The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays

Chapter 9: The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism[1]

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THE criticisms made upon that vital but still unformed movement variously termed radical empiricism, pragmatism, humanism, functionalism, according as one or another aspect of it is uppermost, have left me with a conviction that the fundamental difference is not so much in matters overtly discussed as in a presupposition that remains tacit: a presupposition as to what experience is and means. To do my little part in clearing up the confusion, I shall try to make my own presupposition explicit. The object of this paper is, then, to set forth what I understand to be the postulate and the criterion of immediate empiricism.[2] 


Immediate empiricism postulates that things- anything, everything, in the ordinary or nontechnical use of the term " thing "- are what they are experienced as. Hence, if one wishes to describe anything truly, his task is to tell what it is experienced as being. If it is a horse that is to be described, or the equus that is to be defined, then must the horse-trader, or the jockey, or the timid family man who wants a " safe driver," or the zoologist or the paleontologist tell us what the horse is which is experienced. If these accounts turn out different in some respects, as well as congruous in others, this is no reason for assuming the content of one to be exclusively " real," and that of others to be " phenomenal"; for each account of what is experienced will manifest that it is the account o f the horse-dealer, or of the zoologist, and hence will give the conditions requisite for understanding the differences as well as the agreements of the various accounts. And the principle varies not a whit if we bring in the psychologist's horse, the logician's horse, or the metaphysician's horse.

(228) In each case, the nub of the question is, what sort of experience is denoted or indicated: a concrete and determinate experience, varying, when it varies, in specific real elements, and agreeing, when it agrees, in specific real elements, so that we have a contrast, not between a Reality, and various approximations to, or phenomenal representations of Reality, but between different reals of experience. And the reader is begged to bear in mind that from this standpoint, when " an experience " or " some sort of experience " is referred to, " some thing " or " some sort of thing " is always meant.

Now, this statement that things are what they are experienced to be is usually translated into the statement that things (or, ultimately, Reality, Being) are only and just what they are known to be or that things are, or Reality is, what it is for a conscious knower--whether the knower be conceived primarily as a perceiver or as a thinker being a further, and secondary, question. This is the root-paralogism of all idealisms, whether subjective or objective, psychological or epistemological. By our postulate, things are what they are experienced to be; and, unless knowing is the sole and only genuine mode of experiencing, it is fallacious to say that Reality is just and exclusively what it is or would be to an all-competent all-knower ; or even that it is, relatively and piece-

( 229) -meal, what it is to a finite and partial knower. Or, put more positively, knowing is one mode of experiencing, and the primary philosophic demand (from the standpoint of immediatism) is to find out what sort of an experience knowing is-or, concretely how things are experienced when they are experienced as known things.[3] By concretely is meant, obviously enough (among other things), such an account of the experience of things as known that will bring out the characteristic traits and distinctions they possess as things of a knowing experience, as compared with things experienced esthetically, or morally, or economically, or technologically. To assume that, because from the standpoint of the knowledge experience things are what they are known to be, therefore, metaphysically, absolutely, without qualification, everything in its reality (as distinct from its " appearance," or phenomenal occurrence) is what a knower would find it to be, is, from the immediatist's standpoint, if not the root of all philosophic evil, at least one of its main roots. For this leaves out

(230) of account what the knowledge standpoint is itself experienced as.

I start and am flustered by a noise heard. Empirically, that noise is fearsome; it really is, not merely phenomenally or subjectively so. That is what it is experienced as being. But, when I experience the noise as a known thing, I find it to be innocent of harm. It is the tapping of a shade against the window, owing to movements of the wind. The experience has changed; that is, the thing experienced has changed not that an unreality has given place to a reality, nor that some transcendental (unexperienced) Reality has changed,[4] not that truth has changed, but just and only the concrete reality experienced has changed. I now feel ashamed of my fright; and the noise as fearsome is changed to noise as a wind curtain fact, and hence practically indifferent to my welfare. This is a change of experienced existence effected through the medium of cognition.

(231) The content of the latter experience cognitively regarded is doubtless truer than the content of the earlier; but it is in no sense more real. To call it truer, moreover, must, from the empirical standpoint, mean a concrete difference in actual things experienced.[5] Again, in many cases, only in retrospect is the prior experience cognitionally regarded at all. In such cases, it is only in regard to contrasted content via a subsequent experience that the determination " truer " has force.

Perhaps some reader may now object that as matter of fact the entire experience is cognitive, but that the earlier parts of it are only imperfectly so, resulting in a phenomenon that is not real; while the latter part, being a more complete cognition, results in what is relatively, at least, more real.[6] In short, a critic may say that, when I was

(232) frightened by the noise, I knew I was frightened; otherwise there would have been no experience at all. At this point, it is necessary to make a distinction so simple and yet so all-fundamental that I am afraid the reader will be inclined to poohpooh it away as a mere verbal distinction. But to see that to the empiricist this distinction is not verbal, but genuine, is the precondition of any understanding of him. The immediatist must, by his postulate, ask what is the fright experienced as. Is what is actually experienced, I-know-I-am-frightened, or I-am-frightened? I see absolutely no reason for claiming that the experience must be described by the former phrase. In all probability (and all the empiricist logically needs is just one case of this sort) the experience is simply and just of fright-at-the-noise. Later one may (or may not) have an experience describable as I-know-I-am- (or-was) and improperly or properly, frightened. But this is a different experience that is, a different thing. And if the critic goes on to urge that the person " really " must have known that he was frightened, I can only point out that the critic is shifting the venue. He may be right, but, if so, it is only because the " really "

(233) is something not concretely experienced (whose nature accordingly is the critic's business) ; and this is to depart from the empiricist's point of view, to attribute to him a postulate he expressly repudiates.

The material point may come out more clearly if I say that we must make a distinction between a thing as cognitive, and one as cognized.[7] I should define a cognitive experience as one that has certain bearings or implications which induce, and fulfil themselves in, a subsequent experience in which the relevant thing is experienced as cognized, as a known object, and is thereby transformed, or reorganized. The fright-at-the-noise in the case cited is obviously cognitive, in this sense. By description, it induces an investigation or inquiry in which both noise and fright are objectively stated or presented-the noise as a shade-wind fact, the fright as an organic reaction to a sudden acoustic stimulus, a reaction that under the given circumstances was useless or even detrimental, a maladaptation. Now, pretty much all of experience is of this sort (the " is " meaning, of course, is experienced as), and the empiricist is false to his principle if he does not duly note this fact.[8] But

( 234) he is equally false to his principle if he permits himself to be confused as to the concrete differences in the two things experienced.

There are two little words through explication of which the empiricist's position may be brought out-" as" and "that." We may express his presupposition by saying that things are what they are experienced as being; or that to give a just account of anything is to tell what that thing is experienced to be. By these words I want to indicate the absolute, final, irreducible, and inexpugnable concrete quale which everything experienced not so much has as is. To grasp this aspect of empiricism is to see what the empiricist means by objectivity, by the element of control. Suppose we take, as a crucial case for the empiricist, an out and out illusion, say of Zollner's lines. These are experienced as convergent; they are " truly " parallel. If things are what they are experienced as being, how can the distinction be drawn between illusion and the true state of the case? There is no answer to this question except by sticking to the fact that the experience of the lines as divergent is a concrete qualitative thing or that. It is that experience which it is, and no

( 235) other. And if the reader rebels at the iteration of such obvious tautology, I can only reiterate that the realization of the meaning of this tautology is the key to the whole question of the objectivity of experience, as that stands to the empiricist. The lines of that experience are divergent; not merely seem so. The question of truth is not as to whether Being or Non-Being, Reality or mere Appearance, is experienced, but as to the worth of a certain concretely experienced thing. The only way of passing upon this question is by sticking in the most uncompromising fashion to that experience as real. That experience is that two lines with certain cross-hatchings are apprehended as convergent; only by taking that experience as real and as fully real, is there any basis for, or way of going to, an experienced knowledge that the lines are parallel. It is in the concrete thing as experienced that all the grounds and clues to its own intellectual or logical rectification are contained. It is because this thing, afterwards adjudged false, is a concrete that, that it develops into a corrected experience (that is, experience of a corrected thing we reform things just as we reform ourselves or a bad boy) whose full content is not a whit more real, but which is true or truer.[9]


If any experience, then a determinate experience; and this determinateness is the only, and is the adequate, principle of control, or " objectivity." The experience may be of the vaguest sort. I may not see anything which I can identify as a familiar object-a table, a chair, etc. It may be dark; I may have only the vaguest impression that there is something which looks like a table. Or I may be completely befogged and confused, as when one rises quickly from sleep in a pitch-dark room. But this vagueness, this doubtfulness, this confusion is the thing experienced, and, qua real, is as " good " a reality as the self-luminous vision of an Absolute. It is not just vagueness, doubtfulness, confusion, at large or in general. It is this vagueness, and no other; absolutely unique, absolutely what it is.[10] Whatever gain in clearness, in fullness, in trueness of content is experienced must grow out of some element in the experience of this experienced as what it is. To return to the illusion: If the experience of the lines as convergent is illusory, it is because of some elements in the

(237) thing as experienced, not because of something defined in terms of externality to this particular experience. If the illusoriness can be detected, it is because the thing experienced is real, having within its experienced reality elements whose own mutual tension effects its reconstruction. Taken concretely, the experience of convergent lines contains within itself the elements of the transformation of its own content. It is this thing, and not some separate truth, that clamors for its own reform. There is, then, from the empiricist's point of view, no need to search for some aboriginal that to which all successive experiences are attached, and which is somehow thereby undergoing continuous change. Experience is always of that; and the most comprehensive and inclusive experience of the universe that the philosopher himself can obtain is the experience of a characteristic that. From the empiricist's point of view, this is as true of the exhaustive and complete insight of a hypothetical all-knower as of the vague, blind experience of the awakened sleeper. As reals, they stand on the same level. As trues, the latter has by definition the better of it; but if this insight is in any way the truth of the blind awakening, it is because the latter has, in its own determinate quale, elements of real continuity with the former; it is, ex hypothesi, transformable through a series of experienced reals without break of continuity, into

(238) the absolute thought-experience. There is no need of logical manipulation to effect the transformation, nor could any logical consideration effect it. If effected at all it is just by immediate experiences, each of which is just as real (no more, no less) as either of the two terms between which they lie. Such, at least, is the meaning of the empiricist's contention. So, when he talks of experience, he does not mean some grandiose, remote affair that is cast like a net around a succession of fleeting experiences; he does not mean an indefinite total, comprehensive experience which somehow engirdles an endless flux; he means that things are what they are experienced to be, and that every experience is some thing.

From the postulate of empiricism, then (or, what is the same thing, from a general consideration of the concept of experience), nothing can be deduced, not a single philosophical proposition.[11] The reader

( 239) may hence conclude that all this just comes to the truism that experience is experience, or is what it is. If one attempts to draw conclusions from the bare concept of experience, the reader is quite right. But the real significance of the principle is that of a method of philosophical analysis -a method identical in kind (but differing in problem and hence in operation) with that of the scientist. If you wish to find out what subjective, objective, physical, mental, cosmic, psychic, cause, substance, purpose, activity, evil, being, quality-any philosophic term, in short-means, go to experience and see what the thing is experienced as.

Such a method is not spectacular; it permits of no offhand demonstrations of God, freedom, immortality, nor of the exclusive reality of matter, or ideas, or consciousness, etc. But it supplies a way of telling what all these terms mean. It may seem insignificant, or chillingly disappointing, but only upon condition that it be not worked. Philosophic conceptions have, I believe, outlived their usefulness considered as stimulants to emotion, or as a species of sanctions; and a larger, more fruitful and more valuable career awaits them considered as specifically experienced meanings

(NOTE: The reception of this essay proved that I was unreasonably sanguine in thinking that the foot-note of warning, appended to the title, would forfend radical misapprehension. I see now that it was unreasonable to expect that the word "immediate" in a philosophic writing could

(240) be generally understood to apply to anything except knowledge, even though the body of the essay is a protest against such limitation. But I venture to repeat that the essay is not a denial of the necessity of "mediation," or reflection, in knowledge, but is an assertion that the inferential factor must exist, or must occur, and that all existence is direct and vital, so that philosophy can pass upon its nature -as upon the nature of all of the rest of its subject-matter -only by first ascertaining what it exists or occurs as.

I venture to repeat also another statement of the text: I do not mean by "immediate experience" any aboriginal stuff out of which things are evolved, but I use the term to indicate the necessity of employing in philosophy the direct descriptive method that has now made its way in all the natural sciences, with such modifications, of course, as the subject itself entails.

There is nothing in the text to imply that things exist in experience atomically or in isolation. When it is said that a thing as cognized is different from an earlier non-cognitionally experienced thing, the saying no more implies lack of continuity between the things, than the obvious remark that a seed is different from a flower or a leaf denies their continuity. The amount and kind of continuity or discreteness that exists is to be discovered by recurring to what actually occurs in experience.

Finally, there is nothing in the text that denies the existence of things temporally prior to human experiencing of them. Indeed, I should think it fairly obvious that we experience most things as temporally prior to our experiencing of them. The import of the article is to the effect that we are not entitled to draw philosophic (as distinct from scientific) conclusions as to the meaning of prior temporal existence till we have ascertained what it is to experience a thing as past. These four disclaimers cover, I think, all the misapprehensions disclosed in the four or five controversial articles (noted below) that the original essay evoked. One of these articles (that of Professor

( 241) Woodbridge), raised a point of fact, holding that cognitional experience tells us, without alteration, just what the things of other types of experience are, and in that sense transcends other experiences. This is too fundamental an issue to discuss in a note, and I content myself with remarking that with respect to it, the bearing of the article is that the issue must be settled by a careful descriptive survey of things as experienced,-to see whether modifications do not occur in existences when they are experienced as known; i.e., as true or false in character. The reader interested in following up this discussion is referred to the following articles: Vol. II. of the Journal o f Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, two articles by Bakewell, p. 520 and p. 687; one by Bode, p. 658; one by Woodbridge, p. 573; Vol. III. of the same Journal, by Leighton, p. 174.]


  1. Reprinted, with very slight change, from the Journal o f Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, Vol. II., No. 15, July, 1905.
  2. All labels are, of course, obnoxious and misleading. I hope, however, the term will be taken by the reader in the sense in which it is forthwith explained, and not in some more usual and familiar sense. Empiricism, as herein used, is as antipodal to sensationalistic empiricism, as it is to transcendentalism, and for the same reason. Both of these systems fall back on something which is defined in non-directly-experienced terms in order to justify that which is directly experienced. Hence I have criticised such empiricism (Philosophical Review, Vol. XI, No. 4, p. 364) as essentially absolutistic in character; and also (" Studies in Logical Theory," pp. 30, 58) as an attempt to build up experience in terms of certain methodological checks and cues of attaining certainty.
  3. I hope the reader will not therefore assume that from the empiricist's standpoint knowledge is of small worth or Import. On the contrary, from the empiricist's standpoint it has all the worth which it is concretely experienced as possessing-which is simply tremendous. But the exact nature of this worth is a thing to be found out in describing what we mean by experiencing objects as known-the actual differences made or found in experience.
  4. Since the non-empiricist believes in things-in-themselves (which he may term " atoms," " sensations," transcendental unities, a priori concepts, an absolute experience, or whatever), and since he finds that the empiricist makes much of change (as he must, since change is continuously experienced) he assumes that the empiricist means his own nonempirical Realities are in continual flux, and he naturally shudders at having his divinities so violently treated. But, once recognize that the empiricist doesn't have any such Realities at all, and the entire problem of the relation of change to reality takes a very different aspect.
  5. It would lead us aside from the point to try to tell just what is the nature of the experienced difference we call truth. Professor James's recent articles may well be consulted. The point to bear in mind here is just what sort of a thing the empiricist must mean by true, or truer (the noun Truth is, of course, a generic name for all cases of "Trues "). The adequacy of any particular account is not a matter to be settled by general reasoning, but by finding out what sort of an experience the truth-experience actually is.
  6. I say " relatively," because the transcendentalist still holds that finally the cognition is imperfect, giving us only some symbol or phenomenon of Reality (which is only in the Absolute or in some Thing-in-Itself)-otherwise the curtain-wind fact would have as much ontological reality as the existence of the Absolute itself: a conclusion at which the non-empiricist perhorresces, for no reason obvious to me-save that it would put an end to his transcendentalism.
  7. In general, I think the distinction between -ve and -ed one of the most fundamental of philosophic distinctions, and one of the most neglected. The same holds of -tion and -ing.
  8. What is criticised, now as " geneticism " (if I may coin the word) and now as "pragmatism" is, in its truth, just the fact that the empiricist does take account of the experienced " drift, occasion, and contexture " of things experienced-to use Hobbes's phrase.
  9. Perhaps the point would. be clearer if expressed in this way: Except as subsequent estimates of worth are introduced, "real" means only existent. The eulogistic connotation that makes the term Reality equivalent to true or genuine being has great pragmatic significance, but its confusion with reality as existence is the point aimed at in the above paragraph.
  10. One does not so easily escape medieval Realism as one thinks. Either every experienced thing has its own determinateness, its own unsubstitutable, unredeemable reality, or else "generals" are separate existences after all.
  11. Excepting, of course, some negative ones. One could say that certain views are certainly not true, because, by hypothesis, they refer to nonentities, i.e., non-empiricals. But even here the empiricist must go slowly. From his own standpoint, even the most professedly transcendental statements are, after all, real as experiences, and hence negotiate some transaction with facts. For this reason, he cannot, in theory, reject them in toto, but has to show concretely how they arose and how they are to be corrected. In a word, his logical relationship to statements that profess to relate to things-in-themselves, unknowables, inexperienced substances, etc., is precisely that of the psychologist to the Zöllner lines.

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