Radical Empiricism: Speculative Field Notes (complete)

Grand Prismatic Spring

William James’s posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism is neither well known nor well understood for various reasons. The collection is not particularly coherent, the essays are uncharacteristically abstract, and the work is generally hard to understand outside of the context of James’s substantial corpus. However, a concept of radically inclusive, multi-dimensional fields, gleaned from James’s work in various disciplines, might be helpful in grasping, interpreting, and indeed applying James’s theoretical position in Essays. The ecological imagination can also help us envision such a field or fields. A three-dimensional, experiential field is categorically distinct from a two-dimensional “screen” field. One is akin to the experience of walking out of doors; the other is like watching television. Ecological imagination, in this sense, might be cultivated by spending more time in nature, moving through space, and without any particular goal or focus of attention.

A primary argument of James’s Essays is that the concept of pure experience ought to replace the given categories of subject and object. James asserts that these terms denote positions that are both relative and arbitrary. He also makes clear that any thing can be a subject—not only human beings or sentient creatures. And conversely anything can be an object[i]. This implies a kind of leveling of subjects/objects compatible with some trends in contemporary continental philosophy, at the same time that it anachronistically challenges both late twentieth-century critical theory and some millennial speculative realism and new materialisms.[ii] However I’d like to proceed, here, on a more common sense or pragmatic level.

An obvious challenge to including the subject in a field of experience, not related to contemporary philosophy, is the problem of the implied third person.   In conceiving a universe with neither subjects nor objects we may initially place ourselves in a new subject position regarding the “new world” as an object. How can we escape this dichotomy, given our inherited sense of biological coherence and ontological autonomy? How can we “back out” of the subject position, even if we realize that we are also objects?

There may be various approaches, but perhaps none is an absolute solution in the sense of evacuating our sense of self. This should not be a dead end however. James was not fond of absolutes; indeed, eschewing absolutes may be a necessary condition for moving beyond given subject/object dichotomies. As a critic of absolutes, both philosophical and scientific, James prompts us to explore gray areas and liminal spaces. The irreducibility of organism and environment, for example, is a strong challenge to the “black hole” of subjectivity. As surely as we can never escape our subject positions, we can never escape the influence of the environment. To argue that the result of such interactions (which result?) is ultimately all subject, all environment, all continuity, or all discontinuity, is merely to fall back into late Modern and early poststructuralist political camps. (Thus I continue on my politically naïve and institutionally undisciplined trajectory . . . )

Perception and judgment always occur in a complex field, or fields, characterized by interference patterns. Conventional ethics, critical literacy, and current-traditional “Eastern” philosophy, however, still focus on subject/object dichotomies. Ethical systems are generally based on perceiving the human other as an image of the self; race and gender equity and critiques of capitalism are still conceptually based on binary oppositions; and Western yogic, meditation, and mindfulness techniques seem to begin and end with objectifying subjective states. Though we move or oscillate along this line between the subject/object nodes, and often try to negotiate much more complex dynamics, this linear subject/object model, even when complicated, is an insufficient response to our most pressing contemporary problems.

Dualism, with which James struggled throughout his career, may be a result of this habitual oscillation. Perhaps when we truly attend to an object we cannot be fully aware of our selves, and when we are fully aware of ourselves we cannot be truly attentive to the object. (Certainly one or the other must be foregrounded.) This oscillation may create the impression that the object is both out there and in our heads. However, this may also be an effect of ignoring the space in between. I don’t mean to imply a monist “everything is connected” perspective, here, but rather a pluralist “everything (merely) is” perspective, including the unseen media through which we co-experience. Also, by “field” I don’t mean merely what appears in our field of vision, though visual context is certainly relevant, but a far more basic and far more complex ecological field.

James psychological works and his philosophical works both point to the idea of fields rather than linear trajectories of experience.[iii] Neurological pathways, for example, are parts of complex fields of mental associations and/as physical networks. Perception is a complex operation in which previous experience including unconscious memories modulate every moment. Social institutions and communal values, too, are complex structures or networks, situated within even broader and more complex structure and networks.

Within this context one cannot properly say that any autonomous subject perceives any autonomous object. There is no separate experience of a subject apprehending an object, but an inconceivably complex network of co-experiences. The very act of perception implies a plural, unstable field. Universes reflect on themselves, in a sense. Experiences experience themselves through each moment, and thus experience is radically plural.

This is not a mystical thesis, however. It doesn’t require mystical inspiration or insights. Because I would like this argument to be common sense and pragmatic, the category of the mystical is, in some sense, irrelevant. Practices defined as mystical, religious, philosophical, or contemplative might help us to cultivate our ability to experience “real” fields, but typically posit alternative/spiritual realities, and this “gesture” results in another unproductive dichotomy.  I don’t mean that we should exclude mystical experience (James would not approve). Rather, we should strive to frame our perceptions and judgments within broader contexts for “merely” ethical and pragmatic purposes.

Pushing beyond a subject position requires us virtually to shift our perspectives. We cannot simply stand back from ourselves, because standing back enlarges the frame without changing our role as spectators. Rather we could adopt multiple positions at once, in quick succession, or in our imaginations (virtually), to discover that neither subject, nor object (nor context) is stable.[iv] Perhaps thus we can become productively disoriented, and (on various levels) realize a three-dimensional moving field. James often refers to the chaos and flux of the universe, though chaos is not really a goal or threat of such experimentation, as sheer habit guarantees a degree of stability and discrimination.

Walking in nature, once a common practice, has long been identified with cultivating the imagination. Both scientists and artists immerse themselves in nature, in order to understand the world. Such understanding may be a kind of dynamic hypostatization of both subject and object, by which the distinction begins to break down. On the most obvious level, walking illustrates that our perspective is always changing. (As a subject we are always changing, moment-to-moment, whether or not we are in motion.) It reveals various aspects of various objects, and usually leads to some form of (dare I say) “altered” state, in which we enter a flow of experience. While we might have a sense of connection or well being, this should not lapse into an illusion of mastery. The wilder the context, the more aware we should be of “interference patterns”: obstacles, unexpected twists and turns, and the presence of various creatures walking their own, seen and unseen paths. Walking in nature also allows our attention to wander, undirected toward a particular goal. Such aimless attention is healthful and creative, and, I propose, a quality of “pure experience.”[v]

Perhaps such dynamic, pluralistic experiences must remain “alternative” for urban and suburban dwellers, and in this sense my desire to ground “pure experience” in the quotidian may be futile. However, I would like to suggest that such an experience is available to everyone through the simple practice (if not “practice”) of walking in a natural setting. I am not naïve in assuming this opportunity is available to everyone on a regular basis, though I suspect many of us willingly if not consciously trade this “luxury” for various commodities, every day.

Image Source: <http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/Grand%20Prismatic%20Spring.jpg&gt;

[i] See “A World of Pure Experience” and the summary of “The Notion of Consciousness” in the Essays.

[ii] Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects describes such a level playing field, but academic philosophy, in general, may still be invested in assuming mastery. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/the-democracy-of-objects/

[iii] I am moving between the singular “field” and the plural “fields” here partly because this is a sincere essay (exploration). I do want to assert the abstract concept of a “field” as opposed to a “line” of experience, at the same time that I would prefer to eschew the idea of a unified, transcendent field as a proxy for anything.

[iv] The idea of virtually occupying multiple positions at once may resonate with notions of probability waves and parallel universes, though I hesitate to invoke popular physics for obvious reasons.

[v] For a discussion of the “restorative” value of being in nature as a rest from directed attention See Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. In “The ‘Restorative Environment’” section of Chapter 8, “Nature-Deficit Disorder and the Restorative Environment,” Louv cites the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, not coincidentally inspired by William James.



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4 responses to “Radical Empiricism: Speculative Field Notes (complete)

  1. I really appreciate this exploration of “pure experience”–for me, a helpful look at James’s thinking and how that can be employed to do the same work Speculative Realism aims at–namely reorienting ourselves, horizontally—as best we can—in the scheme of things. Our thinking in the Anthropocene is richer for it!

    And too, of late I’ve taken to aimlessly wandering around my neighborhood in the evening. Wandering without purpose my perspective is, as you say, constantly changing and I am constantly surprised, made aware of things I would never notice on an errand. Sights, sounds, smells, my own mind, the wind—its speed, direction, how it moves the trees of different kinds, some of which hang low and brush against my head —stars, moon, the color of the sky and moving clouds; birds with distinct markings whom I see in regular places, rabbits, raccoons and the occasional surprised opossum; topography that I would have never noticed otherwise (going up heretofore undiscovered inclines are felt in my calf muscles, while going down has the distinct sensation of falling), voices of children playing, the glare of streetlights and headlights, to walk in and out of shadows. I am in an “ecological field”.

    I have occasionally tried to combine aimlessness with an errand and it has always been a disaster. While the errand gets done (duh), the experience is shallow and frustrating, as if the necessity to “accomplish” something literally destroys the ability to experience. And so, I now always aim to avoid that muddying.

    And I should mention, some other human beings in the neighborhood have noticed. One has called my wife’s sister and asked, “What’s up with Tangel? I saw him wandering around the neighborhood.” As if there was something wrong with me.

    There is. But aimlessly wandering appears to be helping.

    As has this lovely essay.

  2. Pingback: In an “Ecological Field” | environmental critique

  3. Pingback: In an “Ecological Field” | environmental critique

  4. Pingback: VanderMeer’s Ecological Mind | environmental critique

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