The path that led James to radical empiricism was neither easy nor straightforward. Its motivation was straightforward enough: Hume failed to account for conjunctive relations and overly stressed disjunctive relations. If a cause and an effect can be experienced as two separate, disjoint entities, then the problem for Hume is to account for their necessary connection, their ‘conjunctive relation’ as James discusses it. But giving ‘full justice to conjunctive relations’ is not straightforward. In particular, the specific problem James sought to address was the classic problem of the one and the many, or in James’s case it was the problem of accounting for how many consciousnesses ‘can be at the same time one consciousness? How can one and the same identical fact experience itself so diversely?’ (Writings 1902-1910, 723). In short, how can one consciousness be both one and a connected series of many consciousnesses? ‘I found myself in an impasse’ (ibid.), James confessed until he gave up, following Bergson, on the logic of the one and the multiple—namely, the logic that there are either singular, multiple identities that are separable and distinct [i.e., atomism], or there is an absolute one. Pluralism will be how James will refer to this logic that is neither of the one or the multiple, and Deleuze will later refer to it as multiplicity. ‘Reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy,’ James argues, ‘use what word you will, exceeds our logic [of the one-multiple], overflows and surrounds it.’ (ibid. 725). James will come to refer to this ‘reality, life, experience, concreteness, [and] immediacy’ that exceeds the logic of the one and the multiple as ‘pure experience’:
My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff “pure experience,” then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. (ibid. 1142).
Although James refers to pure experience in a manner that appears to call upon a monism of the One, we ought instead to understand it, as Deleuze and Guattari will in A Thousand Plateaus, as “Monism = Pluralism.” This pure experience is thus not an identifiable One from which the multiple comes about by subtraction; to the contrary, James argues that ‘the separation of it [pure experience] into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition,’ and thus he adds that ‘a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, plays the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of “consciousness”; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective “content.”’ (ibid.). To clarify this point by way of analogy, James argues that just as one point can be on two lines at the intersection so too can ‘the “pure experience” of [a] room [be] a place of intersection of two processes, which connected it with different groups of associates respectively…’ (ibid. 1146). In and of itself, pure experience is the reality that forever exceeds, by the power of conjunction, the power of AND, the realities with which it comes to be identified. As James puts it, ‘the instant field of the present is at all times what I call the “pure” experience. It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality or existence, a simple that.’ (ibid. 1151). The determinate experiences that distinguishes a subject from an object are thus attained not by subtraction from a monolithic pure experience but rather they are attained ‘by way of addition,’ by further differentiating and determining, by the power of AND, a pure experience (pluralism = monism) that is nonetheless ‘plain, unqualified actuality or existence, a simple that.’ This ‘simple that’ is inseparable from objects and our experiences of them, but it is the power of conjunction that allows for new objects, new experiences (such as the religious experiences James famously analyzed), to emerge from within the very heart of the actual itself. It is this heart of the actual that James calls pure experience. As the following quote from James shows, a pure experience is much like an embryonic stem cell. It is an actual cell (as the debate and controversy over ESC research evidences), but is only virtually a determinate cell. Similarly for pure experience:
“Pure experience” is the name which I give to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. Only new-born babes, or men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of that which is not yet any definite what, tho ready to be all sorts of what; full both of oneness and of manyness, but in respects that don’t appear; changing and throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity, can be caught…But the flux of it no sooner comes than it tends to fill itself with emphases, and these salient parts become identified and fixed and abstracted; so that experience now flows as if shot through with adjectives and nouns and prepositions and conjunctions. (ibid. 782-3).
Agamben will later echo James’s view of pure experience, though for very different reasons (I’ll leave it to others to make the case he’s a radical empiricist), when, in Infancy and History, he argues that ‘A primary experience, far from being subjective, could then only be what in human beings comes before the subject—that is, before language: a ‘wordless’ experience in the literal sense of the term, a human infancy [in-fancy], whose boundary would be marked by language.’