Sunday, December 03, 2006

The World of Pure Experience

Bains' distinction between relatio secundum dici and relatio secundum esse, between transcendental and ontological relations seems to be headed toward a kind of pluralistic realism. He takes note of William James' radical empiricism that places conjunctive relations on the same footing as disjunctive relations: both are immediately given to experience (The Primacy of Semiosis, p.20). So now I've been reading James' A World of Pure Experience. I see its relevance to the semioticians, and I see what his pluarlistic philosophy means vis-a-vis plain empiricist or rationalist philosophies, but I am really taken with the way describes experience. Does it wash? It depends a lot on how we interpret "quasi-"–but I'm getting ahead of myself here.

James explains radical empiricism:

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 any thing 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 philosophic arrangement.

Now, ordinary empiricism, in spite of the fact that conjunctive and disjunctive relations present themselves as being fully co-ordinate parts of experience, has always shown a tendency to do away with the connections of things, and to insist most on the disjunctions....

Radical empiricism, as I understand it, 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.

Easy enough (and we see incidently an argument against reducing the relatio secundum esse to the relatio secundum dici), but what exactly does James' have in mind by "conjunctive relation"? He gives an example:

The conjunctive relation that has given most trouble to philosophy is the co-conscious transition, so to call it, by which one experience passes into another when both belong to the same self. My experiences and your experiences are "with" each other in various external ways, but mine pass into mine, and yours pass into yours in a way in which yours and mine never pass into one another. Within each of our personal histories, subject, object, interest and purpose are continuous or may be continuous. Personal histories are processes of change in time, and the change itself is one of the things immediately experienced. Change in this case means continuous as opposed to discontinuous transition....

There is no other nature, no other whatness than this absence of break and this sense of continuity in that most intimate of all conjunctive relations, the passing of one experience into another when they belong to the same self. And this whatness is real empirical content, just as the whatness of separation and discontinuity is real content in the contrasted case. Practically to experience one’s personal continuum in this living way is to know the originals of the ideas of continuity and sameness, to know what the words stand for concretely, to own all that they can ever mean.

Now that's something to chew on, but James takes it a step further. He argues that the cognitive relation, the relation between knower and known, actually hinges on a kind of conjunctive relation, that knower and known represent two experiences of the same subject "with definite tracts of conjunctional transitional experience between them."

James' view of knowledge as largely in transitu is coupled with a view of the universe of experience as "to a large extent chaotic." He says, "No one single type of connection runs through all the experience that composes it." And he writes, "experience as a whole is a process in time, whereby innumerable particular terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them by transitions which, whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content, are themselves experiences, and must in general be accounted at least as real as the terms which they relate." And, "the whole system of experiences as they are immediately given presents itself as a quasi-chaos through which one can pass out of an initial term in many directions and yet end in the same terminus, moving from next to next by a great many possible paths." Finally, he asserts that "[t]here is vastly more discontinuity in the sum total of experiences than we commonly suppose."

So how chaotic do we suppose the system of experience really is? From my perspective, there is more regularity than James seems to allow, though there is room for improvisation and even aleatory trajectories. The system of experience is akin to the tune "Thelonious." In that tune the b-flat in the melody functions like an inverted pedal point. At each beat its relation to the underlying chords changes. It goes from tonic, 9th, 3rd, 11th, b5th, perfect 5th, b13th, 13th, 7th and so on as the tension builds between the descending chord movements and the melodic riff. How do you play such a tune? By improvising on the riff, or on the chord changes, or on the intervals? Whatever works, baby. In experience we riff, harmonize, groove and orient ourselves on the fly. But that's not to say that experience is chaotic. When I see other people, I don't see them as moving randomly. They have ways of moving, ways of relating that serve to characterize them. They have the kind of regularity known as style.

Is there room in James' radical empiricism for personal style? I'm not sure that he isn't dismissive of the habitual, the routine, which I think is a basis for style. So the question returns, how chaotic is quasi-chaotic? And what exactly gives weight to the quasi-?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:00 PM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great to have your hyperlinked commentary on this -

I'm learning a lot - but I'm not sure readers will get the distinction btwn the two types of 'relation' you cite.

That is btwn relative beings (secundum dici) and the actual relations they have (secundum esse)....
Anway it'll all 'get sorted' as they say in England..
I am looking forward to rereading Ivan Illich's 'The Rivers North of the Future'.
Btw, just bought a dwelling in New Zealand!!!!!!!!!after a big wander.

December 03, 2006 11:14 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Great news on the house!

I know I didn't explain very well the distinction between secundum dici and secundum esse. Hope it does get sorted. I'm thinking as I get into the next chapter I'll need to revisit Deleuze--I never got around to reading the Logic of Sense, which I really wanted to read.

At present I have just too many books open. So it goes.

December 04, 2006 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I don't know how you do it (all those bks).

I hardly read anything at all these days. Altho during the 5yrs or so it took me to write/research that thing I did read quite a bit...
I think you would enjoy parts of the Logic of Sense. Deleuze was a v. good writer and teacher. His online vincennes seminars are worth looking at (maybe in another life).

December 04, 2006 1:23 PM  

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