A Philosophical Look into Our Understanding of Reality According to William James


William JamesWilliam James (1842-1910)

William James attempted to establish that his philosophy has greater utility in actual experience than traditional philosophies—rationalism or British empiricism—because it is based on the empirical method for gaining knowledge but begins in the experience rather than reflecting back upon the experience. He was suggesting, I think, that to rightfully understand reality, reality must be experienced as opposed to what can be understood through reason or reflection alone. What I think he meant by this is that the felt or lived experience provides a greater insight and a deeper understanding of reality through the sensational knowledge received by the senses. Traditional philosophies are in many cases inclined to ignore sensational experiences based on the supposition that our senses are limited or misleading and reason is not. James rejects this approach to inquiry that is commonly accepted by traditional philosophy and replaces it with his radical empiricism.

James’ radical empiricism is intended to account for a fundamental recognition of reality that is understood within ‘pure experience’ prior to any instance of rational labeling during the process of reflection. This places sensation based knowledge prior to the rational conclusions that are realized within traditional philosophies.

James elaborated on this foundational recognition of reality by pointing out that his attempt to explain his philosophy though a conceptual concept is no different or more successful than the rationalistic approach used within traditional philosophies. The trouble is that when pure experience is categorized and labeled in conceptual terms its true nature of being is lost. So after explaining over the course of his career the width and breadth of his philosophy it seems that his final recommendation was to invite his audience to return to experience as the source of understanding and to the act of living rather than conceptually discussing past experiences or rational conclusions.

Additionally, the knowledge gained during the act of being aware of one’s own experience will lead that individual into the future with a better understanding of reality. This understanding of reality then will be put to the test by either being confirmed or denied by future happenings and modified as new experiences emerge always creating a more clear picture of the human experience. Explanations that are arrived at through backward looking philosophies do not take into consideration the value and meaning of future outcomes. Because we move through life and time with a forward goal in mind, so to, James claims, our account of reality should include a consideration for the future.

This valuation and consideration for the future is best understood by James’ promotion of the pragmatic maxim as a useful approach to addressing intellectual questions where by some questions are or should be considered as philosophically useless because the conclusions have no practical value in relation to future events. It is with this concept in mind that the relations between experiences show their value in the explanatory power of James’s philosophy. Through the consideration of the relations discoverable only within a lived experience is it possible for an individual to understand his or her reality.

I do agree that considerations for the future should be taken into account in philosophy and that in doing so James’s philosophy provides a greater utility than rationalism. My reason for agreeing with James is that I find the analysis of past events for only academic purposes to be useless. I think we can and do learn lessons from the study of the past and these lessons can be used in directing future events. This would lead to the effective or progressive directed change in the course of the human experience.

I feel like any person who is interested in achieving a greater satisfaction in the future should take into account the past only as a tool for the future direction of travel. I might show this by stating that the rudder of a ship is at the rear and represents the past while it is used to steer the ship towards a desired destination. I currently have not found this type of attitude in rationalist philosophies that establish some argument that is later discussed, challenged, amended, further discussed, and again challenged resulting in centuries of back and forth argumentation that provides two solutions of which any person is able to remain unaffected or unchanged by the understanding of the discussion. The same opinion with which a person enters into this type of conversation will likely be the opinion that the person leaves the conversation with. There is no account for the future and no compelling reason to accept that one must change a belief about reality but instead only search for new compelling ways to reevaluate the argument.

This back-and-forth intellectualism is not possible if experience is the source for our knowledge because experience provides a compelling reason for the acceptance of a belief that is derived from the interaction with reality. This is why James’ philosophy, in my opinion, has a greater utility in experience than does rationalistic philosophies. It is true that we cannot return to some past event or time, but we can repeat some past success or folly. I think it is better to enter into philosophical conversation with the goal of discovering a way too successfully navigate oneself into a more satisfying future.

“Theological explanations for proof of the existence of God are based on rationalist philosophic methods and presuppositional arguments. I find the conclusions that follow to be less satisfying than what can be discovered during experience, verified or denied in future instances of experience, and used to establish a direction of travel that will lead to a more comfortable future.”

–Steven Clear

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