The Subjective World of William James

My last post inspired me to want to do a series of posts in which I share some of my favorite  philosophy passages, and this week a passage from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience compels me. James was on fire with a materialistic vision of subjective experience. He felt that while our experience of outer reality is always in some sense partial and incomplete, our inner experience is absolutely full and whole. It is rich and bursting in every possible sense and always total and complete. Nothing is ever missing because whatever exists in any given instant of pure experience is all that there is. If something more is missing and later revealed that revelation itself will arrive as a complete and total experience of fulfillment of deficiency. I find James’ philosophy of Pure Experience fascinating. He realized that the world and everything in it is made up of drops of pure experience and nothing else. Even if there is some real outer reality in existence all we will ever have is an inner experience of that reality. If we were to devise some clever proof that demonstrated beyond doubt that the outer world did in fact exist, that proof would only be given to us in drops of pure experience, and even our recognition of the truth of it would come as an experience of illumination. James was accused of being a subjectivist, and he was, but he elevated the subjective to exquisite realms of concreteness.

The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner “state” in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous — the cosmic times and spaces, for example — whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one…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.