The Thing And Its Relations by William James

Story type: Essay


Experience in its immediacy seems perfectly fluent. The active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us, is self-luminous and suggests no paradoxes. Its difficulties are disappointments and uncertainties. They are not intellectual contradictions.

When the reflective intellect gets at work, however, it discovers incomprehensibilities in the flowing process. Distinguishing its elements and parts, it gives them separate names, and what it thus disjoins it can not easily put together. Pyrrhonism accepts the irrationality and revels in its dialectic elaboration. Other philosophies try, some by ignoring, some by resisting, and some by turning the dialectic procedure against itself, negating its first negations, to restore the fluent sense of life again, and let redemption take the place of innocence. The perfection with which any philosophy may do this is the measure of its human success and of its importance in philosophic history. In [the last essay], ‘A World of Pure Experience,’ I tried my own hand sketchily at the problem, resisting certain first steps of dialectics by insisting in a general way that the immediately experienced conjunctive relations are as real as anything else. If my sketch is not to appear too naif, I must come closer to details, and in the present essay I propose to do so.


‘Pure experience’ is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. Only new-born babes, or men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats; full both of oneness and of manyness, but in respects that don’t appear; changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity, can be caught. Pure experience in this state is but another name for feeling or sensation. But the flux of it no sooner comes than it tends to fill itself with emphases, and these salient parts become identified and fixed and abstracted; so that experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and nouns and prepositions and conjunctions. Its purity is only a relative term, meaning the proportional amount of unverbalized sensation which it still embodies.

Far back as we go, the flux, both as a whole and in its parts, is that of things conjunct and separated. The great continua of time, space, and the self envelope everything, betwixt them, and flow together without interfering. The things that they envelope come as separate in some ways and as continuous in others. Some sensations coalesce with some ideas, and others are irreconcilable. Qualities compenetrate one space, or exclude each other from it. They cling together persistently in groups that move as units, or else they separate. Their changes are abrupt or discontinuous; and their kinds resemble or differ; and, as they do so, they fall into either even or irregular series.

In all this the continuities and the discontinuities are absolutely co-ordinate matters of immediate feeling. The conjunctions are as primordial elements of ‘fact’ as are the distinctions and disjunctions. In the same act by which I feel that this passing minute is a new pulse of my life, I feel that the old life continues into it, and the feeling of continuance in no wise jars upon the simultaneous feeling of a novelty. They, too, compenetrate harmoniously. Prepositions, copulas, and conjunctions, ‘is,’ ‘isn’t,’ ‘then,’ ‘before,’ ‘in,’ ‘on,’ ‘beside,’ ‘between,’ ‘next,’ ‘like,’ ‘unlike,’ ‘as,’ ‘but,’ flower out of the stream of pure experience, the stream of concretes or the sensational stream, as naturally as nouns and adjectives do, and they melt into it again as fluidly when we apply them to a new portion of the stream.


If now we ask why we must thus translate experience from a more concrete or pure into a more intellectualized form, filling it with ever more abounding conceptual distinctions, rationalism and naturalism give different replies.

The rationalistic answer is that the theoretic life is absolute and its interests imperative; that to understand is simply the duty of man; and that who questions this need not be argued with, for by the fact of arguing he gives away his case.

The naturalist answer is that the environment kills as well as sustains us, and that the tendency of raw experience to extinguish the experient himself is lessened just in the degree in which the elements in it that have a practical bearing upon life are analyzed out of the continuum and verbally fixed and coupled together, so that we may know what is in the wind for us and get ready to react in time. Had pure experience, the naturalist says, been always perfectly healthy, there would never have arisen the necessity of isolating or verbalizing any of its terms. We should just have experienced inarticulately and unintellectually enjoyed. This leaning on ‘reaction’ in the naturalist account implies that, whenever we intellectualize a relatively pure experience, we ought to do so for the sake of redescending to the purer or more concrete level again; and that if an intellect stays aloft among its abstract terms and generalized relations, and does not reinsert itself with its conclusions into some particular point of the immediate stream of life, it fails to finish out its function and leaves its normal race unrun.

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Most rationalists nowadays will agree that naturalism gives a true enough account of the way in which our intellect arose at first, but they will deny these latter implications. The case, they will say, resembles that of sexual love. Originating in the animal need of getting another generation born, this passion has developed secondarily such imperious spiritual needs that, if you ask why another generation ought to be born at all, the answer is: ‘Chiefly that love may go on.’ Just so with our intellect: it originated as a practical means of serving life; but it has developed incidentally the function of understanding absolute truth; and life itself now seems to be given chiefly as a means by which that function may be prosecuted. But truth and the understanding of it lie among the abstracts and universals, so the intellect now carries on its higher business wholly in this region, without any need of redescending into pure experience again.

If the contrasted tendencies which I thus designate as naturalistic and rationalistic are not recognized by the reader, perhaps an example will make them more concrete. Mr. Bradley, for instance, is an ultra-rationalist. He admits that our intellect is primarily practical, but says that, for philosophers, the practical need is simply Truth. Truth, moreover, must be assumed ‘consistent.’ Immediate experience has to be broken into subjects and qualities, terms and relations, to be understood as truth at all. Yet when so broken it is less consistent than ever. Taken raw, it is all un-distinguished. Intellectualized, it is all distinction without oneness. ‘Such an arrangement may work, but the theoretic problem is not solved.’ The question is ‘ how the diversity can exist in harmony with the oneness.’ To go back to pure experience is unavailing. ‘Mere feeling gives no answer to our riddle.’ Even if your intuition is a fact, it is not an understanding. ‘It is a mere experience, and furnishes no consistent view.’ The experience offered as facts or truths ‘I find that my intellect rejects because they contradict themselves. They offer a complex of diversities conjoined in a way which it feels is not its way and which it can not repeat as its own…. For to be satisfied, my intellect must understand, and it can not understand by taking a congeries in the lump.'[44] So Mr. Bradley, in the sole interests of ‘understanding’ (as he conceives that function), turns his back on finite experience forever. Truth must lie in the opposite direction, the direction of the Absolute; and this kind of rationalism and naturalism, or (as I will now call it) pragmatism, walk thenceforward upon opposite paths. For the one, those intellectual products are most true which, turning their face towards the Absolute, come nearest to symbolizing its ways of uniting the many and the one. For the other, those are most true which most successfully dip back into the finite stream of feeling and grow most easily confluent with some particular wave or wavelet. Such confluence not only proves the intellectual operation to have been true (as an addition may ‘prove’ that a subtraction is already rightly performed), but it constitutes, according to pragmatism, all that we mean by calling it true. Only in so far as they lead us, successfully or unsuccessfully, back into sensible experience again, are our abstracts and universals true or false at all.[45]


In Section VI of [the last essay], I adopted in a general way the common-sense belief that one and the same world is cognized by our different minds; but I left undiscussed the dialectical arguments which maintain that this is logically absurd. The usual reason given for its being absurd is that it assumes one object (to wit, the world) to stand in two relations at once; to my mind, namely, and again to yours; whereas a term taken in a second relation can not logically be the same term which it was at first.

I have heard this reason urged so often in discussing with absolutists, and it would destroy my radical empiricism so utterly, if it were valid, that I am bound to give it an attentive ear, and seriously to search its strength.

For instance, let the matter in dispute be term M, asserted to be on the one hand related to L, and on the other to N; and let the two cases of relation be symbolized by L–M and M–N respectively. When, now, I assume that the experience may immediately come and be given in the shape L–M–N, with no trace of doubling or internal fission in the M, I am told that this is all a popular delusion; that L–M–N logically means two different experiences, L–M and M–N, namely; and that although the Absolute may, and indeed must, from its superior point of view, read its own kind of unity into M‘s two editions, yet as elements in finite experience the two M‘s lie irretrievably asunder, and the world between them is broken and unbridged.

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In arguing this dialectic thesis, one must avoid slipping from the logical into the physical point of view. It would be easy, in taking a concrete example to fix one’s ideas by, to choose one in which the letter M should stand for a collective noun of some sort, which noun, being related to L by one of its parts and to N by another, would inwardly be two things when it stood outwardly in both relations. Thus, one might say: ‘David Hume, who weighed so many stone by his body, influences posterity by his doctrine.’ The body and the doctrine are two things, between which our finite minds can discover no real sameness, though the same name covers both of them. And then, one might continue: ‘Only an Absolute is capable of uniting such a non-identity.’ We must, I say, avoid this sort of example, for the dialectic insight, if true at all, must apply to terms and relations universally. It must be true of abstract units as well as of nouns collective; and if we prove it by concrete examples we must take the simplest, so as to avoid irrelevant material suggestions.

Taken thus in all its generality, the absolutist contention seems to use as its major premise Hume’s notion ‘that all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences.'[46] Undoubtedly, since we use two phrases in talking first about ‘ M‘s relation to L‘ and then about ‘ M‘s relation to N,’ we must be having, or must have had, two distinct perceptions;–and the rest would then seem to follow duly. But the starting-point of the reasoning here seems to be the fact of the two phrases; and this suggests that the argument may be merely verbal. Can it be that the whole dialectic consists in attributing to the experience talked-about a constitution similar to that of the language in which we describe it? Must we assert the objective double-ness of the M merely because we have to name it twice over when we name its two relations?

Candidly, I can think of no other reason than this for the dialectic conclusion;[47] for, if we think, not of our words, but of any simple concrete matter which they may be held to signify, the experience itself belies the paradox asserted. We use indeed two separate concepts in analyzing our object, but we know them all the while to be but substitutional, and that the M in L–M and the M in M–N mean ( i.e., are capable of leading to and terminating in) one self-same piece, M, of sensible experience. This persistent identity of certain units (or emphases, or points, or objects, or members–call them what you will) of the experience-continuum, is just one of those conjunctive features of it, on which I am obliged to insist so emphatically.[48] For samenesses are parts of experience’s indefeasible structure. When I hear a bell-stroke and, as life flows on, its after image dies away, I still hark back to it as ‘that same bell-stroke.’ When I see a thing M, with L to the left of it and N to the right of it, I see it as one M; and if you tell me I have had to ‘take’ it twice, I reply that if I ‘took’ it a thousand times I should still see it as a unit.[49] Its unity is aboriginal, just as the multiplicity of my successive takings is aboriginal. It comes unbroken as that M, as a singular which I encounter; they come broken, as those takings, as my plurality of operations. The unity and the separateness are strictly co-ordinate. I do not easily fathom why my opponents should find the separateness so much more easily understandable that they must needs infect the whole of finite experience with it, and relegate the unity (now taken as a bare postulate and no longer as a thing positively perceivable) to the region of the Absolute’s mysteries. I do not easily fathom this, I say, for the said opponents are above mere verbal quibbling; yet all that I can catch in their talk is the substitution of what is true of certain words for what is true of what they signify. They stay with the words,–not returning to the stream of life whence all the meaning of them came, and which is always ready to reabsorb them.


For aught this argument proves, then, we may continue to believe that one thing can be known by many knowers. But the denial of one thing in many relations is but one application of a still profounder dialectic difficulty. Man can’t be good, said the sophists, for man is man and good is good; and Hegel[50] and Herbart in their day, more recently A. Spir,[51] and most recently and elaborately of all, Mr. Bradley, informs us that a term can logically only be a punctiform unit, and that not one of the conjunctive relations between things, which experience seems to yield, is rationally possible.

Of course, if true, this cuts off radical empiricism without even a shilling. Radical empiricism takes conjunctive relations at their face value, holding them to be as real as the terms united by them.[52] The world it represents as a collection, some parts of which are conjunctively and others disjunctively related. Two parts, themselves disjoined, may nevertheless hang together by intermediaries with which they are severally connected, and the whole world eventually may hang together similarly, inasmuch as some path of conjunctive transition by which to pass from one of its parts to another may always be discernible. Such determinately various hanging-together may be called concatenated union, to distinguish it from the ‘through-and-through’ type of union, ‘each in all and all in each’ (union of total conflux, as one might call it), which monistic systems hold to obtain when things are taken in their absolute reality. In a concatenated world a partial conflux often is experienced. Our concepts and our sensations are confluent; successive states of the same ego, and feelings of the same body are confluent. Where the experience is not of conflux, it may be of conterminousness (things with but one thing between); or of contiguousness (nothing between); or of likeness; or of nearness; or of simultaneousness; or of in-ness; or of on-ness; or of for-ness; or of simple with-ness; or even of mere and-ness, which last relation would make of however disjointed a world otherwise, at any rate for that occasion a universe ‘of discourse.’ Now Mr. Bradley tells us that none of these relations, as we actually experience them, can possibly be real.[53] My next duty, accordingly, must be to rescue radical empiricism from Mr. Bradley. Fortunately, as it seems to me, his general contention, that the very notion of relation is unthinkable clearly, has been successfully met by many critics.[54]

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It is a burden to the flesh, and an injustice both to readers and to the previous writers, to repeat good arguments already printed. So, in noticing Mr. Bradley, I will confine myself to the interests of radical empiricism solely.


The first duty of radical empiricism, taking given conjunctions at their face-value, is to class some of them as more intimate and some as more external. When two terms are similar, their very natures enter into the relation. Being what they are, no matter where or when, the likeness never can be denied, if asserted. It continues predicable as long as the terms continue. Other relations, the where and the when, for example, seem adventitious. The sheet of paper may be ‘off’ or ‘on’ the table, for example; and in either case the relation involves only the outside of its terms. Having an outside, both of them, they contribute by it to the relation. It is external: the term’s inner nature is irrelevant to it. Any book, any table, may fall into the relation, which is created pro hac vice, not by their existence, but by their casual situation. It is just because so many of the conjunctions of experience seem so external that a philosophy of pure experience must tend to pluralism in its ontology. So far as things have space-relations, for example, we are free to imagine them with different origins even. If they could get to be, and get into space at all, then they may have done so separately. Once there, however, they are additives to one another, and, with no prejudice to their natures, all sorts of space-relations may supervene between them. The question of how things could come to be anyhow, is wholly different from the question what their relations, once the being accomplished, may consist in.

Mr. Bradley now affirms that such external relations as the space-relations which we here talk of must hold of entirely different subjects from those of which the absence of such relations might a moment previously have been plausibly asserted. Not only is the situation different when the book is on the table, but the book itself is different as a book, from what it was when it was off the table.[55] He admits that “such external relations seem possible and even existing…. That you do not alter what you compare or rearrange in space seems to common sense quite obvious, and that on the other side there are as obvious difficulties does not occur to common sense at all. And I will begin by pointing out these difficulties…. There is a relation in the result, and this relation, we hear, is to make no difference in its terms. But, if so, to what does it make a difference? something else, and in neither case have I understood.[61] For my intellect can not simply unite a diversity, nor has it in itself any form or way of togetherness, and you gain nothing if, beside A and B, you offer me their conjunction in fact. For to my intellect that is no more than another external element. And ‘facts,’ once for all, are for my intellect not true unless they satisfy it…. The intellect has in its nature no principle of mere togetherness.”[62]

Of course Mr. Bradley has a right to define ‘intellect’ as the power by which we perceive separations but not unions–provided he give due notice to the reader. But why then claim that such a maimed and amputated power must reign supreme in philosophy, and accuse on its behoof the whole empirical world of irrationality? It is true that he elsewhere attributes to the intellect a proprius motus of transition, but says that when he looks for these transitions in the detail of living experience, he ‘is unable to verify such a solution.'[63]

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Yet he never explains what the intellectual transitions would be like in case we had them. He only defines them negatively–they are not spatial, temporal, predicative, or causal; or qualitatively or otherwise serial; or in any way relational as we naively trace relations, for relations separate terms, and need themselves to be hooked on ad infinitum. The nearest approach he makes to describing a truly intellectual transition is where he speaks of A and B as being ‘united, each from its own nature, in a whole which is the nature of both alike.'[64] But this (which, pace Mr. Bradley, seems exquisitely analogous to ‘taking’ a congeries in a ‘lump,’ if not to ‘swamping’) suggests nothing but that conflux which pure experience so abundantly offers, as when ‘space,’ ‘white’ and ‘sweet’ are confluent in a ‘lump of sugar,’ or kinesthetic, dermal, and optical sensations confluent in ‘my hand.'[65] All that I can verify in the transitions which Mr. Bradley’s intellect desiderates as its proprius motus is a reminiscence of these and other sensible conjunctions (especially space-conjunctions), but a reminiscence so vague that its originals are not recognized. Bradley in short repeats the fable of the dog, the bone, and its image in the water. With a world of particulars, given in loveliest union, in conjunction definitely various, and variously definite, the ‘how’ of which you ‘understand’ as soon as you see the fact of them,[66] for there is no ‘how’ except the constitution of the fact as given; with all this given him, I say, in pure experience, he asks for some ineffable union in the abstract instead, which, if he gained it, would only be a duplicate of what he has already in his full possession. Surely he abuses the privilege which society grants to all us philosophers, of being puzzle-headed.

Polemic writing like this is odious; but with absolutism in possession in so many quarters, omission to defend my radical empiricism against its best known champion would count as either superficiality or inability. I have to conclude that its dialectic has not invalidated in the least degree the usual conjunctions by which the world, as experienced, hangs so variously together. In particular it leaves an empirical theory of knowledge[67] intact, and lets us continue to believe with common sense that one object may be known, if we have any ground for thinking that it is known, to many knowers.

In [the next essay] I shall return to this last supposition, which seems to me to offer other difficulties much harder for a philosophy of pure experience to deal with than any of absolutism’s dialectic objections.


[43] [Reprinted from The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. II, No. 2, January 19, 1905. Reprinted also as Appendix A in A Pluralistic Universe, pp. 347-369. The author’s corrections have been adopted in the present text. ED.]

[44] [F. H. Bradley: Appearance and Reality, second edition, pp. 152-153, 23, 118, 104, 108-109, 570.]

[45] Compare Professor MacLennan’s admirable Auseinandersetzung with Mr. Bradley, in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. I, [1904], pp. 403 ff., especially pp. 405-407.

[46] [Hume: Treatise of Human Nature, Appendix, Selby-Bigge’s edition, p. 636.]

[47] Technically, it seems classable as a ‘fallacy of composition.’ A duality, predicable of the two wholes, L–M and M–N, is forthwith predicated of one of their parts, M.

[48] See above, pp. 42 ff.

[49] I may perhaps refer here to my Principles of Psychology, vol. I, pp. 459 ff. It really seems ‘weird’ to have to argue (as I am forced now to do) for the notion that it is one sheet of paper (with its two surfaces and all that lies between) which is both under my pen and on the table while I write–the ‘claim’ that it is two sheets seems so brazen. Yet I sometimes suspect the absolutists of sincerity!

[50] [For the author’s criticism of Hegel’s view of relations, cf. Will to Believe, pp. 278-279. ED.]

[51] [Cf. A. Spir: Denken und Wirklichkeit, part I, bk. III, ch. IV (containing also account of Herbart). ED.]

[52] [See above, pp. 42, 49.]

[53] Here again the reader must beware of slipping from logical into phenomenal considerations. It may well be that we attribute a certain relation falsely, because the circumstances of the case, being complex, have deceived us. At a railway station we may take our own train, and not the one that fills our window, to be moving. We here put motion in the wrong place in the world, but in its original place the motion is a part of reality. What Mr. Bradley means is nothing like this, but rather that such things as motion are nowhere real, and that, even in their aboriginal and empirically incorrigible seats, relations are impossible of comprehension.

[54] Particularly so by Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, in his Man and the Cosmos; by L. T. Hobhouse, in chapter XII (“The Validity of Judgment”) of his Theory of Knowledge; and by F. C. S. Schiller, in his Humanism, essay XI. Other fatal reviews (in my opinion) are Hodder’s, in the Psychological Review, vol. I, [1894], p. 307; Stout’s in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1901-2, p. 1; and MacLennan’s in [ The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. I, 1904, p. 403].

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[55] Once more, don’t slip from logical into physical situations. Of course, if the table be wet, it will moisten the book, or if it be slight enough and the book heavy enough, the book will break it down. But such collateral phenomena are not the point at issue. The point is whether the successive relations ‘on’ and ‘not-on’ can rationally (not physically) hold of the same constant terms, abstractly taken. Professor A. E. Taylor drops from logical into material considerations when he instances color-contrast as a proof that A, ‘as contra-distinguished from B, is not the same thing as mere A not in any way affected’ ( Elements of Metaphysics, p. 145). Note the substitution, for ‘related’ of the word ‘affected,’ which begs the whole question.

[56] But “is there any sense,” asks Mr. Bradley, peevishly, on p. 579, “and if so, what sense in truth that is only outside and ‘about’ things?” Surely such a question may be left unanswered.

[57] Appearance and Reality, second edition, pp. 575-576.

[58] I say ‘undecided,’ because, apart from the ‘so far,’ which sounds terribly half-hearted, there are passages in these very pages in which Mr. Bradley admits the pluralistic thesis. Read, for example, what he says, on p. 578, of a billiard ball keeping its ‘character’ unchanged, though, in its change of place, its ‘existence’ gets altered; or what he says, on p. 579, of the possibility that an abstract quality A, B, or C, in a thing, ‘may throughout remain unchanged’ although the thing be altered; or his admission that in red-hairedness, both as analyzed out of a man and when given with the rest of him, there may be ‘no change’ (p. 580). Why does he immediately add that for the pluralist to plead the non-mutation of such abstractions would be an ignoratio elenchi ? It is impossible to admit it to be such. The entire elenchus and inquest is just as to whether parts which you can abstract from existing wholes can also contribute to other wholes without changing their inner nature. If they can thus mould various wholes into new gestaltqualitaeten , then it follows that the same elements are logically able to exist in different wholes [whether physically able would depend on additional hypotheses]; that partial changes are thinkable, and through-and-through change not a dialectic necessity; that monism is only an hypothesis; and that an additively constituted universe is a rationally respectable hypothesis also. All the theses of radical empiricism, in short, follow.

[59] Op. cit., pp. 577-579.

[60] So far as I catch his state of mind, it is somewhat like this: ‘Book,’ ‘table,’ ‘on’–how does the existence of these three abstract elements result in this book being livingly on this table. Why isn’t the table on the book? Or why doesn’t the ‘on’ connect itself with another book, or something that is not a table? Mustn’t something in each of the three elements already determine the two others to it, so that they do not settle elsewhere or float vaguely? Mustn’t the whole fact be pre-figured in each part, and exist de jure before it can exist de facto ? But, if so, in what can the jural existence consist, if not in a spiritual miniature of the whole fact’s constitution actuating every partial factor as its purpose? But is this anything but the old metaphysical fallacy of looking behind a fact in esse for the ground of the fact, and finding it in the shape of the very same fact in posse ? Somewhere we must leave off with a constitution behind which there is nothing.

[61] Apply this to the case of ‘book-on-table’! W. J.

[62] Op. cit., pp. 570, 572.

[63] Op. cit., pp. 568, 569.

[64] Op. cit., p. 570.

[65] How meaningless is the contention that in such wholes (or in ‘book-on-table,’ ‘watch-in-pocket,’ etc.) the relation is an additional entity between the terms, needing itself to be related again to each! Both Bradley ( op. cit., pp. 32-33) and Royce ( The World and the Individual, vol. I, p. 128) lovingly repeat this piece of profundity.

[66] The ‘why’ and the ‘whence’ are entirely other questions, not under discussion, as I understand Mr. Bradley. Not how experience gets itself born, but how it can be what it is after it is born, is the puzzle.

[67] Above, p. 52.

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