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Jamess Doctrine of Pure Experience and Individualization of Religion:

A Critique from the Standpoint of Synechism


Author: asonosakan
asonosakan@gmail.com
This paper is a critical examination of William Jamess doctrine of pure experience,
with special reference to the way it underpins his attempt to individualize religion in
The Varieties of Religious Experience. In the first section I review Jamess doctrine of
pure experience, following the texts Does Consciousness Exist? and A World of
Pure Experience. Then I discuss some of the issues that seem to be inherent in the doctrine. Namely, I shall argue that (1) the notion of pure experience presupposes an untenable distinction between what is added by the mind and what is given to the mind;
and that (2) it fails to give an adequate account of objectivity. Next I take up Jamess
The Varieties of Religious Experience, and examine how his doctrine of pure experience
underpins his attempt to individualize religion, and thereby secure religious tolerance. It
is argued that the difficulties inherent in the doctrine of pure experience carry over into
his conceptual pluralism, as well as his prioritizing of the individual over society as the
arbiter of legitimacy and value of beliefs. Finally, in the concluding section, as an alternative to Jamess view, I give a brief outline of how religion and science can be seen not
as opposing or non-overlapping systems of conceptualization, as in the case of James,
but rather two aspects of one and the same inquiry into the nature of reality.
1. Jamess Doctrine of Pure Experience
In September 1904 James published two closely interrelated essays in the Journal of
Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, entitled Does Consciousness Exist?
(James 1904a) and A World of Pure Experience (James 1904b). In these essays he
expounded his philosophy of pure experience, which had been underlying his thought
from long beforemany aspects of it going back to his Principles of Psychology (James
1890), and gave it the name radical empiricism. My task in this section shall be to
clarify what James means by pure experience, and thereby present a brief outline of
his doctrine of radical empiricism. I shall not be concerned with Jamess doctrine in all
of its details, but only those aspects that are relevant to our discussion.1
Jamess philosophy of pure experience is directed against the traditional dualism of
mind and body, of the knower and the known. His task in Does Consciousness Exist?
is to reconceive the notion of consciousness in terms of a primal stuff that is neither
mental nor physical:
1

For example, I shall not deal with his notion of the continuity of experience, or his
ideas on the experience of activity.
1

My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed,
and if we call that stuff pure experience, then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. (James 1976, p.4)
And by pure experience James understands the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories (James 1976,
p.46). In other words it is the that prior to any conception of what a thing is. Jamess
fundamental idea, then, is that the distinction between mental and physical are conceptual categories that we ascribe to this undifferentiated substratum, i.e. pure experience, and that they do not reflect any distinction in being. The world, rather than being
composed of two radically different substances, is made of a single neutral stuff, to
which no definite properties may be ascribed, and it is only in reflective thought that we
arrive at the distinction between mind and body, between the knower and the known.
James illustrates this point by way of an example (James 1976, pp.7-9). Consider, he
says, the perceptual experience of the room in which the reader is sitting. This room
may be experienced as a collection of physical things or as a mental state, depending on
the context in which the experience arises. Considered in the context of the history of
the house of which the room is a part, the room is experienced in the common-sense
manner of a real physical object. Considered in the context of the readers personal
biography, however, the room becomes a moment within the readers field of consciousness. These two contexts form distinct processes; and any pure experience which
lies at the intersection of these processes may be interpreted in diverse ways depending on the associated process:
The presentation, the experience, the that in short is the last term in a
train of sensations, emotions, decisions, movements, classifications, expectations, etc., ending in the present, and the first term of a series of similar
inner operations extending into the future, on the readers part. On the
other hand, the very same that is the terminus ad quem of a lot of previous
physical operations, carpentering, papering, furnishing, warming, etc., and
the terminus a quo of a lot of future ones, in which it will be concerned
when undergoing the destiny of a physical room. (James 1976, pp.8-9)
What the pure experience is cannot be determined apart from its context; and it is pre2

cisely this sense in which it is called pure.


Next let us turn to Jamess second paper in the 1904 volume of Journal of Philosophy,
Psychology, and Scientific Methods, A World of Pure Experience. In this paper he
develops in more detail the themes covered in Does Consciousness Exist? and enunciates his doctrine of radical empiricism. Jamess target in this essay is not so much the
mind-body dualism, as what he identifies as the rationalist or transcendentalist view
of knowledge, according to which the possibility of objective knowledge presupposes
something that goes beyond what is immediately experienced. Against this rationalist
tendency in philosophy, James argues that empiricism can accommodate objective
knowledge without positing something that goes beyond experience, but by making itself more thorough. Hence we must radicalize empiricism:
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 real as anything else in
the system. (James 1976, p.22; italics in original)
James thus attempts to explain the relation between the knower and the known in terms
of relations between parts of pure experience, and thereby ground objective reference
without invoking the notion of something outside of experience.
Jamess example in this essay is his idea of Memorial Hall, which is a ten minute
walk from his library at Cambridge. Suppose James is sitting in his library, and someone
asks him what he means by his image of Memorial Hall. If James is unable to tell that
person anything, or if he fails to lead that person to the Hall, then it may be asserted that
James did not mean the particular Hall at all. Even though there may have been a resemblance between Jamess mental image and the particular Hall, that resemblance was
merely coincidental; James lacked any real knowledge of the Hall.
If, on the other hand, James is able to guide the person to the Hall, and his previous
mental image is thereby corroborated by subsequent experience, then James can be said
to have known the Hall. The terminating percept is what the prior image meant, however
imperfect it may have been. Jamess radical point, however, is that this train of experience is all that the act of knowing consists in:
In this continuing and corroborating, taken in no transcendental sense, but
3

denoting definitely felt transitions, lies all that the knowing of a percept by
an idea can possibly contain or signify 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. (James 1976, p.29;
italics in original).
Again, the experience per se is neither subjective nor objective. It is only within the
context in which the experience arises that a simple that can be differentiated into fact
or opinion. If it is borne out in experience, then it is objective; if not, then it is subjective. We can thus see how Jamess doctrine of pure experience tries to accommodate
objective knowledge without invoking a realm of real things that transcend the sphere
of experience.
2. Issues of Jamess Doctrine of Pure Experience
In what follows I want to take up two issues which I believe are inherent in Jamess
doctrine of pure experience. Namely, I shall argue that (1) the notion of pure experience
presupposes an untenable distinction between what is added by the mind and what is
given to the mind; and that (2) it fails to provide an adequate account of objectivity.
Objection (1) is more fundamental, as (2) is grounded on (1); so I shall start with that.
In order to spell out what I mean by what is given to the mind and what is added by
the mind, let us begin by considering the duck-rabbit illusion, made famous by Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations (1958).2 Suppose that at first, I see the image as
a duck, and I dont see the rabbit. Then, after staring at the image for a while, the rabbit
jumps out at me, and I lose sight of the duck. Initially, whether I see the duck or rabbit is
beyond my will. After gazing at the image for a few more seconds, however, I am able
to switch back and forth between the duck and rabbit, and with sufficient practice this
transition will take place ever more rapidly, until finally I can make it look either way I
wish.
How can we interpret this experiment using Jamess terminology? At the initial stage,
2

The following discussion is taken in all essentials from Peirces discussion using
Schrders staircase (Peirce 1958, 7.643).
4

the pure experience, the material that is furnished to us for reflection in thought, seems
to be the image qua duck (or rabbit). But with sufficient practice, I am able to separate
the image itself from either way of conceptualization. The pure experience is pushed
back, as it were, to the image per se, prior to its conceptualization as duck or rabbit.
What this shows is that the distinction between the perception itself and the perceptual
judgment this is a duck/rabbit is a matter of gradation rather than a difference in type,
the gradation being of the degree of controllability. What was hitherto uncontrollable
becomes controllable, and the distinction between what is given to the mind and what is
added by the mind, between the pure and impure, shifts accordingly.
The same applies to the perception of the image qua image, qua ink on paper, or qua
something else. However I perceive the that in front of me, it is impossible to perceive
it without conceptualizing it one way or another. Even in what seems to be the purest
of sensations, there is always an element of generality. The pure experience is thus
pushed further and further back, until it is devoid of any content.
Against this it may be objected that pure experience does not require any content, for
it is a mere that, independent of any reference to what it is; it is the quod est as opposed
to the quo est. This indeed seems to be Jamess position, although he slides on occasion
into speaking as though pure experience had some kind of content, as when he gives the
example of the percept of a pen in How Two Minds Can Know One Thing (James
1976, pp.61-62).3 Understood in this sense, i.e., as pure denotation, pure experience is
identical to the traditional notion of Substance.4 Or it may be equated with the Aristote3

Cf. his comment in Pragmatism: When we talk of reality independent of human


thinking, then, it seems a thing very hard to find. It reduces to the notion of what is just
entering into experience, and yet to be named, or else to some imagined aboriginal
presence in experience, before any belief about the presence had arisen, before any human conception had been applied. It is what is absolutely dumb and evanescent, the
merely ideal limit of our minds. We may glimpse it, but we never grasp it; what we
grasp is always some substitute for it which previous human thinking has peptonized
and cooked for our consumption (James 1995, pp.95-96). As Goodman (2004, p.141)
notes, here James seems very close to the Kantian position that experience is conceptualized all the way down. However, at the same time he seems to be confident that he
does experience a non-conceptualized given, and his consistency in this matter is questionable.
4
I am referring to what Locke called the notion of pure substance in general, as opposed to ideas of particular sorts of substances. Regarding the former he writes: The
idea then we have, to which we give the general name substance, being nothing, but the
supposed, but unknown support of those qualities, we find existing, which we imagine
cannot subsist, sine re substante, without something to support them, we call that support substantia; which, according to the true import of the word, is in plain English,
standing under or upholding (Locke 1997, II xxiii 2).
5

lian conception of Matter prior to its reception of any Form, i.e. Prime Matter; although
there is the difference that pure experience is not invoked as a substratum of change. In
any case, it is clear that Jamess doctrine of pure experience is a rehashing of the Aristotelian theory in psychological language, whether he was conscious of it or not.
Now the foremost difficulty for an empiricist like James is the fact that Substance is
not directly experienced but hypothesized. (Indeed substance is the Latin equivalent to
the Greek hypothesis, both sub- and hypo- meaning under-, stance meaning to put
up, to stand, and thesis, a placing, proposition, being the root of tithenai, to place,
to put). It is assumed that there must be something which underpins the properties and
relations that we experience; but the object of this assumption is never directly experienced, as the assumption itself is only a hypothetical inference. And the same applies to
Jamess notion of pure experience. Thus pure experience is never experienced, only inferred, in the same manner that Descartes inferred that he was intuiting his own existence. If James is going to be a radical empiricist and reject everything that is not directly experienced, then he must reject the notion of pure experience.
Herein lies the fundamental flaw of Jamess doctrine of pure experience. The notion
of pure Substance is logically consistent, insofar as there is no contradiction involved in
saying that it is the result of a hypothetical inference. But pure experience is a contradiction in terms, for experience is ipso facto shot through with general concepts. Therefore we should say that it is generality all the way down, although there is an uncontrollable element in experience which establishes the existence of a world that is not of our
making. I will return to this point later, but before that I want to move on to my second
criticism of Jamess doctrine of pure experience, viz. that it fails to give an adequate
account of objectivity.
Recall that for James, the objectivity of an experience (or belief about an experience)
is determined by whether it is borne out in subsequent experience. It is the train of experience which develops towards and is fulfilled in a terminus that defines the knower-known relation, and there is nothing more to objective knowledge than this relation.
But as we have seen in our first objection above, it is impossible to separate the experience itself from the context in which it arises. It is context all the way down, as it were,
and from this it follows that the question of the objectivity of an experience cannot be
separated from the experience per se.
But how, it may be asked, can the objectivity of an experience be established prior to
its fulfillment in the terminus towards which it develops? Surely the great majority of
our knowledge is never borne out in actualitydoes it then follow that we cannot make
any claims as to their objectivity? Here we must distinguish between possibility, virtual6

ity, and actuality. The equation F = qQ/r, for example, is a possible concept (a tetradic
predicate), insofar as there is no contradiction involved in the notion. But if we interpret
F as force, q and Q as electric charge, and r as the distance between those charges, then
this concept is never actualized (let us assume that the units have been so defined that
the proportionality coefficient is 1). The concept F = qQ/r2, on the other hand, which is
Coulombs Law, is actualized every time we place a test charge within the vicinity of an
electric charge. So we can say that this concept possesses a tendency towards actualization. I say tendency because not all concepts are actualized with the rigidity of a
physical law, nor are physical laws as rigid as we commonly suppose them to be. A
concept which possesses such a tendency we shall call a virtual concept, virtus meaning
power or efficacy, so that a virtual X would be something which is not actually X,
but nonetheless has the efficacy of an X.
Now what is important in this connection is the fact that the virtuality of a concept is
entirely independent of what any person may think about it. No one is able to control,
by the mere act of their thought, whether or not a conception will actualize itself given
the appropriate conditions: this is the uncontrollable element in experience that was alluded to earlier. So a virtual concept, although not actual, is nonetheless real. James
acknowledges this when he writes in A World of Experience, citing the aforementioned example of Memorial Hall, that [w]e were virtual knowers of the Hall long before we were certified to have been its actual knowers, by the percepts retroactive validating power. Just so we are mortal all the time, by reason of the virtuality of the inevitable event which will make us so when it shall have come (James 1976, p.34). He
even admits that the immense greater part of our knowledge never gets beyond this
virtual stage (James 1976, p.34). Here he is steering dangerously close to the position
which the Scholastics called realism, which is in fundamental tension with his nominalist mosaic philosophy, which treats the whole as a mere collection and the universal
as an abstraction (James 1976, p.22). He does not, however, seem to see this fundamental tension; nor does he seem to realize the impossibility of grounding objectivity in actual experience alone. It is virtuality that confers on an experience its objectivity, and as
noted above, the experience itself can never be separated from the virtual concept which
interprets it. We shall in the next section see the implications of this conclusion for the
case of religious experience.
3. The Varieties of Religious Experience
Although Jamess Varieties of Religious Experience was written before the publica7

tion of his essays on pure experience which we took up in the first section, the latter
should be seen as an explication of underlying themes which can be traced back to the
Principles of Psychology, and which can be clearly discerned in the Varieties as well.5
Indeed, Jamess doctrine of pure experience can be understood as the foundation of his
lifelong effort to offer a legitimization of religious (and other peripheral) experiences in
the face of dogmatic and materialist philosophies, and thereby secure tolerance.
In this section my task shall be to examine how Jamess doctrine of pure experience
underpins his attempt to legitimatize religion in the Varieties, and to assess the shortcomings of this attempt. Namely, I shall argue that the issues inherent in his doctrine of
pure experience, which we identified in the previous section, carry over into his application to religious experience.
Jamess strategy in arguing for religious tolerance in The Varieties of Religious Experience is to develop a conceptual pluralism regarding experiences. The same experience
may be interpreted in different and even contradictory ways by different individuals, but
all of these conceptual frameworks and belief systems are legitimate as long as they are
grounded in pure experience and lead to favorable consequences:
The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different
men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which
he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit
has to be omitted or postponed And why, after all, may not the world be
so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which
we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and as5

For example, Jamess depiction in the Principles of the babys experience as a


blooming, buzzing confusion (James 1890, p.488) can be considered an anticipation
of his concept of pure experience. And in the Varieties, Jamess principled separation of
the conceptual from the non-conceptual, the impure from the pure, can be discerned
in his statement that facts are compatible with opposite emotional comments, since the
same fact will inspire entirely different feelings in different persons, and at different
times in the same person; and there is no rationally deducible connection between any
outer fact and the sentiments it may happen to provoke. These have their source in another sphere of existence altogether, in the animal and spiritual region of the subjects
being (James 2002, p.168). Although James is using a slightly different terminology
here, speaking of outer facts rather than experiences, it is clear that he has in mind the
that prior to its conceptualization, for he goes on to say: Conceive yourself, if possible,
suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you, and try to
imagine it as it exists, purely by itself, without your favorable or unfavorable, hopeful or
apprehensive comment (James 2002, p.168; italics in original).
8

suming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the
calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right? (James 2002,
p.138)
Thus science and religion can be construed as non-overlapping belief systems, each
with its own distinct objectives and grounds for legitimacy. Even if, from the standpoint
of science, a person who has a divine experience is actually in a state of hallucination,
from the standpoint of religion this experience is perfectly legitimate, true, insofar as
it leads to fruitful consequences for that individual.
Now Jamess conceptual pluralism seems to be based on the idea that a principled
distinction between what is alterable by the mind and what cannot be altered by the
mind is possible. The experience is simply given to us, in its bare nakedness so to speak,
and it is the act of interpretation by the individual which colors it, gives it meaning. If
this distinction were untenable, then James would have no ground for maintaining that
questions of belief cannot be uniquely answered, i.e., that there is a plurality of equally
legitimate belief systems. For given the continuity of experience and conceptual judgments, it follows that different and conflicting experiences may be remolded in light of
tests of consistency. And this is precisely the conclusion that must be drawn in light of
our considerations in the previous section.
Consider, for example, a situation in which experiences clash with one another. This
is the sort of instance of which Jamess pluralism fails to provide an adequate account.
Suppose that X has an indescribable personal experience, and he conceives this to be a
glimpse into the divine. In an attempt to figure out what it is that he saw, X conducts a
research, going through books and articles on related topics. Now suppose that he finds
a psychological explanation of the phenomenon which fits neatly into his system of
knowledge about the world. This is none other than a clash between experiences. If Xs
mind is like mine, then this would induce him to a living doubt about whether what he
saw really was a glimpse into the divine, and this doubt would take the place of his belief (that he saw something divine), ultimately dissolving it unless other supporting evidence is adduced.
This criticism was brought out penetratingly by Hastings Rashdall, in an early review
of The Varieties of Religious Experience. As he writes:
[H]ow often does it not happen that to those who have had, or thought they
had, this immediate religious insight subsequent intellectual emancipation
9

has brought doubt and disquietude? The very point that they doubt is
whether their own emotions, intuitions, even visions were anything but the
outcome of subjective wishes or a disordered brain. The world cannot be
sharply divided, as Prof. Jamess wants to divide it, into those who possess
immediate and self-sufficing insight and those who have had no religious
experience at all. There are thousands who will not and cannot trust whatever faculty of moral or spiritual insight they possess unless they are presented with a creed which satisfies their Reason. (Rashdall 1903, p.250)
The exceptional religious figures which James takes up in The Varieties are exceptional for this very reason: they are not induced to doubt even when they are confronted
with inconsistent experiences. The mind of the ordinary person certainly does not work
like this. It is thus doubtful how much force Jamess argument for the legitimization of
personal convictions possesses; and this inadequacy stems from the fact that James disregards the fundamental inseparability of experiences from the conceptual judgments
under which they are categorized. An objective experience is always already infused
with virtuality, and any experience which does not fit into the system of virtual concepts
is bound to lead to doubt.
Against this James may argue that religious belief systems cannot be treated as if they
were on the same plain as scientific belief systems, insofar as they have entirely different purposes and interests. It may be claimed that religion is concerned with the meaning of an individuals life, whereas science is concerned with factual knowledge, and
that the latter has no bearing on the former. In response to this I am inclined to say that
no belief system can separate itself entirely from a concern with factual knowledge.
Even in the case of a religious experience, in which an individual has an experience
which he considers to be a glimpse into the divine, the experience cannot be separated
from a commitment to the objectivity of that very experience. It would simply be absurd
if an individual says that he believes that he has experienced God, but at the same time
says that that experience may have been not objective, but rather a hallucination. While
Jamess propounding of pluralism may be a noble attempt at securing tolerance between
conflicting belief systems, I believe it fails to address the real reason why conflict does
not cease in reality.
Jamess conceptual pluralism is intimately bound up with his emphasis on the individual as the ultimate arbiter of the legitimacy and value of beliefs. Although James
does not deal with the notion of individuality explicitly in his essays on radical empiricism, his views can be discerned in implicit form in his discussions on how different
10

minds can come to know a single world, e.g. in section VI of A World of Experience
(James 1976, pp.36-42), and How Two Minds Can Know One Thing (James 1976,
pp.61-67). There he seems to be assuming that experience is always experience for me,
the individual, insofar as I cannot experience what anyone else is experiencing:
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 expressive, 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 your
body 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. (James 1976, p.38)
From this it follows that the legitimacy and value of beliefs must be based upon my
own, individual experience, and not the experience of others. This is the ground from
which James can claim primacy of the individual over the social, as he does in The Varieties: the individual must be the arbiter of legitimacy and value because legitimacy
and value must be based upon experience, and experience can only be private. Even if
my beliefs go against those of society, as long as I do not share the experiences of other
members of the society, I have no reason to change or abandon my beliefs.
Jamess focus on the individual in The Varieties is evident in his definition of religion
as 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
(James 2002, p. 36; italics mine); and it expresses itself in his methodology of ignoring
the social, institutional, and theological aspects of religion. This orientation is inevitable,
given that Jamess aim in The Varieties is to argue against the view that there is only
way the world can be veritably described, and that religion is not that description. For in
order to undermine this view, he must secure the individuals right to offer different and
even competing views of reality, each with its own legitimacy. Hence Jamess argument
for religious tolerance must take the form of an attempt to individualize religion.
As we saw above, James conceives of experience as essentially private, and this fact
forms the basis of his individualism. Now when he speaks of experience it is clear that
he is speaking of pure experience, for it is inconceivable that concepts should be entirely private: concepts are furnished to us by the natural and social environment that we
11

live in. If it is granted, however, that experience and conceptual judgments form a continuum, then we must question the validity of Jamess assumption that experience is
private. What, indeed, do we mean by private? What does it mean for an experience
to be my experience?
Let us grant Jamess starting point in our previous quotation, of considering how we
come to know the existence of other minds. We must realize, however, that the distinction between me and you is not a priori. James uses these indexicals in a loose manner,
as though they were self-evident, but it is precisely the origin of these indexical notions
that we are concerned with here. So let us adopt Jamess methodological solipsism, as it
were, with the proviso that solipsism here is understood not as the negation of the existence of the other, but in the sense of being prior to the very distinction between me
and you.
What we first notice, in our ideal reconstruction of the primal consciousness, is that
there is a part of my (for lack of a better expression) experience that I have considerable control over, and I call this my body. And I notice other patterns, over
which I have little control over, but which behave in ways similar to my own body,
and I call these my fellow humans. Upon the instinctive inference that these other
patterns must possess universes of experience similar to my own, I ascribe to them
the concept of individual mind. I can then by natural amplification apply the concept
to myself (as seen from a transcendent perspective), and thereby I become an individual mind as well.
The implication of the above account is that there is no distinction between mind and
non-mind prior to my cognition of others. There is only the distinction between what I
have considerable control over and what I have little control over. But this distinction
is merely one of degree. Take, for example, the case of a blind man using a cane to
probe his surroundings. The cane is not merely an extension of his body, but is literally
a part of his body. He feels the world through the tip of his cane just as we feel the
world through the tip of our fingers. There is no distinction between the cane and the
man because he has complete control over it. Conversely, if I had absolutely no control
over a part of my organic body, then that part would simply be a material object.
Likewise, the commonsense idea that I am altogether myself and not you is ungrounded. In everyday life the distinction is surely one of great degree, but there are instances in which the boundary becomes ambiguous. For example, it is more than a mere
figure of speech to say that the mind of two lovers is to some extent welded together.
Another instance that I believe James should have given more consideration is the case
of religious rituals. Where the members of a religious ritual are in a state of intense spir12

itual elevation, there is a sense in which they are not distinct individuals at all, but rather
one.
We are thus led to the view that my experience and your experience form a continuum.
Everything is infused with general concepts, and insofar as concepts are of an intrinsically public nature, there can be no such thing as an absolutely private experience. We
must thus conclude that Jamess prioritizing of individuals over society is based on a
dubious conception of individuality.
It may be asked, what are we to make of this? So far you have demolished Jamess
pluralism and his project to secure religious tolerance. Do we then have no choice but to
embrace the proliferation of conflicting dogmatic systems? In response to this I would
like, in the concluding section, to give a brief outline of what I consider to be the only
possible alternative to Jamess pluralism, without falling into the pitfall of dogmatism.
Conclusion: The Marriage of Science and Religion
Towards the end of his lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience James hints
at the possibility of a Science of Religions, which treats the deliverances of religious
experiences as hypotheses to be tested in the same manner as the physical sciences:
I do not see why a critical Science of Religions of this sort might not eventually command as general a public adhesion as is commanded by a physical science. Even the personally non-religious might accept its conclusions
on trust, much as blind persons now accept the facts of opticsit might
appear as foolish to refuse them. (James 2002, p.497)
To me this seems to be a line of thought worth developing. On the one hand, it is consistent with the rejection of pure experience, for experience here is treated as susceptible
to public discourse and criticism, just as in the physical sciences. On the other hand, it
does not repudiate a priori the authenticity of religious experiences as the dogmatic
materialist is inclined to do.
In this view, religion and science may be construed as two aspects of one and the
same inquiry into the nature of reality, rather than as opposing or non-overlapping systems of conceptualization as in the case of James. Of course, a pluralist like James may
argue that we have no reason to believe that there is only one reality. For all we know,
there may be a multiplicity of realities, mutually interpenetrating but nonetheless separate. My response is that the existence of a single reality is a transcendental hypothesis,
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without which inquiry would be impossible. The assumption that the universe is essentially continuous, that the discontinuities and separations that we experience are only
apparent, that everything can and should become welded together, is a necessary condition for the possibility of inquiry.
My view of the ideal culture is that of the Greeks in the age of the Pre-Socratics,
where natural philosophy and the way of life were one. There is something crude and
beautiful about a thinker like Empedokles who is able to write a cosmological Peri
Physeos on the one hand, and a Katharmoi, a poem on the purification of the soul, on
the other. I believe that there is an inherent tendency in the Judeo-Christian tradition to
divorce faith from reason, and many modern-day interpreters are thus led to view Empedokles as a sort of split-personality, doing natural science at time T1 and religion at
time T2. And James too seems to be fundamentally stuck in this Judeo-Christian mode
of thinking, which limits almost everything he says about religion.
But that this need not be the case becomes evident when we look back at the philosophy of the Pre-Socratics. As Nietzsche writes in Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen:
The judgement of those philosophers [the pre-Socratics] as to life and existence in general means so much more than any modern judgement, for
they had life in lavish perfection before their eyes, whereas the feeling of
our thinkers is confused by our split desire for freedom, beauty and greatness on the one hand and our drive toward truth on the other, a drive which
asks merely, and what is life worth, after all? (Nietzsche 1962, p.33)
References
Goodman, Russell B. 2004. James on the Nonconceptual. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 28, no. 1: 137-148.
James, William. 1890. Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. New York: Holt.
. 1904a. Does Consciousness Exist? Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and
Scientific Methods vol. 1: 477-491. Reprinted in James (1976).
. 1904b. A World of Pure Experience. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and
Scientific Methods vol. 1: 533-543, 561-570. Reprinted in James (1976).
. 1905. How Two Minds Can Know One Thing. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods vol. 2: 176-181. Reprinted in James (1976).
. 1976. Essays in Radical Empiricism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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. 1995. Pragmatism. New York: Dover Publications.


. 2002. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New
York: Modern Library.
Locke, John. 1997. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Roger Woolhouse.
London: Penguin Books.
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. 1962. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, trans. Marianne Cowan. Chicago: Regnery.
Peirce, Charles S. 1958. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce vol. 7, ed. Arthur
W. Burks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Rashdall, Hastings. 1903. Review of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William
James. Mind, vol. 12, no. 46: 245-250.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe.
New York: Macmillan.

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