Essays in Radical Empiricism, by William James

Editor’s Preface

THE present volume is an attempt to carry out a plan which William James is known to have formed several years before his death. In 1907 he collected reprints in an envelope which he inscribed with the title ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’; and he also had duplicate sets of these reprints bound, under the same title, and deposited for the use of students in the general Harvard Library, and in the Philosophical Library in Emerson Hall.

Two years later Professor James published The Meaning of Truth and A Pluralistic Universe, and inserted in these volumes several of the articles which he had intended to use in the ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism.’ Whether he would nevertheless have carried out his original plan, had he lived, cannot be certainly known. Several facts, however, stand out very clearly. In the first place, the articles included in the original plan but omitted from his later volumes are indispensable to the understanding of his other writings. To these articles he repeatedly alludes. Thus, in The Meaning of Truth (p. 127), he says: “This statement is probably excessively obscure to any one who has not read my two articles ‘Does Consciousness Exist?’ and ‘A World of Pure Experience.’” Other allusions have been indicated in the present text. In the second place, the articles originally brought together as ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’ form a connected whole. Not only were most of them written consecutively within a period of two years, but they contain numerous cross-references. In the third place, Professor James regarded ‘radical empiricism’ as an independent doctrine. This he asserted expressly: “Let me say that there is no logical connexion between pragmatism, as I understand it, and a doctrine which I have recently set forth as ‘radical empiricism.’ The latter stands on its own feet. One may entirely reject it and still be a pragmatist.” (Pragmatism, 1907, Preface, p. ix.) Finally, Professor James came toward the end of his life to regard ‘radical empiricism’ as more fundamental and more important than 'pragmatism.' In the Preface to The Meaning of Truth (1909), the author gives the following explanation of his desire to continue, and if possible conclude, the controversy over pragmatism: “ I am interested in another doctrine in philosophy to which I give the name of radical empiricism, and it seems to me that the establishment of the pragmatist theory of truth is a step of first-rate importance in making radical empiricism prevail “ (p. xii).

In preparing the present volume, the editor has therefore been governed by two motives. On the one hand, he has sought to preserve and make accessible certain important articles not to be found in Professor James’s other books. This is true of Essays 1, II IV, V, VIII, IX, x, Xi, and XII. On the other hand, he has sought to bring together in one volume a set of essays treating systematically of one independent, coherent, and fundamental doctrine. To this end it has seemed best to include three essays (III VI, and VII), which, although included in the original plan, were afterwards reprinted elsewhere; and one essay, XII, not included in the original plan. Essays III, VI, and VII are indispensable to the consecutiveness of the series, and are so interwoven with the rest that it is necessary that the student should have them at hand for ready consultation. Essay XII throws an important light on the author’s general ‘empiricism,’ and forms an important link between ‘radical empiricism’ and the author’s other doctrines.

In short, the present volume is designed not as a collection but rather as a treatise. It is intended that another volume shall be issued which shall contain papers having biographical or historical importance which have not yet been reprinted in book form. The present volume is intended not only for students of Professor James’s philosophy, but for students of metaphysics and the theory of knowledge. It sets forth systematically and within brief compass the doctrine of ‘radical empiricism.’

A word more may be in order concerning the general meaning of this doctrine. In the Preface to the Will to Believe (1898), Professor James gives the name "radical empiricism" to his “ philosophic attitude,” and adds the following explanation: “I say ‘empiricism,’ because it is contented to regard its most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience; and I say ‘radical,’ because it treats the doctrine of monism itself as an hypothesis, and, unlike so much of the halfway empiricism that is current under the name of positivism or agnosticism or scientific naturalism, it does not dogmatically affirm monism as something with which all experience has got to square “ (pp. vii-viii). An ‘empiricism’ of this description is a “philosophic attitude” or temper of mind rather than a doctrine, and characterizes all of Professor James’s writings. It is set forth in Essay XII of the present volume.

In a narrower sense, ‘empiricism’ is the method of resorting to particular experiences for the solution of philosophical problems. Rationalists are the men of principles, empiricists the men of facts. (Some Problems of Philosophy, p. 35; cf. also, ibid., p. 44; and Pragmatism, pp. 9, 51.) Or, “since principles are universals, and facts are particulars, perhaps the best way of characterizing the two tendencies is to say that rationalist thinking proceeds most willingly by going from wholes to parts, while empiricist thinking proceeds by going from parts to wholes.” (Some Problems of Philosophy, p. 35; cf. also ibid., p. 98; and A Pluralistic Universe, p. 7.) Again, empiricism “remands us to sensation.” (Op. cit., P. 264.) The “empiricist view” insists that, “as reality is created temporally day by day, concepts . . . can never fitly supersede perception. . . . The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience.” (Some Problems of Philosophy, pp. 100, 97.) Empiricism in this sense is as yet characteristic of Professor James’s philosophy as a whole. It is not the distinctive and independent doctrine set forth in the present book.

The only summary of ‘radical empiricism’ in this last and narrowest sense appears in the Preface to The Meaning of Truth (pp. xii-xiii); and it must be reprinted here as the key to the text that follows. 1

1 The use of numerals and italics is introduced by the editor.

“Radical empiricism consists (1) first of a postulate, (2) next of a statement of fact, (3) and finally of a generalized conclusion.”

(1) “The postulate is that the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience. (Things of an unexperienceable nature may exist ad libitum, but they form no part of the material for philosophic debate.) ” This is “the principle of pure experience” as “a methodical postulate.” (Cf. below, pp. 159, 241.) This postulate corresponds to the notion which the author repeatedly attributes to Shadworth Hodgson, the notion “that realities are only what they are ‘known as."’ (Pragmatism, p. 50; Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 443; The Meaning of Truth, pp. 43, 118.) In this sense ‘radical empiricism’ and pragmatism are closely allied. Indeed, if pragmatism be defined as the assertion that “the meaning of any proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence in our future practical experience, . . . the point lying in the fact that the experience must be particular rather than in the fact that it must be active “ (Meaning of Truth, p. 9.10); then pragmatism and the above postulate come to the same thing. The present book, however, consists not so much in the assertion of this postulate as in the use of it. And the method is successful in special applications by virtue of a certain “statement of fact” concerning relations.

(2) “The statement of fact is that the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves.” (Cf. also A Pluralistic Universe, p. 280; The Will to Believe, p. 278.) This is the central doctrine of the present book. It distinguishes ‘radical empiricism’ from the “ordinary empiricism” of Hume, J. S. Mill, etc., with which it is otherwise allied. (Cf. below, pp. 42-44.) It provides an empirical and relational version of ‘activity,’ and so distinguishes the author's voluntarism from a view with which it is easily confused — the view which upholds a pure or transcendent activity. (Cf. below, Essay VI.) It makes it possible to escape the vicious disjunctions that have thus far baffled philosophy: such disjunctions as those between consciousness and physical nature, between thought and its object, between one mind and another, and between one ‘thing’ and another. These disjunctions need not be ‘overcome’ by calling in any “ extraneous trans-empirical connective support” (Meaning of Truth, Preface, p. xiii); they may now be avoided by regarding the dualities in question as only differences of empirical relationship among common empirical terms. The pragmatistic account of ‘meaning’ and ‘truth,’ shows only how a vicious disjunction between ‘idea’ and ‘object’ may thus be avoided. The present volume not only presents pragmatism in this light; but adds similar accounts of the other dualities mentioned above.

Thus while pragmatism and radical empiricism do not differ essentially when regarded as methods, they are independent when regarded as doctrines. For it would be possible to hold the pragmatistic theory of ‘meaning’ and ‘truth,’ without basing it on any fundamental theory of relations, and without extending such a theory of relations to residual philosophical problems; without, in short, holding either to the above ‘statement of fact,’ or to the following ‘generalized conclusion.’

(3) “The generalized conclusion is that therefore the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs., in short, no extraneous transempirical connective support, but possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure.” When thus generalized, ‘radical empiricism’ is not only a theory of knowledge comprising pragmatism as a special chapter, but a metaphysic as well. It excludes “ the hypothesis of trans-empirical reality “ (Cf. below, p. 195). It is the author’s most rigorous statement of his theory that reality is an "experience-continuum." (Meaning of Truth, p. 152; A Pluralistic Universe, Lect. v, vii.) It is that positive and constructive ‘empiricism’ of which Professor James said: “Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as of philosophy will be ready to begin.” (Op. cit., p. 314; cf. ibid., Lect. viii, passim; and The Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 515-527.)

The editor desires to acknowledge his obligations to the periodicals from which these essays have been reprinted, and to the many friends of Professor James who have rendered valuable advice and assistance in the preparation of the present volume.

Ralph Barton Perry.
Cambridge, Massachusetts.
January 8, 1912.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/william/radical/preface.html

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