“The Many and the One” and the Problem of Two Minds Perceiving the Same Thing

“The Many and the One” and the Problem of Two Minds Perceiving the Same Thing

Mark Moller

Abstract: William James never completed “The Many and the One,” the systematic metaphysical work that he began writing in 1903. Most scholars attribute this failure to illness, temperament and/or distraction. In this paper, I argue that this does not get it quite right. I show, instead, that there is a flaw in James’s radical empiricism, as he originally conceived of it, that he became aware of and which prevented him from completing “The Many and the One.” James believed that a successful defense of his radical empiricism required that he show that it could provide a satisfactory account of how two minds can simultaneously perceive the same thing. However, as he tried to work out this philosophy systematically, he came to doubt that it could provide this account. I show in the paper that it was this doubt that ultimately kept him from completing “The Many and the One.”
     In 1902, having just completed The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James expressed in a letter to Henri Bergson his intent to begin work on a new book, his “magnum opus,” that would finally articulate his metaphysical views.

My health is so poor now that work goes very slowly; but I am going, if I live, to write a general system of metaphysics which, in many of its fundamental ideas, agrees closely with what you have set forth.1

James never completed the book that he intended to write. Nor are any of the other books that he wrote during the last decade of his life the systematic metaphysical work that he had envisioned. All that remains from his efforts is a set of incomplete manuscripts housed in the James Collection of Harvard University’s Houghton Library.2 2
     Although incomplete, these manuscripts, along with some other letters in which James described the book he was working on, provide a fairly clear picture of what it was to be like. We know, for instance, that its title was to be “The Many and the One.”3 We also know it was to be a book for scholars and not another collection of popular lectures like so many of James’s other works. But perhaps most importantly we know that the book was to be an articulation and defense of James’s radical empiricism. It was to present the details of this philosophy in a systematic and technical manner.
    However, the question remains unresolved in the literature on James’s philosophy as to why he never completed “The Many and the One.” For instance, was James’s temperament unsuited for the task so as to make him incapable of the sustained writing required? Or was he perhaps too easily distracted by all of the requests he received to give public lectures? Or maybe the explanation suggested by James himself in the quotation above is the correct one. Perhaps illness kept interfering.4 Each of these explanations is certainly plausible, but I think that none of them get it quite right. I contend that a better explanation can be found by following Ignas Skrupskelis’ suggestion that there is a flaw in James’s radical empiricism that prevented him from completing the task he set for himself.5 Skrupskelis does not say definitively what this flaw is,6 but nonetheless he is correct that one exists. James’s defense of his radical empiricism requires a satisfactory account of how two minds can simultaneously perceive the same thing. James initially thought that his radical empiricism could provide this account, but as I shall show, as he tried to work out this philosophy systematically, he came to doubt that it could. I shall argue that it was this doubt that ultimately kept him from completing “The Many and the One.” 4
    Specifically, I begin this paper by giving a brief overview of James’s radical empiricism. In doing so, I cover territory that will be familiar to many of James’s readers. Where my account will differ from most, however, is that I shall rely heavily on “The Many and the One” manuscripts in providing it. My goal will be to construct what James took his radical empiricism to be when he was trying to write “The Many and the One.” However, I cannot avoid drawing on other materials that James wrote between 1902 and 1906, the period when he was most actively working on “The Many and the One.” Because the “The Many and the One” manuscripts are incomplete, these materials are necessary to fill in key aspects of his radical empiricism that are missing in “The Many and the One” manuscripts. I next explain why James’s radical empiricism requires a solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing, what this solution is and why James came to doubt its success. 5
The Many and the One
    “The Many and the One” manuscripts begin with the following remark:

Of every would be describer of the universe one has a right to ask immediately two general questions. The first is: “What are the materials of your universe’s composition?” And the second: “In what manner or manners do you represent them to be connected?”7

These questions specify what James believes are the two primary tasks of any metaphysical inquiry. One is to give an account of what the universe consists of, while the other is to explain how the unity of the universe is possible. James goes on to give his own answers to these two questions. In reply to the first, James writes:

My hypothesis is that the materials are what I shall call experiences. To be a part of the universe is to be experienced; and not to be experienced is not to be, in this philosophy of ‘pure experience.’8

The second sentence of this passage demonstrates James’s commitment to the “idealistic principle” that “esse is experiri…that a thing must be actually ‘realized’ in order to be real.”9 That this second sentence also follows the statement of his hypothesis makes it clear that James’s choice of the term “experience” as the name for the basic materials of the universe is intended by him to emphasize this commitment.
    One consequence of this commitment for James is the conclusion that “‘absolute substances’ in the old dualistic sense of ‘material masses’ on the one hand, and ‘souls’ or ‘spirits’ on the other, cannot be allowed to be real.”10 Over the years many philosophers have followed Descartes in maintaining that there are two ontologically distinct substances in the universe – a material substance common to physical objects and a spiritual substance common to all to minds. James contends that these substances cannot have a place in his metaphysical system because one characteristic claimed of them is that they cannot be directly experienced, as their existence can only be inferred. Allowing such substances into his system would clearly violate the idealistic principle. 9
    Given this insistence that the basic materials of the universe are experiences and his acceptance of the idealistic principle, one might expect James to propose a metaphysical system following in the idealistic tradition. One might, in other words, expect him to claim that reality is ontologically mental in its basic composition. This, however, is not his intention. James explains that his system “refines upon the term experience itself.”11 Whereas the term “experience” is normally thought to refer to a “kind of spiritual stuff,” in James’s metaphysical system it refers to a “stuff” that is ontologically neither mental nor physical. 10
    It is precisely to emphasize this new use of “experience” in his metaphysical system that James goes on to prefix the term “pure” to it: “By the adjective ‘pure’ prefixed to ‘experience,’ I mean to denote a form of being which is as yet neutral or ambiguous, and prior to the object and subject distinction.”12 “Pure experience,” then, is the actual name for the material that James contends makes up the universe.13 It is intrinsically neither mental nor physical, but can become one or the other depending on what other experiences it becomes associated with as we reflect upon it.14 When these associations are of a certain type, an experience becomes mental; when they are of another type, it becomes physical. 11

[T]he attribution of either mental or of physical being to an experience is due to nothing in the immediate stuff of which the experience is composed, –for the same stuff will serve for either attribution – but rather to two contrasted groups of associates with either of which, as they add themselves to the original experience, our reflection upon it tends to connect it, and which in their totality are classed as the mental and the physical world.15

But care needs to be taken here to avoid misunderstanding James’s claim that the universe consists of only pure experience. David Lamberth is certainly correct that “‘Pure experience’ is not a general substance or substratum, analogous (in having various definite properties) to matter or minds in other philosophies.”16 That is, pure experience is not a basic, general stuff that composes all experience; rather, pure experience is infinitely diverse and variegated. James makes this clarification most clearly in the article “Does ‘Consciousness Exist?” (1904).17

there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made. There are as many stuffs as there are ‘natures’ in the things experienced. If you ask what any one bit of pure experience is made of, the answer is always the same: ‘It is made of that, of just what appears, of space, intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not'”18

The point is that pure experience is pluralistic and not monistic. It consists of whatever it is experienced as being, and it is experienced as being diverse and variegated. James’s use of monistic language in describing pure experience is only meant to emphasize the rejection of the ontological distinction between the mental and the physical.19 14
    This insistence that the basic materials of the universe are pure experiences that are ontologically neither mental nor physical is one way that James’s metaphysics represents a radical break from traditional metaphysical theories. Most scholars in answering the question “What are the materials of the universe?” have sided with one of three positions. They are either dualists claiming that both minds and matter are real, or materialists maintaining that only matter is, or idealists arguing that minds alone are. James denies the truth of all three of these positions in “The Many and the One” and offers his philosophy of pure experience as a fourth alternative. 15
    There is, however, a second way that James’s radical empiricism represents a radical break from traditional metaphysical theories. It is brought out in his reply to the second question above, rephrased by James as “How are these experiences connected?”20 He insists that there are “innumerable kinds of connexion among experiences, and almost any kind of connexion that might be admitted would weave them into some kind of a world.”21 These connections range from the very “intimate” to the more “external.” The connections uniting a personal consciousness are an instance of the former. Here the connections are so intimate that experiences flow together causing later experiences to suffuse with the experiences preceding them. The connection of two physical objects merely being “with” each other, on the other hand, is an example of a connection at the other extreme. Experiences connected in this way do not flow together. In fact, they have no more unity than what a collection of separate objects can be said to have. Many other connections, such as succession, nextness, separation, likeness, difference and conterminousness, fall between these two extremes. 16
    James’s willingness to regard such a variety of connections as real is again the result of his commitment to the idealistic principle. Consistent with this principle he argues that the sole requirement for the reality of connections, or as he goes on to call them, “relations,” is that they actually be experienced. “The next point I wish to insist on is that the relations that connect the experiences must themselves be experienced relations….As to be is to be experienced, so to be connected is to be experienced as connected.”22 Thus, radical empiricism must find a place in its metaphysical description of the universe for all relations that are experienced as well as exclude from its description any that are not. 17
    It is important here to appreciate the significance of James’s claim that it is experienced relations that unify pure experience into a single universe. James is clear in “The Many and the One” and in the letters where he refers to this book that his aim is to develop a metaphysical system capable of superseding the metaphysical theories of the absolute idealists. These metaphysicians specifically denied that the unity of the universe could be explained by appealing to experienced relations. They held that any account that depicts the universe as held together by relations is inherently self-contradictory, and therefore, must be rejected as inadequate (since reality itself is self-consistent – i.e., rational). According to the absolute idealists, the “true” metaphysical view is one that recognizes instead that it is “one Absolute mind which envelopes the whole world as its object” and that “the world is by being thought-of by the Absolute.”23 By insisting that the universe consists of pure experience unified by experienced relations, James is intentionally placing his metaphysical system in direct opposition to this view that the Absolute is necessary to account for the unity of the universe. As we shall see, this decision to oppose the absolute idealists in this way shapes how James thinks the defense of his own metaphysical theory must proceed. 18
The Universe as the “Collectivism of Personal Lives”
    James’s decision to accept the idealistic principle in “The Many and the One” gives rise to the question – whose experience is being referred to in the statement “to be is to be experienced”? The absolute idealists, of course, argue that one must ultimately take it to be referring to the experience of the Absolute, since any attempt to identify another source of experience will inevitably fail to account for the universe’s unity. James obviously has no intention of reaching this conclusion. Thus, he needs a way to answer the question that shows how accounting for the unity of the universe without the Absolute is indeed possible. 19
    Part of James’s strategy is to refuse to answer the first question above on its own terms. In asking whose experience determines what exists, the question assumes that there must be a consciousness outside of experience that has experiences. James, however, denies that consciousness as such an entity exists, and argues, instead, that “‘Consciousness’ is invoked to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known.”24 This is a crucial move for James in his attempt to offer an alternative to absolute idealism. No entitative consciousness, self or mind, either finite or infinite, is needed to be the subject of experiences because experiences are capable of experiencing each other. 20

I believe that we describe the facts much better by saying that experiences in their totality are reported to one another. The present experience is the only witness we need to suppose of the past one, the future experience the only witness we need to suppose of the present one. If we look at our experiences with the simple aim of describing their succession, we see that they form a stream which in important respects possesses the quality of continuity.25

Those who are familiar with James’s discussion of the “stream of thought” in the Principles of Psychology will recognize the similarities between that discussion and what he writes in this passage. James argued in the Principles that consciousness is like a flowing stream. Present thoughts flow out of and are partially constituted by past thoughts. This “continuity” between thoughts is possible because “feelings of relations” serve as transitions between them. Moreover, no entitative self is needed to have these thoughts, since each present thought is able to take on the role of the self by appropriating the contents of the thoughts preceding it, and thus know what its predecessors knew. Calling the present thought “Thought” (with a capital “T”), James writes in the Principles that

[e]ach later Thought, knowing and including thus the Thoughts which went before, is the final receptacle – and appropriating them is the final owner – of all that they contain and own. Each Thought is thus born an owner, and dies owned, transmitting whatever it realized…to its own later proprietor.26

The similarities between these two discussions are not surprising. James’s model for reality in the “The Many and the One” manuscripts is the stream of thought. He wants to claim that reality has many of the same features that this stream exhibits. For instance, reality, like the stream of thought, is continuous because it consists of experiences united by experienced relations, and, like the stream of thought, reality is dynamic and in flux. New experiences are always coming into existence, while old ones cease to be.27 In addition, the role of personal consciousnesses in the universe is much like the role of the present Thought in the stream of thought. Just as the present Thought is nothing but a mental state that takes on a unifying function, James insists that “a ‘mind’ or ‘personal consciousness'” is nothing but “the name for a series of experiences run together by certain definite transitions” 28 that has a unifying function as well. The present Thought appropriates the contents of our past thoughts and unifies them into our current self, while a personal consciousness appropriates the contents of past personal consciousnesses and unites them with new experiences that come to it as additions to those contents.29 23
     Each of these claims about reality is crucial to James’s attempt to offer an alternative to the metaphysical theories of the absolute idealists. The importance of the claim that reality is continuous and in flux is that it offers an alternative to the absolute idealists’ view that the universe is “known by one [infinite] knower in one act, with every feature preserved, and every relation apprehended.”30 This means that for the absolute idealists, the universe is forever fixed so as to make real change impossible. We make no difference in such a universe. We neither improve upon it through our efforts nor make it worse. James rejects this view completely. His aim is to argue for a conception of the universe that allows real change to occur in it and where our efforts have a role in causing it. He goes on in the passage from “The Many and the One” manuscripts quoted above to make his point:

This picture of the irremediably pluralistic evolution of things, achieving unity by experimental methods, and getting it in different shapes and degrees and in general only as a last result, is what has made me give to my volume the title of “The Many and the One”31

According to James, we, as conscious agents in the universe, have an active role in introducing new content and unity into it. Such a view thus aligns his radical empiricism with his meliorism. In earlier essays, eventually published together as The Will to Believe (1897), and in lectures that he gave to teachers, eventually published as Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899), James took the position against the absolute idealists that the ultimate fate of the universe has yet to be decided. He insisted that it is an open question as to whether evil will triumph over good or the other way around. This, in turn, led him to claim that our choices and actions do make a difference in the universe, and, in fact, a crucial one. They help to decide how “the everlasting battle of the powers of the light with those of darkness”32 will turn out. This melioristic attitude only makes sense if the universe is malleable to human action, and, thus, it is one of James’s aims in developing his metaphysics to explain how this malleability is possible. 25
     But James wants to give an even greater role than this to personal consciousnesses when it comes to determining what the universe is like. In his review of the book Personal Idealism, published in 1903, James describes his conception of the universe this way:

If empiricism is to be radical it must indeed admit the concrete data of experience in their full completeness. The only fully complete concrete data are, however, the successive moments of our own several personal histories, taken with their subjective personal aspect, as well with their “objective” deliverance or “content.” After the analogy of these moments of experience must all complete reality be conceived. Radical empiricism thus leads to the assumption of a collectivism of personal lives (which may be of any grade of complication, and suprahuman, infrahuman as well as human), variously cognitive of each other, variously connative and impulsive, genuinely evolving and changing by effort and trial, and by their interaction and cumulative achievements making up the world.33

Ultimately, for James, there is nothing more to reality than the experiences making up personal consciousnesses. However, as he makes clear, these personal consciousnesses need not be limited to humans. James’s radical empiricism leaves room for the possibility of a divine personal consciousness, although such a consciousness would be neither omniscient nor omnipotent.34 And, interestingly, the possibility of “infrahuman” (i.e., animal) personal consciousnesses is also recognized by James. In any case, his view seems to be that it is the experiences making up whatever personal consciousnesses there are, taken collectively, that constitute reality. 27
     Admittedly, James’s view is less than clear here. He could mean that it is only the experiences of personal consciousnesses existing now that determine what is real, but he could also mean that the experiences composing personal consciousnesses that have ceased to exist or will exist, do so as well. My own view is that James means the first of these. But if this is so, then one has to wonder about the status of the experiences in the latter kinds of cases. With regard to the experiences composing past personal consciousnesses, James seems willing to allow that experiences often cease to exist once the personal consciousnesses are no more. This may seem to be an odd view for him to hold, but James could reply that many of us accept the same view about own past thoughts. We do not insist that these thoughts continue to be real. James can also point out that appropriation occurs with personal consciousnesses just as it occurs with thoughts. In the case of personal consciousnesses, the experiences composing past ones would cease to be, but existing personal consciousnesses could have experiences that are the functional substitutes of these past experiences, and hence much of their content would be retained. Finally, James can also say that in many cases the contents of past personal consciousnesses, although not explicitly recognized by existing personal consciousnesses, continue to exist “virtually” in their experiences. In “The Many and the One” manuscripts, James explains that when something is “‘virtually’ known…, that means that all the objective ‘conditions’ for the act of knowing … are present, and only the act itself has yet to be supplied.”35 James’s own example is the constellation of The Big Bear. From the moment the stars making up this constellation were experienced all of the conditions necessary for recognizing that configuration as The Big Bear were present in that experience and in any subsequent ones that appropriate it. All that is necessary for this “virtual truth” to become an actual one is for an existing personal consciousness to become aware of configuration and to name it as “The Big Bear.” Although James never worked out this account of virtual experience completely, he intended it to do much of the work of explaining how the contents of past personal consciousnesses, and for that matter of future personal consciousnesses as well, can be “real” without being “known” by an existing personal consciousness now. 28
The Problem of Two Minds Simultaneously Perceiving the Same Thing
    But the idea that reality consists of the collective experiences of personal consciousnesses raises another difficulty for James in his defense of radical empiricism. Many believe that an incontrovertible truth is that one’s experiences are private and cannot be shared with others. James, himself, in fact, made this one of the “five important characteristics”36 of the stream of thought in the Principles arguing that “No thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law.”37 If it is true that the experiences composing personal consciousnesses are private in this way, radical empiricism ends up in solipsism. Personal consciousnesses never come into contact with each other, but are instead worlds unto themselves. 29
     Another way to understand the difficulty that James faces is to view it in the context of his attempt to show that experienced relations are the source of whatever unity the universe has. Accounting for the unity that exists among the experiences of an individual personal consciousness is relatively easy for him. We have already seen that James’s acceptance of the idealistic principle leads him to regard any experienced relation as real. This means that he can attribute the source of the unity existing between these experiences to these relations. Hence, if a personal consciousness experiences something as succeeding something else, the relation of succession is what unifies the experience of the first thing with the experience of the second. In the end, there is no limit to the different kinds of relations that James can identify as having this unifying function. Any experienced relation will do the work required. However, to defend his view that experienced relations are the source of the universe’s unity, James needs to do even more than this. He must not only explain how the experiences within each personal consciousness are unified by experienced relations, he also needs to identify the experienced relation that unites these personal consciousnesses into a single universe. That is, he must explain how the many in this case can be one. But, if experiences are private to personal consciousnesses as he claimed in the Principles, it is difficult to see how the experiences of different personal consciousnesses could ever be united together by experienced relations. 30
     As James sees it, the problem he faces requires that he explain how two minds can simultaneously perceive the same thing. He thinks that if he can provide this explanation, it would allow him to claim that at least some of the experiences composing personal consciousnesses can be public, and thus shareable with other personal consciousnesses. And if experiences can be public in this way, it also opens the door to his identifying the experienced relation that unites the experiences of personal consciousnesses into a single universe. 31
     While James does briefly discuss the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing in “The Many and the One” manuscripts, his more extensive discussion of it can be found in the article “A World of Pure Experience” (1904). In that article, James begins with a related problem, namely, the problem of other minds. He admits that for him “the decisive reason in favor of our minds meeting in some common objects at least is that, unless I make that supposition, I have no motive for assuming that your mind exists at all.”38 Like so many others, James thinks that a belief in other minds is based on an analogy. I observe your body and conclude from its actions that a mind causes them to occur: “Its gestures, facial movements, words and conduct generally, are ‘expressive,’ so I deem it actuated as my own is, by an inner life like my mine.”39 But, James insists, this analogy works only because the other person’s animated body is “a percept in my field[.] It is only by animating that object, my object, that I have any occasion to think of you at all.”40 It is your ability to alter my percept of your body coupled with my belief that you must have a mind to make those alterations that leads me to infer that you have a mind. But, if this is right, then your mind and my mind do “meet” in the same thing, which in the present case would be your body. 32
     For James, there it little difference if one turns instead to the simultaneous perception of some other physical object. Here, too, your altering that object has an effect on my percept of that object. If, for instance, you blow out a candle when I am present, my candle goes out as well. It is also because of such common interactions as this that we infer that other minds exist, and the fact that we make these inferences so readily is sufficient, James thinks, to shift the burden of proof onto those who want to deny that we cannot simultaneously perceive the same thing: “If your objects do not coalesce with my objects, if they be not identically where mine are, they must be proved to be positively somewhere else. But no other location can be assigned to them, so their place must be what it seems to be, the same.”41 33
     But, James needs to do more than establish that it is reasonable for us to believe that two minds can simultaneously perceive the same object; he also needs to explain how such perception is possible. He is convinced that it is here where the real “cash value” of the philosophy of pure experience lies. As we have already seen, James’s claim is that pure experience is ontologically neither mental nor physical, but that it can take on either of these characteristics depending on what other experiences it becomes associated with. In one context of experiences it can function as a thought, while in another context it can function as part of the physical world. But James is also convinced that there is no reason why a “portion” of pure experience cannot be in both of these contexts at the same time so that it functions simultaneously as both a thought and a physical object. He makes this point most clearly in the essay “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist? (1904)42:

a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context associates, [can] play the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of ‘consciousness’; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective ‘content.’ In a word, in one groups it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing, And, since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective both at once.43

It is this idea that a portion of pure experience can be in both a mental and a physical context at the same time that then allows James to work out a solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing using his philosophy of pure experience. Since a portion of pure experience can function as both a thought and a physical object concurrently, he has a way of explaining how an experience can remain public, that is, available to others, when it is being perceived by a single personal consciousness. It is the result of two contexts of experience, one mental and the other physical, intersecting. The experience at this intersection functions simultaneously as the perceiver’s percept and as the physical object that is being perceived, and it is the context of experiences that causes it to function as a physical object that ensures that it remains public and available to all other perceivers. Thus, there is no problem if we add a second perceiver so that two now simultaneously perceive the same object. In this case, the second personal consciousness is nothing but a third context of experiences added to the first two.

If one and the same experience can figure twice, once in mental and once in a physical context… one does not see why it might not figure thrice, or four times, or any number of times, by running into as many different mental contexts, just as the same point, lying at their intersection, can be continued into many different lines.44

Once again, the physical context in this case ensures that the experience remains available to each personal consciousness even though the experience is simultaneously a part of both mental contexts.
     The final step James needs to take to complete his solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing is to identify the experienced relation that unites the experiences of each personal consciousness to the experience common to both of them. In “The Many and the One” manuscripts, James claims that “of all of the different kinds of unity which the Universe of our experience encloses … the essential kind …is the continuity, the absolute nextness of one part to another.”45 We are now in a position to see why he thinks this is so. According to James, something is continuous with something else “whenever the mind in passing from one to the other in thought, can imagine no third term intervening between them to serve as the medium of its transition.”46 This contininuity holds true in cases of perception involving a single personal consciousness. A person feels himself or herself to be continuous with the object he or she perceives. This feeling, then, identifies the relation that unifies the experiences composing that person’s personal consciousnesses with the experience that is the physical object. James insists that “continuous transition is one sort of a conjunctive relation,”47 and that these feelings of continuity are “what make our experiences cognitive.”48 Thus, the relation of continuity serves as the source of the unity between a personal consciousness and what is perceived. 36
     It is true, of course, that in the case of simultaneous perception we do not feel ourselves to be continuous with the experiences of the other personal consciousness perceiving the same object. Thus, James cannot claim in this case that the relation of continuity connects the experiences of one personal consciousness to another’s directly. However, James thinks that he can claim that while the two consciousnesses are not continuous with each other, they are “conterminous”; that is, they are “each continuous with the same intermediary.”49 This claim now gives James everything he needs. When two consciousnesses simultaneously perceive an object, each is continuous with that object, but conterminous with each other. Thus, it is the relation of continuity that unites the experiences of both personal consciousnesses into a single stream of experience. For James, it is these cases of simultaneous perception that personal consciousnesses engage in with each other that unify all experience into a single universe. In short, they allow “the many” to also be “one.” 37
The Miller-Bode Objections
     As I stated at the beginning of this paper, my claim is that James failed to complete “The Many and the One” because he became convinced that there is a flaw in his radical empiricism arising from this solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing. The evidence for this claim is to be found in the series of notebooks that James kept from the fall of 190550 to February 1908. Known in the literature as “The Miller-Bode” notebooks,51 they contain James’s attempts to respond to objections that Dickinson Sergeant Miller and Boyd Henry Bode made to the version of this solution that James published in “A World of Pure Experience.” It was James’s inability to answer these objections satisfactorily that led him to give up writing “The Many and the One” for other projects. 38
     Bode’s objection is one among a number he makes to James’s radical empiricism in the article “‘Pure Experience’ and the External World”52 published in 1905. The main thrust of Bode’s objection is that the solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same object conflicts with the arguments against the compounding of consciousness that James had made in his Principles. In that work, James had claimed that every mental state is a unique psychic whole and not a compound of simpler mental states. He took this view, at least in part, because of the continuity of consciousness. Since the stream of thought flows, James held that one’s current mental state is the result of what is already in one’s personal consciousness fusing with what is being presented to it, and since the former is always different, no mental state can ever reoccur.53 Bode seizes on this claim to argue that

in the ‘Principles of Psychology’… it is shown that no state of consciousness can be exactly duplicated within the experience of an individual, and it would appear that essentially the same proof will apply in comparing the experience of different individuals.54

Bode’s point is that James’s own arguments in the Principles against the compounding of consciousness rule out the possibility of two personal consciousnesses sharing the same experience. They can share it only if at least one of two possibilities is the case. They both must either have the same experience as a constitutive part of their respective consciousnesses or at the moment they both perceive the object each personal consciousness must be in the exact same state. James’s own arguments show, however, that neither of these is possible. 40
     Miller never raised his objection in his published writings. Instead, he made it known to James through letters and in an unpublished manuscript. Unfortunately, neither these letters nor the manuscript have been found. There is, however, a letter that Miller wrote to Ralph Barton Perry when the latter was working on The Thought and Character of William James where Miller restates his objection.

The objection as I made it is as clear in my mind now as then — if one says, the very object is immediately given, one implies that it may be given to you and to me, or an identical part or aspect of it may thus be given, at the same time. Now the other contents or present objects of your mind and mine will not be the same. My objection has force only on one assumption, that what we mean by “consciousness” is a relation between the contents or objects of consciousness. The object O will stand in a relation of appearance with my other content of the moment, but insofar as you are conscious of it, it will not stand in this relation (i.e., you are of course not conscious of my other content, my bodily sensation for instance). That is, the object O will stand in a certain relation and not stand in it at one and the same time — a self-contradiction.55

Underlying Miller’s objection is another argument that James makes against the compounding of consciousness in the Principles. James also maintains in that work that “the essence of a feeling is to be felt, and as a psychic existent feels, so it must be.56 He then uses this claim to argue that a compound of simple mental states cannot account adequately for all of the features that are found in a single moment of consciousness. Specifically, it cannot account for the collective awareness that a single moment of consciousness possesses. If an individual’s personal consciousness were a compound, the simpler mental states composing the compound would each only be aware of itself and not of it and the others taken together.57 In making his objection, Miller is contending that this argument from the Principles coupled with the one discussed in the context of Bode’s objection shows that James’s solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same object is self contradictory. If it is true that in cases of perception the same experience is both the percept of an object and the object itself, then when that experience enters into a relation with the experiences composing a personal consciousness through an act of perception it must be altered by merging with those experiences, just as James’s argument in the Principles requires. Moreover, since the experiences making up each personal consciousness are always changing, and thus different, the experience is never altered in the exact same way. This is not a problem as long as only a single personal consciousness perceives an object, but it becomes one as soon as a second personal consciousness is added that simultaneously perceives that same object. In this case, the experience that is both the object and the percept of it stands in relation to two different sets of experiences simultaneously, which means that it must be altered in two different ways at once. And, since an experience is as it is felt to be, the same experience would need to be in two different ways, which, as Miller points out, is self-contradictory. 42
     Here it is not my aim to work through James’s various attempts to respond to Miller’s and Bode’s objections in the “Miller-Bode” notebooks.58 Rather, I only want to draw on these notebooks to establish that James came to regard these objections as disclosing a potentially serious flaw in his radical empiricism, and that he struggled for most of his remaining career trying to eliminate it. 43
     Proof that he recognized the force of Miller’s and Bode’s objections is in the very first entry of the notebooks.

But in my doctrine that the same “pen” may be known by two knowers I seem to imply that an identical part can help constitute two fields.

Bode and Miller both pick up the contradiction. The fields are not then entitative units. They are decomposable into “parts,” one of which at least is common to both, and my whole tirade against “composition” in the psychology is belied by my own subsequent doctrine!59

Here James is acknowledging the conflict between his views that both Miller and Bode identify.
     Other entries, however, show that James also sees the deeper implications that Miller’s and Bode’s objections have for his radical empiricism. For instance, in the second entry, he restates the problem he faces this way:

The question of two knowers of the same appears identical with the question: Can what is experienced ex be identical with what is experienced co? If it can, it would seem possible for it to have more than one co.60

An experience is “co” when it is conjoined with a personal consciousness and “ex” when it is not. James recognizes in this entry that Miller’s and Bode’s objections call into question his claim that the same portion of pure experience can simultaneously figure in more than one context of experiences. If when I perceive an object, say a pen, the same experience is both the pen that I perceive and my percept of it, and if an experience is altered when it becomes conjoined to the experiences composing my personal consciousness, how can the pen that I perceive be identical to the pen before I perceived it? That is, how can the experience “co” me be the same as the experience “ex” me? But also, if an experience is altered by becoming conjoined to the experiences composing a personal consciousness, how can the same experience be my percept (“co me, but “ex” you), your percept (“co” you, but “ex” me) and the pen (“ex” both of us), when it seems clear given the arguments of the Psychology that the experiences must be different in each case? Radical empiricism’s account of the unity of the universe requires that the experience be identical in all of these different relations, but as Miller’s and Bode’s objections point out this does not seem possible given James’s own arguments. 46
     James also sees that if he is forced to admit that the experience does change in this case, he is faced with this question:

But how, when all is simultaneous, can the parts equate the whole, and yet the whole be experienced as such, when each part only experiences that part? Either no whole is experienced here; or, if experienced, it must be by a more inclusive experient.61

If it is true that when you and I perceive the pen simultaneously our percepts of the pen are different, and thus that it is not the same experience that is conjoined to your personal consciousness that is conjoined to mine, then how can we be said to perceive the same pen (or be conterminous with the same object)? How can our two different experiences in this case be the same pen, or as James puts it in the passage above, how can the parts in this case equate the whole? Given James’s insistence that whatever unity that exists in the universe is due to experienced relations, the only answer available is that an experienced relation is what unifies the two experiences so that they are both the pen. However, now a new question arises: Who experiences this relation? It cannot be either you or I. Thus, it must be a third personal consciousness, “a more inclusive experient,” who experiences both your and my experiences together. But, of course, the last thing that James wants to allow is that this third personal consciousness is necessary in this way. He sees all too well that it is the first step down a short slope to admitting that the Absolute is necessary to unify the universe. 48
     The rest of the “Miller-Bode” notebooks document James’s attempts to save radical empiricism’s account of the unity of the universe from the difficulties raised by Miller’s and Bode’s objections. In entry after entry, he either pursues strategies for explaining how the same experience can function in more than one context of experiences without altering, or if he is forced to admit that it does alter, why this does not undermine radical empiricism’s account of the universe’s unity. Although it is put in terms of the possible solution he is considering at the time, the second to last entry of the notebooks, dated February 10, 1908, shows clearly that it is still this same problem that James is struggling to solve.

The point is, having given up intellectualism absolutely, & adopted the compenetration view, to see whether the latter admits better of the con and ex relation being simultaneous, for such simultaneity is the crux that has bother’d me so long.62

     Those who are familiar with A Pluralistic Universe will recognize that James at this point has begun to think about the difficulty raised by Miller’s and Bode’s objections along the lines of the solution to it that he will defend in the lectures making up that book, and which he will give from May 4 to May 28, 1908, just a few months after he wrote this entry. In these lectures, he defends the view that the unity of the universe is possible because experiences “overlap” and “compenetrate” with each other.63 However, these lectures also make clear that James paid a stiff price for this solution. Gone in them is the philosophy of pure experience in favor of panpsychism. Gone, too, are the arguments against the compounding of consciousness pursued so strenuously in the Principles. In his fifth lecture, he retracts these arguments and refers to his struggles in the “Miller-Bode” notebooks when giving his reasons for doing so.64 Gone, too, is his commitment to “his intellectualist logic, the logic of identity,” that is, his commitment to refusing to allow the same to be in two different ways. James’s comment on this in the lectures leaves no doubt: “For my own part, I have finally found myself compelled to give up the logic, fairly, squarely, and irrevocably.”65 50
     James’s final solution will not be taken up here. The purpose of this paper has been to argue only that there is good reason to think that James failed to complete “The Many and One” because of a flaw in his original solution to the problem of how two minds can simultaneously perceive the same thing, and not just because of illness, temperament or excessive demands on his time. What has been said about James struggle to solve this problem in the “Miller-Bode” notebooks is sufficient to complete this argument. 51
     But what is the significance of showing that James failed to complete “The Many and the One” for this reason? It does help us to understand better the difficulties James faced as he tried to work out his radical empiricism systematically, and why he was led to make changes he did to it in A Pluralistic Universe. However, it is also my hope that the discussion in this paper serves to cast James’s failed attempt to complete “The Many and the One” in a much different light. James is often portrayed as a thinker who was unwilling, and perhaps even incapable, of doing difficult, technical philosophy, and it is fair to say that this portrayal over the years has contributed to his work being taken less seriously than it should be among philosophers. In my view, the claims by James scholars that he failed to complete “The Many and the One” because of illness, temperament or distraction are not accurate and only serve to exacerbate this situation. It is clear that James was willing and able to do the difficult and technical work necessary to flesh out the details of his metaphysical system. His struggle to solve the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing in his published and unpublished writings demonstrates this. In fact, I would contend that it was precisely his doing this kind of work that prevented him from ever completing “The Many and the One.” As he struggled to respond to Miller’s and Bode’s objections, pursuing and rejecting one reply to them after another, he came to see how deeply flawed his radical empiricism was, at least as he initially conceived it. It was his recognition of this that kept him from completing “The Many and the One” or any other systematic metaphysical work like it. Apparently, he eventually decided that the most he could hope to do is to paint his metaphysical system in broad strokes, as he does in A Pluralistic Universe and Some Problems in Philosophy. Still, one cannot help but wonder how James’s philosophy would be viewed today if his original aim of completing “The Many and the One” had been successful. 52
Philosophy Department
Denison University


1William James to Henri Bergson, December 14, 1902, in The Correspondence of William James 12 vols., eds. Ignas K. Skrupskelis, Elizabeth M. Berkeley, and John J. McDermott (Charlottesville and London: The University of Virginia Press, 1992-2004). Vol. 10, 167. Hereafter CWJ.

2The complete text of these manuscripts has been published in Manuscript Essays and Notes, The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). Hereafter MEN.

3Ibid, 6.

4H. S. Thayer in his introduction to the Harvard edition of Pragmatism gives all of these reasons for why James never completed his magnum opus. See H. S. Thayer, “Introduction” in Pragmatism, The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), xiv.

5Ignas Skrupskelis, “Introduction” in MEN, xx.

6Skrupskelis does recognize that James’s difficulty in solving the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same object was a serious obstacle to James’s attempts to work out his radical empiricism (Ibid., xxx-xxxix). Skrupskelis does not, however, draw the connection between this difficulty and James’s failure to complete “The Many and the One.” In part, this is because Skrupskelis thinks that James gave up the project of completing this book in late 1904 before James became aware in late 1905 that his solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing is unsuccessful. Apparently, Skrupskelis bases his conclusion about the date both on the lack of any reference to “The Many and the One” in James’s letters after July 1904 and James’s decision to begin writing and publishing the articles that eventually became Essays in Radical Empiricism (“Notes” in MEN, 325-326). My own view is that James did not abandon writing “The Many and the One” until much later, most probably in the spring of 1906. On May 21 of that year, James states in a letter to Giovanni Papini his intent to “publish a digestible and popular volume intended as a text-book for students, & sketching the Universe of radical empiricism a grands traits” (CWJ, vol. 11, 226). I think that it is more plausible to hold that it is around this time that James gave up the goal of writing a systematic, metaphysical work that would have presented the technical details of his radical empiricism to other philosophers in favor of an introductory textbook that would present his radical empiricism in broad outlines more easily understandable by students. If this is right, then the decision to abandon “The Many and the One” project occurred after James became aware of the difficulties with the solution to the problem of two minds simultaneously perceiving the same thing. In fact, I think it was these difficulties, among others, that eventually led James to the alternative of writing the introductory textbook. As Peter Hare puts it in his introduction to the Works edition of Some Problems in Philosophy “The restrictions of the format of an introductory text would, [James] must have hoped, allow him to refuse — with a clear intellectual conscience — to grapple unreadably with certain technical difficulties and permit him to present his philosophical system with the clarity he has so long sought.” Peter Hare, “Introduction” in William James, Some Problems in Philosophy (1911), The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979, xviii-xix.

7James, MEN, 21.


9Ibid., 37.

10Ibid., 21.

11Ibid., 23.

12Ibid., 26-27.

13Graham Bird has questioned whether James intends for his “philosophy of pure experience” to be understood as asserting an ontological claim. In focusing on James’s discussion of pure experience in the articles of Essays in Radical Empiricism, he suggests that James’s philosophy of pure experience is better understood as an “extended epistemology,” and thus treats this discussion as an attempt on James’s part to solve various pressing epistemological problems. It is difficult to fault Bird for trying to rescue the philosophy of pure experience from the objections he thinks it faces if it is read as asserting an ontological claim (regardless of whether these objections are correct). However, there seems little doubt that James does intend to assert such a claim. He stresses this himself in a letter to Charles Strong written on October 2, 1907. Referring to the articles that are Bird’s focus, James writes:

the problem there was metaphysical, not epistemological; it was an analysis of the nature of what is experienced, not of the meaning of knowing, and whatever epistemology I may have brought in was by the way, and illustrative, not fundamental. (CWJ, vol. 11, 455)

But I also think that the discussion of the philosophy of pure experience in “The Many and the One” leaves no doubt that James’s intent in writing this book is to do metaphysics in the traditional sense, and the claim that pure experience is the basic material of the world is an ontological claim.

14Another way to put the point is that pure experience becomes mental or physical only once it is talked of. See James, ERE, 13. But also see William Joseph Gavin, William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1992). Gavin provides an important discussion of pure experience in the context of James’s views on language.

15Ibid., 27.

16David C. Lamberth, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 24.

17James’s letters establish that he was still working on the “The Many and the One” in the summer of 1904, but also that he had become frustrated with how slow his writing had gone up to that point. In letters to Francois Pillon (June 12, 1904, CWJ, vol. 10, 409) and to Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (June 12, 1904, CWJ, vol. 10, 412), he laments at having written only thirty two pages in the previous two years. Apparently, just a few weeks after writing these letters, James decided that he could wait no longer to make the details of his radical empiricism public. In July of that same year, he wrote “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist” and by the spring of the following year he had finished most of the other essays on radical empiricism that were later republished as Essays in Radical Empiricism. There is, however, no indication in these or other letters during this time that James published these articles because he had abandoned his hope of completing “The Many and the One.”

18William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 14. Hereafter ERE.

19Two of the more useful discussions of James’s concept of “pure experience” are still John McDermott’s introduction to the Works edition of Essays in Radical Empiricism (ERE, xxx-xxxviii) and Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s Chaos and Context: A Study in William James (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1978), 38-52.

20James, MEN, 21.


22Ibid., 22.

23Ibid., 7.

24Ibid., 25.

25Ibid., 29.

26William James, Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (1890), The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 322. Hereafter, PP.

27Relevant here is the question of whether James is embracing panpsychism in “The Many and the One” or the view that reality is inherently psychic. Marcus Peter Ford, for instance, argues that James was a panpsychist at least up to 1904, at which point he gave it up for the “neutral monism” of the articles in Essays in Radical Empiricism. If Ford is right, then this would make James a panpsychist when he began writing “The Many and the One. It is true that James does describe his view as being panpsychic once in “The Many and the One” manuscripts (MEN, 6). However, as we have seen, he also wants to claim that pure experience is ontologically neither mental nor physical, which would conflict with this description. One possibility, of course, is that James is simply inconsistent in these manuscripts (and perhaps in the articles in Essays in Radical Empiricism too, as Ford argues.). However, I think that Wesley Cooper is right that James is actually defending an “attenuated panpsychism.” That is, James ascribes to experience qualities that are normally attributed to the mental, i.e., change, continuity and purposefulness, but falls short of claiming that it is psychic. Although it is possible to point to passages where James does seem to say that experience is psychic as well, Cooper’s interpretation fits most of the relevant passages and has the advantage of eliminating the apparent inconsistency in James’s view. See Marcus Peter Ford, William James’s Philosophy: A New Perspective, (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982) and Wesley Cooper, The Unity of James’s Thought (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002), 42.

28James, ERE, 39.

29James, MEN, 5.

30Ibid., 14.

31Ibid., 5-6.

32William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899), The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 153.

33William James, “Review of Personal Idealism” (1903) in Essays, Comments and Reviews, The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fedson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 544-545.

34James, MEN, 5.

35Ibid., 37-38.

36James, PP, 220.

37Ibid., 221.

38James, ERE, 38.



41Ibid., 39.

42 He does make this point in “The Many and the One” manuscripts too. See James, MEN, 19-20.

43James, ERE, 7.

44Ibid., 39.

45James, MEN, 6.

46Ibid., 32.

47James, ERE, 25.

48Ibid., 42.

49James, MEN, 32.

50Again, my view is that James was still hoping to complete “The Many and the One” in the fall of 1905. See notes #6 and #17.

51These notebooks have been published in MEN, 65-129.

52Boyd Henry Bode, “Pure Experience and the External World,” The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 2 (1905), 128-133.

53See James, PP, 224-230 and 266-273.

54]Bode, “Pure Experience and the External World,” 132.

55This letter is dated August 23, 1932 and is quoted in Gerald E Myers, William James: His Life and Thought. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 567-568fn.

56James, PP, 165.

57Ibid., 162-164.

58For a more detailed discussion of James’s attempts in these notebooks to respond to Miller’s and Bode’s objections, see Mark Moller, “James, Perception and the Miller-Bode Objections,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 37 (Fall 2001), pp. 609-626; Harry Heft, “Restoring Naturalism to James’s Epistemology: A Belated Reply to Miller & Bode,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 38 (Fall 2002), 559-580; Lamberth, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, 146-202; and Skrupskelis, MEN, xxxi-xlii.

59James, MEN, 65.

60Ibid., 71.

61Ibid., 70.

62Ibid., 123.

63See William James, A Pluralistic Universe (1909), The Works of William James, eds. Frederick H. Burkhardt, Fredson Bowers, and Ignas K. Skrupskelis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 121.

64Ibid., 95.

65Ibid., 96.

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