February 18

William James and Radical Empiricism

William James is the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience and one of my biggest philosophical heroes. He was born in upstate New York in a family rich with inherited wealth. James was a indecisive young man who was moved from school to school in an attempt to give him the best possible education. All the moving about meant that the first school he actually graduated from was the Harvard Medical School.

It occurs to me I believe that the variety of James’ education contributed to the his free spirit and wide open mind. Of course his membership in an intellectual circle calling itself The Metaphysical Club was one of the main factors shaping James’ intellect. In that small circle he regularly sparred with other brilliant thinkers including Charles Sanders Peirce – another of my philosophical heroes – and Oliver Wendell Homes.

James began his career as a psychologist and earned the honor of being considered to be the father of American psychology. His two-volume text The Principles of Psychology is arguably his masterwork and continues to exert influence over the field of psychology today.

Later James’ interests turned to the field of philosophy and he became the chair of the philosophy department at Harvard during the department’s golden age. He introduced and helped develop the philosophy of Pragmatism and did pioneering work I in the field of comparative religion, but the philosophical project that was closest to his heart was a philosophy he called Radical Empiricism.

Radical Empiricism is based on an assumption that reality is both continuous and non-dual. James rejected any notion of dualism between mind and matter, or spirit and body. The conventionally Empiricists believe that all knowledge comes from tangible facts. Reality is comprised of only those things that we directly experience. The ideas and feelings of the mind and its ability to categorize and compare is what allows us to understand the real tangible things of the universe.

James would not accept this duality between the world of mind and the world of the senses. He was an Empiricist in that he believed that the universe was comprised entirely of experienced things. He broke from conventional Empiricism in his insistence that the ideas and feelings of the mind were also experienced things and therefore just as real.

There is no inner world of mind and outer world of matter. There is just one world that includes experiences that feel like mind and experiences that feel like matter. These experiences are different in feeling, but they are not different in kind. They are both experiences. All of reality is made up of pure experience and everything that is real is an experience and anything that cannot be experienced is unreal.