The Life & Mind Seminar Network

William James’s Radical Empiricism

Posted in Seminars by marekmcgann on June 2, 2010

IT is difficult not to notice a curious unrest in the philosophic atmosphere of the time, a loosening of old landmarks, a softening of oppositions, a mutual borrowing from one an other on the part of systems anciently closed, and an interest in new suggestions, however vague, as if the one thing sure were the inadequacy of the extant school-solutions. The dissatisfaction with these seems due for the most part to a feeling that they are too abstract and academic. Life is confused and superabundant, and what the younger generation appears to crave is more of the temperament of life in its philosophy, even though it were at some cost of logical rigor and of formal purity. Transcendental idealism is inclining to let the world wag incomprehensibly, in spite of its Absolute Subject and his unity of purpose. Berkeleyan idealism is abandoning the principle of parsimony and dabbling in panpsychic speculations. Empiricism flirts with teleology; and, strangest of all, natural realism, so long decently buried, raises its head above the turf, and finds glad hands outstretched from the most unlikely quarters to help it to its feet again. We are all biased by our personal feelings, I know, and I am personally discontented with extant solutions; so I seem to read the signs of a great unsettlement, as if the upheaval of more real conceptions and more fruitful methods were imminent, as if a true landscape might result, less clipped, straight-edged and artificial.

William James (1912, p.39)

Sound familiar?

I was introduced to James’s radical empiricism by Harry Heft’s (2001) Ecological Psychology in Context, and have finally got around to having a proper look at it. James takes a genuinely radical view of experience – arguing for a world of “pure experience” (Essay 2).

He also argues that consciousness cannot possible be a “stuff” but is rather a particular relation between thought and object, but that relations themselves are directly experienced rather than inferred, represented or otherwise cognised in addition to the supposedly primordial “sensations” (Essay 1). His approach would make a very powerful complement to much of enactivist thinking, particularly in the mine-ridden fields of thinking about consciousness.

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