From Transcendental Empiricism to Worker Nomadism

From Transcendental Empiricism to Worker Nomadism: William James

by David Lapoujade

William James calls himself a radical empiricist. His philosophy is not, as it is widely believed, pragmatism, but rather empiricism. What does this mean: to be a radical empiricist? Deleuze and Guattari give us a definition in What is Philosophy?: “When immanence is no longer immanent to something other than itself it is possible to speak of a plane of immanence. Such a plane is, perhaps, a radical empiricism”. Radical empiricism would therefore be an operation which consists in liberating immanence, returning it to its own movement. Deleuze refers to this operation as transcendental empiricism, whereby one establishes a plane of immanence, when the plane of immanence is determined as transcendental field.
If James at first calls himself a radical empiricist, rather than an empiricist, this is because his interest is not in experience as such but rather in pure experience. This is the name William James gives to the plane of immanence. His is a radical empiricism insofar as he does not recognise the given as conceived of by classical empiricists, who begin with an anarchic distribution of sensible minima-psychic atoms. Moreover, the plane of pure experience is still connected for the empiricist to the rapidly overcome, theoretical stage which is the tabula rasa; experience is pure insofar as he who undergoes it is himself pure of all experience: Adam, the newborn. There is of course another way of extracting a plane of pure experience which consists in repeating the Cartesian operation of doubt and suspending all the existential positions of naive belief — all transcendences. One thus comes back to Husserl’s well-known formula from the Cartesian Meditations: “[The] beginning is the pure — and, so to speak, still dumb — psychological experience, which now must be made to utter its own sense with no adulteration. The truly first utterance, however, is the Cartesian utterance of the ego cogito”. However, this doubt is always carried out according to an essential certainty of which it is the obverse. Inevitably, the moment comes when doubt reverses itself in order to establish as a first principle an “I think”, whose constitutive power [puissance] was already manifest in its power [pouvoir] of suspension.
“Pure” thus comes to mean something quite different. It is no longer said of personae without experience — such as Adam or the newborn — as was the case with classical empiricism, it is now said of a field purified by doubt of all matters relating to empirical psychology. Indeed, pure designates that which subsists after the reduction or “bracketing”. Pure is said of all lived experiences [vécus] considered from an immanent point of view. Thus there is a pure experience, but also a pure expression and a pure consciousness. This is the same operation one can already find in Kant, though carried out according to different principles and producing different results: pure designates the determination of forms independently of their empirical content [matière empirique]. The pure is identified with a priori forms in order to put matter on the side of the empirical, the conditioned, experience.
One begins with pure forms which are then necessarily filled by material contents or with essences which are then varied by examples. If phenomenology can legitimately be called transcendental, it is to the degree to which it repeats the Kantian procedure, but under a more complex form, less visible, for Husserl makes it less apparent that the empirico-transcendental doublet strictly maps onto the couple matter/form. Generally, pure therefore means that forms are set in a transcendental field, constituting themselves either in a priori, or in immanent lived experiences.
The descriptions that James gives of pure experience lead us to pose the following question: why have Kant and Husserl failed to examine the forms themselves? Why have they not examined them if the forms of the ego, the subject, the object, of imagination, of intentionality are pure? Can one place these forms in the transcendental field without further examination, without realising what they commit one to? The question seems all the more justified to the extent that these forms, though reorganised, extended or narrowed down, are each and every time doubled by the very empirical psychology from which one nevertheless is trying to escape.
Psychology is reproached for its empiricism and its naturalism when instead it should be attacked for drawing from these both bad forms and false distinctions. Everything happens as if the transcendental were a purified psychology. In a certain sense, for Kant as for Husserl, forms are pure insofar as they are forms — a profoundly Aristotelian or Thomist presupposition.
Given these conditions, how can James hold to the concept of pure experience whilst nevertheless declaring his radical empiricism?


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