Pragmatism, Radical Empiricism, and Mounce’s Account of William James

Pragmatism, Radical Empiricism, and Mounce’s Account of William James

Charles A. Hobbs

Abstract. According to H.O. Mounce, James’s pragmatism is a failure simply for being inconsistent with that of C.S. Peirce. Mounce also dismisses James’s radical empiricism as involving phenomenalism. There are significant inaccuracies with such a view of James, and, accordingly, this paper is a response to Mounce. The two themes of radical empiricism and pragmatism constitute the heart of William James’s philosophical project, and at least for this reason alone I think it important to correct Mounce. In short, his indictment of James for having paved the way for the Richard Rortys of our community both fails to sufficiently engage James on his own terms and fails to present pragmatism in a sufficiently pragmatic manner.
    Mounce’s The Two Pragmatisms, meant as a kind of history of the American pragmatist tradition, has as one of its main goals to demonstrate “…that if we reflect on its development we shall find that Pragmatism has not had a single form.”1 In short, he seeks to demonstrate that pragmatism, once closely aligned with Peirce, became changed into something he (Peirce) was actually battling against. So far, so good, but, it is James who gets the ultimate blame from Mounce for pragmatism’s ultimate degeneration which culminates, as Mounce well recognizes, in the work of Richard Rorty. As indicated by his title, Mounce speaks of what he calls the two pragmatisms, the second of which is viewed as “…in conflict with the first Pragmatism, not at incidental points, but in its essentials.”2 Peirce’s realist account of pragmatism is portrayed as being the true and worthy version of pragmatism, whereas the other well known philosophers associated with pragmatism are portrayed as degenerate, with the degeneration being initiated by James and ultimately further distorted, especially, by Rorty.3 It is in these terms that Mounce seeks to map out the significant movements found in the pragmatist tradition.
    Mounce portrays James as egregiously misunderstanding Peirce, or at least as influenced primarily by Peirce’s 1878 essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, and thus failing to take into account Peirce’s later modifications to his articulation of pragmatism. His exploration of James’s pragmatism does not go much further than this. I will return to this aspect of the discussion, but it is worth noting for now that Mounce appears to assume that pragmatism had its more or less perfect articulation later in Peirce’s career, and also that any deviation from such a gold standard is necessarily undesirable.
    First, let us turn our attention to Mounce’s account of James’s radical empiricism, an account according to which James is a phenomenalist. Mounce declares that James “…never did attain an entirely coherent view of the mental.”4 Here James’s later work, such as his well known essay “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” is viewed as lacking the acumen and greatness of the 1890 Principles of Psychology. Yet even just a cursory discussion or précis of portions of only a few of the essays making up the 1912 Essays in Radical Empiricism reveals that the situation is quite the contrary. In any case, James’s later philosophy appears not, as Mounce puts it, namely as lacking in high standards, but rather maintains a certain rigor while bringing more focus to bear, than did the Principles, on such phenomenological themes as relations.5
    The heart of Mounce’s interpretation of James’s radical empiricism is, again, the view that James is putting forth a phenomenalism. By this term, we refer of course to empiricist epistemological doctrines according to which everything that one knows about the (external) world is data conveyed to one through sensory experience, and, moreover, according to philosophers such as Rudolph Carnap and A.J. Ayer, that statements and beliefs are intelligible only insofar as they can be reduced to statements and beliefs about such sense-data. Now, there is no debate that James is an empiricist. Yet while James certainly does denounce and reject dualism, he is no phenomenalist, as Ellen Kappy Suckiel, for example, has shown fairly persuasively.6 James is, rather, a self-styled radical empiricist. 4
    Mounce’s rather blunt view here, in any case, is that James’s view in his article “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” (1904) rests upon a fallacy. James is likened to Berkeley. In this vein, Mounce says that James’s view “…is hardly distinguishable from Berkeley’s…”, and Jamesian radical empiricism, supposedly just like Berkeley’s phenomenalism, is said to consist “…essentially in identifying experience with the object which is experienced.”7 Such a view of James’s radical empiricism is not so different from the view about James that Ayer put forward in his 1968 The Origins of Pragmatism, in which Ayer too argues that James’s position comes to one of phenomenalism.8 5
    Now, Suckiel has pointed out a few places in which James perhaps leaves himself open to some form of phenomenalist interpretation.9 This does not appear, however, to be the case with regard to the Essays in Radical Empiricism. It may be that James’s use of the term experience might tempt one to regard his radical empiricism as some kind of idealism, but regarding this late work of James at least, I do not think a phenomenalist interpretation of James will work, and, in any case, it is certainly not one that encourages a constructive, appropriately nuanced, and correctly sympathetic approach to understanding James. A theme running throughout James’s writings is one of countering dualistic tendencies as opposed to strongly asserting any form of phenomenalism. That is, a prominent goal of James involves the repudiation of any epistemological and/or metaphysical “divide” between an objective external world and a subjective knower. As Suckiel has said, he aimed “…to demonstrate that there is no epistemological or metaphysical gap between the knower and the known, and hence no need for either constructing bridges or lamenting their absence.”10 It is also worth noting that the varied thoughts of James, taken together, are rarely if ever reducible to just any one philosophical position regarding metaphysics, epistemology, and/or ethics as well.11 Finally, I believe here with at least several others that James is, if anything, not a phenomenalist in the Essays in Radical Empiricism, but rather a kind of phenomenologist, if we are to give him the label.12 In any case, James uses his term “radical empiricism” to talk about a way of doing philosophy.13
     Let us now look a bit at the somewhat provocatively entitled 1904 essay “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?”,14 and also at “The Notion of Consciousness.”15 In “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” James, not surprisingly, discusses his radical empiricism in terms of implications regarding what we typically call consciousness. Of course, the answer to the question of the essay’s title is no, that is, at least in the manner in which it is most often understood, consciousness does not, properly speaking, exist.16 This is because consciousness, in the sense of some witness to experience, is never found within experience itself. 7
    On the contrary, it is, as James suggests, a function or act, and not some substantial thing persisting as independent of one’s experience and, indeed, one’s body. He says that the essay’s 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.”17 James argues that distinctions between body and mind can be seen as presupposing pure experience. Also, James’s pluralism required him to assert that pure experiences are in some sense foundational, and the radical nature of radical empiricism lies in its insisting that relations are just as significant a part of experience as the things being experienced.
    James contends that experiences are pure before being subjected to analysis or conceptualization. He says that “The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure’ experience.”18 It is only in retrospect that such pure or primary reality can be dichotomized or even reflected upon. In seeking to overcome the mind-body dualism that is so prevalent in the history of philosophical discourse, James advocates the bringing of attention to bear on life as it is lived, and the theme of pure experience involves the abandonment of those theories exemplified by their emphasis on the terms mind and body, as if these are separate and substantial entities. 9
    We ought, for James, to suspend such traditional interpretation in order to renew the sense of life as lived, for we are mistaken if we suppose that such terminology indicates metaphysically different entities, whereas Mounce seems at times to himself come close to postulating such entities. On the contrary, for James, such terminology indicates various functions or aspects found within experience. Also, in “The Notion of Consciousness”, James writes that “…in the light of the great variety of its relations, one and the same experience can play a role in several fields at the same time.”19 As such, within one context an experience may be considered as a kind of mental happening, and in a different context that same experience may be considered as a kind of physical happening. 10
    Also, James’s contention that the radical part of his radical empiricism is such that it necessitates that philosophy be reconstructed as independent of any unifying or supporting (but non-experienced) entities, that is, metaphysical entities like categories, egos, substance, matter, “soul,” or any kind of absolutes.20 We get from radical empiricism, instead, an indication that there is only pure experience; this is the basic datum of philosophy. This constitutes, contrary to Mounce’s position, a rejection of dualism as opposed to an affirmation of phenomenalism. 11
    Moreover, phenomenalism is a reductive enterprise, again, in which somewhat complex statements regarding physical objects can be translated into various statements regarding basic sensory experience. The phenomenalist advocates a particular form of atomism in which “sensory atoms” constitute the only real content for any kind of meaningful statement, and, more importantly, that meaningful statements about experience must be constructed from such atomistic components. Such atomistic tendencies are, of course, in serious conflict with what James says about relations, particularly conjunctive relations, which do not require such construction. 12
   Also, as I have mentioned, one of Mounce’s other contentions is that James’s Pragmatism is a failure for not being more in line with Peirce. As part of this, Mounce emphasizes the theme of nominalism in James, saying that “In innumerable passages, James has insisted that modality is simply a shorthand device for referring to the actual and that the abstract really exists only in particulars.”21 All of this and more is to emphasize how different James’s project is from the realist pragmatism of Peirce. Of course, Peirce’s scholastic brand of realism involves the view that there exist real natural laws, which clearly contrasts with nominalism, for which such generals are figments as opposed to realities. That being said, one might hope that Mounce would also discuss some of the other salient and more significant aspects and themes of James’s pragmatism. Yet he never really gets around to seriously doing this. Accordingly, let us review by briefly looking at a couple of the important Jamesian elements missing from Mounce’s account. 13
    First, there is the issue of what, for James, pragmatism is. In his second lecture on the philosophy or method of pragmatism (“What Pragmatism Means”), James famously says that the scope of pragmatism is “…first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth.”22 As a method, it may be employed by people of widely varying philosophical persuasion and sentiment. Additionally, it has to be demonstrated, according to James, that if a given concept or notion is to be considered meaningful, if must in fact make, or should make, some difference in our conduct. One should be able to demonstrate what the respective consequences would be for one position or view versus some other to be correct, and one may choose, based upon this, between competing notions, and a given dispute might very well be interminable if one cannot determine the practical meanings of the competing views. Of course, the point here is that different philosophies, if they truly are different, should involve different consequences for practice. If it turns out that there really is no difference in the practical consequences, then the alleged different philosophies are not truly different, and thus there is really nothing at stake, and there is thus no real problem with which to contend. 14
    In any case, James indicates that to make philosophy pragmatic, the initial move is to focus on practice, indeed on power, and situate it as central to our endeavor.23 Also, citing his agreement with John Dewey and F.C.S. Schiller, James contends “…that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience…”24 That is, ideas are true as instrumental. They are instruments for action, with practice providing the criterion for the truth of a theory. For James, true beliefs, notions, or philosophies are those that work when in practice and not just in theory. False ones do not work or do not work as well. 15
    According to James, therefore, truth is not something discovered by philosophers. Rather, it is constituted by the practitioners of truth. Action creates it. The point is not one of discovering truth through actions, experiments, and practices. Rather, actions, experiments, and practices create, or at least construct, truth. As such, truth is not something existing apart from or independent of such action. Instead, we are to speak of ideas as becoming true.25 16
    There are at least two well known examples that James employs to illustrate what is meant by this formulation of pragmatism. Returning here to pragmatic method, the second of these, drawn from the Italian thinker Giovanni Papini, is meant to illustrate how this method is compatible with a number of varying results, that is, how this method is one of pluralism.26 With a remarkable illustration of the meaning of pragmatism, we are asked to understand James’s pragmatic method as being like a hotel corridor, one whose doors lead to numerous rooms in which there are thinkers involved with numerous types of projects and pursuits. There could, for example, be a metaphysical idealist in one room and a committed anti-metaphysical thinker in another, both in the same hotel. In any case, James holds that his pragmatic method remains neutral with regard to the various types of thought taking place within the rooms.27 17
    The hotel represents a great deal of the world of thinking.28 The various rooms represent individual philosophies. Of course, the corridor represents pragmatism, which is the connection between these, the philosophical method of choice and action. We might also say that pragmatism affords us our one chance at escaping the isolation of the individual rooms. This corridor method allows one to move from one concept or theory to another concept or theory. It does so insofar as it offers a concrete manner in which to comprehend, enter, or “penetrate” a given theory, and in which to step outside of the theory so to test and contrast it with other theories. That is, to enter or leave their various rooms, the varying occupants must employ the pragmatic method. 18
    Accordingly, we see that, for James, pragmatism is not a set doctrine. Again, it is a method, one that allows for a great many differing views to co-exist under the same umbrella, for pragmatism “…has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.”29 As such, there can be a widely varying group of individuals within the pragmatic family. There can be rationalists and empiricists, idealists and materialists, monists and pluralists, etc. So, James’s pragmatism is a big-tent kind of pragmatism, loathing exclusion and thereby allowing for both tough-minded and tender-minded thinkers from many philosophical traditions. 19
    The preceding sketch of the nature of James’s pragmatism review is warranted in that Mounce acknowledges but a glimmer of recognition of the fundamental significance of such themes in James. I venture along these lines to suspect that James would likely recognize Mounce as a kind of enemy of pragmatism. If not an outright enemy, his project nevertheless does little to establish connections between thought and our concrete lives. Yet the very establishment of such connections constitutes one of the most significant aspects of pragmatism, whether this is in the form of Peirce or James (or Dewey, for that matter). 20
    Of course, it is clear enough where Mounce’s allegiances lie in terms of the most recognized philosophers of the pragmatist tradition. He has, simply put, a fundamentalist commitment to the writings of Peirce. Indeed, the little of James’s pragmatism discussed by Mounce is approached mainly in terms of how it deviates from Peirce, and particularly the later Peirce. Yet it should hardly need saying from me that this is no excuse for simply ignoring what it is, for James, for pragmatism to be considered as a method, as pluralistic, and embracing of concrete life, not to mention the creative significance of the metaphors involved in showing us such themes. 21
    In summary then, (1) Mounce misunderstands James’s radical empiricism. As we have seen, James constantly battled against dualistic tendencies, but this hardly makes him a phenomenalist. Also, (2) Mounce demonstrates a rather severe limitation with regard to his general understanding of the themes and purpose of James’s own version of pragmatism. Of course, Mounce’s general project is one of seeking to demonstrate the truth of the so-called first pragmatism and how the so-called second one came to be. That is, we are offered a kind of genealogy of the pragmatist tradition. Yet it is a reductive one in which the hero is always Peirce and Peirce only.30 22
Department of Philosophy
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale


I thank Larry Hickman, Frank Ryan, Russ Couch, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


1 H.O. Mounce, The Two Pragmatisms: From Peirce to Rorty (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 2.

2 Ibid, p. 231.

3 Such a portrait of there being these two pragmatisms is also defended, in various ways, by Susan Haack in her “Philosophy/philosophy, an Untenable Dualism” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society (Vol. XXIX, Summer 1993), as well as by the ever prolific Nicholas Rescher in his Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). Among other things, they both seem to be concerned with demonstrating that Rorty completely distorts Peirce and, in so doing, conceals what they take to be the realist origins of pragmatism. More trivially, I also note having heard/read somewhere that Haack is sometimes called a grand-daughter of Peirce.

4 The Two Pragmatisms, p. 84.

5 Ibid for Mounce’s phrase. Of course, it is hardly new for me to point out the importance of the theme of relations within James’s thought.

6 See Chapter 7 (“James’s Conception of Reality”) of Suckiel’s The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).

7 The Two Pragmatisms, p. 85. Mounce continues by saying the following:

“For example, my visual experience is not what I see but that whereby I do so. James’s view rests on the same fallacy [as Berkeley’s]. Thus if my visual experience of the room is identified with the room I see, this entails that what I see is my visual experience.

    An example will further clarify the point. Suppose my optician asks me to tell him what I see on his chart. I describe the first few lines and then tell him the rest is blurred. Now it seems evident that this is not an objective description of the chart. I am not claiming for example that the chart is blurred in the sense that the surface of a pond is blurred when the wind blows across it. It would, in any case, be difficult to understand why I should in that sense describe the chart to my optician, when he knows very well what it contains and when I know very well that he does so. I am not, it is true, describing some object other than the chart which I see instead of it. But that is because I am not in that sense describing any object; rather I am describing how I experience the chart. If it is a confusion to identify this with some object other than the chart, it is equally a confusion to identify it with the chart itself. Indeed both confusions rest on the same fallacy, namely that of supposing that my visual experience is some object that I see.” Ibid.

8 A.J. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James (San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper & Company, 1968). Ayer contended that James would have been better served by a weaker version of phenomenalism, one according to which a physical object is understood as nothing more than a theoretical construct that one employs in explaining and organizing experience. See p. 291-293 of The Origins of Pragmatism. On the other hand, there are those, such as Andrew Reck, who argue that James is to be considered as a realist. See Reck’s Introduction to William James (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 64-65.

Of course, Ayer’s work on the pragmatists preceded Mounce by quite a few years, and, in this regard, it is interesting to note that Mounce does not provide any indication that he is aware of this work of Ayer. It is true that he does briefly mention Ayer in terms of the infamous Language, Truth and Logic, but that is all (see p. 175-176 of The Two Pragmatisms). In any case, Ayer had claimed that James’s position is one of “strong phenomenalism,” that is to say a view according to which any meaningful statement regarding physical objects can be translated into a statement about some possible or actual experience. It is, of course, widely recognized that Ayer had very little understanding of pragmatism, and I thank Larry Hickman for pointing out to me exactly how far off the mark Ayer really was.

9 The Pragmatic Philosophy of William James, p. 125-126.

10 Ibid, p. 124. Of course, James also repudiated any fact/value dualism according to which objects and values are considered as ontologically separate entities.

11 Charlene Haddock Seigfried has a done a fine job of characterizing this situation in her William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

12 I deal with the issue of whether James can be understood as a phenomenologist in “Was William James a Phenomenologist?” (Streams of William James Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 2003) For much more outstanding treatments of this theme in James, see especially the following works: John E. Drabinski’s “Radical Empiricism and Phenomenology: Philosophy and the Pure Stuff of Experience” (The Journal of Speculative Philosophy Vol. VII, No. 3, 1993), James M. Edie’s William James and Phenomenology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), Hans Linschoten’s On the Way Toward a Phenomenological Psychology: The Psychology of William James (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1968), and Bruce Wilshire’s William James and Phenomenology: a Study of “The Principles of Psychology” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968).

13 As it is put in the preface of The Meaning of Truth, James uses the term as a kind of general way of referring to a process of postulating, stating facts, and offering generalized conclusions. However, he first mentions “radical empiricism” in his preface to The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. See The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977) p. 104.

14 Originally published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. I, No. 18, September 1, 1904.

15 Of course, these essays were published together, along with ten others, as a collection in 1912, two years after James had died, as the Essays in Radical Empiricism.

16 The contention that consciousness is nonexistent does not, of course, mean that one does not have thoughts. That would obviously constitute a quite odd and even self-contradictory kind of assertion. Rather, what is at issue is that we should not understand consciousness to be some substance, thing, or entity.

17 The Writings of William James, p. 170. This essay was originally published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods Vol. I, No. 18, September 1, 1904.

18 Ibid, p. 177.

19 The Writings of William James, p. 191. This essay was originally delivered in French at the Fifth International Congress of Psychology (in Rome) on April 30, 1905. “La Notion de Conscience” was translated into English by Salvatore Saladino, and the essay is a kind of simplified and condensed version of the themes from “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?” and “A World of Pure Experience”.

20 Ibid, p. 195. James writes as follows: “To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its construction 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. Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced, whether term of relation, in the final philosophic arrangement.” Ibid.

21 The Two Pragmatisms, p. 48-49.

22 The Writings of William James, p. 384.

23 Ibid, p. 379. Along these lines, James says the following:

“A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.” Ibid

24 The Writings of William James, p. 382.

25 Of course, this is all congruent with comments James had made earlier in his career, as far back as his early essay “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1879, 80, 82), and James says more on this issue in his sixth lecture on pragmatism (“Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth”).

26 The Writings of William James, p. 380.

27 Following Papini, James says that pragmatic method “Lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.” Ibid.

28 Not included would be dogmatists such as dictators and/or theocrats, for they are fundamentally closed to inquiry.

29 The Writings of William James, p. 380.

30 As I have already mentioned in endnote #3, Mounce is by no means alone in viewing James strictly through the prism of Peirce. Nicholas Rescher holds a quite similar view that, like Mounce’s story, involves placing blame on James for leading to a blasphemous “destruction” of what is taken to be the original and true pragmatism.

Along these lines, in his Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), Rescher has said that with James pragmatism was “…well beyond its inaugurating ideas and interests to develop in very different, and decidedly less objectivistic directions…”, and, moreover, “Nor did this process stop with William James.” He adds the following: “…pragmatism has been transformed step-by-step with postmodern theorists from William James to Richard Rorty into a means for authorizing a free and easy ‘anything goes’ parochialism that casts objectivity to the winds. We have here a total dissolution—a deconstruction or indeed destruction—of the Peircean approach that saw the rational validity of intellectual artifacts to reside in the capacity to provide effective guidance in matters of prediction, planning, and intervention in the course of nature.” (Realistic Pragmatism, p. 63-64) See also, for some similar remarks, Rescher’s “Pragmatism at the Crossroads” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society Vol. XLI, No. 2, Spring 2004.

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