William James and the Flow of Pure Experience –or– Why are two experiences better than one?

What you are experiencing right now is all there is – at least that is one of the implications of William James’ radical views on reality. William James was the first great American psychologist and one of founders of the philosophy of Pragmatism. The philosophical vision that was closest to his heart he called Radical Empiricism.  One of his foundational assertions was that we do not have experiences of reality; our experience is reality?

Traditional Empiricists affirm that what we experience is what is real and that our thoughts about reality have to be confirmed by connecting them to reality. James recognized that in these traditional circles there was in fact a great deal of our experience that was not considered real. Experience for the traditional Empiricist tended to be limited to those parts of our experience that more than one person could share.

For instance, I might believe that I see an alien on the roof of my house, but if other people look and don’t see it they will conclude that I am delusional. I could insist that I was seeing an alien and they would insist that I was wrong.

But, what does it mean to be wrong?

When people tell you that you are wrong or delusional what they are saying is that what you claim is your experience does not match reality. Your experience is somehow in error – you are wrong. That means that reality is not determined by your experience of it, but rather by the match between your experience and the experience of others. Empirical reality therefore is determined by the experiences that can be shared.

William James had two insights to offer here. First was his conviction that experiences that appeared unverifiable by the experience of others were still experiences. And in his Radical Empiricism these experiences could not be so easily dismissed. Because of this belief he, as a respected academic, spent a great deal of energy exploring and investigating psychic and paranormal experiences. He felt that these experiences were just as real and worthy of investigation as any other even if they were only experienced by a lone individual.

He also realized, and this was the central point of Radical Empiricism, that reality was experience. Anything that exists, exists as an experience. Experience is reality.

Going back to our example, if I see an alien that no one else sees it is clear that it is an experience. As soon as someone else sees it we draw the conclusion that it is more than just an experience it is real. And yet all we have added is another experience of an alien. Why are two experiences better than one? Why does adding the second experience convince us that it is real?  When a second person confirms our experience with a matching experience we assume our experience is pointing at something that exists outside of and independent from our experience. Whatever it is,is really there and that is why more than one of us experiences it.

James pointed out that reality is always happening as a ongoing flow of experiences. My experience of the alien was obviously an experience until it was confirmed as real by the experience of another. Again, why are two experiences better than one? If we go one step further we see that the confirmation of my experience by the experience of someone else is itself also an experience that I have of confirmation. Maybe the other person told me that they saw an alien too, or ran away in fight, but however it was communicated to me that they saw what I saw was itself an experience that I had. Now we have three experiences. And we can keep going. The experience of communicated confirmation adds an experience   of confidence about the reality of the alien. That sense of confidence is also an experience that emerges as part of the flow of experience.

If you follow James’ logic you will see that nothing exists except as an experience. There is an experience and then another experience and another and another. One experience after the next human life progresses in a stream of pure experience.

We ultimately have no way to know for sure what might exist beyond our experience because experience is all we have and anything that we experience as existing will be itself an experience. If you look closely you will see reality unfolding one experience after another.

James was lead into a deep inquiry into the phenomenology of the present moment. What exists within the fleeting duration of what we call the present? Everything that exists, exists in the experience of the present. Even the past only exists for us as present experiences of memory. Nothing exists except in the experience of the present. This – what you are experiencing right now – is all there is to reality.