Two pre-amble points.
Firstly, in a way, arriving at a “working understanding”, as opposed to a “definition”, is part of what radical empiricism is about. Going directly from phenomena experienced to definion is too intellectual too quick and misses out the radical empiricism itself.
Secondly, the term “radical” is easy to misuse. Dave Buchanan accused me of misunderstanding the term as used in radical empiricism (and he was right too) some time ago – but in fact we do need to be concern with two different meanings. Radical, as in outside established norms, reactionary to received wisdom … is relevant. Mentioned this aspect recently when looking at Zizek and Sloterdijk – some ideas only make sense in that non-socialized – original “Kynic” – context. Interestingly Matt Kundert made this same point about James and his radical empiricism at the time – being radical in this counter-culture sense.
But this is just preamble. What of radical in the radical empiricist sense … radical as in fundamentally significant. What follows is my own rewording of an exchange between Matt, Dave and myelf from several months ago …. a snippet of conversation that has sat in my draft posts folder for quite some time.
This was my conclusion:
Radical Empricism takes the idea of empricism so far back from conceptualized models of the world as to take it back beyond even any preconceptualized, atomistic (greedy reductionist) view of the world as objects. A kind of “total” empiricism, (immediate or pre-conceptual) purged of any vestige of pre-conception. It is taking the preconceptions of objectification out of experience (out of both the senses of experience and the phenomena experienced).
What follows is the original mail snippets. (The water / river metaphor is a good one … used elsewhere,)
Ian – I’ve been trying to get an understanding of what radical empricism really is, beyond what I already understand by empricism, post-Dewey-James-Pirsig-Rorty. Thanks for picking this up Matt.
Ian – I actually think I agree more with DMB than you here in the end, but the point is I believe we have converged on an understanding (for me) of what “radical empiricism” is.
Matt- James’s sense was that the relations between things (atoms) were as directly experienced as anything else, and this old thought of his, as > DMB said, eventually turned into his doctrine of radical empiricism.
Ian – Right, so if you don’t hold a reductionist / atomist view of the word to start with then (obviously) “relations are as directly experienced as anything else” …. we are still simply talking about what is experienced. (Turning anything into a doctrine sounds the potentially scary bit … the politics …) So beyond that simple statement what actually is “radical empiricism” …. ?
Matt – DMB is also right to suppose that thought of James’s is in line with what I called panrelationalism. Atomism is when you think experiences, or perceptions, or language can be broken down into little non-breakdownable nuggets (qualia, sensa, words, etc.), and these nuggets are the real part of the bigger thing, and the bigger thing only works when it stretches back to these little things. Opposed to this is holism, and James wanted to be a holist about experience, which is where his “stream of consciousness” metaphor comes from.
Ian – exactly. Whether we talk in “streams of consciousness” terms or not, I see that holistic view (non-reductionist / atomist view) of experience and what is experienced.
Matt – Experience isn’t sifting through a bunch of rocks, its more like water, which can be dipped into and separated from the river, but it all kinda’ depends on what kind of bucket you are using (a way of saying things are relative to purpose, a pragmatist master concept).
Matt – My entire so-called problem with radical empiricism is really just a problem with using the direct/indirect distinction at all at this level of conversation about experience (or language or whatever). For the traditional empiricist, the senses are the direct part. But James wants to toss that. But then, what’s left to be direct? I don’t believe DMB answered your question directly: are the first five [senses] also what a pragmatist considers direct experience? The radical empiricist has to answer no, but once you’ve let thoughts into the area, what are we throwing up in the way so that something becomes indirect? In the atomist picture, life is like a dude in a quarry, picking through reality-rocks, and when you aren’t in touch with the rocks, you’re not with reality (hence, the correspondence theory of truth). But on James’s metaphor, life is like being in a river, and when you’re in a river, you’re never not in contact with the river.
Ian – Actually I have no problem with that metaphor … when you are in a river you experience the water and its motion etc. You are not experiencing “a river”, not without some pre-conceptual (pre-experienced) idea of a river as a whole collection of water with a lifecycle, beginning and end, non-salinity, bounded by river-banks, and some emergent identity as a river from all of that – you do not get that from the direct / immediate experience alone – just the water and its motion (it’s all process anyway).
Ian – If that’s what “radical empricism” is. I have no problem with it. It is taking the preconceptions of objectification out of experience (out of BOTH the senses of experience and the phenomena experienced).
Matt – I recently said, in a post to Bo, that Pirsig’s empiricist rhetoric can get in the way. I don’t take this as a strike against radical empiricism, though, because I take holism to be the centerpiece (and the Quality thesis to be intrinsically holist).
Ian – An empricism that recognizes the holism in what is experienced before the holism in the concepts arising sounds right. When you say “holistic” where I might say “strange loopy” … this is just a choice of language. Language gets in the way of successful discourse about these subjects, hence the need to repeat, recycle the debate in different words. But it doesn’t get in the way of this direct-experience / conceptualized distinction. Not for me now anyway. All seems clear.
Ian – Radical Empricism takes the “doctrine” of empricism so far back from conceptualized models of the world as to take it back beyond even any preconceptualized, atomistic (greedy reductionist) view of the world as objects. A kind of “total” empiricism, purged of any vestige of pre-conception. I’d like to think I’m there. (It’s been obvious from Pirsig readings all along … just a matter of finding the words.)
Matt – A radical revolutionary isn’t an official part of the political system–they are in the business of overturning the political system. And just so with James’s radical empiricism.
Ian – I just know from prior experience that DMB is going to say that is misuse of the term “radical” here. (and I agree with him) Perhaps I missed your irony Matt, you old Rortian you 😉
Ian – The $64,000 question is how does this change the “values” and PoV’s in the applied world of pragmatism. I guess it stops us falling into a few more conceptual traps, avoiding applying our day-to-day logic to mis-conceived objects more thoroughly.