The relevance of william james' radical empiricism to the anthropology of consciousness

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Charles Laughlin


John McManus


William James is usually associated with the philosophy of pragmatism and with his interest in religious experiences. But James also developed a methodology which has received far less attention. James called this methodology "radical empiricism," an approach that requires that (1) all of the ideas and theories in science be grounded in direct experience, and (2) no experience be excluded from scientific purview. This paper describes James' thoughts about radical empiricism, and discusses some of the strengths of, and problems with his view in light of more contemporary science. A biogenetic structural elaboration of James' notion of relations and pure experience is offered, and is used to counter the so called post-structuralist critique of Jacques Derrida. The relevance of James' views to the anthropology of consciousness is explored, with emphasis upon the necessity -- anticipated by James -- of merging a phenomenology with structuralism.


William James is best known for his work on pragmatism (1975 [1907]) and his interest in various kinds of religious experience (1982 [1902]). But James also developed an epistemology of science which has received far less attention over the years,1 and which has considerable relevance to an anthropological understanding of the relations of experience and structure. Of course, his thoughts were developed before there was a modern anthropology of consciousness to bolster his work, or even any discussion of structure per se. But his claims about the relationship of "relations" to experience get right to the heart of a central problem in the science of consciousness, for James was concerned in a distinctly phenomenological way with what we can learn about consciousness from our own direct experience. He was particularly interested in the extent to which we can introspectively discern relations among objects, as well as conjunction and disjunction, unity and disunity, and continuity among states of consciousness. He was also concerned with the relations among the various levels of structure from the simplest elements of sensory experience through to perception and higher cognition.

This paper will describe James' radical empiricism -- a formulation which turns out to be less transparent than we might suppose from a cursory glance at his writings. We will examine some of the more interesting theoretical and ontological notions embedded in his view and will suggest that James understood the necessity of a phenomenological description of experience, but that he had not yet developed a clear idea of structure. We will also suggest that James was ahead of his time in insisting that a science of consciousness must be founded upon a merger between phenomenology and structuralism, two perspectives that remain polarized in anthropology to this day. We will flesh out his notions of relation and pure experience using a more modern, neuroanthropological perspective, and will use this understanding to critique the post-structuralist views of Jacques Derrida. Finally, we will discuss some of the implications of radical empiricism for the anthropology of consciousness.

Radical Empiricism

James called his epistemology radical empiricism, a method of doing science that required: (1) that all of the ideas and theories in science be grounded in direct experience, and (2) that no experience be excluded from the scientific purview (Taylor 1994:353-354). James presented the core of his ideas about radical empiricism in two key articles entitled "Does 'Consciousness' Exist?" and "A World of Pure Experience," both published in the same year and in the same journal (James 1904a and 1904b). These articles and supporting papers and documents were collected in the volume entitled Essays in Radical Empiricism (James 1976 [1912]).

Pure Experience

James's ideas seem straightforward enough on the surface, but some anthropologists may find James' ontological claims a bit murky and peculiar. It is important to emphasize that James was an anti-dualist and a monist, and this bias conditioned all of his epistemological writings. Both the knower and the known, subject and object, perceiver and thing perceived are founded upon pure experience (1976:4-5). By pure experience James meant a level or stage in the constitution of experience that exists prior to cognitive acts. Phenomenologically, pure experience is the "instant field of the present" (1976:13) which holds the potential subject which in turn arises only after the application of cognitive operations on the field.2 In other words, pure experience is the unsullied field of sensory immediacy upon which is built a more and more extensive picture of the world as the hierarchy of cognitive acts mould and produce order in the field. This is a process of formation that takes only a split second in normal states of consciousness -- so fast does it occur that the experiencer is relatively unaware of the process of construction.3

In developing these ideas, James was reacting to the contemporary popularity of Kantian transcendentalism and to all the other varieties of Cartesian dualism that prevailed in his day, philosophical views that had the effect of alienating consciousness from the physical world. As a consequence, James was profoundly suspicious of rational exercises that were not grounded in direct experience. He considered rationalism to be a fallacious epistemology that reifies abstractions that may or may not be associated with instantiations in experience.

Empiricism on the other hand pays attention to experiential instants, and "lays the explanatory stress upon the part, the element, the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the universal as an abstraction" (1976:22). But James goes much further than acknowledging the primacy of his own experience as his ground of knowledge:

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions 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 or relation, in the final philosophical arrangement.

(1976:22; James' emphasis)

In other words, science should be grounded in experience and should be open to any and all experiences had by human beings, regardless of cultural or personal history. It is really the second dictum that makes James' project so radical, and at the same time so interesting to the anthropology of consciousness.
Relations, Conjunctions and Structure

There is a subtle, but crucial emphasis in James' thinking upon the importance of relations. James is telling us that we do not merely experience a world of objects to which we then rationally attribute relations (such as movement, continuity, causation, origin, systemic interaction, etc.). Rather, scientifically admissible relations are those that are as real to experience as are objects (1976:23, 1977:126-127, 147). What are to be excluded from a radically empirical science are relations which are not experienced or which are in principle unexperienceable.4

One of the most important sets of relations that concerned James was what he called conjunctive relations (1976:23-27, 1977:126) -- those relations that provide the "glue" that bonds the otherwise disparate elements of experience together and produces the sense of unity and continuity of the world. His emphasis upon conjunction is (for us at least) a clue to one of the most important aspects of James' project, and the one that elevates his view from being merely historically interesting to one with importance to a contemporary anthropology of consciousness.

James noted that rationalist science tends to emphasize disconnective relations as being real, and connective ones as being "transcendental," "illusory," or imposed upon the world of experience by nomological laws and other rational formulations. Radical empiricism, on the other hand, holds that both connective and disconnective relations are empirically available to direct perception. In James' own words: "Radical empiricism ...does full justice to conjunctive relations, without, however, treating them as rationalism always tends to treat them, as being true in some supernal way, as if the unity of things and their variety belonged to different orders of truth and vitality altogether" (1976:23; emphasis ours). We take it that what he means by "supernal way" refers to an ontologically distinct realm of truth where conjunctive relations -- those that produce the unity of the world -- exist separate from disjunctive relations and objects. It is this Cartesian, even Platonic dualism that James wished to circumvent -- as do we.

James was particularly concerned with the conjunctive relations between strips of experience -- the continuity of experience that eventually came to be called the "stream of consciousness" in Jamesian psychology. Whereas one experience follows another in consciousness, discrete experiences are in no sense disconnected.

What I do feel simply when a later moment of my experience succeeds an earlier one is that tho they are two moments, the transition from the one to the other is continuous. Continuity here is a definite sort of experience; just as definite as is the discontinuity-experience which I find impossible to avoid when I seek to make the transition from an experience of my own to one of yours.

(1976:25; James' emphasis)

What James is getting at here is that the knowledge of the continuity of consciousness is, as with other types of conjunctive relations, intuitively present in direct experience, and is thus available for phenomenological apprehension -- or as Husserl (1967:xx) would say, available for "bracketing." And it is precisely this claim that makes James' empiricism so perspicacious, even in our present day; for James is saying both (1) that conjunctive relations are phenomenologically available to experience, and (2) that these relations are the manifestation of structures that constitute consciousness.

James, of course, does not use the word "stucture" in this context, so we must say something about the meaning of this term.5 This is necessary because we are using structure in a different way than most anthropologists would ordinarily understand the term today. What most anthropologists mean by structure is informed out of either structural-functionalism, in which case the term refers to the organization of social roles and institutions, or out of semiotic structuralism, in which case the term refers to the deep logic laying behind a text or other symbolic material. What we mean by structure, however, refers to the organizations -- especially the neurophysiological structures -- that produces experience, and it is this sense of structure that we discern in James' interest in conjunction. Although he was uncharacteristically ambiguous when it came to writing about conjunction, what we feel that James was struggling to conceptualize is that structure is immanent in pure experience -- that experience is ordered from the level of pure experience, through perception and into higher orders of cognition.

Again, by relational order we are not referring to an order rationally imposed downwards as it were from cognition onto some kind of chaotic, primordial "stuff." The "glue" that cements even pure experience together is structure, and that structure is apperceivable. It was James' insights along these lines that led Carl Jung to his notion of the "archetype" (Jung 1968:55). And James' psychology is in keeping with later perspectives such as J. Gibson's (1979) perceptual ecology, Jean Piaget's (1971) genetic epistemology, Gregory Bateson's (1979) ecology of mind, Francisco Varela's (1979) neuropsychology, and of course our own biogenetic structuralism (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:43-49).

Structuralism and Post-structuralism

The distinction we are drawing here between a radical empirical understanding of structure and a rationalist notion of structure is crucial to making our discussion relevant to anthropology. The abstraction of "structure" from direct experience and lodging it in some "supernal" domain was the principal weakness of the semiotic structuralism of the seventies -- a perspective against which we originally deployed our own biogenetic strucuralism. It was our bone of contention with Claude Levi-Strauss' views (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974:131, d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979:3-4) that he and his followers tended to think of the "pure" mind as residing in an epiphenomenal domain removed from everyday experience and activity. Moreover, just as James decried, semiotic structuralist methodology required the deduction of patterned relations (e.g., binary oppositions, metaphorical-metonymic relations, mythemes, etc.) from texts and a reification of those patterns onto an unobservable entity, the "pure" mind, the ontological status of which remained problematic at best (see e.g., Levi-Strauss 1967:278). Typical of any such rationalist project, a semiotic structural analysis of (say) myth revolves around linguistic and culturological interpretations of meaning, an exercise that is devoid of any reference to, or association with direct human experience or embodied activity.

This inability of structuralists to engage with everyday consciousness or activity led to a revealing controversy between Levi-Strauss and the phenomenologist, Paul Ricoeur (Levi-Strauss and Ricoeur 1970). It was Ricoeur's contention -- and one that we would share -- that all a semiotic structural analysis can do is produce the attitude in the analyst that myths are indeed meaningful and should be taken seriously and engaged at the level of experience. It is in the context of experience and embodied enactment that the real meaning of the text emerges for most people, and upon which subsequent reflection, if any, occurs.

In order to avoid the individual person and his/her experience, semiotic structuralism went to the ridiculous length of disavowing structures that entail human activity and experience. On the semiotic structuralist account, an understanding of myth does not require any reference to action and allowed the analyst to uncover the hidden, pure structures of mind without the distorting influences of environmental, empirical or experiential contingencies. Victor Turner strenuously disagreed with this interpretation of how texts function in traditional religions, and with the peripheralization of ritual it implies (Turner 1985:209-210, 1992:95-96). Turner saw ritual, and not disembodied myth, as the cornerstone of religion. Religion is an active process with ritual enactment at its core. Turner might well have agreed with Anthony F.C. Wallace (1966) that ritual is "the work" of religion.

Moreover, Turner had an insight into the actual psychological processes operating in rituals of transformation that allowed him to see that much of what human ritual is about is change (Turner 1969, Lavie, Narayan and Rosaldo 1993). In our own terms, Turner taught that certain types of ritual produce states of consciousness that effectively unstructure the "natural attitude" of participants and then restructure a new attitude, one that is considered more appropriate, functional, adaptive or mature by the society. The classic case of such a ritual is a rite of passage which transforms an initiate to a more mature level of social status. The key to the operation of any such ritual is the involvement of embodied consciousness in activities that produce transformations of consciousness (literally, the reorganization of the structures mediating consciousness). These activities destabilize the habitual patterns of neurobiological processing, and guide the growth of new patterns.

The over-rationalization of structure continues today in the so-called "post-structuralist" (or "postmodernist," "deconstructionist") movement inspired by the writings of Jacques Derrida (see e.g., Derrida 1973). It is not our intention here to critique Derrida or post-structuralism in detail, but rather to place this movement in its antithetical methodological position relative to James' notion of pure experience. The popularity of both Derrida and the post-structuralist literature is a clear indication of the distance anthropology has moved from James' vision of a radical empiricism.

In critiquing this movement, it is essential that we always keep in mind that Derrida's background -- indeed, the background of the entire movement -- is essentially non-anthropological. It is largely philosophical. The movement is rarely informed from direct ethnographic fieldwork, or for that matter from the actual practice of any phenomenology. And it is primarily concerned with literary criticism. This lack of either a mature phenomenology or a cross-cultural, ethnographic perspective produces a distinct flavor of ethnocentrism in Derrida's philosophical musings -- and hence in his influence upon various post-structuralist theoretical formulations about symbolism and meaning. His ethnocentrism is obvious in the fact that he is almost entirely concerned with the written word; or as Don Ihde (1993:73-77) put it, he is obsessed with the "book metaphor."

Derrida's entire position denies the existence of anything like James' pure experience, and depends upon the claim that all experience is permeated by meaning, and all meaning derives from "historical" (anthropologists would say "enculturative") processes inextricably requiring language. Every possible object of consciousness is conditioned by meaning encoded in language and thus there is no possibility of experience of any object that is epistemologically prior to, independent of, or transcending language-based meaning. Moreover, pure intuition -- or knowing without the influence of language or culture -- is impossible.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Derrida (1973) found it necessary to argue strenuously against the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, for it has been Husserl more than any other thinker who has inspired many to follow a brand of phenomenology grounded in the ability of skilled meditators to access something like James' pure experience, a level of experience which is epistemologically prior to any taint of language-based meaning, and rich with knowledge gained from direct intuition of the essential properties of language (see e.g., Husserl 1960). Direct meditative access to intuitive knowledge of the essential properties of experience is only possible for Husserl when a meditator learns to drop their culturally and linguistically derived "natural attitude" toward experience. The meditator must learn to isolate and query the absolute "presence" of experience -- a skill the possibility of which Derrida emphatically denies.

For Derrida, distinctions made in experience -- even meditative experience -- must ultimately refer back to distinctions encoded in language, a process Derrida calls "differance." Because there can be no escape from this process of linguistically derived signification, intuition of essential structures of experience independant of language is impossible. So too is it impossible to derive absolute truths, or truths pertaining to universal structures of experience, because Derrida recognizes only one source of "differance," namely language. More to the point, Derrida's philosophy and the post-structuralist movement it spawned cannot accept structure immanent in pure experience, but only structure imposed from outside consciousness and communicated via language and culture. As we shall see, this view flies in the face not only of the evidence of mature contemplation, but also of how we know the human brain works to mediate experience.

Relations, Essences and Neurognosis

James' notion of relations is commensurate with the biogenetic structural concept of neurognosis (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:Chapter 2). By neurognosis we are referring to the genetically predisposed cognitive-perceptual structures, and the nascent knowledge of self and world that is the functioning of those structures. We are referring to structures that organize experience from prenatal life (Laughlin 1991) on into adulthood, and that are thus apprehendable to introspection. When we speak of neurognostic structures, we are referring to the organization of the living cells and networks of cells that come to interact, and by organizing their actions come to produce experience during each moment of consciousness. Both cognitive acts and pure experience are organized by neurognostic structures of the brain.

There is thus a developmental dimension to neurognosis -- that is, neural structures tend to grow, especially during pre- and perinatal life and childhood, and become more complex and ramified in their organization and their functioning. James was not interested in the development of conjunctive structures, for he was dealing with adult experience, and besides, there existed little developmental psychological research in his day. But adding a more modern developmental perspective allows us to extend his understanding to incorporate the fact that if the requisite neurological structures are not yet formed in the ontogenesis of the person, then they cannot be discerned in experience. For example, prior to a certain point in development, abstract thought is not possible, and hence cannot arise in experience.

Cognitive acts and the ordered sensory field rise to meet each other in the moment of conscious experience (Laughlin 1992b). The cognitive operations immanent in pure experience contribute to building a more extensive world of experience (i.e., a world that is more ramified, perceptually differentiated, conceptually and imaginally more complex, and extended beyond the immediate perceptual surround). To use James' terminology, pure experience builds upon itself to produce a unitary world of objects and relations.

Over the years we have described a number of elements and relations that are essential properties of experience and that are produced by the activity of neurognostic structures. These include such things as the elementary particles of sensation (i.e., "dots;" see Laughlin 1992a, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:108), internal time consciousness (Laughlin 1992a), intentionality (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:103), fuzziness of natural categories (Laughlin 1993), the sense of reality in experience (Laughlin 1994) and the structure of alternative phases of consciousness (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:Chapter 5). Moreover, we have discussed neurognostic structures relative to complexity of cognitive functioning relative to richness of environmental stimulation (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:49) and in development (McManus 1979).
Examples of Neurognosis

A number of these relations are commensurate with those noted by James, and with which he no doubt would have agreed. And there is now considerable evidence in their support. For instance, there exists a body of literature in neuropsychology on the nature of "perceptual framing" (see Laughlin 1992a, Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991:73-75). This literature deals with the flickering of sensorial epochs, which last for roughly two tenths of a second, and between which there exists a neurognostic structure that relates everything that arises within one epoch as simultaneous, and between epochs as occurring as movement or in time. The awareness of temporal continuity and motion is part and parcel to experience, not a rational imposition upon experience.

This is much the same point that modern researchers have made relative to causal relations (Michotte 1963, Mandelbaum 1977, Jaspars, Hewstone and Fincham 1983). Michotte (1963) for example has shown in phenomenological experiments that, contrary to the traditional Humeian view, our knowledge of causation derives from our direct experience of our body and how its processes are integrated ("kinematic integration") when we carry out intentional acts. Perhaps the most complete phenomenological account of causation in the Euroamerican philosophical literature is to be found in Part Two of Maurice Mandelbaum's book, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (1977:49-142). In that work, Mandelbaum demonstrates that the apprehension of causation in everyday experience involves an inherent awareness of interrelations among elements and phases of a process, and is not the product of rational attribution of a cause-effect covariation among distinct events. Thus causation is an excellent example of empirically apprehendable relations in the Jamesian sense.

Work relevant to the neurognostic structure of experience has also been done in perceptual psychology in an attempt to explain the so-called "moon illusion" (see Hershenson 1989a). As everyone knows, the moon looks larger when it is near the horizon and smaller when it is high overhead, and thus presents what is surely one of the most common illusions. Theoreticians have now been forced to consider that inherent structural properties of the sensory system itself are responsible for the experience of size-inconstancy (see e.g., Hershenson 1989b:143-144). The structure of the sensory system has evolved to make judgements about objects reasonably close to us -- objects of practical, adaptive importance to our organism -- and the inherent processing of proximal distance-size relations creates structural constraints upon how we experience objects at a great distance from us. In other words, sensory neurognosis produces illusory experiences under certain circumstances. Indeed, if it were not for the neurognostic structure of our sensorium, magicians would not be able to fool us with their tricks.

Another example of neurognosis is the phenomenon of the phantom limb. As everyone knows, people who lose a limb from an accident, surgery or in battle may experience sensations as if the limb were still there. Particularly serious is the experience of pain in the absent limb experienced by some people. An obvious explanation for this distortion of the body image is what is being experienced by the unfortunate person is the cognized limb -- that is, the internal neuropsychological model of the limb, a part of their cognized body, which remains intact in cortical and subcortical tissue. To make matters even more interesting, Ronald Melzack (1992), one of the researchers who earlier worked out the gating theory of pain, has reported that some people who are born without limbs may still experience a phantom limb. Our explanation for this startling fact is that the cognized body -- the internal system of neural models of one's body -- is neurognostic, and according to the neurognostic body image, the person has all of their limbs. And the pain that is felt is in relation to the neurognostically perfect body image, not the actual body.

A final example of the kind of neurognosis that is involved in structuring experience is found in the results of color perception research. As reviewed by Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991:157-171), various studies of color vision suggest that the colors we commonly experience are the result of a complex set of relations inherent in the physiology of the nervous system. In the first place, colors appear as oppositional chromatic hues, such as blue and yellow, red and green, which cannot coexist with each other (ibid:158). They cannot coexist because the structures of the nervous system that mediate hue are organized in an antagonistic, reciprocally inhibiting distribution. Moreover, in the kind of ordinary scene we encounter everyday, scenes with myriad color variations and textures and forms, the frequency of light being reflected from any one object is insufficient to account for the color we perceive the object to be (ibid:160). Thus, it is not the quality of light being reflected from the environment that solely determines the colors we see, but rather the relations among patterns of light over the visual field mediated by our nervous system. Texture, motion, relative position of color patch, proximity and movement of the object relative to the observer and other relations will have a determining effect on the perception of color. And, of course, from the cross-cultural study of color categories (Berlin and Kay 1969) we are aware that how different languages develop basic color terms to express this aspect of perception is a highly structured process, and one that is amenable to a neuropsychological explanation (Kay and McDaniel (1978).

Radical Empiricism and the Anthropology of Consciousness

Our description of James' radical empiricism has been all too brief, as has our suggestion as to its applications to the anthropology of consciousness. Nonetheless, we have said enough about his views to point us toward some interesting conclusions.

First, even taken superficially, James' project may be read as a prescription for a phenomenological input into both the anthropology generally, and neuroanthropology specifically -- similar to our own arguement for a neurophenomenology (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). Indeed, he argued for inclusion of the widest possible range of human experience within the scientific purview. And he acted upon his own prescription. He interviewed mystics, mediums, cultists, members of other cultures, and others in order to broaden his understanding of the limits of consciousness.

Second, it is in the development of the logic of his method that one can discern a phenomenological sophistication uncommon in either his day or ours. He relied heavily upon the introspective evidence of the properties of his own consciousness in his arguments against rationalist, transcendentalist and dualist interpretations of experience, and for his account of conjunctive relations.

Third, James anticipated a synthesis of phenomenology and structuralism that was way before its time. And herein lies his real genius, for come to think of it, it would have been considerably before its time were he writing now, for we in anthropology are still feeling the polarizing repercussions of the arguement between the structuralism of Levi-Strauss and the phenomenology of Paul Ricoeur. Levi-Strauss' semiotic structuralism posited the existence of structures far removed from the moment-by-moment flux of human experience, while Ricoeur's hermeneutics emphasized the relationship between text and experience with little regard for the structural properties of experience independent of content.6

Fourth, as we have pointed out elsewhere (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990), transpersonal traditions rarely lead to phenomenological sophistication. That is, just because a traditional religious system encourages the attainment of transpersonal experiences, the tradition most often does not require attention to the structural properties of such experiences. In developing his radical empiricism, James was quite insistant upon the importance of directly apprehending the "connective" properties (in modern parlance we would call these "structural" properties) of experience within the context of self-study. These properties moreover were admissible in science only if they were apprehended in experience, and not at all if imposed by rationalist theories that were ungrounded in direct experience.

Finally, James was reasoning in an era before there existed either the conceptual understanding of, or the experimental research pertaining to structure (i.e., before there was a modern developmental psychology or a modern neuroscience). Furthermore, he was working without the benefit of anything like a tradition of mature contemplation from which to augment his rudamentary phenomenology.7 Despite these obstacles, James anticipated the necessity of both a structural and a phenomenological perspective for a complete account of experience, and he saw quite clearly the methodological difficulties inherent in coalescing the knowledge of experience and the knowledge of structure within a single theoretical frame of reference.

Thus, William James must be credited for having foreseen a major methodological and theoretical obstacle with which we in the anthropology of consciousness have yet to come to terms. That obstacle is for us to develop a perspective that merges phenomenological sophistication with a neurobiologically tenable understanding of the structures that mediate experience. Yet these are precisely the ingredients required of anything approaching a truly modern, nomological science of consciousness. The time is auspicious for such a development, for we are living in an era which is enriched by (1) phenomenological traditions from East, West and aboriginal cultures, (2) a burgeoning interdisciplinary neuroscience, (3) both developmental and transpersonal psychologies, and (4) cognitive science. All it will take is for the proper mix of theory and methods to come together for James' vision of a radical empiricism to be actualized. Would it not be curious indeed if twenty-first century neuroanthropologists come to owe their primary inspiration to one of the early twentieth century's greatest psychologists?


This article is an updated version of a paper that was presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Atlanta, GA, December, 1994. We wish to thank Tannie Liu for her editorial comments, and Edie Turner and Eugene Taylor for their helpful suggestions. Address correspondence to Charles Laughlin, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6.


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12. James' version of pragmatism and his later notion of radical empiricism were not separate developments. The latter grew out of James' understanding of the former.

2. James' pure experience is quite close to the Husserlian notion of "hyle" or "hyletic filling" (Miller 1984:135), and to the Buddhist notion of rupa, or "forming." The idea is that there exists a primordial field of sensorial activity that is itself ordered prior to any cognitive operations upon the field.

3 We are reminded here of the Eastern symbol of the two fish watching each other across the trough between two waves of the same ocean -- the one fish being the knower and the other being the known, both embedded and part of the same sea of pure experience. It should be mentioned that it is not uncommon for meditators to experience a subjective slowing down of experience, and the consequent perception of a tiny lag between the arising of sensory form and the arising of recognition of form. Thus the distinction in Buddhist psychology between "forming" (rupa) and "naming" (nama). There is a tendency for the naive consciousness to identify with the naming function and to externalize the forming function; e.g., "I call that thing out there _____." The mature contemplative realizes that both naming and forming are operations of their own consciousness.

4. This raises interesting questions with respect to such theoretical entities as black holes and quarks which are abstractions from observable relations, but which are in principle unobservable. It is much easier in James' frame of reference to accept such theoretical entities as the neurophysiological synapse which, at the time Sherrington deduced its existence, was a nonobservable theoretical entity, but which later became an empirical entity through the mediation of electronmicroscopy.

5 Indeed, the use of the term "structure" in contemporary social science is far from unambiguous. As William Sewell (1992) has noted, the term is one of the most important, and yet is both elusive in meaning and undertheorized in critical usage.

6. See John Cove (1987) for a notable exception to this polarization in anthropology. Cove attempts a synthesis, not at all un-James-like, and to good effect in his analysis of Tsimshian myth.

7. James was self-admittedly ignorant of Buddhism and other Eastern meditative traditions (see James 1982:522).

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