Friday, August 19, 2016

The Radical Pluralism of William James

"Absolute unity still remains undiscovered. 'Ever not quite' must be the rationalistic philosopher's last confession concerning it. To the very last, there are the various 'points of view'...Something is still other, from your point of view, even though you be the greatest of philosophers...There may be in the whole universe no one point of view extant from which this would not be found to be the case. This is pluralism." (James, 1897)   
William James in Brazil, 1865
I recently had the exciting opportunity to read through most of the major works of William James (1842-1910) for one of my doctoral exams. Having studied Whitehead – and process thought more generally – for quite a few years now, I was already very sympathetic with the Jamesian project of “radical empiricism.” After all, Whitehead is clear about how much he was influenced by James, calling him "that adorable genius" and ranking him alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz as one of the four greatest Western philosophers. Additionally, Deleuze was also influenced by James, explicitly describing his thought as a "radical empiricism," and (echoing Whitehead) called him an "astounding genius" while lecturing in 1987.

But even though I had read a small amount of James' writings for myself in the past, I wasn't able to focus on them as much as I would have liked. Now, after fairly close readings of The Will To Believe (1897), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Pragmatism (1907), A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) – along with a few chapters from both The Meaning of Truth (1909) and Some Problems in Philosophy (1911) – I am more convinced than ever that, not only is James a complete joy to read, but he still matters for philosophy and theology. And, it turns out that I'm not alone in this: beyond the vibrant community of American pragmatist scholars, theorists like William Connolly, Isabelle Stengers, Brian Massumi, and Bruno Latour are four major contemporary thinkers who are deeply Jamesian in new and creative ways. So, for this post, I want to offer a short overview of the Jamesian philosophical project as a whole (a bit like I recently did for Cusa). This includes three interconnected components: radical empiricism, pragmatism, and pluralism. I'm going to focus on the first two below, but I'll include some points about his pragmatism as well.

Radical Empiricism

At the foundation of James’ philosophical project is what he calls “radical empiricism” – empiricist, because he largely accepts the basic position of empiricists like David Hume and John Locke that one can only gain knowledge of reality through direct human experience, and not merely through rationalist reflections of the mind apart from experience; and radical, largely because he insists on going beyond Humean-Lockean empiricism in claiming that human experience is much richer and deeper than whatever impressions are felt through the five senses alone. Thus, James believes that we directly - though often vaguely - experience relations of many kinds: of the body, of an external world, of memory (or the causality of the past), of the subconscious, the divine, and more.

In the introduction to The Meaning of Truth, James provides a succinct, three-fold explanation of what he means by radical empiricism:

First, it includes a “methodological postulate” that what is real must be experienced somewhere, and whatever is experienced must somewhere be real. This claim overlaps with what James means by "pragmatism," a philosophical method that aims to keep concepts, ideas, beliefs, and theories always tied to their experiential consequences. The pragmatist views beliefs as "rules for action," so every abstract difference must make a concrete difference somewhere. It also implies that there may be multiple complementary beliefs about reality if they "work"- in the broadest sense of "working." Furthermore, pragmatism also views truths as human constructions that are always in process, and not as existing in some timeless eternity for us to discover and represent. Truth - with a capital 'T' - does not exist for James. But unfortunately, pragmatism is often misunderstood to mean "whatever works for you is true." This is not at all what James claims. His pragmatism does indeed look at "fruits not roots," "consequences not a priori principles", and toward the "future rather than backward." It therefore views all beliefs/theories as forever hypothetical, never fully capable of grasping the flux of reality beyond perspectives. But it does not thereby result in relativism or subjectivism for James. Beliefs are "true" if they: 1) successfully provide certain "vital benefits" for living - e.g., as practical "short cuts" that help us better navigate the complexity of experience, by continuing to successfully predict future experiences, by making life more meaningful, by making us feel more at home in the universe, etc; and 2) they do not "clash" with previously accepted beliefs that are already held to provide other vital benefits for experience. While some seemingly useful beliefs that initially clash with already accepted bodies of beliefs may force one to revise the older beliefs, this might not always be possible or desirable. Thus, James rejects the all-powerful designer God (despite some claims for its ability to make life more meaningful) because it clashes with his other pragmatic beliefs about freedom, the reality of chance, the problems of good and evil, and modern science. Yet, one need not thereby accept atheism, James argues, since he believes that the divine is a fact in so many person's experiences (as detailed in the Varieties) and that theistic and pantheistic beliefs do produce beneficial effects for so many. James thus "tones down" both the omni-God of scholastic theism and the totalizing pantheism of idealists in favor of a finite, relationally limited, affective divinity (which may not be singular in number, he speculates). Thus, far from requiring scientific evidence or rationalistic proofs, James argues that individuals have the "right to believe" in the divine, to "risk" faith in the "public" realm, so long as they remain critically engaged and reflective, hypothetical, and "tolerant" of the plurality of both religious and secular ways. This is all I will say about James' pragmatism for now, but it is worth exploring further (see his lectures on Pragmatism).

Second, radical empiricism is also a “statement of fact," that relations (both internal/conjunctive and external/disjunctive) are as directly experienced – and therefore real – as the parts of experience. Relations are immensely complex, varying in degrees of intimacy. Thus, James argues that "nothing real is absolutely simple; everything is plurally related." Furthermore, everything is so deeply entangled with other things that "if you tear out one, its roots bring out more with them." Thus, there is no clear line between a "thing" and its "relations." I'll say more about this issue of the reality of relations in the section below. 

Lastly, radical empiricism therefore includes a “generalized conclusion” that the diverse parts of
experience “hang together” by relations that are both real and immanent to experience, requiring no trans-empirical/transcendental support. That is, for James, the world forms a “concatenated”, “strung-along” or “pluralistic universe.” This is an image of the world that he suggests is more anarchical than authoritarian, more like a "federal republic" than a monarchy, and more like "philosophic protestantism" than hierarchical "papalism." So James strongly emphasizes the creative agency and value of every individual, opposes "bigness" in all its forms, says "Damn, all great Empires!" - but this do not lead him to an atomistic libertarianism and to merely opposing big governments while simultaneously supporting big corporations. In fact, James was an anti-imperialist who was deeply critical of American involvement in foreign countries (e.g., the Philippines), especially because he saw it as an effort to expand exploitative, greedy "big businesses" around the globe that lacked concern for the common good and the rights of workers. Thus James' pluralism balanced an emphasis on the individual with an equally strong emphasis on relations and communities. And this leads to the second key element of James’ project: pluralism.

James was very sympathetic with traditional empiricism – which, as he put it, rightly privileges parts before wholes, while rationalists do the opposite. But James was also writing at a time when absolute idealism was quite influential. He was good friends with the brilliant idealist philosopher Josiah Royce and also wrote several critical essays about Hegel. James ultimately positioned his metaphysical pluralism as a middle ground between rationalistic idealism and traditional empiricism. In other words, he claimed a kind of third-way between Kant and Hegel on the one hand, and Hume and Locke on the other. He argued that both groups were guilty of the same fallacy: "vicious intellectualism," which excludes from the reality of a thing what its definition does not explicitly include (essentially what Whitehead later called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness"). Thus, James argued that the empiricists and rationalists of his day were vicious intellectualists because both excluded the reality of relations from the parts of experience by abstractly defining them as "individuals" or "substances" that exist apart from relations. This requires further explanation.

James criticizes the empiricists for viewing sense impressions as lacking all relations, and therefore in need of some sort of trans-empirical unifying principle or agency to redeem them from an incoherent, irrational chaos of discrete atoms (which mean virtually nothing in isolation). While empiricists like Hume argued that our experience of causal relations between discrete sense impressions are merely due to "habits" – thus leading him to philosophical skepticism – Kant later tried to provide a more rational solution with his transcendental idealism. For Kant, discrete sense impressions are given a coherent unity through the mind’s a priori categories, or the “transcendental ego of apperception.” In other words, trans-empirical concepts are logically necessary in order to relate the chaos of atomistic sense impressions - if we are to avoid skepticism and view reality as rational. Following Kant, Hegel’s absolute idealism is proposed as a superior way of enabling the relational synthesis of discrete sense impressions through the Absolute mind or spirit – which James playfully suggests is really not much more than the Kantian ego blown up like a big “soap bubble.” Either way, Kantians and Hegelians claimed that a trans-empirical entity, agent, or principle must be logically presupposed to redeem our chaos of experience.

James wasn’t convinced by any of these solutions. He pointed out that we virtually never have experiences that come only discretely, apart from relations. Rather, they come with their own partial connections, their own various types of conjunctive and disjunctive relations that give them a certain amount of coherence. Now, this doesn’t secure any sort of perfect knowledge about experience and reality. Far from it. As James writes, “Our science is a drop; our ignorance, a sea.” But even so, he convincingly argues that relations and things come together in experience – and that’s enough for the philosopher to work with. Furthermore, the very concepts that our mind employs to organize experience (e.g., space, time) are themselves derived from experience, rather than a priori principles.

As such, while the rationalistic idealists hoped to secure the unity of the world (and often, an absolutist conception of the divine) by appealing to transcendentally unifying concepts, James insists that the immanence of concrete experience is all that we need to attend to. And furthermore, when we do stick with the “thickness” of concrete experience, we discover that the universe is ultimately  pluralistic - that is, a perspectival "multiverse" rather than a purely irrational "nulliverse" or purely rational "universe". James thus embraces a “mosaic philosophy” without a transcendental mind or absolute spirit that could provide any sort of final unity to reality, and thereby secure a totally rational coherence. While James' pluralistic universe lacks a totalizing vertical unity, we do still get “some” unities – though often in very different respects that leave us profoundly uncertain and limited. Thus, Jamesian pluralism affirms a non-totalizing, “distributive” world of interrelated “eaches” without an “all-form.” His is a radically relational, perspectival pluralism that asks us to work with what we are given: a world that’s partly rational, partly irrational; partly connected, partly disconnected – or as James Joyce so memorably put it, a "chaosmos." Even a pluralistic sense of the divine is plausible in this pluriverse - not an absolute, unifying deity, to be sure, but an "immanent" divine, James suggests. A divine that is not omnipotent, but is essentially limited, and who perhaps suggestively offers life-giving possibilities to creatures. But again, since we have no final foundations for clear and certain knowledge, James argues that everything - and especially matters of ultimate concern - hangs on the word "maybe." James thus proposed what we might now call a "theology of maybe" more than a century before John Caputo's "theology of perhaps"!

Because radical empiricism says that reality is only known in experience, James concludes that "experience and reality come to the same thing." Thus, metaphysics for him just is the analysis of experience in all of its irreducible richness, endless complexity, and unpredictable novelty. He therefore names "pure experience" as his metaphysical ultimate category. Very much like Whitehead's ultimate of creativity or Deleuze's notion of pure immanence, pure experience is the name for what every "pulse" or "drop" of experience is an actualized instance of. It is not a transcendent substance or entity, but a "collective name" for the multiplicity of "things" that dynamically emerge in experience - which then "dip back" into the "quasi-chaos" of pure experience and dynamically reconstitute it, ad infinitum. James explicitly describes pure experience as a nondual "infinite sea" of virtual potential, prior to dualisms of subject/object, mind/matter, and human/nonhuman. Thus, James views it as implying a "pluralistic panpsychism" that sees mind/subjectivity/agency going all the way down in nature, as implicit "in germ" in even non-conscious, seemingly inert things. Whatever exists is thus a kind of panpsychic pattern of pure experience, and this would includes the gods - if indeed they exist. As such, James' radically pluralistic metaphysics of pure experience is ultimately a process philosophy - and he was very much influenced by Henri Bergson in coming to such conclusions. As he writes in A Pluralistic Universe, "What really exists is not things made but things in the making."

Some helpful secondary sources on James:

-Donald Crosby, The Philosophy of William James: Radical Empiricism and Radical Materialism
-William Connolly, "Pluralism and the Universe" (in Pluralism)
-Ruth Anna Putnam (ed), The Cambridge Companion to William James
-Henri Bergson, "On the Pragmatism of William James" (in The Creative Mind)

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