Avenarius and the Standpoint of Pure Experience/1

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



It often happens in philosophical discussion that the idea of an experience that is valid or logically justifiable leads us to forget or ignore our actual experience. That a type of experience should be apparently illogical and illusory is enough oftentimes to dismiss it from consideration. In what follows, I wish to speak not of valid experience as such, but simply of average human experience which may be naïve and illusory but which is not therefore less genuine.

I am not concerned with any metaphysic. I do not purpose to justify any experience as against any other, but simply to state some of the commoner characteristics of frankly naïve and spontaneous experience, and to mention some logical considerations that seem relevant. And if from time to time the habits of language may cause it to appear that I am discussing a metaphysical question, I would beg the reader to recall that my real interest is in characteristics of human experience simply, detached as completely as may be from any notion of reality.

Each one of us can say, ‘Here I am in a world of things, among my fellows.’ Whether in our philosophical moments we believe in a world of independent external objects and of different external selves is another matter. However illusory its appearance, the outer world does seem to be a world of facts, whose reality is not dependent upon our cognition. Reflection may show that this appearance is highly ambiguous, and that such an independent reality can be neither comprehended nor described,—but the appearance persists. All sorts of things happen or seem to happen without any help from humanity,—things which humanity would be only too glad to help if it could. Independent facts and forces there seem to be which man can take advantage of to his profit. The farmer plants his crops and they grow, not without his care, to be sure, but chiefly by virtue of something which he does not seem to contribute. There is falling water to turn a mill wheel, metals there are to be dug from the earth, heavenly bodies to be searched out with the telescope, germs of disease to be avoided. One who has never heard of metaphysical realism has nevertheless a completely realistic attitude.

This is the attitude of the ‘plain man.’ The philosopher is rather fond of contrasting himself with the ‘plain man,’ and since he is interested in the contrast-effect, he is apt not to observe how much he and the 'plain man' have in common. His ideal of a logical or valid experience causes him often enough to be somewhat indifferent to important characteristics of actual experience.

Both the philosopher and the 'plain man' are obliged to take the universe very much in the same way. Whether we are philosophers or not, our adjustment to our world of objects is as though these were genuinely independent of us. This seems a commonplace that scarcely needs even to be alluded to. Yet I trust I may be pardoned for dwelling a little longer on the 'plain man.' He is an instructive individual who seldom comes by his rights in philosophy.

The 'plain man,' if asked for his opinion on the merits of realism, would be at least so sure of its case that he would be unable to comprehend any other point of view. His would be, indeed, a very poor metaphysic, and likely enough quite in error, but this humble realism would express with great energy how the world comes home to the natural unsophisticated man. "You ask me," we may imagine him saying, "how I know that the world out there is independent of me and of everybody else. I know it by experience. Don't my crops grow, whether any one thinks about them or not? Do you suppose I have anything to do with the change of the seasons? I've never seen Spain and South Africa, but I know there are such places, and it wouldn't make any difference if Spain and South Africa didn't contain a living soul, and if everybody else, the Lord Almighty included, should forget there ever had been such places; Spain and South Africa would stay just where they are. You needn't try to tell me it's all in my mind's eye." Something like this the 'plain man' would surely say.

And then we might talk to him of secondary qualities and brain-states and categories. To all of which he would reply with simple and eloquent disgust. Most of his reasons might be as poor as they could be, but the poorness of his reasons would not weaken his sturdy faith precisely because they have little or nothing to do with it. He never inferred or demonstrated to himself the existence of an independent external world. He has always known such a world because he has always lived in it,—it is the world of his experience, that is, his experience is characterized in that way.

One of the first and most important steps to take in an epistemological discussion of experience is to free one's terms, experience, knowledge and the like, from metaphysical implications which solve in advance problems which might be later proposed. This precaution is so important that I will illustrate the neglect of it by a few sentences from an article by Professor Andrew Seth.[1]

Professor Seth has been stating what he regards as the most important features of the idealistic theory of knowledge, and he declares that for idealism, the object of knowledge 'is nothing beyond the cognitive states themselves.' And he continues: "Now on such a theory it is pretty evident that the distinction of knowing and being, of subject and object, would never have arisen and would not have required, therefore, to be explained away."

It seems even more evident, however, that if the distinction of subject and object were not a primary character of experience, it could not play the rôle it does in theories of knowledge. And just as the subject-object distinction is more original and primitive than any theory of knowledge, just so the experience of the outer world is more original and primitive than any metaphysic. And by this I mean, not that the outer world exists, but that experience has a certain characteristic feature.


These introductory remarks have sought to separate experience from validity in the ordinary sense. I wish now to consider what we may fairly mean by saying that a thing or a fact is given in experience. The 'plain man' says he knows by experience that the outer world has its own independent existence. I 'know' by experience all sorts of facts about my fellows, and I know by experience that I have real fellows. At the same time I admit that a true metaphysic might, for all I know, show me that quite the opposite is true. Still, that makes no difference to my experience. We all know, I presume, by experience what happened to us yesterday. These various facts and many more, we say, are given in experience. But they may not be 'presented' in experience. A presented object is an object directly and immediately perceived, and of course must be an object 'given' in experience, but many objects of the class I call 'given in experience' could not possibly be 'presented.'

Such objects are the thoughts and feelings of my fellow and the past event. Yet speaking unphilosophically, perhaps, but honestly, we say that these are facts of our experience given in experience, known through experience.

I dwell upon the point, obvious though it is, because when we say a fact is given in experience we are so apt to mean presented to perception. To bring something to the test of experience is to produce it for direct inspection. But to define an object of experience in this way, as an object perceived or at least capable of being perceived, is to divorce the concept of experience hopelessly from the life that it is intended to describe. There is no ground for denying that the pious mystic may know God and the Saints as facts of his experience. And accepting experience in this large empirical way, we must admit as objects of it, facts which could not be presented, which could not, perhaps, even exist. And because the point is so fundamental, let me repeat myself.

Every one would say that the presence of his fellows was given to him in experience. We should all instinctively pronounce it the idlest of philosophical vagaries, were I to devote time and paragraphs to proving that this paper is addressed to a real circle of readers, and if I were really in any doubt about it I should be declared simply insane.

Yet we do seriously discuss how we come to believe in the presence of other selves, and how we can rationally justify the belief. There is something a little futile, perhaps even a little insincere, in such discussion. We do not ‘come to believe’ in other selves at all. It is misleading to inquire into our ‘belief in other selves. Other selves are simply facts,—not reality-facts, perhaps, but experience-facts. Our belief (if I may still use the word) in other selves is in no proportion to our success in explaining or rationalizing the belief. In this effort we may succeed, or we may fail; our neighbor is in either case an equally genuine fact in our experience. Yet the essential part of this fact, the life of feeling and ideas and will, all, indeed, that makes him our neighbor, we can not possibly perceive. But the presence of it all about us is so much a fact of experience that without it any one would probably go mad. Whatever the psychological process may be by which human experience becomes social, it has, from the earliest times we can remember, the social character.

The fellow being is one type of an object of experience that can not be presented to perception. Another type is the past event.

Suppose I say to some one, ‘Did you go to any of the operas last winter?’ And I receive the answer, ‘Yes, I did go’; and I reply, ‘Are you quite sure? Perhaps you didn’t.’ I may be answered as follows: ‘I distinctly remember going. I remember all about it. I can tell you just who sang and where my seat was.’ The declaration amounts to saying that it is a fact of present experience that one did go to the opera some time ago. Surely it is a fact of present experience to each of us that he has done many particular things on days that are past. Yet we are not now doing the individual things we did yesterday. Facts of experience these past events are. Presented immediate facts they are not. We have, to be sure, immediate data about them, but the past event is obviously never presented in experience at all. Mental images, recollections, echoes of its sense, character, may be presented, but these are not the original event, and there may conceivably have been no original event.

It may seem that we have not come far toward stating what we may fairly mean by saying that a fact is given in experience. We have at least made out that the test of perception is not a sufficient one. Some objects seem to be facts of experience, when the ideas of them come home to us in a certain way, when they have what has been called ‘reality feeling.’ Even an object of sense-perception needs the tone of reality in order to be quite unambiguous. One can at least ask the question, ‘Is this a real house or the illusion of a house, which I see?’ An hallucination may be all but perfect, and differ from a genuinely perceived object only in its tone of reality. “An hallucination,” says Professor James, “is a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true a sensation as if there were a real object there.”[2] The poor tinker Sly, in Taming of the Shrew, who for a jest is made to believe himself a lord, is the victim of a shifting reality-feeling.

Am I a lord? And have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak;
I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things:
Upon my life I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker, nor Christophero Sly.”

To sum up. For a fact to be an object of experience it is not necessary that it be perceived or be of a sort that could possibly be perceived. It is not necessary that it exist or be of a sort that could possibly exist.


I have suggested ‘reality-feeling’ as the sort of criterion that may help us to characterize an object of experience. In spite of all the uncertainties of experience we say it is the surest basis of knowledge and the only foundation for theory. A priori knowledge, if there be such, I include within experience. To have an object of experience is to know that object in some respect. The object may not exist, but that makes no difference to the experience that ‘knows’ it. What I wish now to examine is the relation of ‘reality-feeling’ to knowledge as a case of experience.

The discussion thus far has been carried on from the point of view of Avenarius and here I shall attempt some account of the way in which Avenarius describes the experience of knowing something. His opinions will illustrate important phases of our problem, and bring out the empirical detail of the situation with which we have to deal.

Avenarius gives an elaborate analysis of the feeling-tones which may give character to ideas,—such feelings as congruity and incongruity, familiarity and strangeness, the various ways in which an idea may be satisfactory or unsatisfactory. His special purpose leads him to bring out as clearly as possible the contrast in feeling-tone between a problem solved and a problem unsolved, between the sense of having attained insight, and of being still baffled and barred from insight.

We have been made familiar with groups of terms which are used to characterize what we call the ‘real.’[3] Professor Royce has collected such terms into three groups expressive of three attitudes toward reality. One of these attitudes lays stress on the aspect of immediacy as characteristic of the real. The real is what we can get at, and test and get directly acquainted with. Another attitude, as Professor Royce describes it, emphasizes the character of permanence, of substantial self-sufficiency. The unreal has no ‘depth’ or ‘interior constitution,’ ‘but the real abides in its own house.’ One may detect here a sense of independent existence as giving character to the real. I hasten to say that I am alone responsible for this interpretation. In a sense, however, this aspect of independence is the aspect of existence par excellence. Finally, a third class of terms describes the real as what can be depended upon, what will not leave you in the lurch. We can be sure of the real, but the unreal is a sham and not to be trusted.

In a similar way Avenarius describes three feeling-tones as characteristic of what we accept as real and true.[4] These he calls the ‘existential’ character, the ‘acquaintance’ character and the ‘security’ character. The references just made to the analysis given by Professor Royce are a sufficient explanation of these three very similar aspects which Avenarius has picked out.

Avenarius unites these three characters into what he calls the ‘fidential’ character. His meaning seems to be that that which is felt to be real in a persuasive and convincing way is that with which we feel ourselves most at home. The real is reassuring, we feel that we understand it as we understand an old friend. It is not strange and baffling. The unreal is ‘unheimlich,’ something to which we can’t get adjusted, and which, therefore, does not have a place in our world of truth. This ‘fidential’ character Avenarius explains by the term ‘Heimhaftigkeit,’ and he quaintly says that every real problem is a kind of Heimweh,—the desire to get back into the region where we feel at home, by reducing our uncomprehended data to terms of known data.

The term ‘reality-feeling,’ with which we are so familiar, is a sufficiently good equivalent for the 'fidential,' and in our discussion may be substituted for it. The important thing to notice, however, is that when we get these three attitudes, or three feeling-tones, or better, when we get all the reality-feeling and reality-attitude that Professor Royce and Avenarius both describe, we have got what we were looking for. At least experience has no other test by which thought can recognize its goal.

Experience means for Avenarius what I have attempted to mean by it. The subject of the experience in question merely observes the situation before him and reports it, but there are no implications about real objective facts in what he reports, except for him who reports the facts of experience. The facts reported may be wholly mythological, but to be objects of experience they must characterize experience by their apparent reality, and the observer must be quite unaware of having in any way produced the facts out of himself or contributed anything to determine their character. He simply observes and reports.[5] This account of an object of experience we frequently have implied in the insistence of people who have seen apparitions, that they were not dreaming, that they tell simply what they saw, that it was as plain as day, etc.

Whether Luther ever hurled his ink-bottle at the devil or not, or whether 'der alt böse Feind' ever became to him a visual object, Luther's experience may well have been characterized by the reality of the devil as an actual person. The experience of many thousands of persons is no doubt characterized by the efficiency of holy relics to cure disease. The friendliness of disembodied souls, miracles of the saints, the existence of God, can all be objects of experience. That is, experience is adjusted to the reality of these things, just as our experience is adjusted to the reality of our fellow of whom we can get no glimpse whatever. But we sometimes awaken from the cognitive dream. We do so all the time in trivial ways, as when one seeks for his purse or his keys, and finds he has left them at home. But in the case of ideas which play large dramatic rôles in life the change, when it occurs, is gradual. But the change can always occur, and that is the important point.

We are familiar with the distinction of the 'What' and the 'That.' Avenarius distinguishes what we may call the 'What' and a variable 'That.' There is a certain content, imagined or perceived, and there is my attitude toward it, by which I characterize it as certainly known, or as believed, or as probable, or as doubted, or as disbelieved and rejected. Every cognitive experience includes these two factors. There is a content, and the content is the object of an attitude. The content, Avenarius designates as elements; the attitude of knowledge, doubt, belief, etc., he calls a character. "If I observe that I first presumed or guessed something, then believed it and finally knew it, I have, in the relation content-character, the content as constant and the character as variable. If I observe what different things I have believed in at different periods of my life, I have the character as constant and the content as variable."[6] Evidently, experience appears in this distinction as a character, for in the question, did you experience that, or did you imagine it or dream it? the idea of experience stands for certainty, sure knowledge of fact.

The shifting value of the reality-feeling is readily illustrated by the religious questionings and doubts of many persons. At the outset there is frequently no question about God at all; everything is sure, and as yet unquestioned. No question has ever occurred, just as no genuine question has ever occurred about the reality of my fellow being. It is misleading to say that one believes in this stage. One simply knows. There is perfect adjustment, perfect satisfaction; no problem appears anywhere. There is an experience of genuine insight. Many persons who go through painful religious experiences start from a situation like this, others always remain in it,—others attain to it. It is our attitude toward our intimate friends,—we know them, we are sure of them, they are the most real facts in our lives.

But this condition of perfect mental and organic stability does not always continue. The time comes when one believes in God,—one no longer claims direct insight and certain knowledge. God exists, yes,—one is sure of that, and one is sure of God,—but one doesn't know so many things about God. The 'fidential' is beginning to be attenuated. God becomes more and more an object of doubt; if not less knowable, at least less known, and known about, and therefore not to be depended upon with the same quiet assurance as before. Finally one asks the question does God exist, anyway? The idea began as the idea of something that was an object of experience and knowledge, with nothing problematic about it. Then the reality-feeling began to fade. The idea took on a slightly problematic tone, it became problematized, and this problematic quality became more and more characteristic. The idea is different somehow, a little strange. A quality of difference or otherness has come over it. Finally what was known and experienced as real turns completely into a problem. And then the problem gradually ceases to exist. The idea of God is at last understood to be a superstition to be explained on historical and anthropological grounds. The idea has become deproblematized. And yet God was at the start known to exist. At least we have not the slightest ground for denying that experience was characterized by the existence of God as an object of will attitudes.

Psychologically this means probably that the physiological system comes into the best adjustment to its environment by means of this idea, or else that the idea expresses such an adjustment. Avenarius likes to say that the central nervous system attains a condition of stability, poise, rest, and that a complete cognition is the expression of such stability. Into his elaborate psychophysical account I do not need to go, but it is important to notice how an idea may express a genuine object of experience and how experience may become less and less characterized by this object, until it is no longer an object of experience but has become an object of critical reflection; after which it may be comprehended in one way or another, as fact or as myth.

Political convictions often have a similar history. One knows at the start that a high tariff, perhaps, is the only salvation of national industries. There is no question about it,—one can't be said to believe, for one actually knows all about it. Presently one thinks one doesn't know quite so much, but one believes the former doctrine. And afterward one may veer quite to the other side, and if one is of a dogmatic temperament one may know that various things are so which one formerly knew were not so. And in each instance it is a genuine case of knowledge. Formerly, the soul was an object of experience and knowledge. To-day it has almost ceased to be a problem. It was once a matter of experience that the earth went around the sun. No doubt witchcraft was repeatedly a matter of experience in early New England history. There is really no limit to the impossible things that may be objects of experience. They may not continue very long to exhibit this empirical certainty, but while they pass themselves off as genuine facts, they are facts of experience, that is, experience has that character. One of the most helpful bits of terminology that Avenarius has hit upon is what he calls the problematization of an idea.[7] He means that the idea assumes a problematic character which it may retain or it may lose by being again understood, in which case, the idea is said to be 'deproblematized.' Any idea, any fact you like, may become problematized or deproblematized.

Let me give one more illustration of the cognitive process, in the spirit of Avenarius. We are in a street-car, and at the opposite end of the car is a man whom we recognize as a friend. We are just about to go to speak to him when we suddenly hesitate. Is it really our friend Smith? Perhaps it isn't. He looks like Smith though,—but he doesn’t look so much like Smith as he just now did. After all, he doesn’t look like Smith, it can’t be Smith, it isn’t Smith;—but who is it? Perhaps it’s Jones; it looks like Jones; of course it’s Jones.

Now whether the man is Smith or Jones or some one else makes no difference to the process of arriving at the judgment, ‘That is Jones.’ The man was first seen and he had a familiar look about him,—he was characterized by a quality of sameness, he is the same man as the one I know as Smith. Then this sameness quality diminishes,—the man feels to us less and less the same,—he takes on a problematic character, we are in doubt and we worry over the problem who it can be. Then we reach a negative certainty,—the man is certainly not Smith. He has taken on a quality of difference or otherness. Gradually this negative certainty passes over into a positive attitude. Another quality of sameness appears. The man may be Jones. The sameness quality grows stronger until we are certain he is the same man as Jones. With this certainty the man has lost the problematic character.

At this point either motor results follow, we rise and speak to the man Jones, or we turn our thoughts to other things. We do not worry any longer over the problem of the man’s identity. We have found that out. But who the man really is, is a fact outside the knowing process and irrelevant to it.

It is this irrelevancy of outer fact that I want to insist upon. If it makes any difference to the kind of process and experience of knowledge, then it is not irrelevant, but so long as that experience which claims to be knowledge is quite the same in its own positive character, whether it happens to be in error or not, it seems like a metaphysical distinction and not a merely descriptive one, to call some apparently cognitive experience genuine knowledge, and refuse this name to other such experience because in the course of events it has to be recognized as error. I therefore define knowledge, provisionally at least, as experience with the cognitive character. Other cognitive experience may drive it out, but it does not cease to be knowledge until that happens.


One is perhaps inclined at this point to protest against a misuse of words. We do not normally use the word knowledge to mean merely an experience which has a cognitive feeling. By knowledge we mean knowledge and not perhaps error that feels like knowledge. Truth and error, it is held, are two radically different things, and knowledge means the possession of truth and it can not mean the possession of error. This is the traditional attitude.

I admit that the point of view I here defend uses the word knowledge in a novel way, which may be a little confusing. But the habit of declaring that knowledge must be knowledge of outer fact, and then to say that epistemology investigates knowledge, is to declare an important problem solved by a mere fiat before beginning. Or put differently, there must be a transubjective object of knowledge, otherwise there would be no knowledge for epistemology to investigate; but we have epistemology, therefore we have knowledge, therefore we have the transubjective objects of knowledge. Perhaps we have, but it is to beg the most fundamental of questions to assume the transubjective objects in our definition of knowledge. We have cases of experience which we say are cases of knowledge. As types of experience, they must be distinguished by experience qualities. These experience marks are precisely what they are, whether there is any knowledge of transubjective things or not.

I quote a few sentences from Professor Seth for the sake of stating more clearly what I think epistemology ought not to be. He says: “Epistemology may be intelligibly described as dealing with the relation of knowledge to reality.”[8] Again: “This reference of ideas to a world of reality beyond themselves is what is meant when knowledge is contrasted with reality.” Also: “Now it is the essential function of epistemology to deal with this very relation,—to investigate it on the side of its validity, its truth.”[9]

All this is, I think, what epistemology should not try to be, at least at the beginning. It all follows, however, from including a metaphysical validity in the definition of knowledge. It should not be forgotten that our total data are experience characterized one way or another, and that when we speak of truth and error as something secured, we can mean only certain types of experience. But any piece of experience is properly described by pointing out its own positive characters, and not by a subsequent estimate of its value. Actual cases of knowledge are cases of experience characterized as cognitive. And to the experience which said, ‘I am knowledge,’ subsequent observation can always say, ‘You were error.’ But from the point of view of a strictly empirical account, the experience now called error was, so long as it retained the cognitive character, a genuine case of knowing something.


No doubt I seem to have mixed up experience and knowledge in a confusing way. I began by speaking of objects of experience, facts given in experience, and then I slipped into a discussion of knowledge, and it may seem that sometimes I used knowledge and experience as equivalent terms, and again, I spoke of knowledge as a special type of experience, namely cognitive experience.

The criticism would be fair, but it is of service in pointing out that there are two meanings of the word experience, and these I must now try to separate.

Most often we mean by experience, something as wide as the whole of consciousness. There is no defining experience in this most comprehensive sense. No feeling, however elusive, falls outside of experience. Experience means also, however, something more limited and definite. In this narrower meaning, experience is the experience of some particular object or fact. We express this meaning of the term when we say to any one, ‘Did you experience that or did you imagine it or invent it or dream it or postulate it?’ Experience in this sense is the cognition of apparently real fact. It is in this sense that Avenarius uses the word. He defines it as the ‘Kenntnissnahme seiender Sachen.’[10]

A near-sighted person frequently sees some one across the street whom he thinks must be an acquaintance, but he can not be sure, owing to his defective eyesight. In this case, and speaking from the point of view of the narrower definition, the object of his experience is his own state of uncertainty. He can not say, ‘I perceive my friend A. over there,’ but he can say, ‘I perceive great uncertainty in myself.’ The latter judgment is a complete cognition. His uncertainty is fact of his experience, but his experience does not present it as fact that the man across the street is really his friend. It is this cognitive character of experience that we have in mind when we speak of experience as the basis of science, when we speak of facts, of experience and objects of experience. Any discussion of experience as a criterion of certainty must conceive it in the narrower sense, as direct cognition of fact, without, however, implying that the fact has any metaphysically independent existence. It may or it may not. In either case we have the same empirical situation. I shall accordingly use the word experience to mean experience cognitive, experience having an object.

I trust it will not sound either dogmatic or excessively commonplace if I say at once that the independent outer world is an object of experience.


It has been already observed how we meet again and again with the declaration or the insinuation that knowledge of a real transcendent is the only knowledge worth the name, and at the same time it is admitted that we can not understand how experience can transcend itself. But experience has got to do so somehow, it is argued, or else knowledge is impossible.

In all this, a philosophical doctrine is seen to meet resistance from something that is not logical thought. The problem of the transcendent object can hardly get a hearing on its own merits. It is met by thoroughly realistic prejudices, which seem to be planted deep down in our nature. This attitude of resistance to certain perfectly logical points of view is something deeper than the sentimental antipathies to a criticism of cherished ideas. It expresses that law of experience which a psychologist is trying to make out when he seeks to discover why we believe in an outer world. Certain it is that there is a law of our experience which makes the outer world, whatever we may say about it, or whatever logical dilemmas we may get into on account of it, always an equally real fact as a constant character of experience.

It would be interesting if cases of experience could be observed in which the outer world should lose its reality-feeling, in which the subject would hesitate to say whether the outer world were really experienced or only fancied and dreamed. If such cases could be observed, and their phenomena connected with physiological disturbances, we might see our way clear to speak with great confidence of a natural view of the world, determined by organic conditions and expressing the natural adjustment of the organism to its conditions of life.

Pathological cases of this type have in fact been observed.[11] I am obliged to quote at second hand.[12] Dilthey writes as follows: “There is in dreams a shading of the liveliness of the sense of reality. This occurs in the experience of every one, and by it dream-images can come very close to reality. For a long time I took a memory-image for the image of an actual event, until I was able to prove that it was the recollection of a dream-image. From Krishaber we have the following description, given by an educated patient, of his condition which lasted a considerable time. The account is from Krishaber’s observations of a certain class of neuropathic conditions of which profound sense-disturbances were especially characteristic: ‘The impression of being in a dream was the most trying to me of all. A hundred times I touched objects about me, I spoke out loud in order to bring back the reality of the outer world and my own identity. But the touching of objects did not correct my impression.’ Another case of this type was observed in the case of an officer, who lost at the same time the lively sense of his own identity and of the reality of the outer world, and had the feeling of being sunk in a dream." Again, "In all the cases collected by Krishaber, the patient suddenly fell a victim to dizziness, roaring in the ears, and disturbances of sight, hearing and touch. An especially accurate observer of himself says: 'These disturbances of sight reminded me of how things look when seen through powerful concave lenses, or when one stands beside a very hot furnace and looks through the draft, so that the objects beheld seem to tremble. My own disturbances of sight resemble a combination of these two.' The disturbances of hearing were even more pronounced. And every time there proceeds from these altered conditions, especially from the sense-disturbances, an alteration in the sense of the reality of the outer world, and a parallel change in self-consciousness."

The patient first observed was a writer. After violent sense-disturbances he seemed to be dreaming and no longer the same person. Both his own identity and the outer world became matters of uncertainty to him. Another case was that of an English officer. "It seemed to the patient that something was wrapped about him and stood as a barrier between him and the outer world, giving him a feeling of complete isolation. When he spoke, his voice seemed strange, he did not recognize it or believe it was his own. . . . He doubted his own existence. He seemed to be not himself, and it cost him an effort to believe in the identity of his own person. At times he was not sure of his existence, and at the same time he lost belief in the reality of the outer world, and was as if sunk deep in a dream." It seemed to a third patient as though persons about him were figures in a dream. He thought he was no longer the same person, and as he walked he was unable to feel the floor.

I cite these cases to support the opinion that the experience of an outer world is rooted in the very organization of our being. Just what these deep-lying roots are is a special problem for psychology, but the fact that such experience does express some essential factor in our organization justifies us in speaking of a natural view of the world as contrasted with the idealistic point of view. For although we may not be justified in comparing crude organic attitudes with any reasoned metaphysic, still these natural attitudes of adjustment give rise to the naïve realism of the 'plain man,' and this it is on which a reflected realism depends.

The proposal of the problem, how we come to know an outer world, as a problem for empirical psychology, does seem to contain the implication that such experience expresses the natural adjustment of the physiological subject.

Helmholtz[13] thinks to solve the problem by applying his doctrine of unconscious inferences, and in this opinion he is followed by Zeller.[14] Dilthey, in the article from which I have quoted, argues that the subject meets stubborn resisting facts which are thereby characterized as other than self. The subject gets segmented off, as it were, from the rest of the world. Cornelius explains the idea by the ‘principle of economy.’[15]

Of these various efforts, that of Dilthey is decidedly the best,—but however that may be, all I wish to insist upon here is that experience is characterized by laws of its own in a profoundly realistic way, a way which may be of the greatest consequence for the actual fate of metaphysical theories. By no amount of intellectual discipline can we rid our world in experience of its realistic character. We may be fully convinced that this character is a vicious illusion, but the character remains. Dr. Johnson did not refute Berkeley’s metaphysic, but he did testify to the character of experience which is common to sane humanity. The lecturer who is going to present to his class a refutation of realism at least takes naïvely for granted that his lecture-room is waiting for him in quite a realistic way. Realism of this unreflective sort describes our adjustment to our world of experience. It is our natural organic attitude toward our outer world. And the student of philosophy who has this same natural attitude along with the rest of his fellows may, indeed, vigorously repudiate any charge of being a realist in his philosophy, but he and his fellows will have a world of common objective reference, much of which will have a material character, and which, emotional values being neglected, seems pretty much the same for all observers. As a philosopher, he will hardly be so sure about his doctrine as the unreflective man is about the world of his experience. But although he may pass through crises of critical philosophy, he has to reflect about a world that persistently retains its realistic character. It may indeed become more or less ambiguous in certain respects, it will alter with regard to the emotional values in it, but these changes do not affect the outer substantial reality as a characteristic of experience. Such realism as this can hardly be called a metaphysical realism. It is certainly quite independent of any metaphysical doctrine. It is an organic experiential realism that seems a great deal more fundamental than realism or idealism in critical philosophy.

In presenting this point, the chief difficulty I have to contend against is its character of extreme commonplace. The habit, however, of seeking reality in some other world of ideal truth causes us to leap over the delusive and illogical but the very real experience of actual life. But except, perhaps, for the mystic in his moments of rapture, this seeking a beyond does not change the character of human experience that I have laid stress upon, so that as a philosopher a man may be anything you like, but as a man, living the life of a human being, he is bound to be a realist in his spontaneous organic attitudes. These, of course, are not philosophy, but they determine the character of experience, which is the basis of philosophy.

What I have been trying to bring forward is the fact of what has been called a natural view of the world, a natural Weltbegriff[16] as contrasted with a relatively artificial one resting on a foundation of dialectical subtlety. The latter we may believe and preach, but the former we live. The subtle and critical doctrine may be the true one, but it makes no difference to experience whether it is true or not.

I trust this will not appear far-fetched and trivial. To me, it appears at the other extreme of commonplace. I dwell upon it so much because of our habits, as students of philosophy, of neglecting experience which seems illusory from our favorite point of view.

There is then a natural view of the world, a natural attitude toward it, a natural illusion if you like, from which we may possibly be delivered by moments of profounder insight. But our experiences of philosophic grace are like many other experiences of grace; one comes at pretty regular intervals, perhaps, into the temple, but one continually relapses into sin. It is just about impossible to continually recognize in the outer world the garment of divinity. We have very probably our ‘philosophy of clothes,’ but it is pretty certainly a philosophy of Sunday clothes.

This natural view of the world which seems so appropriate to the organism in a biological way is that natural attitude which Avenarius has discussed in his essay ‘Der Menschliche Weltbegriff.’

A few sentences in that book are so striking that I venture to quote them. He has been speaking of the idealistic movement which issued in the proposition, “The world is my idea” (Vorstellung), and he continues: “But even for the most advanced idealist who seeks to limit his idea of the world to this minimum of content, there remains always the recollection of ‘things’ as they used to be before his conversion to idealism,—as something really existent, or as he used to call them real, as something immediately sure, as immediately cognized, and known and knowable,—as parts of his environment independent of his thought, in contrast with himself and set over against his thought.

“This recollection is, however, not so void of significance for the most critical idealist as is the recollection of a nurse’s tale or a belief of childhood; it plays a wholly peculiar rôle. . . . And this means that the ‘problem[17] which arose when it was ‘discovered’ that the perceptions which were caused by the ‘things’ of the earlier (realistic) view are indeed nothing but ideas, and that the ‘things’ too of the earlier view are only ideas, this means that the ‘problem’ which arose by virtue of this discovery has not yet found its final solution by our becoming accustomed to the judgment, everything is my idea, is in my consciousness.

“And why not? Because of the despised naïve realism which always lives anew because it is always being experienced (der immer neu auflebt weil er immer neu erlebt wird). And so the ghost of realism stalks by day in the proud mansion of idealism, and will not be cast forth.”[18]

Whatever those functions are which cause us to believe so instinctively in the outer world, we must assume they are continuously active. The pathological cases mentioned above showed that the sense of reality which attaches to the outer world is a product of natural human functions, and these, unless disorganized, must cause our experience to be characterized as experience in a real independent world of objective facts.

The above considerations show that at least one view of the world seems to have a functional value for the organism, while others are functionally less suitable. If there be one view of the world which surpasses others in functional value, this means that the organism through this Weltbegriff secures an adjustment to its environment and a stability within itself. As a fact, some points of view do seem to have this functional value. We sometimes hear it said, ‘That point of view would turn my world upside down’ or, ‘I could not get ahead on that supposition.’ But whether suggestions like these be worth anything or not, there is evidently a natural view of the world, the only view the ‘plain man’ knows, and which is as deeply rooted in the experience of the critical idealist as in that of any one else. That view is practical naïve realism. As metaphysic, it is of course of the most uncritical type. But it can be a stubborn obstacle in the way of idealism, producing a sense of incongruity, and occasioning that vague discontent with a doctrine which is admitted to be perfectly logical. “I believe,”[19] says Avenarius, “from personal observations that there is a large class of men trained in natural science who are at the same time idealists, who would feel it a relief to return to their earlier realism, and would be happy to have it occur if they only knew how to escape from idealism logically, with a good conscience.” But they can not escape the conclusion that consciousness and its phenomena are all that is given in experience. “And yet with all these consistent deductions there is usually not lacking a dualistic discontent. Something about this view of the world is wrong and were better got rid of. One can’t just say what the disturbing factor is, in this so strictly logical Weltbegriff.”[20]

Avenarius has his own explanation, but we need not go so far as his theory of ‘introjection’ would take us in order to see that idealism, whether it be true or not, seeks to have us view the world in a way that is opposed to our organic constitution. Avenarius would say that idealism is thus biologically untenable (‘biologisch unhaltbar’).

There is then a natural view of that experience which we call the outer world, just as there is a natural view of that experience which stands for our fellow being. And it is not strange that natural views of these things should regard them as being really what they seem to be, transcendent realistic facts.

The critical philosopher is the man who seeks to emasculate his natural view of the world. Of course, in so doing, he may be getting nearer to metaphysical truth. He will have a greater or a less success in obeying the commands of reason, but he can hardly eliminate altogether the influence of his natural organic attitude. So that the ‘critical’ doctrine which results will be a compromise between nature and reason. I do not say that this is an interference with the function of critical doctrines; far from it.

But not every one is a critical philosopher; relatively few do emasculate their natural view of the world. I venture to say that even the majority of philosophers have the same quiet assurance about their outer world, that the plain man has, although they can state more problems about it. For the greater part of humanity, the realistic nature of the world is a simple fact of experience, and for the rest, whatever they may say about it, it is a fact of experience, too. Those for whom it is not a fact of experience are the cases referred to above whose reality-functions, if I may call them so, have become disorganized.


We mean by realism a conception which describes the world as consisting of mutually independent objects. The ‘independent’ as thus used has a metaphysical meaning. But the idea of metaphysical independence has its origin in an aspect of things which is found in experience, and which is called their independence. There is certainly an aspect of a large part of the world which, as an experience-character must be called independence, and in order to distinguish between this empirical character and the metaphysical meaning, I shall use the two words ‘independent’ and ‘transcendent.’ The transcendence-character is a metaphysical character, the independence-character is a strictly empirical one. We instinctively regard our fellows as transcendent objects. They may be or may not, but they are certainly independent objects. In speaking of independent objects I shall therefore not be speaking metaphysically. And as for transcendent objects, I shall discuss not them but the idea of them.

This distinction between the independent and the transcendent is an important one. It does not, however, occur at all to the ‘plain man,’ nor does it occur to the rest of us most of the time. For him who is unconcerned with philosophical problems, the independent object is a transcendent object. He will not doubt that the church, the city hall and the bank stand up on their foundations without any assistance from experience, finite or absolute.

I hope this will not seem like attributing reflective metaphysical opinions to the man who is understood not to reflect at all along these lines. He does not, of course, distinguish the independent and the transcendent and then say they are two aspects of one and the same object. He has no such ideas at all clearly formulated, but he has very definite ideas about ‘real things’ which are not asking his permission to exist. He has, perhaps, left a plough up in the field. He is certain that the plough is just where he left it, unless some one has taken it away. Doubts about the transcendent reality of his plough would be quite unintelligible to him. And since he does not distinguish the independent from the transcendent character, his plough has both characters undistinguished. To say that he does indeed accept the independence-character, since he must, but that he can not be said to believe in the transcendence-character, is to say that he understands by the independence-character the limitations we have in mind, when we describe this character as a ‘merely’ empirical character. But this is to credit him with a distinction which not many writers on epistemology have thought of making.

I think we may be sure of these conclusions because there is so much of the ‘plain man’ in each of us. When we talk philosophy we do indeed steer a very different course, but when we simply experience the world we are all plain men together. That is, we are all thrown back on those natural functions which determine experience for us in these respects.

I regard it then as no betrayal of the ‘plain man’ to say that for him the transcendent object is an object of experience. But this does not mean that there need be anywhere in the universe a metaphysically transcendent object. For the spontaneous unreflective consciousness, the independent object has not been denuded of the transcendence-character. One has become highly sophisticated before one calls a tree or a house a construct of consciousness. From the naïve point of view, there is, of course, consciousness, but that is all in one’s head, if one must locate it. That tree, however, is not consciousness, or a phenomenon of consciousness. It is a tree, and trees are ‘known’ to be something quite different from consciousness.

The critical onlooker says, to be sure, that the tree and the house are independent objects, but that this character is no ground for describing them as transcendent as well. The critical onlooker is, however, outside of the situation, and his observations do not, as such, alter the experience which he criticizes.

The only writer who, to my knowledge, has been clear and specific as well as just on this point is Uphues.[21] Uphues does not distinguish the independence from the transcendence-character in so many words, but he implies the distinction. Accordingly, in the quotation from him which I shall give, ‘das Transcendente’ is to be understood in the above undifferentiated sense of independent object still unreflectively apperceived as transcendent.

Die Natur,” says Uphues, “ist das Jenseits des Bewusstseins, der Gegensatz desselben, und in diesem Sinne bezeichnen wir sie als das Transcendente.”[22] A little farther on, he continues: “It depends upon the constitution (Einrichtung) of consciousness, that in sensations, and in ideas and thoughts built up upon them, we do present to ourselves something wholly different from consciousness. . . . The direction of consciousness upon the transcendent object is originally the only one that can be observed. The child makes no reflections upon consciousness and its processes. The world perceived by the senses is the only object with which it is at all concerned. This direction of consciousness upon the transcendent object is in later years, if not the only one, at least the prevailing one. Very many remain on the child’s level; reflections about the processes of consciousness play in their lives no role whatever, and even for the others, such reflections are an achievement laboriously brought about, interrupting at times the practical business of life with the outer world. More important it is that when we make judgments about the transcendent object, we do not proceed in an arbitrary way, but follow the laws which are laid down by our own nature.”[23]

This direction of consciousness upon the ‘transcendent’ object is certainly one of the most fundamental characteristics of human experience. It is the original distinction between subject and object which Professor Seth finds so inconsistent with an idealistic theory of knowledge. Uphues repeatedly observes, however, that to describe an act of perception as characterized by the presence of an (apparently) transcendent object is to say nothing whatever about the transcendent existence of such an object.

This should suffice to make clear in what sense the transcendent object can be an object of experience. Why it is that the independent object should be characterized as transcendent as well is a phychological question. But the fact that the independent object is so characterized is the point to observe.


Of all our independent objects the one that is most stubbornly and defiantly transcendent is our fellow. It is just the transcendent side of him which seems to give purpose and value to actual concrete life, and which gives him the peculiar position of fellow. Whether he is really a transcendent object, I do not inquire, but human experience has precisely the character which the transcendent reality of fellow beings would confer upon it,—that is, it is characterized as a social experience. It has a history of development by means of social relations, and a particular method of profiting and learning by these relations, which the psychology of imitation has done much to describe. But the describer of this social experience is in the same position as he who describes the act of peceiving a house or a tree. In neither case are we logically obliged to assume the transcendent object otherwise than as a character of experience, the experience in which the perception takes place.

Assuming the reality of my fellows, they form with myself something more nearly comparable to a colony of monads than to anything else, monads which have no windows through which we can get direct views into one another’s habitations, which may, therefore, conceivably have no inside, but may be like the painted architecture of the stage.

This is, of course, a solipsistic account of the matter, a solipsistic description of a social experience. And if any one urge that a social experience must needs involve at least two currents of personal experience, I think he has misunderstood. It is the same metaphysical petitio that lurks in the usual definitions of knowledge and error.

For a solipsistic doctrine is a very different thing from a solipsistic experience. Suppose a solipsistic account to be true, and that my stream of consciousness is the only stream of consciousness. My social experience is quite indifferent to the truth or falsity of solipsism, just as my experience of the outer world is quite indifferent to the truth or falsity of idealism. The important thing for experience is how it is characterized, not what exists outside of it. Our human experience is characterized as life in a real world among real fellows, but it does not follow from this merely that any transubjective outer world or transcendent fellow beings exist in a transubjective way. The fact remains that the denial of solipsism (and we all deny it) defines the fellow being as metaphysically transcendent and this is to put him in the same logical position with relation to the perceiving subject as the house or the tree. On the other hand, the experience itself must be described as equally social, whatever results we come to on matters of theory.

In view of these considerations it is interesting to note how writers shy away from solipsism. They appear to imagine that a solipsistic doctrine means an experience in which fellow beings are represented by thin ghostly shapes, phantoms, which have the character of phantoms. What I insist upon is that a solipsistic doctrine implies nothing whatever as to how the experience under discussion will be characterized. One who was sure of the logical correctness of the solipsistic argument would discuss his doctrines with others, submit to social tests and social demands, and this, I maintain, would not be any repudiation of his solipsism.

The fact simply is that his experience would be characterized by the natural view of the world, the natural Weltbegriff of Avenarius. Whatever doctrine the person in question may have, the reality of fellow beings and the outer world is a fact of his experience. He adjusts himself to them as thus defined; that is his natural attitude, it describes his experience, although it may not describe anything else.

A discussion of solipsism is always a thankless task. Both the writer and the reader know in advance that nothing can be said in such a discussion that will in any way alter their actual experience. We all regard it inevitably as a mere vagary of dialectic of which the absurdity is too manifest to call for careful statement.

Of the 'absurdity' of solipsism I am well aware. I know as well as any one that a solipsistic doctrine, however faultless its logic, however unquestionable its data, would make no difference to me as an interpretation of experience. I am sure that others would be equally indifferent. This fact, however, that a solipsistic doctrine can make no real difference to us points to an aspect of experience which deserves examination. I feel obliged, therefore, to dwell a little longer on solipsism, in spite of its uncongenial character.

Since solipsism is so manifestly absurb, its refutation ought to be easy enough. It might pursue the following method: When you argue for solipsism observe, pray, the kind of situation you appeal to. You admit that your experience has the character of a social experience. But you deny that there is a genuine system of experience which proceeds from the interaction of different selves. You maintain that in your universe there exists only one self which is yourself. At least you insist that no other can be observed. Obviously you appeal to an observation which is not subject to the limitations of your own observation. You place yourself in thought above the entire fact to be observed, and then you see all there is and report accordingly. But to establish the correctness of your report another observation will be necessary, and then this observation must be criticized by a third, and so on. It is the infinite process with the last judgment not a bit nearer the goal than the first one. To establish a solipsistic doctrine, you must have an observation which can overlook the whole situation, and then one of two things happens. You either get into the infinite regress, or you admit that the observation you appeal to is really an observation of the facts, and that if the facts include a system of different selves, the observation can be a recognition of that fact. But your observation must not be a kind of experience which we know nothing about. When you appeal to an imagined observation, it must be the sort of fact that you understand and apply the name to in your own experience. But such an observation could be no more authoritative than your own observations every day. Your social experience is a continuous observation of the very kind you would appeal to to report the delusiveness of that experience. So that you either admit the sufficiency of every-day experience as a refutation of solipsism, or you appeal to an observation which can not observe.

Now we all ‘know’ that the case against solipsism is a great deal better than any argument like this makes it appear. One who should try to argue for a positive solipsism could be answered in the above way. But solipsism need not be positive, it need not assume any burden of proof. The defender of solipsism may proceed as follows: “You mistake my purpose; I am not trying to prove the truth of solipsism. I say merely that the situation is ambiguous and capable of two explanations, and I see nothing but sentiment which obliges me to reject the solipsistic one. I insist also that in the reality of our fellow being we have the same problem of a transcendent object that we have in the case of a house or a tree.”

Now if you admit difficulties in the way of knowing the transcendent as such, those difficulties as difficulties of logic apply to the fellow being. I admit readily the infinite regress as the result of an attempt to prove a positive solipsistic doctrine, but the infinite regress occurs there because it must occur with every attempt to know a transcendent object. The infinite regress simply illustrates that aspect of the situation which I call attention to. What one gets in any case of knowledge is experience characterized as cognitive, and the presumed agreement between such cognitive experience and its assumed transcendent object can not be got at. We can not go back of the cognitive experience, although we can go from one cognitive experience to another. To be sure, I have continually a cognitive experience of my fellows, but this does not settle the question of their transcendent character in any logical way. It does satisfy me practically,—this whole discussion is academic if you like, and this sort of practical satisfaction is a decidedly important phase of experience. But logically we are left with a sort of negative solipsism on our hands which we can not get rid of. Actually, we simply toss it away. We can not stand that kind of suggestion. Our whole being rebels. We simply banish solipsism out of court. But I submit that this is not a logical nor a philosophical way of escape.

I am not here, however, to argue the claims of one metaphysic or another. I wish simply to observe, if I can, what motives determine our philosophical decisions.

Perhaps the most common way of attacking solipsism is to enumerate the many dreadful consequences which ought to follow. Such argument does, perhaps, make him against whom it is directed feel rather foolish, but it is no better as logic than the argumentum ad hominem ever is.

It seems as though the consequence of defining the object of knowledge as a transcendent object whose reality does not depend on being known brought one into a logical impasse. It is not that I think I am the only self in the universe, but that I do not see any way to prove that I am not the only self. Of course I know there are other selves all about me; that is the way my experience is characterized; but if I once realize that my experience can not go beyond itself, and that my fellow is regarded by me as in his very essence a transcendent fact, I then observe that my knowledge of other selves as transcendent is not a logical knowledge, but rather a biological attitude.

Meanwhile this discovery makes absolutely no difference to experience. It continues to be as social as ever. One goes about one’s work and lives out one’s life in the world among one’s fellows. One has observed, perhaps, that one can not prove that solipsism is logically impossible, but that that does not disturb one. One does not say that solipsism as a logical possibility is inconsistent in such and such respects. One says it is absurd and revolting; that is, one substitutes esthetic categories for logical ones.

I have raised the question about solipsism in order to bring out the way in which the experience of all of us is superior to logic. We all draw the line with great emphasis at the fellow being. His reality must not be brought into question. We can perhaps discuss it as a problem, but we know that it will not be a real problem. We know that our experience is characterized in a social way and that this social character is all-important in our world of values. The fact that a character of experience is simply a character of experience and can in no way turn into a transcendent thing is not allowed to make any difference.


Realists do not take kindly to considerations like the preceding. Such discussion sounds like argument for subjectivism. The realistic prejudice already referred to demands the transcendent object. What I have called the independent object is not enough. A few attempts to support this demand may be here briefly reviewed.

Volkelt writes as follows: "If pure experience were the only source of knowledge we should have to give up all claim to objective knowledge, and content ourselves with mere enumeration and description of our own processes in consciousness. Every attempt to formulate knowledge must end in failure."[24]

Here we have the initial assumption in the word 'knowledge' which solves a problem in advance by a mere fiat. If pure experience be the only source of knowledge, then pure experience is a good enough basis for all the science we have, for it has no other basis, and we can continue our scientific undertakings on that one. In the statement quoted, the idea of an experience valid from a certain point of view seems to get in the way of a frank description of actual experience as such. It is felt that because a point of view seems so subjective, therefore the experience described must feel equally subjective. But this is pure assumption.

If, however, knowledge is to be a cognition of the real transcendent, and since knowledge we must have, some way has got to be found to lead from pure experience over into the transubjective region. Accordingly, Volkelt continues as follows: "The new principle is to secure me a knowledge of the transubjective region which is closed to experience. The certainty of this principle must, however, be grounded in experience, must find an experience in which subjective certainty forces me to conclude that in that experience I cognize something that experience itself can not reach.”[25]

This is a frank statement of the situation. It is an appeal to pure experience to tell something about facts which it confessedly can not touch. Suppose experience does her best to comply; in that case we have experience characterized in one way or another, in such a way, in fact, as to satisfy us. As Avenarius would say, our new experience is ‘deproblematized.’

The principle by which Volkelt thinks we gain a knowledge of transubjective things is the necessity one is under to make a particular judgment and not any other, if one wishes to tell the truth about a fact with which one is acquainted. He testifies to a constraint, a Zwang, which lies in the very nature of the case, a demand that the ideas be related so and not otherwise.[26]

One understands at once what is meant, although such terms as constraint and demand are a little misleading. When one has the insight that constitutes perfect knowledge one can, of course, report it only one way. If it is an insight which one would have been glad to avoid, there may be some sense of compulsion about it, but unless the observer has an emotional antipathy to the truth which he perceives, that truth is simply a part of his world of fact, but it can not be said to assault him with any kind of imperative. There are judgments, however, judgments of insight, which claim to have a perfectly obvious objective validity. There is a test of such validity, the test of social agreement. Volkelt tries to explain that it is this social agreement which he means by the objective validity of judgments. But so long as the success of a judgment depends upon its reporting correctly the facts about a transubjective object, social agreement may be the test of such judgments, but it is not equivalent to their validity, except in a purely practical way. If we are to accept social agreement as validity, we must throw overboard the transcendent object. This, however, will be a mere matter of theory;—the independent objects of experience will, many of them at least, continue to be characterized as transcendent.

Volkelt tries to describe a kind of transcendental ‘Must.’ Rickert, with a much less realistic attitude, argues for a ‘transcendental Ought.’[27] His argument is somewhat as follows: Suppose I see a tree, and I perceive it to be a green tree. That perception includes the judgment, the tree is green. It would certainly be false to say that no judgment occurs until I happen to put it into words. But having perceived the green tree I am not now at liberty to deceive myself about it. The true judgment has a kind of value which a false judgment would not have. That to which the judgment corresponds is this ought, which is authoritative for the individual.

It is enough to point out that this felt imperative is in the first place a character of pure experience, whatever else it may be.

Another subjective principle of a similar sort is Sigwart’s ‘Principle of Agreement.’ If any one question the validity of this principle, Sigwart admits that “We can only fall back upon our consciousness that the unification of elements which agree (viz., subject and predicate) is something absolutely self-evident,”[28]—or in other words, that it is a fact of pure experience. But, says Sigwart, there is experience that is obviously subjective and individual, and experience which has all the character of universal validity. The latter sort of experience can be tested by certain principles such as (1) stability in the character of objects,—they are not found with one character to-day and a different one to-morrow; and (2) social agreement.[29] But the objective validity which depends upon these tests can get along very well without any transcendent object whatever.

A very common way of arguing for the realistic metaphysical existence of the outer world is to call in the concept of causality. There must be an outer world, it is said, as the cause of our sensations, which depend upon the stimulation of a sense organ. Sigwart’s comment upon this argument is the right one. He says: “No doubt scientific reflection upon our sense-perceptions, which begins by assuming that they are occasioned by external objects, finds itself confirmed in this assumption by the fact that it is thus enabled to explain our sensations. . . . But it is, after all, convincing only after we have tacitly presupposed the existence of objects, the assumption of which it was intended to explain.”[30]

Objective validity in the realist’s sense is, then, Sigwart admits, not so obvious in any character of experience. “But,” he continues, “it still remains open to us to acknowledge the existence of an external world, which is the same for all, as a postulate of our search for science and knowledge, which we can not avoid believing, although we recognize that it is not self-evident.”[31]

I should put it more strongly than this. We can not help having the outer world as a fact of experience because our experience must needs be that of a human being. We may say that we doubt or that we suspend judgment, but we have all the time our natural organic attitudes. Doubt about the outer world may express a theory, a theory that is true, perhaps, but it does not describe the fundamental character of experience.

Let me summarize briefly.

There is what we may call a natural view of the world, by which we express our organic adjustment to it. That view asserts that a real transcendent outer world and real fellow beings are objects of experience. It asserts this, not so much in the form of a doctrine as in the form of a spontaneous attitude. It is not to be assumed, however, that either realism or idealism is therefore true. This natural view of the world accepts the world as being really what it seems to be, so far as it can be observed, and not the illusory appearance of a fundamentally different reality. The work of observing the world is natural science. This natural view of the world is shared more or less unreflectively by all normal human beings. On this point I would not be dogmatic, but I believe the proposition is substantially correct. Some of us, however, have elaborated a doctrine which declares that the world as observed and as observable is appearance and illusion, and that reality is something quite different. This doctrine may be true, but it makes no difference to experience whether it is or not. Knowledge is a type of experience; it is experience with the cognitive character. Error is the relation in which one cognitive experience stands to a subsequent one which contradicts it. Any cognitive experience may be contradicted by a subsequent cognitive experience. There is nothing about experience which prevents such things as a personal devil or the Real Presence being objects of Knowledge. There may be insight into the future without, of course, implying that the future is going to conform itself to the insight. Always the question has been, How is experience characterized? and never, Is there a transcendent object of knowledge? But it has been pointed out that it makes no difference to experience whether there is a transcendent object or not. Experience has independent objects which it characterizes as transcendent, and it could not possibly have any more. But this conclusion involves solipsistic possibilities. These too, however, make no difference to experience, for a solipsistic doctrine is a very different thing from a solipsistic experience. Experience, whether it be one or many in the world, is such a vital, stubborn thing that it resists any and all consequences of theory. Where it seems to be affected, the theory is the product of the experience, not experience the product of the theory. We do escape from solipsism in theory, but we do so by casting it out of court. So that if I have to say why I am convinced, in theory, of the reality of my fellows, I can only say it is on the basis of the natural view of the world. But the natural view of the world is not logic, so that the philosophy which we finally construct is a compromise, some logic, some natural Weltbegriff. All sorts of mythological objects may be objects of experience. We know that to different individuals and to communities in different stages of culture, very different objects are objects of experience. We frequently express our estimate of these by calling the individual insane and the community superstitious. In doing so, however, we simply set our experience over against the one which we criticize. Both are equally pure experience, though one may be a pure experience of mythological objects, and the other such an experience as we call clarified and scientific. In the growth from childhood to intellectual maturity we see, in some measure, the transition from the former to the latter. In the historical growth of a race from primitive and prehistoric beginnings to a high degree of civilization of the modern type, we see, on a large scale, the movement from the one type of reine Erfahrung to the other. Thus we may describe experience as a form with a variable content, or as a variable character.

This is to advance somewhat beyond the discussion as above pursued, but it brings us to the considerations which occupy the second section of this paper.


The term ‘Pure Experience’ is intended to translate the German ‘reine Erfahrung,’ but the German word ‘rein’ suggests ‘mere,’ ‘nothing else than’ which the English word ‘pure’ less readily connotes. The English term at once suggests the question, What is an unpure experience? Experience conceived not as pure is conceived not as experience simply, experience as such, but as interpreted in the light of some metaphysic. Pure experience is experience taken in an absolutely empirical way, and conceived without metaphysical presupposition. The previous discussion has attempted to give an example of taking experience in the sense of ‘reine Erfahrung,’ experience without metaphysical implications. Transcendent objects may or may not exist. It is a question not of them, but of experience characterized, in this discussion, as cognitive. For the most recent and the clearest statement of the ‘pure experience’ position see Professor William James in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol. I., Nos. 18, 20, 21, and Vol. II., Nos. 2, 7, 11; and Professor Dewey in Vol. II., No. 15, of same journal.


  1. Philosophical Review, Vol. I., p. 511, 'The Problem of Epistemology.'
  2. William James, ‘Principles of Psychology,’ II., p. 115.
  3. Royce, ‘The World and the Individual,’ Vol. I., p. 52.
  4. ‘Kritik der Reinen Erfahrung,’ Vol. II., p. 32.
  5. 'Kritik der Reinen Erfahrung,' Vol. II., pp. 352 and 356.
  6. Avenarius, 'Der Menschliche Weltbegriff,' p. 1.
  7. 'Kr. der R. Erf.,' II., p. 225.
  8. Philosophical Review, Vol. I., p. 133.
  9. L. c., p. 136.
  10. ‘Kr. der R. Erf.,’ II., p. 359.
  11. Krishaber, ‘De la Nervopathie cerebro-cardiaque.’
  12. Observations by Krishaber cited by Dilthey in Sitzungsberichte der K. P. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin for 1890, Vol. 2, p. 1004.
  13. ‘Physiologische Optik,’ Leipzig, 1867, p. 447.
  14. ‘Vorträge und Abhandlungen,’ III., p. 253.
  15. ‘Psychologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft,’ p. 114.
  16. Avenarius.
  17. See meaning of ‘problem’ in above account of Avenarius, pp. 12 and 13.
  18. ‘Der Menschliche Weltbegriff,’ p. 106.
  19. L. c., p. 108.
  20. ‘Der Menschliche Weltbegriff,’ p. 109.
  21. ‘Psychologie des Erkennens,’ Leipzig, 1893.
  22. Uphues, l. c., p. 66.
  23. ‘Psychologie des Erkennens,’ p. 69.
  24. 'Erfahrung und Denken,' p. 133.
  25. ‘Erfahrung und Denken,’ p. 135.
  26. L. c., p. 140.
  27. ‘Der Gegenstand der Erkenntniss,’ Freiburg i. B., 1892, p. 66.
  28. Sigwart, ‘Logic,’ English translation, Vol. I., p. 296.
  29. L. c., Vol. I., p. 310.
  30. L. c., Vol. I., p. 321.
  31. L. c., Vol. I., p. 322.