William James Essays

1. Chronology of James’s Life

  • 1842. Born in New York City, first child of Henry James and Mary Walsh. James. Educated by tutors and at private schools in New York.
  • 1843. Brother Henry born.
  • 1848. Sister Alice born.
  • 1855–8. Family moves to Europe. William attends school in Geneva, Paris, and Boulogne-sur-Mer; develops interests in painting and science.
  • 1858. Family settles in Newport, Rhode Island, where James studies painting with William Hunt.
  • 1859–60. Family settles in Geneva, where William studies science at Geneva Academy; then returns to Newport when William decides he wishes to resume his study of painting.
  • 1861. William abandons painting and enters Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard.
  • 1864. Enters Harvard School of Medicine.
  • 1865. Joins Amazon expedition of his teacher Louis Agassiz, contracts a mild form of smallpox, recovers and travels up the Amazon, collecting specimens for Agassiz’s zoological museum at Harvard.
  • 1866. Returns to medical school. Suffers eye strain, back problems, and suicidal depression in the fall.
  • 1867–8. Travels to Europe for health and education: Dresden, Bad Teplitz, Berlin, Geneva, Paris. Studies physiology at Berlin University, reads philosophy, psychology and physiology (Wundt, Kant, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Renan, Renouvier).
  • 1869. Receives M. D. degree, but never practices. Severe depression in the fall.
  • 1870–1. Depression and poor health continue.
  • 1872. Accepts offer from President Eliot of Harvard to teach undergraduate course in comparative physiology.
  • 1873. Accepts an appointment to teach full year of anatomy and physiology, but postpones teaching for a year to travel in Europe.
  • 1874–5. Begins teaching psychology; establishes first American psychology laboratory.
  • 1878. Marries Alice Howe Gibbens. Publishes “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence” in Journal of Speculative Philosophy.
  • 1879. Publishes “The Sentiment of Rationality” in Mind.
  • 1880. Appointed Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.  Continues to teach psychology.
  • 1882. Travels to Europe. Meets with Ewald Hering, Carl Stumpf, Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Wundt, Joseph Delboeuf, Jean Charcot, George Croom Robertson, Shadworth Hodgson, Leslie Stephen.
  • 1884. Lectures on “The Dilemma of Determinism” and publishes “On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology” in Mind.
  • 1885–92. Teaches psychology and philosophy at Harvard:  logic, ethics, English empirical philosophy, psychological research.
  • 1890. Publishes The Principles of Psychology with Henry Holt of Boston, twelve years after agreeing to write it.
  • 1892. Publishes Psychology: Briefer Course with Henry Holt.
  • 1897. Publishes The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, with Longmans, Green & Co. Lectures on “Human Immortality” (published in 1898).
  • 1898. Identifies himself as a pragmatist in “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” given at the University of California, Berkeley. Develops heart problems.
  • 1899. Publishes Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (including “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes Life Worth Living?”) with Henry Holt.  Becomes active member of the Anti-Imperialist League, opposing U. S. policy in Philippines.
  • 1901–2. Delivers Gifford lectures on “The Varieties of Religious Experience” in Edinburgh (published in 1902).
  • 1904–5 Publishes “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” “A World of Pure Experience,” “How Two Minds Can Know the Same Thing,” “Is Radical Empiricism Solipsistic?” and “The Place of Affectional Facts in a World of Pure Experience” in Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. All were reprinted in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912).
  • 1907. Resigns Harvard professorship. Publishes Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking with Longmans, Green & Co., based on lectures given in Boston and at Columbia.
  • 1909. Publishes A Pluralistic Universe with Longmans, Green & Co., based on Hibbert Lectures delivered in England and at Harvard the previous year.
  • 1910. Publishes “A Pluralistic Mystic” in Hibbert Journal. Abandons attempt to complete a “system” of philosophy. (His partially completed manuscript published posthumously as Some Problems of Philosophy). Dies of heart failure at summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire.

2. Early Writings

“Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence” (1878)

Although he was officially a professor of psychology when he published it, James’s discussion of Herbert Spencer broaches characteristic themes of his philosophy: the importance of religion and the passions, the variety of human responses to life, and the idea that we help to “create” the truths that we “register” (E 21). Taking up Spencer’s view that the adjustment of the organism to the environment is the basic feature of mental evolution, James charges that Spencer projects his own vision of what ought to be onto the phenomena he claims to describe. Survival, James asserts, is merely one of many interests human beings have: “The social affections, all the various forms of play, the thrilling intimations of art, the delights of philosophic contemplation, the rest of religious emotion, the joy of moral self-approbation, the charm of fancy and of wit—some or all of these are absolutely required to make the notion of mere existence tolerable;…” (E 13). We are all teleological creatures at base, James holds, each with a set of a priori values and categories. Spencer “merely takes sides with the telos he happens to prefer” (E 18).

James’s characteristic empiricism appears in his claim that values and categories fight it out in the course of human experience, and that their conflicts “can only be solved ambulando, and not by any a priori definition.” The “formula which proves to have the most massive destiny,” he concludes, “will be the true one” (E 17). Yet James wishes to defend his sense that any such formulation will be determined as much by a freely-acting human mind as by the world, a position he later (in Pragmatism) calls “humanism”: “there belongs to mind, from its birth upward, a spontaneity, a vote. It is in the game, and not a mere looker-on; and its judgments of the should-be, its ideals, cannot be peeled off from the body of the cogitandum as if they were excrescences…” (E 21).

“The Sentiment of Rationality” (1879, 1882)

The substance of this essay was first published in Mind in 1879 and in the Princeton Review in 1882, and then republished in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy in 1897. Although he never quite says that rationality is a sentiment, James holds that a sentiment—really a set of sentiments—is a “mark” of rationality. The philosopher, James writes, will recognize the rationality of a conception “as he recognizes everything else, by certain subjective marks with which it affects him. When he gets the marks, he may know that he has got the rationality.” These marks include a “strong feeling of ease, peace, rest” (WB 57), and a “feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness” (WB 58). There is also a “passion for parsimony” (WB 58) that is felt in grasping theoretical unifications, as well as a passion for distinguishing, a “loyalty to clearness and integrity of perception, dislike of blurred outlines, of vague identifications” (WB 59). The ideal philosopher, James holds, blends these two passions of rationality, and even some great philosophers go too far in one direction or another: Spinoza’s unity of all things in one substance is “barren,” as is Hume’s “‘looseness and separateness’ of everything…” (WB 60).

Sentiments of rationality operate not just in logic or science, but in ordinary life. When we first move into a room, for example, “we do not know what draughts may blow in upon our back, what doors may open, what forms may enter, what interesting objects may be found in cupboards and corners.” These minor uncertainties act as “mental irritant[s],” which disappear when we come to know our way around the room, to “feel at home” there (WB 67–8).

James begins the second part of his essay by considering the case when “two conceptions [are] equally fit to satisfy the logical demand” for fluency or unification. At this point, he holds, one must consider a “practical” component of rationality. The conception that “awakens the active impulses, or satisfies other aesthetic demands better than the other, will be accounted the more rational conception, and will deservedly prevail” (WB 66). James puts the point both as one of psychology—a prediction of what will occur—and as one of judgment, for he holds that it will prevail “deservedly.”

As in his essay on Spencer, James explores the relations between temperaments and philosophical theorizing. Idealism, he holds, “will be chosen by a man of one emotional constitution, materialism by another.” Idealism offers a sense of intimacy with the universe, the feeling that ultimately I “am all.” But materialists find in idealism “a narrow, close, sick-room air,” and prefer to conceive of an uncertain, dangerous and wild universe that has “no respect for our ego.” Let “the tides flow,” the materialist thinks, “even though they flow over us” (WB 76). James is sympathetic both to the idea that the universe is something we can be intimate with and to the idea that it is wild and unpredictable. If he criticizes idealism for its “sick-room air,” he criticizes reductive forms of materialism for denying to “our most intimate powers…all relevancy in universal affairs” (WB 71). The intimacy and the wildness portrayed in these contrasting philosophies answer to propensities, passions, and powers in human beings, and the “strife” of these two forms of “mental temper,” James predicts, will always be seen in philosophy (WB 76). Certainly it is always seen in the philosophy of William James.

3. The Principles of Psychology

In 1878, James agreed to write a psychology textbook for the American publisher Henry Holt, but it took him twelve years to produce the manuscript, and when he did he described it to Holt as “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to nothing but two facts: 1st, that there is no such thing as a science of psychology, and 2nd, that W. J. is an incapable” (The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1926, pp. 393–4). Nevertheless, this thousand page volume of psychology, physiology and philosophy has proved to be James’s masterwork, containing early statements of his main philosophical ideas in extraordinarily rich chapters on “The Stream of Thought,” “The Consciousness of Self,” “Emotion,” “Will,” and many other topics.

James tells us that he will follow the psychological method of introspection in The Principles, which he defines as “the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover” (PP 185). In fact he takes a number of methodological approaches in the book. Early on, he includes chapters on “The Functions of the Brain” and “On Some General Conditions of Brain Activity” that reflect his years as a lecturer in anatomy and physiology at Harvard, and he argues for the reductive and materialist thesis that habit is “at bottom a physical principle” (PP 110). As the book moves along, he involves himself in discussions with philosophers—for example with Hume and Kant in his hundred-page chapter on the self, and he finds himself making metaphysical claims that anticipate his later pragmatism, as when he writes: “There is no property ABSOLUTELY essential to any one thing. The same property which figures as the essence of a thing on one occasion becomes a very inessential feature on the other” (PP 959).

Even “introspection” covers a range of reports. James discusses the experiments that his contemporaries Wundt, Stumpf and Fechner were performing in their laboratories, which led them to results such as that “sounds are less delicately discriminated in intensity than lights” (PP 513).  But many of James’s most important and memorable introspective observations come from his own life. For example:

The rhythm of a lost word may be there without a sound to clothe it…. Everyone must know the tantalizing effect of the blank rhythm of some forgotten verse, restlessly dancing in one’s mind, striving to be filled out with words (PP 244).

Our father and mother, our wife and babes, are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. When they die, a part of our very selves is gone. If they do anything wrong, it is our shame. If they are insulted, our anger flashes forth as readily as if we stood in their place. (PP 280).

There is an excitement during the crying fit which is not without a certain pungent pleasure of its own; but it would take a genius for felicity to discover any dash of redeeming quality in the feeling of dry and shrunken sorrow (PP 1061).

Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things. We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things! (PP, p. 1182).

In this last quotation, James tackles a philosophical problem from a psychological perspective. Although he refrains from answering the question of whether these “responses” are in fact deep organs of communication with the nature of things—reporting only that they seem to us to be so—in his later writings, such as Varieties of Religious Experience and A Pluralistic Universe, he confesses, and to some degree defends, his belief that the question should be answered affirmatively.

In the deservedly famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought” James takes himself to be offering a richer account of experience than those of traditional empiricists such as Hume. He believes relations, vague fringes, and tendencies are experienced directly (a view he would later defend as part of his “radical empiricism.”) James finds consciousness to be a stream rather than a succession of “ideas.” Its waters blend, and our individual consciousness—or, as he prefers to call it sometimes, our “sciousness”—is “steeped and dyed” in the waters of sciousness or thought that surround it. Our psychic life has rhythm: it is a series of transitions and resting-places, of “flights and perchings” (PP 236). We rest when we remember the name we have been searching for; and we are off again when we hear a noise that might be the baby waking from her nap.

Interest—and its close relative, attention—is a major component not only of James’s psychology, but of the epistemology and metaphysics that seep into his discussion. A thing, James states in “The Stream of Thought,” is a group of qualities “which happen practically or aesthetically to interest us, to which we therefore give substantive names…”. (PP 274). And reality “means simply relation to our emotional and active life…whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real” (PP 924). Our capacity for attention to one thing rather than another is for James the sign of an “active element in all consciousness,…a spiritual something…which seems to go out to meet these qualities and contents, whilst they seem to come in to be received by it.” (PP 285). Faced with the tension between scientific determinism and our belief in our own freedom or autonomy, James—speaking not as a psychologist but as the philosopher he had become—argues that science “must be constantly reminded that her purposes are not the only purposes, and that the order of uniform causation which she has use for, and is therefore right in postulating, may be enveloped in a wider order, on which she has no claims at all” (PP 1179).

In his discussions of consciousness James appears at various times to be a reductive materialist, a dualist, a proto-phenomenologist, and a neutral psychologist who wouldn’t dare to consider philosophical questions. One of the most original layers of The Principles lies in James’s pursuit of a “pure” description of the stream of thought that does not presuppose it to be either mental or material, a pursuit that anticipates not only his own later “radical empiricism,” but Husserl’s phenomenology. In his chapter on “Sensation,” for example, James is at pains to deny that sensations are “in the mind” and then “by a special act on our part ‘extradited’ or ‘projected’ so as to appear located in an outer world” (PP 678). He argues that our original experiences are objective, that “only as reflection becomes developed do we become aware of an inner world at all” (PP 679). However, the objective world originally experienced is not the world of spatial relations that we think:

Certainly a child newly born in Boston, who gets a sensation from the candle-flame which lights the bedroom, or from his diaper-pin [who] does not feel either of these objects to be situated in longitude 71 W. and latitude 42 N.….The flame fills its own place, the pain fills its own place; but as yet these places are neither identified with, nor discriminated from, any other places. That comes later.  For the places thus first sensibly known are elements of the child’s space-world which remain with him all his life. (PP 681–2)

James’s chapter on “Habit,” early in the book, begins with habit as a physical matter but ends by considering its ethical implications. James argues that the laws of nature are themselves habits, “nothing but the immutable habits which the different elementary sorts of matter follow in their actions and reactions upon each other” (PP 109). In our brains, habits are paths of nervous energy, as rivers and streams are the paths of water’s flow. At skin level, even a scar is a kind of habit, “more likely to be abraded, inflamed, to suffer pain and cold, than are the neighboring parts” (PP 111). On the psychological level as well, “any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated, tends to perpetuate itself ...” (PP 116). Habits are useful in diminishing the attention that we have to devote to our actions, thereby allowing us to develop “our higher powers of mind” (PP 126). On the social level, habit is “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor” (PP 125). The “ethical implications of the law of habit,” (PP 124) as James sees them, concern which habits we choose to develop, and when. Many habits must begin early in life: “Hardly ever is a language learned after twenty spoken without a foreign accent” (PP 126). We should strive to make our “nervous system our ally instead of our enemy” by forming as many good habits as we can, as early in life as we can. Even later in life, we are to keep our capacity for resolution in shape by every day or two doing “something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it” (PP 130).

Two noteworthy chapters late in The Principles are “The Emotions” and “Will.” The first sets out the theory—also enunciated by the Danish physiologist Carl Lange—that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression: “Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect…that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble…” (PP 1065–6). The significance of this view, according to James, is that our emotions are tied in with our bodily expressions. What, he asks, would grief be “without its tears, its sobs, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breast-bone?” Not an emotion, James answers, for a “purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” (PP 1068).

In his chapter on “Will” James opposes the theory of his contemporary Wilhelm Wundt that there is one special feeling—a “feeling of innervation”—present in all intentional action.  In his survey of a range of cases, James finds that some actions involve an act of resolve or of outgoing nervous energy, but others do not. For example:

I sit at table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about. There is certainly no express fiat here;… (PP 1131).

The chapter on “Will” also contains striking passages that anticipate the concerns of The Varieties of Religious Experience:  about moods, “changes of heart,” and “awakenings of conscience.”  These, James observes, may affect the “whole scale of values of our motives and impulses” (PP 1140).

James’s popular and influential, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, published in 1897, collects previously published essays from the previous nineteen years, including “The Sentiment of Rationality” (discussed above), “The Dilemma of Determinism,” “Great Men and Their Environment” and “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” The title essay—published just two years earlier—proved to be controversial for seeming to recommend irresponsible or irrationally held beliefs. James later wrote that he should have called the essay “the right to believe,” to indicate his intent to justify holding certain beliefs in certain circumstances, not to claim that we can (or should) believe things simply by an act of will.

In science, James notes, we can afford to await the outcome of investigation before coming to a belief, but in other cases we are “forced,” in that we must come to some belief even if all the relevant evidence is not in. If I am on an isolated mountain trail, faced with an icy ledge to cross, and do not know whether I can make it, I may be forced to consider the question whether I can or should believe that I can cross the ledge. This question is not only forced, it is “momentous”: if I am wrong I may fall to my death, and if I believe rightly that I can cross the ledge, my holding of the belief may itself contribute to my success. In such a case, James asserts, I have the “right to believe”—precisely because such a belief may help bring about the fact believed in. This is a case “where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming” (WB, 25).

James applies his analysis to religious belief, particularly to the possible case in which one’s salvation depends on believing in God in advance of any proof that God exists. In such a case the belief may be justified by the outcome to which having the belief leads.  He extends his analysis beyond the religious domain, however, to a wide range of secular human life:

A social organism of any sort is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs…. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted (WB 24).

Moral questions too are both momentous and unlikely to be sustained by “sensible proof.” They are not matters of science but of “what Pascal calls our heart” (WB 22). James defends our right to believe in certain answers to these questions anyway.

Another essay in the collection, “Reflex Action and Theism,” attempts a reconciliation of science and religion. James’s expression “reflex action” alludes to the biological picture of the organism as responding to sensations with a series of actions. In the higher animals a theoretical or thinking stage intervenes between sensation and action, and this is where, in human beings, the thought of God arises. James maintains that this thought is a natural human response to the universe, independent of any proof that God exists, and he predicts that God will be the “centre of gravity of all attempts to solve the riddle of life” (WB, 116). He ends the essay by advocating a “theism” that posits “an ultimate opacity in things, a dimension of being which escapes our theoretic control” (WB 143).

The Will to Believe also contains James’s most developed account of morality, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.”  Morality for James rests on sentience—without it there are no moral claims and no moral obligations. But once sentience exists, a claim is made, and morality gets “a foothold in the universe” (WB 198). Although James insists that there is no common essence to morality, he does find a guiding principle for ethical philosophy in the principle that we “satisfy at all times as many demands as we can” (WB 205). This satisfaction is to be achieved by working towards a “richer universe…the good which seems most organizable, most fit to enter into complex combinations, most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole” (WB 210). This work proceeds by a series of experiments, by means of which we have learned to live (for the most part) without “polygamy and slavery, private warfare and liberty to kill, judicial torture and arbitrary royal power.” (WB 205) . However, James holds that there is “nothing final in any actually given equilibrium of human ideals, [so that] as our present laws and customs have fought and conquered other past ones, so they will in their turn be overthrown by any newly discovered order which will hush up the complaints that they still give rise to, without producing others louder still” (WB 206).

James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” published in his Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals in 1899, illustrates another important element of James’s moral outlook. The blindness to which James draws attention is that of one human being to another, a blindness he illustrates with a story from his own life. Riding in the mountains of North Carolina he comes upon a devastated landscape, with no trees, scars in the earth, here and there a patch of corn growing in the sunlight. But after talking to the settlers who had cleared the forest to make room for their farm, James comes to see it their way (at least temporarily): not as devastation but as a manifestation of “duty, struggle, and success.” James concludes: “I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge” (TT 233–4). James portrays a plurality of outlooks in the essay to which he attaches both a metaphysical/epistemological and an ethical import. This plurality, he writes:

commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations (TT 264).

Although “On a Certain Blindness” is about toleration and the appreciation of different points of view, James sets out his own romantic point of view in his choice of heroes in the essay: Wordsworth and Shelley, Emerson, and W. H. Hudson, all of whom are said to have a sense of the “limitless significance in natural things” (TT 244). Even in the city, there is “unfathomable significance and importance” (TT 254) in the daily events of the streets, the river, and the crowds of people. James praises Walt Whitman, “a hoary loafer,” for knowing how to profit by life’s common opportunities: after a morning of writing and a bath, Whitman rides the omnibus down Broadway from 23rd street to Bowling Green and back, just for the pleasure and the spectacle of it. “[W]ho knows the more of truth,” James asks, “Whitman on his omnibus-top, full of the inner joy with which the spectacle inspires him, or you, full of the disdain which the futility of his occupation excites?” (TT 252). James’s interest in the inner lives of others, and in writers like Tolstoy who share his understanding of their “mysterious ebbs and flows” (TT 255), leads him to the prolonged study of human religious experience that he presented as the Gifford Lectures in 1901–2, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902.

5. The Varieties of Religious Experience

Like The Principles of Psychology, Varieties is “A Study in Human Nature,” as its subtitle says. But at some five hundred pages it is only half the length of The Principles of Psychology, befitting its more restricted, if still large, scope. For James studies that part of human nature that is, or is related to, religious experience. His interest is not in religious institutions, ritual, or, even for the most part, religious ideas, but in “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (V 31).

James sets out a central distinction of the book in early chapters on “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” and “The Sick Soul.” The healthy-minded religious person—Walt Whitman is one of James’s main examples—has a deep sense of “the goodness of life,” (V 79) and a soul of “sky-blue tint” (V 80). Healthy-mindedness can be involuntary, just natural to someone, but often comes in more willful forms. Liberal Christianity, for example, represents the triumph of a resolute devotion to healthy-mindedness over a morbid “old hell-fire theology” (V 91). James also cites the “mind-cure movement” of Mary Baker Eddy, for whom “evil is simply a lie, and any one who mentions it is a liar” (V 107). For “The Sick Soul,” in contrast, “radical evil gets its innings” (V 163). No matter how secure one may feel, the sick soul finds that “[u]nsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up: a touch of nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy….” These states are not simply unpleasant sensations, for they bring “a feeling of coming from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness” (V 136).  James’s main examples are Leo Tolstoy’s “My Confession,” John Bunyan’s autobiography, and a report of terrifying “dread”—allegedly from a French correspondent but actually from James himself. Some sick souls never get well, while others recover or even triumph: these are the “twice-born.” In chapters on “The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification” and on “Conversion,” James discusses St. Augustine, Henry Alline, Bunyan, Tolstoy, and a range of popular evangelists, focusing on what he calls “the state of assurance” (V 247) they achieve. Central to this state is “the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one, the peace, the harmony, the willingness to be, even though the outer conditions should remain the same” (V 248).

Varieties’ classic chapter on “Mysticism” offers “four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical…” (V 380). The first is ineffability: “it defies expression…its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.” Second is a “noetic quality”: mystical states present themselves as states of knowledge. Thirdly, mystical states are transient; and, fourth, subjects are passive with respect to them: they cannot control their coming and going. Are these states, James ends the chapter by asking, “windows through which the mind looks out upon a more extensive and inclusive world[?]” (V 428).

In chapters entitled “Philosophy”—devoted in large part to pragmatism—and “Conclusions,” James finds that religious experience is on the whole useful, even “amongst the most important biological functions of mankind,” but he concedes that this does not make it true. Nevertheless, James articulates his own belief—which he does not claim to prove—that religious experiences connect us with a greater, or further, reality not accessible in our normal cognitive relations to the world: “The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world” (V 515).

6. Late Writings

Pragmatism (1907)

James first announced his commitment to pragmatism in a lecture at Berkeley in 1898, entitled “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” Later sources for Pragmatism were lectures at Wellesley College in 1905, and at the Lowell Institute and Columbia University in 1906 and 1907. Pragmatism emerges in James’s book as six things: a philosophical temperament, a theory of truth, a theory of meaning, a holistic account of knowledge, a metaphysical view, and a method of resolving philosophical disputes.

The pragmatic temperament appears in the book’s opening chapter, where (following a method he first set out in “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence”) James classifies philosophers according to their temperaments: in this case “tough-minded” or “tender-minded.” The pragmatist is the mediator between these extremes, someone, like James himself, with “scientific loyalty to facts,” but also “the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity, whether of the religious or romantic type” (P 17). The method of resolving disputes and the theory of meaning are on display in James’s discussion of an argument about whether a man chasing a squirrel around a tree goes around the squirrel too. Taking meaning as the  “conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve,” the pragmatist philosopher finds that two “practical” meanings of “go around” are in play: either the man goes North, East, South, and West of the squirrel, or he faces first the squirrel’s head, then one of his sides, then his tail, then his other side. “Make the distinction,” James writes, “and there is no occasion for any further dispute.”

The pragmatic theory of truth is the subject of the book’s sixth (and to some degree its second) chapter. Truth, James holds, is “a species of the good,” like health. Truths are goods because we can “ride” on them into the future without being unpleasantly surprised. They “lead us into useful verbal and conceptual quarters as well as directly up to useful sensible termini. They lead to consistency, stability and flowing human intercourse.  They lead away from excentricity and isolation, from foiled and barren thinking” (103). Although James holds that truths are “made” (104) in the course of human experience, and that for the most part they live “on a credit system” in that they are not currently being verified, he also holds the empiricistic view that “beliefs verified concretely by somebody are the posts of the whole superstructure” (P 100).

James’s chapter on “Pragmatism and Humanism” sets out his voluntaristic epistemology. “We carve out everything,” James states, “just as we carve out constellations, to serve our human purposes” (P, 100). Nevertheless, he recognizes “resisting factors in every experience of truth-making” (P, 117), including not only our present sensations or experiences but the whole body of our prior beliefs. James holds neither that we create our truths out of nothing, nor that truth is entirely independent of humanity. He embraces “the humanistic principle: you can’t weed out the human contribution” (P, 122). He also embraces a metaphysics of process in the claim that “for pragmatism [reality] is still in the making,” whereas for “rationalism reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity” (P 123). Pragmatism’s final chapter on “Pragmatism and Religion” follows James’s line in Varieties in attacking “transcendental absolutism” for its unverifiable account of God, and in defending a “pluralistic and moralistic religion” (144)based on human experience. “On pragmatistic principles,” James writes, “if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true” (143).

A Pluralistic Universe (1909)

Originally delivered in Oxford as a set of lectures “On the Present Situation in Philosophy,” James begins his book, as he had begun Pragmatism, with a discussion of the temperamental determination of philosophical theories, which, James states, “are just so many visions, modes of feeling the whole push … forced on one by one’s total character and experience, and on the whole preferred—there is no other truthful word—as one’s best working attitude” (PU 15). Maintaining that a philosopher’s “vision” is “the important thing” about him (PU 3), James condemns the “over-technicality and consequent dreariness of the younger disciples at our American universities…” (PU 13).

James passes from critical discussions of Josiah Royce’s idealism and the “vicious intellectualism” of Hegel to philosophers whose visions he admires: Gustav Fechner and Henri Bergson. He praises Fechner for holding that “the whole universe in its different spans and wave-lengths, exclusions and developments, is everywhere alive and conscious” (PU, 70), and he seeks to refine and justify Fechner’s idea that separate human, animal and vegetable consciousnesses meet or merge in a “consciousness of still wider scope” (72). James employs Henri Bergson’s critique of “intellectualism” to argue that the “concrete pulses of experience appear pent in by no such definite limits as our conceptual substitutes are confined by. They run into one another continuously and seem to interpenetrate” (PU 127). James concludes by embracing a position that he had more tentatively set forth in The Varieties of Religious Experience: that religious experiences “point with reasonable probability to the continuity of our consciousness with a wider spiritual environment from which the ordinary prudential man (who is the only man that scientific psychology, so called, takes cognizance of) is shut off” (PU 135). Whereas in Pragmatism James subsumes the religious within the pragmatic (as yet another way of successfully making one’s way through the world), in A Pluralistic Universe he suggests that the religious offers a superior relation to the universe.

Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912)

This posthumous collection includes James’s groundbreaking essays on “pure experience,” originally published in 1904–5. James’s fundamental idea is that mind and matter are both aspects of, or structures formed from, a more fundamental stuff—pure experience—that (despite being called “experience”) is neither mental nor physical. Pure experience, James explains, is “the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories… a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats…” (ERE 46). That “whats” pure experience may be are minds and bodies, people and material objects, but this depends not on a fundamental ontological difference among these “pure experiences,” but on the relations into which they enter. Certain sequences of pure experiences constitute physical objects, and others constitute persons; but one pure experience (say the perception of a chair) may be part both of the sequence constituting the chair and of the sequence constituting a person. Indeed, one pure experience might be part of two distinct minds, as James explains in a chapter entitled “How Two Minds Can Know One Thing.”

James’s “radical empiricism” is distinct from his “pure experience” metaphysics. It is never precisely defined in the Essays, and is best explicated by a passage from The Meaning of Truth where James states that radical empiricism consists of a postulate, a statement of fact, and a conclusion. The postulate is that “the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience,” the  fact is that relations are just as directly experienced as the things they relate, and the conclusion is that “the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience” (MT, 6–7).

James was still working on objections to his “pure experience” doctrine, replying to critics of Pragmatism, and writing an introduction to philosophical problems when he died in 1910. His legacy extends into psychology and the study of religion, and in philosophy not only throughout the pragmatist tradition that he founded (along with Charles Peirce), but into phenomenology and analytic philosophy. Edmund Husserl incorporated James’s notions of the “fringe” and “halo” into his phenomenology (Moran, pp. 276–80), Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind is indebted to James’s doctrine of “pure experience,” (Russell, 1921, pp. 22–6), Ludwig Wittgenstein learned about “the absence of the will act” from James’s Psychology (Goodman, Wittgenstein and William James, p. 81), and the versions of “neopragmatism” set out by Nelson Goodman, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam are saturated with James’s ideas. James is one of the most attractive and endearing of philosophers: for his vision of a “wild,” “open” universe that is nevertheless shaped by our human powers and answers to some of our deepest needs, but also, as Russell observed in his obituary, because of the “large tolerance and … humanity” with which he sets that vision out. (The Nation (3 September 1910: 793–4).


Primary Literature: Works by William James

  • The Works of William James, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 17 vol., 1975–.
  • William James: Writings 1878–1899. New York: Library of America, 1992.
  • William James: Writings 1902–1910. New York: Library of America, 1987
  • “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind as Correspondence,” first published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1878. Contained in Essays in Philosophy, pp. 7–22.
  • The Principles of Psychology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Originally published in 1890 [PP].
  • The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1979; first published in 1897 [WB].
  • “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” 1898. Contained in Pragmatism, in The Works of William James, pp. 255–70.
  • Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Henry Holt, 1899 [TT].
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Longmans, Green, 1916. Originally published in 1902 [V].
  • Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. Originally published in 1907 [P].
  • A Pluralistic Universe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977. Originally published in 1909 [PU].
  • The Meaning of Truth, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1979 [MT]. Originally published in 1909.
  • Essays in Philosophy. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1978 [E].
  • Some Problems of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1979. Originally published in 1911.
  • The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, Boston: Little Brown, 1926.
  • The Correspondence of William James, ed. Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley, 12 volumes. Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 1992–.
  • Selected Letters of William and Henry James, Charlottesville and London, University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Secondary Literature

  • Baghramian, Maria and Sarin Marchetti (eds.), 2017, Pragmatism and the European Traditions: Encounters with Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology Before the Great Divide, New York and London: Routledge.
  • Barzun, Jacques, 1983, A Stroll with William James New York: Harper and Row.
  • Benoist, Jocelyn, 2005, “A Phenomenology or Pragmatism?” in Pragmatism, Critical Concepts in Philosophy, vol. 2, Russell B. Goodman (ed.), London and New York: Routledge, pp. 89–112.
  • Bernstein, Richard, 2010, The Pragmatic Turn, Cambridge, U.K. and Malden, MA: Polity Press.
  • Bird, Graham, 1986, William James (The Arguments of the Philosophers). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Carrette, Jeremy, 2013, William James’s Hidden Religious Imagination: A Universe of Relations, New York: Routledge.
  • Edie, James, 1987, William James and Phenomenology, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Feinstein, Howard M., 1984, Becoming William James, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Gale, Richard M., 1999, The Divided Self of William James, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2004, The Philosophy of William James: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Girel, Mathias, 2004, “Les Angles de l’acte. Usages d’Emerson dans la Philosophie de William James,” Cahier Charles V, XXXVII (October): 207–245.
  • Goodman, Russell B., 1990, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Chapter 3.
  • –––, 2002, Wittgenstein and William James, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2004, “James on the Nonconceptual,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXVIII: 137–148.
  • –––, 2008, “Emerson, Romanticism, and Classical American Pragmatism,” in The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy, ed. Cheryl Misak, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 19–37.
  • –––, 2010, “William James’s Pluralisms,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 2: 155–76.
  • Jackman, Henry, 2008, “William James,” in The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy, Cheryl Misak (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 60–86.
  • Klein, Alexander, 2009, “On Hume on Space: Green’s Attack, James’s Empirical Response,” in Journal of the History of Philosophy, 47(3): 415–49.
  • Levinson, Henry S., 1981, The Religious Investigations of William James, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Madelrieux, Stéphane, 2008, William James, l’attitude empiriste, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Marchetti, Sarin, 2015, Ethics and Philosophical Critique in William James, New York: Palmgrave Macmillan.
  • Matthiessen, F. O., 1947, The James Family, New York: Knopf.
  • McDermott, John, 1986, Streams of Experience: Reflections on the History and Philosophy of American Culture, Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Misak, Cheryl, 2013, The American Pragmatists, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Moore, G. E., 1922, “William James’ ‘Pragmatism’”, in Philosophical Studies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 138.
  • Moran, Dermot, 2017, “Phenomenology and Pragmatism: Two Interactions. From Horizontal Intentionality to Practical Coping,” in Baghramian and Marchetti 2017, pp. 272–93.
  • Myers, Gerald, 1986, William James: His Life and Thought, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Pawelski, James O., 2007, The Dynamic Individualism of William James, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Perry, Ralph Barton, 1935, The Thought and Character of William James, Boston: Little, Brown, 2 vols.
  • Pihlström, Sami, 2008, The Trail of the Human Serpent is over Everything: Jamesian Perspectives on Mind, World, and Religion, Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Poirier, Richard, 1992, Poetry and Pragmatism,  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Proudfoot, Wayne, ed., 2004, William James and a Science of Religions, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Putnam, Hilary, 1987, The Many Faces of Realism, La Salle, IL: Open Court.
  • ––– (with Ruth Anna Putnam), 1990, “William James’s Ideas,” in Putnam, Hilary, Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 217–231.
  • Putnam, Ruth Anna, 1997, The Cambridge Companion to William James, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richardson, Robert D., 2006, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Russell, Bertrand, 1921, The Analysis of Mind, London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • –––, 1986, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell (Volume 6), London: George Allen and Unwin, pp. 257–306.
  • Simon, Linda, 1998, Genuine Reality: a life of William James , New York: Harcourt Brace.
  • Seigfried, Charlene Haddock, 1990, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Skillen, Anthony, 1996, “William James, ‘A Certain Blindness’ and an Uncertain Pluralism,” in Philosophy and Pluralism, ed. David Archard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 33–45.
  • Slater, Michael R., 2009, William James on Ethics and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sprigge, T. L. S., 1993, James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality, Chicago: Open Court.
  • Suckiel, Ellen Kappy, 1982, The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James, Notre Dame, IN and London: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • –––, 1996, Heaven’s Champion, Notre Dame, IN and London: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Tarver, Erin C. and Shannon Sullivan (eds.), 2015, Feminist Interpretations of William James, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Taylor, Eugene, 1996, William James on Consciousness Beyond the Fringe, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Wilshire, Bruce, 1979, William James and Phenomenology: A Study of “The Principles of Psychology”, New York: AMS Press, 1979.

It is difficult not to notice a curious unrest in the philosophic atmosphere of the time, always loosening of old landmarks, a softening of oppositions, a mutual borrowing from one another reflecting 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 thought 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. (Essay II ¶ 1)

If philosophy be really on the eve of any considerable rearrangement, the time should be propitious for any one who has suggestions of his own to bring forward. For many years past my mind has bee growing into a certain type of Weltanschauung. Rightly or wrongly, I have got to the point where I can hardly see things in any other pattern. I propose, therefore, to describe the pattern as clearly as I can consistently with great brevity, and to throw my description into the bubbling vat of publicity where, jostled by rivals and torn by critics, it will eventually either disappear from notice, or else, if better luck befall it, quietly subside to the profundities, and serve as a possible ferment of new growths or a nucleus of new crystallization. (Essay II ¶ 2)

I. Radical Empiricism

I give the name of to my Weltanschauung. Empiricism is known as the opposite of rationalism. Rationalism tends to emphasize universals and to make wholes prior to parts in the order of logic as well as in that of being. Empiricism, on the contrary, lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the universal as an abstraction. My description of things, accordingly, starts with the parts and makes of the whole a being of the second order. It is essentially a mosaic philosophy, a philosophy of plural facts, like that of Hume and his descendants, who refer these facts neither to Substances in which they inhere nor to an Absolute Mind that creates them as its objects. But it differs from the Humian type of empiricism in one particular which makes me add the epithet radical. (Essay II § 1 ¶ 1)

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as as anything else in the system. Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement. (Essay II § 1 ¶ 2)

Now, ordinary empiricism, in spite of the fact that conjunctive and disjunctive relations present themselves as being fully co-ordinate parts of experience, has always shown a tendency to do away with the connections of things, and to insist most on the disjunctions. Berkeley’s nominalism, Hume’s statement that whatever things we distinguish are as as if they had James Mill’s denial that similars have anything in common, the resolution of the causal tie into habitual sequence, John Mill’s account of both physical things and selves as composed of discontinuous possibilities, and the general pulverization of all Experience by association and the mind-dust theory, are examples of what I mean.(Essay II § 1 ¶ 3)

The natural result of such a world-picture has been the efforts of rationalism to correct its incoherencies by the addition of trans- experiential agents of unification, substances, intellectual categories and powers, or Selves; whereas, if empiricism had only been radical and taken everything that comes without disfavor, conjunction as well as separation, each at its face value, the results would have called for no such artificial correction. Radical empiricism, as I understand it, does full justice to conjunctive relations, without, however, treating them as rationalism always tends to treat them, as being true in some supernal way, as if the unity of things and their variety belonged to different orders of truth and vitality altogether. (Essay II § 1 ¶ 4)

II. Conjunctive Relations

Relations are of different degrees of intimacy. Merely to be one another in a universe of discourse is the most external relation that terms can have, and seems to involve nothing whatever as to farther consequences. Simultaneity and time-interval come next, and then space-adjacency and distance. After them, similarity and difference, carrying the possibility of many inferences. Then relations of activity, tying terms into series involving change, tendency, resistance, and the causal order generally. Finally, the relation experienced between terms that form states of mind, and are immediately conscious of continuing each other. The organization of the Self as a system of memories, purposes, strivings, fulfilments or disappointments, is incidental to this most intimate of all relations, the terms of which seem in many cases actually to compenetrate and suffuse each other’s being.(Essay II § 2 ¶ 1)

Philosophy has always turned on grammatical particles. With, near, next, like, from, towards, against, because, for, through, my — these words designate types of conjunctive relation arranged in a roughly ascending order of intimacy and inclusiveness. A priori, we can imagine a universe of withness but no nextness; or one of nextness but no likeness, or of likeness with no activity, or of activity with no purpose, or of purpose with no ego. These would be universes, each with its own grade of unity. The universe of human experience is, by one or another of its parts, of each and all these grades. Whether or not it possibly enjoys some still more absolute grade of union does not appear upon the surface. (Essay II § 2 ¶ 2)

Taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic. No one single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it. If we take space-relations, they fail to connect minds into any regular system. Causes and purposes obtain only among special series of facts. The self-relation seems extremely limited and does not link two different selves together. Prima facie, if you should liken the universe of absolute idealism to an aquarium, a crystal globe in which goldfish are swimming, you would have to compare the empiricist universe to something more like one of those dried human heads with which the Dyaks of Borneo deck their lodges. The skull forms a solid nucleus; but innumerable feathers, leaves, strings, beads, and loose appendices of every description float and dangle from it, and, save that they terminate in it, seem to have nothing to do with one another. Even so my experiences and yours float and dangle, terminating, it is true, in a nucleus of common perception, but for the most part out of sight and irrelevant and unimaginable to one another. This imperfect intimacy, this bare relation of withness between some parts of the sum total of experience and other parts, is the fact that ordinary empiricism over-emphasizes against rationalism, the latter always tending to ignore it unduly. Radical empiricism, on the contrary, is fair to both the unity and the disconnection. It finds no reason for treating either as illusory. It allots to each its definite sphere of description, and agrees that there appear to be actual forces at work which tend, as time goes on, to make the unity greater. (Essay II § 2 ¶ 3)

The conjunctive relation that has given most trouble to philosophy is the co-conscious transition, so to call it, by which one experience passes into another when both belong to the same self. My experiences and your experiences are each other in various external ways, but mine pass into mine, and yours pass into yours in a way in which yours and mine never pass into one another. Within each of our personal histories, subject, object, interest and purpose are continuous or may be continuous. Personal histories are processes of change in time, and the change itself is one of the things immediately experienced. in this case means continuous as opposed to discontinuous transition. But continuous transition is one sort of a conjunctive relation; and to be a radical empiricist means to hold fast to this conjunctive relation of all others, for this is the strategic point, the position through which, if a hole be made, all the corruptions of dialectics and all the metaphysical fictions pour into our philosophy. The holding fast to this relation means taking it at its face value, neither less nor more; and to take it at its face value means first of all to take it just as we feel it, and not to confuse ourselves with abstract talk about it, involving words that drive us to invent secondary conceptions in order to neutralize their suggestions and to make our actual experience again seem rationally possible. (Essay II § 2 ¶ 4)

What I do feel simply when a later moment of my experience succeeds an earlier one is that though they are two moments, the transition from the one to the other is continuous. Continuity here is a definite sort of experience; just as definite as is the discontinuity-experience which I find it impossible to avoid when I seek to make the transition from an experience of my own to one of yours. In this latter case I have to get on and off again, to pass from a thing lived to another thing only conceived, and the break is positively experienced and noted. Though the functions exerted by my experience and by yours may be the same (e.g., the same objects known and the same purposes followed), yet the sameness has in this case to be ascertained expressly (and often with difficulty and uncertainly) after the break has been felt; whereas in passing from one of my own moments to another the sameness of object and interest is unbroken, and both the earlier and the later experience are of things directly lived. (Essay II § 2 ¶ 5)

There is no other nature, no other whatness than this absence of break and this sense of continuity in that most intimate of all conjunctive relations, the passing of one experience into another when the belong to the same self. And this whatness is real empirical just as the whatness of separation and discontinuity is real content in the contrasted case. Practically to experience one’s personal continuum in this living way is to know the originals of the ideas of continuity and sameness, to know what the words stand for concretely, to own all that they can ever mean. But all experiences have their conditions; and over-subtle intellects, thinking about the facts here, and asking how they are possible, have ended by substituting a lot of static objects of conception for the direct perceptual experiences. they have said, and so on. The result is that from difficulty to difficulty, the plain conjunctive experience has been discredited by both schools, the empiricists leaving things permanently disjoined, and the rationalist remedying the looseness by their Absolutes or Substances, or whatever other fictitious agencies of union may have employed. From all which artificiality we can be saved by a couple of simple-reflections: first, that conjunctions and separations are, at all events, co-ordinate phenomena which, if we take experiences at their face value, must be accounted equally real; and second, that if we insist on treating things as really separate when they are given as continuously joined, invoking, when union is required, transcendental principles to overcome the separateness we have assumed, then we ought to stand ready to perform the converse act. We ought to invoke higher principles of disunion, also, to make our merely experienced disjunctions more truly real. Failing thus, we ought to let the originally given continuities stand on their own bottom. We have no right to be lopsided or to blow capriciously hot and cold. (Essay II § 2 ¶ 6)

III. The Cognitive Relation

The first great pitfall from which such a radical standing by experience will save us is an artificial conception of the relations between knower and known. Throughout the history of philosophy the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities; and thereupon the presence of the latter to the former, or the by the former of the latter, has assumed a paradoxical character which all sorts of theories had to be invented to overcome. Representative theories put a mental or into the gap, as a sort of intermediary. Common-sense theories left the gap untouched, declaring our mind able to clear it by a self-transcending leap. Transcendentalist theories left it impossible to traverse by finite knowers, and brought an Absolute in to perform the saltatory act. All the while, in the very bosom of the finite experience, every conjunction required to make the relation intelligible is given in full. Either the knower and the known are: (Essay II § 3 ¶ 1)

  1. the self-same piece of experience taken twice over in different contexts; or they are (Essay II § 3 ¶ 2)

  2. two pieces of actual experience belonging to the same subject, with definite tracts of conjunctive transitional experience between them; or (Essay II § 3 ¶ 3)

  3. the known is a possible experience either of that subject or another, to which the said conjunctive transitions would lead, if sufficiently prolonged. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 4)

To discuss all the ways in which one experience may function as the knower of another, would be incompatible with the limits of this essay. I have just treated of type 1, the kind of knowledge called perception. This is the type of case in which the mind enjoys direct with a present object. In the other types the mind has an object not immediately there. Of type 2, the simplest sort of conceptual knowledge, I have given some account in two [earlier] articles. Type 3 can always formally and hypothetically be reduced to type 2, so that a brief description of that type will put the present reader sufficiently at my point of view, and make him see what the actual meanings of the mysterious cognitive relation may be. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 5)

Suppose me to be sitting here in my library at Cambridge, at ten minutes’ walk from and to be thinking truly of the latter object. My mind may have before it only the name, or it may have a clear image, or it may have a very dim image of the hall, but such intrinsic differences in the image make no difference in its cognitive function. Certain extrinsic phenomena, special experiences of conjunction, are what impart to the image, be it what it may, its knowing office. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 6)

For instance, if you ask me what hall I mean by my image, and I call tell you nothing; or if I fail to point or lead you towards the Harvard Delta; or if, being led by you, I am uncertain whether the Hall I see be what I had in mind or not; you would rightly deny that I had that particular hall at all, even though my mental image might to some degree have resembled it. The resemblance would count in that case as coincidental merely, for all sorts of things of a kind resemble one another in this world without being held for that reason to take cognizance of one another. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 7)

On the other hand, if I can lead you to the hall, and tell you of its history and present uses; if in its presence I feel my idea, however imperfect it may have been, to have led hither and to be now terminated; if the associates of the image and of the felt hall run parallel, so that each term of the one context corresponds serially, as I walk, with an answering term of the others; why then my soul was prophetic, and my idea must be, and by common consent would be, called cognizant of reality. That percept was what I meant, for into it my idea has passed by conjunctive experiences of sameness and fulfilled intention. Nowhere is there jar, but every later moment continues and corroborates an earlier one. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 8)

In this continuing and corroborating, taken in no transcendental sense, but denoting definitely felt transitions, lies all that the knowing of a percept by an idea can possibly contain or signify. Wherever such transitions are felt, the first experience knows that last one. Where they do not, or where even as possibles they can not, intervene, there can be no pretence of knowing. In this latter case the extremes will be connected, if connected at all, by inferior relations — bare likeness or succession, or by alone. Knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time. Whenever certain intermediaries are given, such that, as they develop towards their terminus, there is experience from point to point of one direction followed, and finally of one process fulfilled, the result is that their starting-point thereby becomes a knower and their terminus an object meant or known. That is all that knowing (in the simple case considered) can be known-as, that is the whole of its nature, put into experiential terms. Whenever such is the sequence of our experiences we may freely say that we had the terminal object from the outset, even although at the outset nothing was there in us but a flat piece of substantive experience like any other, with no self-transcendency about it, and ny mystery save the mystery of coming into existence and of being gradually followed by other pieces of substantive experience, with conjunctively transitional experiences between. That is what we mean here by the object’s being Of any deeper more real way of being in mind we have no positive conception, and we have no right to discredit our actual experience by talking of such a way at all. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 9)

I know that many a reader will rebel at this. he will say, (Essay II § 3 ¶ 10)

But do not such dialectic difficulties remind us of the dog dropping his bone and snapping at its image in the water? If we knew any more real kind of union aliunde, we might be entitled to brand all our empirical unions as a sham. But unions by continuous transition are the only ones we know of, whether in this matter of a knowledge-about that terminates in an acquaintance, whether in personal identity, in logical predication through the copula or elsewhere. If anywhere there were more absolute unions realized, they could only reveal themselves to us by just such conjunctive results. These are what the unions are worth, these are all that we can ever practically mean by union, by continuity. Is it not time to repeat what Lotze said of substances, that to act like one is to be one? Should we not say here that to be experienced as continuous is to be really continuous, in a world where experience and reality come to the same thing? In a picture gallery a painted hook will serve to hang a painted chain by, a painted cable will hold a painted ship. In a world where both the terms and their distinctions are affairs of experience, conjunctions that are experienced must be at least as real as anything else. They will be real conjunctions, if we have no transphenomenal Absolute ready, to derealize the whole experienced world by, at a stroke. If, on the other hand, we had such an Absolute, not one of our opponents’ theories of knowledge could remain standing any better than ours could; for the distinctions as well as the conjunctions of experience would impartially fall its prey. The whole question of how thing can know would cease to be a real one at all in a world where otherness itself was an illusion.(Essay II § 3 ¶ 11)

So much for the essentials of the cognitive relation, where the knowledge is conceptual in type, or forms knowledge an object. It consists in intermediary experiences (possible, if not actual) of continuously developing progress, and, finally, of fulfilment, when the sensible percept, which is the object, is reached. The percept here not only verifies the concept, proves its function of knowing that percept to be true, but the percept’s existence as the terminus of the chain of intermediaries creates the function. Whatever terminates that chain was, because it now proves itself to be, what the concept (Essay II § 3 ¶ 12)

The towering importance for human life of this kind of knowing lies in the fact that an experience that knows another can figure as its representative, not in any quasi-miraculous sense, but in the definite practical sense of being its substitute in various operations, sometimes physical and sometimes mental, which lead us to its associates and results. By experimenting on our ideas of reality, we may save ourselves the trouble of experimenting on the real experiences which they severally mean. The ideas form related systems, corresponding point for point to the systems which the realities form; and by letting an ideal term call up its associates systematically, we may be led to a terminus which the corresponding real term would have led to in case we had operated on the real world. And this brings us to the general question of substitution. (Essay II § 3 ¶ 13)

IV. Substitution

In Taine’s brilliant book on substitution was for the first time named as a cardinal logical function, though of course the facts had always been familiar enough. What, exactly, in a system of experiences, does the of one of them for another mean? (Essay II § 4 ¶ 1)

According to my view, experience as a whole is a process in time, whereby innumerable particular terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them by transitions which, whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content, are themselves experiences, and must in general be accounted at least as real as the terms which they relate. What the nature of the event called signifies, depends altogether on the kind of transition that obtains. Some experiences simply abolish their predecessors without continuing them in any way. Others are felt to increase or to enlarge their meaning, to carry out their purpose, or to bring us nearer to their goal. They them, and may fulfil their function better than they fulfilled it themselves. But to in a world of pure experience can be conceived and defined in only one possible way. In such a world transitions and arrivals (or terminations) are the only events that happen, though they happen by so many sorts of path. The only experience that one experience can perform is to lead into another experience; and the only fulfilment we can speak of is the reaching of a certain experienced end. When one experience leads to (or can lead to) the same end as another, they agree in function. But the whole system of experiences as they are immediately given presents itself as a quasi-chaos through which one can pass out of an initial term in many directions and yet end in the same terminus, moving from next to next by a great many possible paths. (Essay II § 4 ¶ 2)

Either one of these paths might be a functional substitute for another, and to follow one rather than another might on occasion be an advantageous thing to do. As a matter of fact, and in a general way, the paths that run through conceptual experiences, that is, through or that the things in which they terminate, are highly advantageous paths to follow. Not only do they yield inconceivably rapid transitions; but, owing to the character which they frequently possess, and to their capacity for association with one another in great systems, they outstrip the tardy consecutions of the things themselves, and sweep us on towards our ultimate termini in a far more labor-saving way than the following of trains of sensible perception ever could. Wonderful are the new cuts and the short-circuits which the thought- paths make. Most thought-paths, it is true, are substitutes for nothing actual; they end outside the real world altogether, in wayward fancies, utopias, fictions or mistakes. But where they do re-enter reality and terminate therein, we substitute them always; and with these substitutes we pass the greater number of our hours. (Essay II § 4 ¶ 3)

This is why I called our experiences, taken together, a quasi-chaos. There is vastly more discontinuity in the sum total of experiences than we commonly suppose. The objective nucleus of every man’s experience, his own body, is, it is true, a continuous percept; and equally continuous as a percept (thought we may be inattentive to it) is the material environment of that body, changing by gradual transition when the body moves. But the distant parts of the physical world are at all times absent from us, and form conceptual objects merely, into the perceptual reality of which our life inserts itself at points discrete and relatively rare. Round their several objective nuclei, partly shared and common and partly discrete, of the real physical world, innumerable thinkers, pursuing their several lines of physically true cogitation, trace paths that intersect one another only at discontinuous perceptual points, and the rest of the time are quite incongruent; and around all the nuclei of shared as around the Dyak’s head of my late metaphor, floats the vast cloud of experiences that are wholly subjective, that are non-substitutional, that find not even an eventual ending for themselves in the perceptual world — there mere day-dreams and joys and sufferings and wishes of the individual minds. These exist with one another, indeed, and with the objective nuclei, but out of them it is probable that to all eternity no interrelated system of any kind will every be made. (Essay II § 4 ¶ 4)

This notion of the purely substitutional or conceptual physical world brings us to the most critical of all steps in the development of a philosophy of pure experience. The paradox of self-transcendency in knowledge comes back upon us here, but I think that our notions of pure experience and of substitution, and our radically empirical view of conjunctive transitions, are Denkmittel that will carry us safely through the pass. (Essay II § 4 ¶ 5)

V. What Objective Reference Is.

Whosoever feels his experience to be something substitutional even while he has it, may be said to have an experience that reaches beyond itself. From inside of its own entity it says and postulates reality existing elsewhere. For the transcendentalist, who holds knowing to consist in a salto mortale across an such an idea presents no difficulty; but it seems at first sight as if it might be inconsistent with an empiricism like our own. Have we not explained that conceptual knowledge is made such wholly by the existence of things that fall outside of the knowing experience itself — by intermediary experience and by a terminus that fulfils? Can the knowledge be there before these elements that constitute its being have come? And, if knowledge be not there, how can objective reference occur? (Essay II § 5 ¶ 1)

The key to this difficulty lies in the distinction between knowing as verified and completed, and the same knowing as in transit and on its way. To recur to the Memorial Hall example lately used, it is only when our idea of the Hall has actually terminated in the percept that we know that from the beginning it was truly cognitive of that. Until established by the end of the process, its quality of knowing that, or indeed of knowing anything, could still be doubted; and yet the knowing really was there, as the result now shows. We were virtual knowers of the Hall long before we were certified to have been its actual knowers, by the percept’s retroactive validating power. Just so we are all the time, by reason of the virtuality of the inevitable event which will make us so when it shall have come. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 2)

Now the immensely greater part of all our knowing never gets beyond this virtual stage. It never is completed or nailed down. I speak not merely of our ideas of imperceptibles like ether-waves or dissociated or of like the contents of our neighbors’ minds; I speak also of ideas which we might verify if we would take the trouble, but which we hold for true although unterminated perceptually, because nothing says to us, and there is no contradicting truth in sight. To continue thinking unchallenged is, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, our practical substitute for knowing in the completed sense. As each experience runs by cognitive transition into the next one, and we nowhere feel a collision with what we elsewhere count as truth or fact, we commit ourselves to the current as if the port were sure. We live, as it were, upon the front edge of an advancing wave-crest, and our sense of a determinate direction in falling forward is all we cover of the future of our path. It is as if a differential quotient should be conscious and treat itself as an adequate substitute for a traced-out curve. Our experience, inter alia, is of variations of rate and of direction, and lives in these transitions more than in the journey’s end. The experiences of tendency are sufficient to act upon — what more could we have done at those moments even if the later verification comes complete? (Essay II § 5 ¶ 3)

This is what, as a radical empiricist, I say to the charge that the objective reference which is so flagrant a character of our experience involves a chasm and a mortal leap. A positively conjunctive transition involves neither chasm nor leap. Being the very original of what we mean by continuity, it makes a continuum wherever it appears. I know full well that such brief words as these will leave the hardened transcendentalist unshaken. Conjunctive experiences separate their terms, he will still say: they are third things interposed, that have themselves to be conjoined by new links, and to invoke them makes our trouble infinitely worse. To our motion forward is impossible. Motion implies terminus; and how can terminus be felt before we have arrived? The barest start and sally forwards, the barest tendency to leave the instant, involves the chasm and the leap. Conjunctive transitions are the most superficial of appearances, illusions of our sensibility which philosophical reflection pulverizes at a touch. Conception is our only trustworthy instrument, conception and the Absolute working hand in hand. Conception disintegrates experience utterly, but its disjunctions are easily overcome again when the Absolute takes up the task. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 4)

Such transcendentalists I must leave, provisionally at least, in full possession of their creed. I have no space for polemics in this article, so I shall simply formulate the empiricist doctrine as my hypothesis, leaving it to work or not work as it may. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 5)

Objective reference, I say then, is an incident of the fact that so much of our experience comes as an insufficient and consists of process and transition. Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds. The relations, generally speaking, are as real here as the terms are, and the only complaint of the transcendentalist’s with which I could at all sympathize would be his charge that, by first making knowledge consist in external relations as I have done, and by then confessing that nine-tenths of the time these are not actually but only virtually there, I have knocked the solid bottom out of the whole business, and palmed off a substitute of knowledge for the genuine thing. Only the admission, such a critic might say, that our ideas are self-transcendent and already, in advance of the experiences that are to terminate them, can bring solidity back to knowledge in a world like this, in which transitions and terminations are only by exception fulfilled. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 6)

This seems to me an excellent place for applying the pragmatic method. When a dispute arises, that method consists in auguring what practical consequences would be different if one side rather than the other were true. If no difference can be thought of, the dispute is a quarrel over words. What then would the self-transcendency affirmed to exist in advance of all experiential mediation or terminations, be known-as? What would it practically result in for us, were it true? (Essay II § 5 ¶ 7)

It could only result in our orientation, in the turning of our expectations and practical tendencies into the right path; and the right path here, so long as we and the object are not yet face to face (or can never get face to face, as in the case of ejects), would be the path that led us into the object’s nearest neighborhood. Where direct acquaintance is lacking, is the next best thing, and an acquaintance with what actually lies about the object, and is most closely related to it, puts such knowledge within our gasp. Ether-waves and your anger, for example, are things in which my thoughts will never perceptually terminate, but my concepts of them lead me to their very brink, to the chromatic fringes and to the hurtful words and deeds which are their really next effects. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 8)

Even if our ideas did in themselves carry the postulated self-transcendency, it would still remain true that their putting us into possession of such effects would be the sole cash-value of the self-transcendency for us. And this cash-value, it is needless to say, is verbatim et literatim what our empiricist account pays in. On pragmatist principles, therefore, a dispute over self-transcendency is a pure logomachy. Call our concepts of ejective things self- transcendent or the reverse, it makes no difference, so long as we don’t differ about the nature of that exalted virtue’s fruits — fruits for us, of course, humanistic fruits. If an Absolute were proved to exist for other reasons, it might well appear that his knowledge is terminated in innumerable cases where ours is still incomplete. That, however, would be a fact indifferent to our knowledge. The latter would grow neither worse nor better, whether we acknowledged such an Absolute or left him out. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 9)

So the notion of a knowledge still in transitu and on its way joins hands here with that notion of a which I tried to explain in my [essay] entitled Does Consciousness Exist? The instant field of the present is always experienced in its state. plain unqualified actuality, a simple that, as yet undifferentiated into thing and thought, and only virtually classifiable as objective fact or as some one’s opinion about fact. This is as true when the field is conceptual as when it is perceptual. is in my idea as much as when I stand before it. I proceed to act on its account in either case. Only in the later experience that supersedes the present one is this naïf immediacy retrospectively split into two parts, a and its and the content corrected or confirmed. While still pure, or present, any experience — mine, for example, of what I write about in these very lines — passes for The morrow may reduce it to The transcendentalist in all his particular knowledges is as liable to this reduction as I am: his Absolute does not save him. Why, then, need he quarrel with an account of knowing that merely leaves it liable to this inevitable condition? Why insist that knowing is a static relation out of time when it practically seems so much a function of our active life? For a thing to be valid, says Lotze, is the same as to make itself valid. When the whole universe seems only to be making itself valid and to be still incomplete (else why its ceaseless changing?) why, of all things, should knowing be exempt? Why should it not be making itself valid like everything else? That some parts of it may be already valid or verified beyond dispute, the empirical philosopher, of course, like any one else, may always hope. (Essay II § 5 ¶ 10)

VI. The Conterminousness of Different Minds

With transition and prospect thus enthroned in pure experience, it is impossible to subscribe to the idealism of the English school. Radical empiricism has, in fact, more affinities with natural realism than with the views of Berkeley or of Mill, and this can be easily shown. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 1)

For the Berkeleyan school, ideas (the verbal equivalent of what I term experiences) are discontinuous. The content of each is wholly immanent, and there are no transitions with which they are consubstantial and through which their beings may unite. Your Memorial Hall and mine, even when both are percepts, are wholly out of connection with each other. Our lives are a congeries of solipsisms, out of which in strict logic only a God could compose a universe even of discourse. No dynamic currents run between my objects and your objects. Never can our minds meet in the same. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 2)

The incredibility of such a philosophy is flagrant. It is in a supreme degree; and it may be doubted whether even Berkeley himself, who took it so religiously, really believed, when walking through the streets of London, that his spirit and the spirits of his fellow wayfarers had absolutely different towns in view. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 3)

To me the decisive reason in favor of our minds meeting in some common objects at least is that, unless I make that supposition, I have no motive for assuming that your mind exists at all. Why do I postulate your mind? Because I see your body acting in a certain way. Its gestures, facial movements, words and conduct generally, are so I deem it actuated as my own is, by an inner life like mine. This argument from analogy is my reason, whether an instinctive belief runs before it or not. But what is here but a percept in my field? It is only as animating that object, my object, that I have any occasion to think of you at all. If the body that you actuate be not the very body that I see there, but some duplicate body of your own with which that has nothing to do, we belong to different universes, you and I, and for me to speak of you is folly. Myriads of such universes even now may coexist, irrelevant to one another; my concern is solely with the universe with which my own life is connected. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 4)

In that perceptual part of my universe which I call your body, your mind and my mind meet and may be called conterminous. Your mind actuates that body and mine sees it; my thoughts pass into it as into their harmonious cognitive fulfilment; your emotions and volitions pass into it as causes into their effects. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 5)

But that percept hangs together with all our other physical percepts. They are of one stuff with it; and if it be our common possession, they must be so likewise. For instance, your hand lays hold of one end of a rope and my hand lays hold of the other end. We pull against each other. Can our two hands be mutual objects in this experience, and the rope not be mutual also? What is true of the rope is true of any other percept. Your objects are over and over again the same as mine. If I ask you where some object of yours is, our old Memorial Hall, for example, you point to my Memorial Hall with your hand which I see. If you alter an object in your world, put out a candle, for example, when I am present, my candle ipso facto goes out. It is only as altering my objects that I guess you to exist. If your objects do not coalesce with my objects, if they be not identically where mine are, they must be proved to be positively somewhere else. But no other location can be assigned for them, so their place must be what it seems to be, the same.(Essay II § 6 ¶ 6)

Practically, then, our minds meet in a world of objects which they share in common, which would still be there, if one or several of the minds were destroyed. I can see no formal objection to this supposition’s being literally true. On the principles which I am defending, a or is the name for a series of experiences run together by certain definite transitions, and an objective reality is a series of similar experiences knit by different transitions. If one and the same experience can figure twice, once in a mental and once in a physical context (as I have tried, in my article on Consciousness, to show that it can), one does not see why it might not figure thrice, or four times, or any number of times, by running into as many different mental contexts, just as the same point, lying at their intersection, can be continued into many different lines. Abolishing any number of contexts would not destroy the experience itself or its other contexts, any more than abolishing some of the point’s linear continuations would destroy the others, or destroy the point itself. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 7)

I well know the subtle dialectic which insists that a term taken in another relation must needs be an intrinsically different term. The crux is always the old Greek one, that the same man can’t be tall in relation to one neighbor, and short in relation to another, for that would make him tall and short at once. In this essay I can not stop to refute this dialectic, so I pass on, leaving my flank for the time exposed. But if my reader will only allow that the same both ends his past and begins his future; or that, when he buys an acre of land from his neighbor, it is the same acre that successively figures in the two estates; or that when I pay him a dollar, the same dollar goes into his pocket that came out of mine; he will also in consistency have to allow that the same object may conceivably play a part in, as being related to the rest of, any number of otherwise entirely different minds. This is enough for my present point: the common-sense notion of minds sharing the same object offers no special logical or epistemological difficulties of its own; it stands or falls with the general possibility of things being in conjunctive relation with other things at all. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 8)

In principle, then, let natural realism pass for possible. Your mind and mine may terminate in the same percept, not merely against it, as if it were a third external thing, but by inserting themselves into it and coalescing with it, for such is the sort of conjunctive union that appears to be experienced when a perceptual terminus Even so, two hawsers may embrace the same pile, and yet neither one of them touch any other part except that pile, of what the other hawser is attached to. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 9)

It is therefore not a formal question, but a question of empirical fact solely, whether when you and I are said to know the Memorial Hall, our minds do terminate at or in a numerically identical percept. Obviously, as a plain matter of fact, they do not. Apart from color-blindness and such possibilities, we see the Hall in different perspectives. You may be on one side of it and I on another. The percept of each of us, as he sees the surface of the Hall, is moreover only his provisional terminus. The next thing beyond my percept is not your mind, but more percepts of my own into which my first percept develops, the interior of the Hall, for instance, or the inner structure of its bricks and mortar. If our minds were in a literal sense conterminous, neither could get beyond the percept which they had in common, it would be an ultimate barrier between them — unless indeed they flowed over it and became over a still larger part of their content, which (thought-transference apart) is not supposed to be the case. In point of fact the ultimate common barrier can always be pushed, by both minds, farther than any actual percept of either, until at last it resolves itself into the mere notion of imperceptibles like atoms or either, so that, where we do terminate in percepts, our knowledge is only speciously completed, being, in theoretic strictness, only a virtual knowledge of those remoter objects which conception carries out. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 10)

Is natural realism, permissible in logic, refuted then by empirical fact? Do our minds have no object in common after all? (Essay II § 6 ¶ 11)

Yet, they certainly have Space in common. On pragmatic principles we are obliged to predicate sameness wherever we can predicate no assignable point of difference. If two named things have every quality and function indiscernible, and are at the same time in the same place, they must be written down as numerically one thing under two different names. But there is no test discoverable, so far as I know, by which it can be shown that the place occupied by your percept of Memorial Hall differs from the place occupied by mine. The percepts themselves may be shown to differ; but if each of us be asked to point out where his percept is, we point to an identical spot. All the relations, whether geometrical or causal, of the Hall originate or terminate in that spot wherein our hands meet, and where each of us begins to work if he wishes to make the Hall change before the other’s eyes. Just so it is with our bodies. That body of yours which you actuate and feel from within must be in the same spot as the body of yours which I see or touch from without. for me means where I place my finger. If you do not feel my finger’s contact to be in my sense, when I place it on your body, where then do you feel it? Your inner actuations of your body meet my finger there: it is there that you resist its push, or shrink back, or sweep the finger aside with your hand. Whatever farther knowledge either of us may acquire of the real constitution of the body which we thus feel, you from within and I from without, it is in that same place that the newly conceived or perceived constituents have to be located, and it is through that space that your and my mental intercourse with each other has always to be carried on, by the mediation of impressions which I convey thither, and of the reactions thence which those impressions may provoke from you. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 12)

In general terms, then, whatever differing contents our minds may eventually fill a place with, the place itself is a numerically identical content of the two minds, a piece of common property in which, through which, and over which they join. The receptacle of certain of our experiences being thus common, the experiences themselves might some day become common also. If that day ever did come, our thoughts would terminate in a complete empirical identity, there would be an end, so far as those experiences went, to our discussions about truth. No points of difference appearing, they would have to count as the same. (Essay II § 6 ¶ 13)

VII. Conclusion

With this we have the outlines of a philosophy of pure experience before us. At the outset of my essay, I called it a mosaic philosophy. In actual mosaics the pieces are held together by their bedding, for which bedding of the Substances, transcendental Egos, or Absolutes of other philosophies may be taken to stand. In radical empiricism there is no bedding; it is as if the pieces clung together by their edges, the transitions experienced between them forming their cement. Of course such a metaphor is misleading, for in actual experience the more substantive and the more transitive parts run into each other continuously, there is in general no separateness needing to be overcome by an external cement; and whatever separateness is actually experienced is not overcome, it stays and counts as separateness to the end. But the metaphor serves to symbolize the fact that Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges. That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can no, I contend, be denied. Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected; often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle, were like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal field which the farmer proceeds to burn. In this line we live prospectively as well as retrospectively. It is the past, inasmuch as it comes expressly as the past’s continuation; it is the future in so far as the future, when it comes, will have continued it. (Essay II § 7 ¶ 1)

These relations of continuous transition experienced are what make our experiences cognitive. In the simplest and completest cases the experiences are cognitive of one another. When one of them terminates a previous series of them with a sense of fulfilment, it, we say, is what those other experiences The knowledge, in such a case, is verified; the truth is Mainly, however, we live on speculative investments, or on our prospects only. But living on things in posse is as good as living in the actual, so long as our credit remains good. It is evident that for the most part it is good, and that the universe seldom protests our drafts. (Essay II § 7 ¶ 2)

In this sense we at every moment can continue to believe in an existing beyond. It is only in special cases that our confident rush forward gets rebuked. The beyond must, of course, always in our philosophy be itself of an experiential nature. If not a future experience of our own or a present one of our neighbor, it must be a thing in itself in Dr. Prince’s and Professor Strong’s sense of the term — that is, it must be an experience for itself whose relation to other things we translate into the action of molecules, ether-waves, or whatever else the physical symbols may be. This opens the chapter of the relations of radical empiricism to panspychism, into which I cannot enter now.(Essay II § 7 ¶ 3)

The beyond can in any case exist simultaneously — for it can be experienced to have existed simultaneously — with the experience that practically postulates it by looking in its direction, or by turning or changing in the direction of which it is the goal. Pending that actuality of union, in the virtuality of which the even now, of the postulation consists, the beyond and its knower are entities split off from each other. The world is in so far forth a pluralism of which the unity is not fully experienced as yet. But, as fast as verifications come, trains of experience, once separate, run into one another; and that is why I said, earlier in my article, that the unity of the world is on the whole undergoing increase. The universe continually grows in quantity by new experiences that graft themselves upon the older mass; but these very new experiences often help the mass to a more consolidated form. These are the main features of a philosophy of pure experience. It has innumerable other aspects and arouses innumerable questions, but the points I have touched on seem enough to make an entering wedge. In my own mind such a philosophy harmonizes best with a radical pluralism, with novelty and indeterminism, moralism and theism, and with the lately sprung upon us by the Oxford and the Chicago schools. I can not, however, be sure that all these doctrines are its necessary and indispensable allies. It presents so many points of difference, both from the common sense and from the idealism that have made our philosophic language, that it is almost difficult to state it as it is to think it out clearly, and if it is ever to grow into a respectable system, it will have to be built up by the contributions of many co-operating minds. It seems to me, as I said at the outset of this essay, that many minds are, in point of fact, now turning in a direction that points towards radical empiricism. If they are carried farther by my words, and if then they add their stronger voices to my feebler one, the publication of this essay will have been worth while. (Essay II § 7 ¶ 4)

William James's A World of Pure Experience was published in the September 29, 1904 and October 13, 1904 issues of the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. It was reprinted, with some omissions, alterations, and additions in The Meaning of Truth in 1911, and reprinted posthumously, with the alterations, in Essays in Radical Empiricism in 1912. It is now available in the Public Domain.

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