Radical Empiricism?

The nonstandard “radical” empiricism of the American pragmatist William James has important points in common with the nonstandard rationalism I have been putting together here mainly from Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom. Both an influential psychologist and a philosopher, James originated the term stream of consciousness, while denying the existence of any separate Subject entity. “That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are,” he wrote in the essay “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?”. What peculiarly distinguishes experiences from other kinds of things is better explained by their specific relations to one another than by appeal to a different kind of (“mind”) stuff. James thought these relations were also directly experienced, and emphasized that relations are as real as anything else.

I would go a little further, and also say that names of putatively nonrelational “things” in the first instance designate bundles of relations. Once a name is invoked, it becomes a kind of shorthand that can then be mistaken for a reference to a simple entity. But at the same time, things are also more than just ephemeral reified names. They are involved in further, counterfactual relations that give them a kind of persistence and resilience, allowing us for practical purposes to re-identify a “same” higher-order structure as the “same” thing again. (See also Substance; Potentiality; Aristotelian Identity; Identity, Isomorphism.)

While I would thus certainly agree that we experience relations as directly as anything, I want to say that no experience is direct in an unqualified way. Putatively immediate relations are only intelligible in terms of additional non-immediate relations, and until they are intelligible, they are not “what” they are.

The bad, basically Cartesian “rationalism” of external imposition on experience that James rejects is something I have rejected with at least equal vehemence. The essential role of non-immediate relations in the constitution of practical intelligibility, however, makes me think that “empiricism” is not the best word for a relations-first point of view. (See also Empiricism; Primacy of Perception?)

James wanted to view “direct” experience as always-already relational, but not as always-already involving concepts, mainly because he did not see concepts purely in terms of content. Brandom, for whom the American pragmatist tradition is an important reference, has argued at length that concepts are better understood as purely a matter of content, and that such content should in turn be understood in terms of its role in potential inferences. He uses this to help explain the arguments of Kant and Hegel that our experience does always already involve concepts. (See also Kantian Synthesis; Substance Also Subject.)