Radical empiricism  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Radical empiricism is a pragmatist doctrine put forth by William James. It asserts that experience includes both particulars and relations between those particulars, and that therefore both deserve a place in our explanations. In concrete terms: any philosophical worldview is flawed if it stops at the physical level and fails to explain how meaning, values and intentionality can arise from that.

Context and importance

James put forth the doctrine because he thought ordinary empiricism, inspired by the advances in physical science, has or had the tendency to emphasize 'whirling particles' at the expense of the bigger picture: connections, causality, meaning. Both elements, James claims, are equally present in experience and both need to be accounted for.

The observation that our adherence to science seems to put us in a quandary is not exclusive to James. For example, Bertrand Russell notes the paradox in his Analysis of Matter (1927): we appeal to ordinary perception to arrive at our physical theories, yet those same theories seem to undermine that everyday perception, which is rich in meaning.

Radical empiricism relates to discussions about direct versus indirect realism as well as to early twentieth-century discussions against the idealism of influential philosophers like Josiah Royce. This is how neo-realists like William Pepperell Montague and Ralph Barton Perry interpreted James.

The conclusion that our worldview does not need transempirical support is also important in discussions about the adequacy of naturalistic descriptions of meaning and intentionality, which James attempts to provide, in contrast to phenomenological approaches or some forms of reductionism that claim that meaning is an illusion.

See also

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