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

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 9 Comments

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.

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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liesbeth3
liesbeth3
8 years ago

‘Experience is reality’ I looked a bit into Heidegger, to connect to this direct experience. For Heidegger the meaning of an experience grows from living experience. It connects for me to the Indian’s that did not see the ships coming (What the bleep): it wasn’t part of their living experience, they did not see. I remember the first retreat I did with Andrew, that I could not follow where people where talking about, because it wasn’t part of my experience (beyond ego). For Heidegger ‘the world of human meaning and significance is an emergent mode of being, the “world” has… Read more »

vrylander
vrylander
8 years ago

I think what you’re pointing to is that our beliefs shape what we experience. I wonder who is the experiencer for James and also, what happens when this flow of present perception/experience disappears in deep sleep or “divine coma.”

ftkl1234
8 years ago

In my 76 years, I’ve experienced stretches of rather flat, ordinary times but then there come streche of days that seem graced and blessed with a heightened sense of gladness of my simply being alive.Those who’ve experienced being in love know the feeling, akin to being high, though I speak of having no love-object except Being Me. I consider these experiences Visitiations, mystical and wonderful. They occur inexplicably and gradually dissipate leaving me in my more ordinary nittygritty existence that I would say is hardly unpleasant but less heightened. Whether “real” or not, they have been my experience for which… Read more »

Kurt Roeloffs
Kurt Roeloffs
8 years ago

Liesbeth3, I definitely agree that Heidegger takes this further with the emergent realm of human experience as a dimension of being. Take a look at Pierre Teilard d’Chardin. Perhaps he goes even further with the concept of the neosphere being a new dimension of physical reality that is being brought forth by an evolutionary principle at work within a larger and divine telological plan. Jeff, what also arose for me was a re-recognition of certain solitary (interior) experiences–some waking some not–going back to my earliest childhood that remain convincingly more real than many shared (external) experiences. They have a vivid,… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
8 years ago

Afterthoughts on my mystical experiences:

I’ve thought of my “visitiations” as revelations that have involved personal mind expansion. Not necessarily drug-induced, they all have in common significant realization of something that hadn’t occurred to me previously. I will however attest to smoking dope as opening doors of perception that have given me with many experiences that greatly augmented my attainment of higher spiritual understanding and consciousness. The realness of these experiences can be verififed by their memorableness and the impact they’ve had on me even decades after the 60s when I first experienced smoking grass.

ftkl1234
8 years ago

Make that (Anonymous) > (Frank Luke)

Brian
Brian
8 years ago

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

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