Avenarius and the Standpoint of Pure Experience/Introduction

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A few words in explanation of the following essay may not be out of place. When I first wrote down the matter of the essay, some six years ago, I was dissatisfied with the metaphysical alternatives from which the student of philosophy could select. The study of the writings of Richard Avenarius heightened my dissatisfaction with previous metaphysics, and suggested to me a point of view for a fresh start. It seems to me that discontent with established and professional metaphysics has become quite general and that a fresh start is very generally desired. Well, the only sound thing to start from is actual experience, experience not viewed through the assumptions and dialect of previous systems, but taken in an absolutely empirical fashion. We must make the effort to beg as few questions as possible at the outset. If we are rigorous enough we shall discover just what questions we have to beg and why we beg them.

This return to the empirically given is the standpoint of ‘pure experience.’ ‘Pure experience’ means at present a point of view. It is premature to speak of a philosophy of ‘pure experience’; we do not yet know what such a philosophy will have to say. But there can be no question that the point of view is the right one, and it takes something of a struggle to win it. And as I came to the point of view through Avenarius, the essay includes the attempt to restate, in a relatively independent fashion, what seem to me the essentials of his doctrine.

There are not, however, as there might seem to be, two lines of effort neither united nor clearly distinguished. I think I may claim to express the views, or at least the attitude, of Avenarius all the time. An account of the philosophy of Avenarius is a difficult matter, not because the thought is obscure or hard to follow, but because it is expressed in an elaborate and novel terminology which can hardly be omitted altogether, but which, if introduced to any great extent into an exposition, certainly gets between the reader and the thought.

I have been encouraged in this undertaking by the fact that no good account of Avenarius exists for English readers. The article by Carstanjen in Mind[1] is altogether too slight. In German, Wundt's criticism[2] is marked by a hostile polemical spirit that effectually interferes with its usefulness. In French, however, the articles by Delacroix[3] are not unsuccessful, but they hardly show how much can be gotten out of the works reviewed.

I have spoken of this essay as the effort to reach a point of view, and such an effort must have reference to present philosophical tendencies. Every student of metaphysics has got to take account of idealism, and take account of it logically. Idealism claims to rest upon demonstrable facts of experience, and to be a strictly logical deduction. The really candid critic must inspect experience as impartially as he can, and see whether the premises of idealism are really all that they claim to be. That is, the critic must place himself at the standpoint of pure experience, and putting theories and definitions out of his head, must get acquainted directly with those aspects of experience which will later constitute the basis of a philosophy.

This effort to appreciate experience in an undistorted way, to take it as it comes, not checking the coming by asking metaphysical questions, but simply trying to see what comes, is what concerns the first section of the essay. As the duty of squaring myself with idealism looms in the background, it is the independent outer world aspect of experience that interests me most. The thesis of my first section is that naïve realism is a perfectly correct description of experience as such, but that this does not make it a true metaphysical theory of existence. It may be true and it may not.

As experience we have the world with all its empirical detail. It interests us and we want to know about it. We can feel two kinds of curiosity about the world. We can, on the one hand, wish to become better and better acquainted with its empirical character, or we can conceive it as a whole and ask what is the cause or ground or nature of the whole in view of which we shall interpret and comprehend the parts that come within our ken. The first type of interest desires description of experience, the second desires an explanation of experience, and the second and third sections of the paper are entitled, respectively, 'The Description of Experience' and 'The Explanation of Experience.'

The complete description of experience is the task of all the special sciences working together, and recently there has arisen in scientific circles a point of view which regards the concepts of science, such concepts as atom, ether, energy, etc., as conceptual instruments for effecting convenient descriptions or increasing our fund of empirical data, but it is not regarded as of the smallest consequence for the purpose in hand, that anything corresponding to these concepts actually exists. If, however, one asserts that atoms really exist, or that reality is constituted in one way or another, then one has passed to the plane of metaphysics. It is clear, then, that the logical distinction between science and metaphysics appears in this, that metaphysics, the endeavor to know 'reality,' needs the predicate of existence, while science does not.

The question arises, why should not he, to whom the concept of an Absolute seems demanded by the facts of experience, treat this concept as the physicist treats the concept of the atom? And so far as I can see there is only an emotional reason why he should not do so. For the question is not whether there is reality, but whether in a given concept we have a true account of it.

Now metaphysics is anxious to be 'scientific' in every possible way, and among students of metaphysics we have those who are cool-blooded and critical, and those who warm to their tasks with emotional energy. It should not be in the least surprising if the former type of philosopher follows the example of science, and the second type alone continues to cling to the existential predicate. And in view of the great and increasing prestige of science, metaphysics, in the sense above explained, may become of less and less consequence in the world of thought. And if this comes to pass, as there is much reason to expect, we shall have science and the natural view of the world which we find in pure experience. This would be a verification of the predictions of Avenarius.

The fourth section, entitled 'Suggestions toward a Concept of Experience,' proposes a point of view which might be of service to the student of history, particularly the student of the history of theories of reality. This follows the theory that Avenarius has put forward in his essay 'Der Menschliche Weltbegriff.' It is a concept of a history of 'pure experience,' beginning in an animistic stage of culture and continuing until the animism which at the beginning had the character of undoubted fact, has been entirely eliminated from experience and from theory. The contention of Avenarius is that when this process of rejecting animism is completed, the theory of idealism must disappear. This concept is the concept of a genuine history, in which theories of reality have been determined by the fund of animism not yet rejected.

Finally, in the fifth and last section, I take up some contemporary discussions of pure experience. Professor William James has recently published his conviction that consciousness as a kind of stuff or entity does not exist. He believes that in dropping the idea of such an entity he is getting rid of the last remnant of the idea of the soul. To one who has in mind the theories of Avenarius, and the concept of a history of pure experience such as that just explained, this statement from Professor James must seem of great consequence. What are the results of this for idealism? is the imperative question. I have done what I can to indicate the results that seem to me likely to follow, and my position is that the rejection of consciousness from the position it has hitherto occupied in metaphysics must follow from a candid inspection of pure experience, and that this cuts the ground from under the argument for idealism. I thus exhibit at least the presumption that the conception of a history of pure experience, which I take from Avenarius, is sound.


  1. October, 1897.
  2. Philosophische Studien, Bd. 13, Heft 1, 2 and 3.
  3. Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, Vol. V., p. 764, Vol. VI., p. 61.