A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Radical Empiricism and treating experiences as they are

A few years ago, the "Kitchen Group" at Clark University (now based at Aalborg University in Denmark) put together a book on "Recursivity" in psychology, edited by Zach Beckstead (who recently got hired on at BYU Hawaii, congrats!). I contributed a chapter on William James's Radical Empiricism, including his confounding notion of "pure experience". In it, I illustrate how this "radical" approach to psychology is largely just a dog headed application and reapplication of first-principles reasoning (i.e., the logic just keeps being applied recursively onto the output of any analysis). I'm going to start putting bits of that paper here and expounding on them. Radical Empiricism is relevant to many issues discussed here as, in my read, James intended it to fill in the much-lamented gaps in his earlier work, and to serve as the NECESSSARY foundation for psychological science. That is, it is not a part of the science of psychology properly speaking, it is the thing that has to be true if psychology can be a science at all. That will probably become more clear in future chunks, but I it was this passage (invoked in another discussion) that brought the paper to mind. .  


........I will start with a quick episode, presented as a standard, first-person narrative. Next I will analyze the story from both a traditional perspective and a radical empiricist perspective. The traditional perspective will take dualism for granted, as well as the rightness or wrongness of any judgment about the world. The radical empiricist perspective will simply examine the experiences themselves.
The Episode
It is dark, but I slowly become able to make out a form. It is a man. I call out, but get no reply. I approach, and squint. It is not a man, it is statue, a very good statue, maybe wax. I thought I saw a man, but I was wrong, it was only a man in my mind, the statue is real. Wait, now my eyes are opening again. It was all a dream. There was never anything there at all.
Traditional Dualistic Translation
            This story is about a person doubly tricked. At first they think they are seeing a man, then that is replaced by thinking they are seeing a statue. In fact, there never was any such form anywhere. Everything that supposedly ‘happened’ was merely in their head. Mid-dream, they were correct in asserting there was no man, but wrong in asserting there was a statue. They are correct only at the end, when they judge both objects to have never existed.
Radical Empiricist Translation
This story is about a person’s transforming experiences. The form is experienced first as not having a clear shape, but then quickly comes to be distinguished as a man. Then the form is experienced as a statue. After the form is experienced as a statue, the original experience is re-experienced as wrong. After it is experienced as wrong, it is also experienced as having been mental. Then the person experiences all of those happenings as ‘mental’ and the room he finds himself in as real. More specifically, the prior things are re-experienced as having been ‘dreamt’ and as having been ‘mental’, whereas the current surroundings are experienced as physical.
Elaboration of Radical Empiricist Translation
There are crucial differences between the radical empiricist translation and the traditional translation that are easy to miss. To highlight but a few: 1) In the traditional translation, the original experience of the man is declared to have been purely mental. In the radical empiricist translation, it is emphasized that no such distinction originally existed – there was nothing about the original experience to suggest that it was ‘wrong’ or ‘mental.’ Those are aspects of new experiences, not the original experiences. 2) In the traditional translation, there is no thing being experienced. Part of what the dualist asserts by declaring something to be ‘mental’ is that it is ‘not real.’ Even were we to somehow force the dualist to accept the dreamt form as “a thing”, they would still insist that the experienced man was distinct from the experienced statue, i.e., that there was one some-thing originally and a different some-thing later. The radical empiricist, on the other hand accepts both the experienced form as a thing, and as the same thing despite the transformation. It is necessary to refer to the form as a stable thing, because a stable ‘sameness’ was part of the dreamer’s experience. 3) In the traditional translation, once everything is revealed to be a dream, this retroactively dictates our treatment of the original experiences as composed of ‘dream stuff’ (be it ideas, misfiring neurons, illusion, or some other substance). In the radical empiricist translation, we stay true to the obvious fact that such is a post hoc judgment. Unless the original experience was somehow ‘dreamy’ as, for example in the case of a lucid dream, it is a gross violation to treat the original experience as somehow having been of ‘dream stuff’. The last experience is of the previous experiences as dreams, i.e., the last experience only.
To focus on the final point: If we want to understand the difference between ‘dream’ and ‘real’ we need to look at the difference between the original experience (of the statue as ‘real statue’) and the last experience (of the statue as ‘dream statue’). Whatever is different between those two concrete experiences is the meaning of ‘dream’. It does no good to simply declare that the first experience was of ‘dream statue’; in fact, to do so completely undercuts our ability to investigate the phenomenon of interest.
The radical empiricist stays true to experiences in ways that the traditional approach does not. The original experience was not of a ‘real statue’ nor of a ‘dream statue,’ but merely of ‘statue.’ In this sense, the original experience was neutral with respect to that distinction (see Dewey, 1917). As we found in our multi-philosopher discussion above, we again find that all categories are post hoc, in that they are part of a later re-experience. However, and here is the recursion, those later re-experiences are also themselves experiences. Thus, the re-experience must be subjected to the same analysis as the original experience. The categories revealed in our re-experience are themselves first-order members of the particular experience in which they are found. No amount of compounding experiences can escape this. It is not that we are getting nowhere with our thinking, re-thinking, or meta-thinking, it is only that wherever we get, we are still within the realm of pure experience.


  1. Eric, is it possible to get a copy of the chapter you contributed to the volume on recursivity that you mentioned? If so, I'll send you my email address.

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