In 1904, American psychologist William James gave the name “radical empiricism” to his Weltanschauung in an essay appropriately titled “A World of Pure Experience.” In what follows, I’m going to review this essay for you and show you how it corresponds to Jungian analytical depth-psychology. The first principle to keep in mind is his statement: “We are all biased by our personal feelings.” We all have a particular bias. All of us. James was the first psychologist to give feelings a central place in his worldview. How we view reality is colored by our experiences. Whatever we experience is impacted by our personal feelings; they are all part of a series of our experiences of reality. We feel a certain way about an experience and assign a category or a name to it and it enters the streams of our consciousness; these imprints of experience form a permanent record in our subconscious mind. A feelings series can be experienced either as a whole, or in its parts, but the series is, nevertheless, a succession of subjective experiences that cannot account for objective knowledge about Absolute Reality. This is what makes his hypothesis so fundamental.
Radical empiricism is about making our subjective feelings count through our actions; its “essentially a mosaic philosophy, a philosophy of plural facts,” a philosophy of parts that “flirts” with “teleology.”[i] Why in his view can we never experience the Absolute? Because all we can know in our streams of consciousness, he conjectured, is that the Self in its Transcendental aspect can be experienced as Many in a plural sense. What the Metaphysical Self is in its totality, as One, nobody knows. This is analogous to the psychology of C.G. Jung: The Jungian Self is an endless series. Since the Self is infinite, moreover, James believed its terminus can only be imagined to be experientable. “To be radical,” he wrote only constructions directly experienced may be admitted into the elements of psychology, and “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.”[ii] Thus, Oneness is real only to the degree that one has experienced it in imagination and since there is always a “plus” or a “more” to be experienced, the series is continuous.
Radical empiricism is a study of ordinary and the extra-ordinary aspects of experience. It concerns itself with conjunctive connections, how connections conjoin with one another. Our continuously changing experiences carry a certain sensation of continuity across time. Ordinary empiricism tries to do away with “conjunctive relations” and insists mostly on “disjunctive connections,” not on the whole Self, which is always in-the-making. Empiricism of the radical type “is fair to both the unity and disconnection.”[iii]
James’s metaphysics of knowledge is not therefore “trans-experiential.” He refuted belief in a Being that transcends experience and gives unchanging unity to the world. Radical empiricism denies a “self-transcendent function of reference to a reality beyond itself,” and it rejects that an objective reference “implies self-transcendency on the part of any one experience; on the other hand, it claims that experiences point.” Empirical experiences in this view are pointers to objective reality and they demonstrate a “conjunctive function of pointing” in the Self that is teleological in nature.[iv] Radical empiricism “insists on taking conjunctions at their ‘face value,’ just as they come.”[v] One experience in a series is conjoined to a total life-series. When you ask yourself how it is you arrived at your particular profession, for example, notice how all of your experiences are conjoined to the actions you took along your life-path, with all of its twists and turns of fate and destiny, and the significant relationships you’ve encountered along the way are each a part of your conjunctive life-experiences. “Radical empiricism… does full justice to conjunctive relations.”[vi] Connective relations have to do with empirical facts of science, with a world of pure experience.
Such a radically empirical Weltanschauung formed the nucleus of James’s psychology of action. To be a radical empiricist means, therefore, that our “co-conscious transition” from one mental state to another is both conjunctive and “continuous.”[vii] Continuous experiencing “means to hold fast” to conjunctive connections in a seemingly endless “passing of one experience into another when they belong to the same self.”[viii]
What has “existed simultaneously” across all of our Self-experiences in the streams of our consciousness is a “pluralism of which the unity is not fully experienced as yet.”[ix] Notice how careful James is to mine the cash value out of every sentence he writes here. Unity is not a state of Absolute Oneness, he says, a Self-transcendency of permanent change achieved once and for all. What exists as real is simply a continuity of Self-experiences across time in our plural Selves and they are difficult to hold in one single mental state. The four Selves he posited for American psychology consists of 1) our Material Self (which includes the Body Self), 2) our Social Self, 3) our Spiritual Self, and 4) our Metaphysical Self, or Transcendental Thinker. Who or What the Self is that is Thinking us, at an Absolute level, is forever unknowable, because it is really without question an Infinite Selfhood. We can only get hints of it through our conjunctive relations. “While we live in such conjunctions our state is one of transition in the most literal sense. We are expectant of a ‘more’ to come, and before the more has come, the transition, nevertheless, is directed towards it.”[x] All of the conjunctive connections of experiences in a series, furthermore, are “bilateral relations” and our two-sidedness is “pointed in a special direction, much as a compass needle… points at the pole.”[xi]
Radical empiricism insists on understanding forwards (how our compass needle points North); how our present moment-to-moment interactions are directed towards our future, and this futurity in thought and action “accounts for the self-transcendency or the pointing (whichever you may call it) as a process that occurs within experience, as an empirically mediated thing of which a perfectly definite description can be given.”[xii]
Conjunction, co-consciousness, simultaneity, infinite approximation to a Transcendental Self-Experience, conjunctive connections, bilateral relations, a self-transcendent function, teleology, empirical psychology; this all sounds very much like Jung’s philosophy of esse in anima. In my view, James’s analytic psychology was a precursor to Jung’s psychology of individuation, which he viewed as an endless approximation to the Self. In Jung’s view the Self can be experienced approximately through the transcendent function, while no metaphysical postulate was meant. Metaphysical epistemology, according to James “pretends that the self-transcendency is unmeditated, or if mediated, then mediated in a super-empirical world.”[xiii] Radical empiricism asserts that the transcendency may be momentarily experienced by stepping through a doorway into the mother-sea of the subconscious to see where the Self is pointing us. The super-empirical world of metaphysical Oneness is what he refuted in his frequent criticisms of Royce and Vivekananda.
This made the “analytic psychology” of James new. In this new view all religious experiences are variable. No one experience is the same because they are all subjective. Radical empiricism and analytical psychology form a complimentary conjunction in modern analytic psychology. James and Jung made no metaphysical statements about the Ultimate. As James wrote forthrightly in “The Meaning of Truth,” his “Sequel to ‘Pragmatism’”: “The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no extraneous trans-experiential connective support, but possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure.”[xiv] This continuous structure is the Self in its fourfold aspects, the Self as a whole, and it is the aim towards which all of our Self-experiences in the finite world of pure experience are pointers, not end states.
The way I’ve made sense of James’s Weltanschauung as a Jungian analyst and dream researcher is through the area of my own Self-inquiry into the nature of vocational dreams and synchronistic phenomena, an endless series of events in life that can be studied empirically through qualitative and quantitative research. If you keep a dream journal over a period of years in analysis, for example, what you may see is a series of conjunctive relations between certain images, archetypal entities, or numinosities, which assign significance or meaning to your lives. Many images of the Self may come to you that may help to organize your life and motivate you in a vocational series. They are all leading you somewhere, towards some unknown destination. All of the archetypes of vocation make up a continuous series of feeling relations. What do the calling archetypes want from you? Where are your archetypes of vocation pointing you to, reader? What experiences of the Self are attempting to awaken pluralistically in you? What are the prospective images of the Self that are dreaming you, from your past and future? Follow their callings.
What James and Jung did was to shatter the illusions of God-men who led us to imagine we are the Absolute. No spiritual teacher, prophet, mystic, philosopher, Yogi, or Messiah has ever embodied the Ultimate Self, since all experiences are subjectively felt and all truths are relative Truths. This is modern psychology; this is spirituality Western style. The only way to know what the Metaphysical Self is is to experience it as a continuous series of synthetic images that point to Oneness.
Notes:[i] James, W. 1987. “William James Writings 1902-1910,” New York, NY: The Library of America, 1160.[ii] James, 1160.[iii] James, 1162. [iv] James, 1203.[v] James, 1204.[vi] James, 1161. [vii] James, 1163.[viii] James. 1164. [ix] James. 1182. [x] James. 1204.[xi] James, 1204.[xii] James, 1205.[xiii] James, 1205.[xiv] James, 826.