The Reality of the Immediately Present – William James and Rudolf Steiner

Some things in reality force themselves upon us immediately. They appear spontaneously without provocation and they impress themselves upon our senses in ways that we cannot withstand. These things surely must be real. Direct sense impressions – smells, tastes, sensations, sounds and sights – simply appear in awareness. We don’t call them into being and we cannot alter or avoid the way they present themselves. Ideas and intuitions also – upon their initial appearance – share the same unalterable immediacy of presence.

The world presents itself to us through a series of spontaneous, immediate and unalterable first impressions. At its core – before we can do anything about it – our experience is dictated as an unending parade of first impressions – a relentless succession of pure experiences.

In the decade of the 1880’s two daringly original thinkers were working to create a picture of reality that rests upon a foundation of pure experience. Both were scientifically and spiritually inclined. Both were influenced by Goethe’s observational method of scientific inquiry and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. And both published important works describing their conception of a world founded on pure experience in that decade.

One was William James who spent all ten years of that decade completing his master work The Principles of Psychology that was published in 1890. The other was the younger Rudolf Steiner who completed his doctoral thesis entitled A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception in 1886. I have been familiar with James’ vision of a world of pure experience for many years, but I had never been acquainted with Steiner’s remarkably similar conception until I began reading Steiner’s book only a week ago.

It has been a delight to read in Steiner ideas so similar to James and expressed in  ways that help me see James thinking more clearly. Steiner starts by asserting that the world as it presents itself to us is a succession of pure experiences. These experiences in and of themselves cannot be qualified in anyway. Each is simply a pure impression that is made upon us. It is an unqualified multitude of original impressions that cannot be compared or ordered in anyway. The following passage in which Steiner describes the reality of pure experience could have come directly from James – or vice versa.

Let us now take a look at pure experience. What does it contain, as it sweeps across our consciousness, without our working upon it in thinking? It is mere juxtaposition in space and succession in time; an aggregate of utterly disconnected particulars. None of the objects that come and go there has anything to do with any other. At this stage, the facts that we perceive, that we experience inwardly, are of no consequence to each other. This world is a manifoldness of things of equal value. No thing or event can claim to play a greater role in the functioning of the world than any other part of the world of experience. If it is to become clear to us that this or that fact has greater significance than another one, we must then not merely observe the things, but must already bring them into thought-relationships.

In order for these pure experiences to take on any qualities or relationships whatsoever a second element must act upon them. That element is thought. It is thought that attributes qualities to pure experiences and relates some experiences to others and builds a complete picture of the world. Steiner is describing a view of reality that looks remarkably similar to Peirce’s Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness. Initially there is a real object – firstness – then there is a pure experience of that object – secondness – then there is the interpretation through thought that qualifies the object and situates it in relationship to other objects – thirdness.

What is more remarkable about this picture is that Steiner shares with James a vision of a universe that emerges as process. Thoughts are not things that human beings apply to pure experience; thoughts emerge spontaneously in response to pure experience and then arrange and qualify those experiences not according to our direction, but according to what Steiner refers to as organic laws of interconnection. These laws are part of the world of thought itself and not completely within our control. The picture that Steiner paints is one in which pure experience presents itself as a spontaneously occurring stream (to use James’ term) and then thought grow out of the experience qualifying it and situating it in relationship to the rest of experience. If we continue to allow this process of “thinking” to go on unabated we will develop an ever clearer picture of reality. Steiner like James sees this not merely as a process of perceiving reality, but a process of producing reality. Relating this to Peirce’s conceptions of firstness, secondness and thirdness; reality becomes more full through the organic growth of thought that starts as pure experience – firstness – and becomes some final experience – secondness – through the process of thinking – thirdness.