism from Rationalism. Empiricists see the world as fundamentally made up of parts that gather together into wholes. Rationalists see the world essentially as a single whole that splits into parts. James felt that the Empirical preference for parts over wholes had overemphasized the separation of reality. This leads Rationalists to fear that the whole of reality is in imminent danger of falling to pieces and then invent some imagined super-whole that can act as the backdrop that keeps everything from falling apart. When the Enlightenment took away our faith in God, Kant devised the transcendental apperception to take God’s place as the binding agent of reality.

James felt that an Empiricism that was radical enough could do away with the need to invent any transcendent cohesive element to hold the parts of reality together. To make an Empiricism radical you simply had to take into account that the separate parts of reality were already connected and that the relations that bonded them were themselves part of reality. As James put it, for such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as real as anything else in the system.

The universe as James saw it was indeed made up of only one kind of “stuff.” That stuff is pure experience. The most fundamental building blocks of reality are atoms of pure experience – personally felt bits of experience before any conceptual parsing or mental labeling has been added to them. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James describe these chucks of pure experience this way.

A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs- such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the ‘object’ is when taken all alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unsharable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up.

Before our thoughts and concepts are overlaid onto our experience it presents itself as a complete whole piece of experience. After the fact, we separate out the object from the subject, the foreground from the background, and a myriad of attitudes and positions are taken in relationship to that piece of pure experience. But initially, before our thinking faculties have time to kick into action, all of these seemingly separate elements are intimately united and co-existent within that single block of experience. Reality is made up of these chunks occurring over and over again in succession. There is no background and no foreground, no object and no subject, no self and no other, just raw pieces of pure experience.

The Rationalists will complain and fear that nothing exists that can hold all the pieces of experience together. And so these Rationalists find it necessary to look for some ghostly unseen background that can relief their anxiety and hold the pieces in place like fly paper holding insects. James says no, there is no need to invent a cohesive background to contain and hold the pieces of experience that make up reality as we perceive it because those pieces are already held together by relations which are themselves also made up of experience.

One very special relation that binds certain aspects of experience is the relation of self-identity. I experience reality as a succession of seemingly separate moments of pure experience and yet each of these moments is experienced as belonging to me. They feel like my moments, my experiences and not yours. Typically we imagine that some “I” exists that is separate from my experience and hangs forever in space as the witness of my experience. It is as if we imagine ourselves to be two beings at once. First we are the one who is having an experience and second we are the one that knows that we are having that same experience. James felt that there was no need to imagine existence of the second separate “self” that exists outside of my experience only to bear as silent witness to it. According to James, the feeling of being someone is produced because some chunks of pure experience come with an inherent feeling of belonging to me. In fact, the world is made up not of individual selves having experiences, but of trains of pure experience some of which cohere because they contain the feeling of belonging to me.

My experiences and your experiences are with each other in various external ways, but mine pass into mine, and yours pass into yours in a way in which yours and mine never pass into one another. Within each of our personal histories, subject, object, interest and purpose are continuous or may be continuous. Personal histories are processes of change in time, and the change itself is one of the things immediately experienced.