Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic? by William James

Story type: Essay


If all the criticisms which the humanistic Weltanschauung is receiving were as sachgemaess as Mr. Bode’s,[2] the truth of the matter would more rapidly clear up. Not only is it excellently well written, but it brings its own point of view out clearly, and admits of a perfectly straight reply.

The argument (unless I fail to catch it) can be expressed as follows:

If a series of experiences be supposed, no one of which is endowed immediately with the self-transcendent function of reference to a reality beyond itself, no motive will occur within the series for supposing anything beyond it to exist. It will remain subjective, and contentedly subjective, both as a whole and in its several parts.

Radical empiricism, trying, as it does, to account for objective knowledge by means of such a series, egregiously fails. It can not explain how the notion of a physical order, as distinguished from a subjectively biographical order, of experiences, ever arose.

It pretends to explain the notion of a physical order, but does so by playing fast and loose with the concept of objective reference. On the one hand, it denies that such reference implies self-transcendency on the part of any one experience; on the other hand, it claims that experiences point. But, critically considered, there can be no pointing unless self-transcendency be also allowed. The conjunctive function of pointing, as I have assumed it, is, according to my critic, vitiated by the fallacy of attaching a bilateral relation to a term a quo, as if it could stick out substantively and maintain itself in existence in advance of the term ad quem which is equally required for it to be a concretely experienced fact. If the relation be made concrete, the term ad quem is involved, which would mean (if I succeed in apprehending Mr. Bode rightly) that this latter term, although not empirically there, is yet noetically there, in advance–in other words it would mean that any experience that ‘points’ must already have transcended itself, in the ordinary ‘epistemological’ sense of the word transcend.

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Something like this, if I understand Mr. Bode’s text, is the upshot of his state of mind. It is a reasonable sounding state of mind, but it is exactly the state of mind which radical empiricism, by its doctrine of the reality of conjunctive relations, seeks to dispel. I very much fear–so difficult does mutual understanding seem in these exalted regions–that my able critic has failed to understand that doctrine as it is meant to be understood. I suspect that he performs on all these conjunctive relations (of which the aforesaid ‘pointing’ is only one) the usual rationalistic act of substitution–he takes them not as they are given in their first intention, as parts constitutive of experience’s living flow, but only as they appear in retrospect, each fixed as a determinate object of conception, static, therefore, and contained within itself.

Against this rationalistic tendency to treat experience as chopped up into discontinuous static objects, radical empiricism protests. It insists on taking conjunctions at their ‘face-value,’ just as they come. Consider, for example, such conjunctions as ‘and,’ ‘with,’ ‘near,’ ‘ plus,’ ‘towards.’ While we live in such conjunctions our state is one of transition in the most literal sense. We are expectant of a ‘more’ to come, and before the more has come, the transition, nevertheless, is directed towards it. I fail otherwise to see how, if one kind of more comes, there should be satisfaction and feeling of fulfilment; but disappointment if the more comes in another shape. One more will continue, another more will arrest or deflect the direction, in which our experience is moving even now. We can not, it is true, name our different living ‘ands’ or ‘withs’ except by naming the different terms towards which they are moving us, but we live their specifications and differences before those terms explicitly arrive. Thus, though the various ‘ands’ are all bilateral relations, each requiring a term ad quem to define it when viewed in retrospect and articulately conceived, yet in its living moment any one of them may be treated as if it ‘stuck out’ from its term a quo and pointed in a special direction, much as a compass-needle (to use Mr. Bode’s excellent simile) points at the pole, even though it stirs not from its box.

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In Professor Hoeffding’s massive little article in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods,[3] he quotes a saying of Kierkegaard’s to the effect that we live forwards, but we understand backwards. Understanding backwards is, it must be confessed, a very frequent weakness of philosophers, both of the rationalistic and of the ordinary empiricist type. Radical empiricism alone insists on understanding forwards also, and refuses to substitute static concepts of the understanding for transitions in our moving life. A logic similar to that which my critic seems to employ here should, it seems to me, forbid him to say that our present is, while present, directed towards our future, or that any physical movement can have direction until its goal is actually reached.

At this point does it not seem as if the quarrel about self-transcendency in knowledge might drop? Is it not a purely verbal dispute? Call it self-transcendency or call it pointing, whichever you like–it makes no difference so long as real transitions towards real goals are admitted as things given in experience, and among experience’s most indefeasible parts. Radical empiricism, unable to close its eyes to the transitions caught in actu, accounts for the self-transcendency or the pointing (whichever you may call it) as a process that occurs within experience, as an empirically mediated thing of which a perfectly definite description can be given. ‘Epistemology,’ on the other hand, denies this; and pretends that the self-transcendency is unmediated or, if mediated, then mediated in a super-empirical world. To justify this pretension, epistemology has first to transform all our conjunctions into static objects, and this, I submit, is an absolutely arbitrary act. But in spite of Mr. Bode’s mal-treatment of conjunctions, as I understand them–and as I understand him–I believe that at bottom we are fighting for nothing different, but are both defending the same continuities of experience in different forms of words.

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There are other criticisms in the article in question, but, as this seems the most vital one, I will for the present, at any rate, leave them untouched.


[1] [Reprinted from The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. II, No. 9, April 27, 1905.]

[2] [B. H. Bode: “‘Pure Experience’ and the External World,” Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. II, 1905, p. 128.]

[3] Vol. II, [1905], pp. 85-92.

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