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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 25. Principles of Psychology; Radical Empiricism

James began his career as a teacher of physiology and gradually drifted into psychology. His Principles of Psychology (2 vols., 1890) contains the substance of his philosophy. Having, despite the influence of Agassiz, become converted to Darwinism, he was led to adopt as fundamental the view of Spencer that thought is something developed in the course of evolution and must, therefore, have a biologic function. The great idealistic argument against the old associationist psychology of Hume, Mill, Bain, and Spencer was to the effect that the sensational elements can at most account for the qualities of things, but not for their relations or connections; and when it was once granted that the relations between things were of a non-sensational or non-empirical character, very little of the world was left to the empiricist. James early became convinced of the force of this argument and, following certain suggestions of Peirce and possibly Hodgson, tried to save empiricism by making it more radical, by giving the connecting relations themselves a psychologic status on a par with the things they connect. Thus he thought to restore the fluidity and connectedness of our world without admitting the necessity for the idealist’s transcendental glue to keep together the discrete elements of experience. Radical empiricism thus becomes a metaphysic which holds the whole world to be composed of a single stuff called pure experience. This sounds monistic enough, and James’s adherence to the view of Bergson re-enforces this impression Nevertheless, James insisted that the world as experienced does not possess the degree of unity claimed for it by Royce and other monists, but that things are essentially many and their connections often external and accidental. At times James professes the dualistic realism of commonsense. “I start with two things, the objective facts and the claims.” But ideas and things are both experiences taken in different contexts, so that his position has not inaptly been called neutral monism, and thus assimilated to the philosophy of Ernst Mach.

It has been claimed that this view eliminates most of the traditional problems of metaphysics, such as that of the relation of mind and body, and also eliminates the need for the Spencerian unknowable and Royce’s or Bradley’s absolute. But just exactly what experience is, James does not tell us, except that it is something to be lived rather than to be defined.

The exigencies of controversy as well as James’s generous desire to give all possible credit to Peirce, have led the public to regard pragmatism and James’s philosophy as identical terms. To James, however, pragmatism was but the method of philosophic discussion, the vestibule to his radical empiricism. The controversy, however, which arose about pragmatism enabled James to elaborate from different approaches his account of the nature of truth. The meaning of ideas is to be found in their particular experimental consequences. Abstract ideas are not copies of things but their substitutes or derivatives, evolved in the process of evolution to enable us to deal more adequately with the stream of immediate experience. An idea is, therefore, true if it enables us to deal satisfactorily with the concrete experiences at which it aims. An idea is said to work satisfactorily if it leads us to expected facts, if it harmonizes with other accepted ideas, if it releases our energies or satisfies emotional craving for elegance, peace, economy, or any kind of utility.

So anxious was James to overthrow the view that the truth of an idea consists in its being an inert copy of reality, so anxious to substitute for it the more activist view that an idea is true if it works or leads to certain results, that he neglected to indicate the relative importance of these results. This led to a great deal of misunderstanding and caused considerable scandal. Those brought up in the scientific tradition and trained to view the emotionally satisfactory consequences of ideas as having nothing to do with their scientific or theoretic value were scandalized by James’s doctrine of the will or right to believe anything the acceptance of which made us more comfortable. This was in part a tragic misunderstanding. Most of James’s lifewas a fight against accepting the monistic philosophy simply because of its æsthetic nobility. He rejected it precisely because it was “too buttoned up and white chockered, too clean-shaven a thing to speak for the vast slow-breeding, unconscious cosmos with its dread abysses and its unknown tides.” It is true, however, that absorption in the psychologic factor, personal or æsthetic, which actually does make some people prefer a narrowly classic universe and others a generously romantic one, made him obscure the distinction between the causes of belief and the evidence for the truth which we believe. We may all start with a biassed or emotional preface, but that is neither evidence nor guaranty of our arriving at scientific truth. Like other violent opponents of intellectualism, James himself falls into the intellectualistic assumption that we must either wholly believe or wholly disbelieve, just as one must either go to church or stay out. He ignores the scientific attitude of suspended judgment and the fact that men may be compelled to act without being constrained in judgment. We may vote for X or Y and yet know that owing to the absence of adequate information our choice has been little more than a blind guess. His interest in vital preferences and his impatience with the emotionally thin air of purely logical argumentation led James, towards the end of his life, to the acceptance of the extreme antilogical view of Bergson that our logical and mathematical ideas are inherently incapable of revealing the real and changing world.