A Philosophy of Pure Experience

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 15 Comments

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.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Carl
10 years ago

My all-too-frequently quoted favorite words on this topic from B.F. Skinner are that the person (self) “is a locus, a point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect. As such, he remains unquestionably unique. No one else (unless he has an identical twin) has his genetic endowment, and without exception no one else has his personal history. Hence no one else will behave in precisely the same way.” (About Behaviorism, p. 168) To me, that about says it all. It’s consistent in my view the ancient, non-dual notion that “I” is the whole Universe… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I just got the book phenomenology of perception by Merleau-Ponty which seems to be the other side of what you are talking about, but I still have to read it. Interesting is that I wanted to read this book because of Heidegger, who does seem to connect to your subject. So I will read it and afterwards see if it is useful. For now I just looked up empiricism and rationalism as a pre-view. Probably the chief gain from phenomenology is to have united extreme subjectivism and extreme objectivism in its notion of the world or of rationality. Rationality is… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I found that Merleau-Ponty (phenomenology of perception) quite connects to your blog, I think it might interest you. To give some lines (from Internet): Merleau-Ponty argues that both traditional Empiricism and Rationalism are inadequate to describe the phenomenology of perception. Empiricism maintains that experience is the primary source of knowledge, and that knowledge is derived from sensory perceptions. Rationalism maintains that reason is the primary source of knowledge, and that knowledge does not depend on sensory perceptions. Merleau-Ponty says that traditional Empiricism does not explain how the nature of consciousness determines our perceptions, while Rationalism does not explain how the… Read more »

Lulu
Lulu
10 years ago

James seems to have a rather idiosyncratic understanding of rationalism and empiricism. It might be good to explain how he derives these from the standard understanding of those terms and what exactly he means by “radical empiricism” in the context of empiricism as it is normally understood. I’m not sure James gets Kant quite right either. Kant believed that it is only through cognition (experience) that objects become separate and discrete, that in themselves they are not, so there is a fundamental non-dualism in the noumenal or the thing-in-itself. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, we cannot apply… Read more »

Lulu
Lulu
10 years ago

Liesbeth, Merleau-Ponty’s primary concern with the phenomenology of embodiment has recently been taken up again by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists. He was one of the few philosophers of his time who thought it important to be responsive to empirical research on the mind, and as such, has become an important figure for those who believe knowledge of the mind must come both from the study of subjective human experience (phenomenology) and from the mind sciences. There is a recent trend in cognitive science toward theories that treat our embodiment and situatedness (like Heidegger’s Being in the World) as… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Thank you very much for all this information. It clarifies a lot. I often think of the Matrix, plugging ones brain onto all the information one needs to have. Thank you again.

Lulu
Lulu
10 years ago

Yes! The underlying assumption in scenarios like the Matrix (or more extreme versions, like Putnam’s “Brain in the Vat”) is a cognitivist one: All that is needed to simulate veridical experience is the right kind of prodding to the brain. It ignores the role the body plays in perception and action and treats the mind like a computer program that can be “downloaded” into a system. This is the sci-fi version of Cartesian dualism. Embodiment theorists reject this assumption, so the skeptical problem entailed by these kinds of scenarios never gets off the ground. Our sense of our own embodiment… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

1. This is very interesting. I have also been thinking a lot about it. Point is that reading a book looks to me quite similar to downloading in the brain. First I download a lot of information and only after some time, understanding starts. That is the point where -connecting-in-the-world only starts. what I understand from Heidegger is that, one cannot think any further that his/her horizon. I recognize that very much, maybe it is possible in connection with others, but on my own I am not able to produce anything new -unless, I get input from reading. Heidegger says… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

We all know I believe that an unexamined life is hardly worth living. I’d like to say why I believe that to be true. 1) By examining what it is, who it is that you are personally, delving into your personal psychology of what and why it is that makes you behave as you do, it gives a base from where you can infer how others behave who make up the reality in which you operate. 2) I submit that in understanding stories–including reading, movies, and lives of others whether personally known or through stories–I have discovered a real value… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

What an interesting response Frank; I plead for both. What you object to is people who are identified with being intelligent. That is what I like about Integral, every line should be developed: emotional, intellectual, social, it is all equally important. You mention Freud: he came to his conclusions through profound investigation. From an emotional point of view we could never see it that clearly. Intellectual just means getting a clear picture of what is seen, experienced, happening etc. That is what I admired so much in Andrew Cohen, he could slice concepts to pieces, whatever it is, ego, depression,… Read more »

Carl
10 years ago

Jeff, a belated response to your response: I don’t believe that ANY words that can be said or written represent the ultimate reality, so of course neither Skinner’s nor James’s approach to nonduality do so. On the other hand, how we understand things to “work” — as a whole or as separate entities — has an impact on what we do, and how we approach the practical matter of co-creating our own evolution and the evolution of the Universe in general. If, for example, we truly see the world as an organism/environment Whole, with our apparently (but not truly) separate… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Just to underline:

I believe there’s great respect, maybe undue for knowledge sometimes connected to egotism which can be smart but not wise.

There’s a difference between (knowledge / information ) and wisdom, especially that derived empirically. I will usually put more credence in first-hand info than second-hand kind but I do respect authoritative info derived from authentic research and thinking.

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Curtisrum
Curtisrum
3 years ago

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