John Smith’s “The Reconception of Experience in Peirce, James and Dewey[1]" [1985]


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Introduction:


17 Smith regards “...the reconstruction of experience by the Pragmatists in opposition to classical empiricism as their most important contribution.” 


The pragmatists “...all appealed to experience but...were not “empiricists” because they were developing a new and broader conception of experience based not on what experience “must” be if it is to serve the purpose of founding knowledge, but on what actual experience shows itself to be in the course of human life.” 


2. The Classical Empiricist’s View of Experience:


18-19 Smith characterizes the conception of experience which was dominant in Early Modern empiricist philosophy:


-emphasis placed on immediate experience caused these empiricists to consider experience as a “tissue of subjectivity” or a “veil” standing between the experiencer and the “external world.”  Indeed, it is important to note that they talk of “experience” and of an “external world”! 


-This leads them to claim that we experience only our ideas.  That is, that we do not experience the [external] world. 


-19 The empiricists saw our experience as a “product of passivity”—the record of a spectator. 


-They held that our experience could be divided into simple and complex experience, and they held that the complex experiences were composed of simple and atomic sensory data. 


Smith notes that the pragmatists rejected this picture.  Instead of rigidly separating the results of “reasoning” and of “experience,” they held that experience has an “inferential stretch” in it, and instead of rigidly separating experience and the external world, they held that experience was “of” the world. 


-“...if we do not start on the “inside,” so to speak, the perennial empiricist problem of [establishing the existence of an external world, and the problem of showing that our “ideas” are true copies of it are]...set aside.” 


20 Of central importance is the fact that the pragmatists do not view the “experiencer” as passive.  For them there is a very close connection between experience and the “...formation of habits or patterns of behavior in response to the challenge of the situation.” 


3. Peirce’s Conception of Experience:


21 The most prominent of Peirce’s claims regarding our experience is that it is (generally) “forced upon us.” 


-22 “...for Peirce experience is essentially an invasion of the inner world of ideas by independent reals which modify our ways of thinking in accordance with what is really there.  And, we must add, these reals are not confined to things or objects since Peirce included propositions and truth among the things which resist our efforts to ignore them.  Secondly, he attached great importance to the pervasive, continuing and cumulative character of experience as something general and poles apart from the primitive simples of a sensory sort which were thought to constitute experience on the classical view.”


-”...the reals to be experienced are not themselves opinions, but what opinions are about.  Peirce’s well known theory of reality and truth in terms of the community and the convergence of opinion has often been misunderstood because of failure to take seriously his insistence that such opinion must be under the constraint of both a proper method of inquiry and the independent reals.  In this sense Peirce did not identify truth and reality.” 


23 Peirce did not confine experience to sensation.  For him, “experience is of changes and contrasts in perception from which it follows that experience is broader than perception and includes much which is not perceived.” 


4. James’ View of Experience:


25 James found the classical conception of experience more acceptable than did Peirce or Dewey. 


He insisted that within experience we could distinguish a central focus of attention from the “fringe.”  That is, he held that “...there is always more in experience than is being attended to by what we may call the “spotlight” consciousness.  Attention, as selective and hence abstractive, must in the nature of the case ignore the fringe but from that it does not follow that it does not exist.” 


-Cf., for example, James’ discussion of “trans-marginal” consciousness in his discussion of religious experience. 


26 James emphasized the study of experiencing rather than, simply experience.  Thus, to use Smith’s example, the experience of a clap of thunder is a temporal episode: “the experience has the character of an event and belongs to the ongoing biography of the one who has it; to abstract from the total episode the bare sense quality of sound and call that the delivery of “experience” is, in James’s view, to confuse the concrete experiencing with an abstraction and one which has been dictated by the demand that experience be preeminently sensory in character.” 


James championed a view he called Radical Empiricism which emphasized “...the connections, continuities, relations, transitions and tendencies which, according to James, are no less present in experience than the items they connect.” 


-“if the field of awareness is basically a flow or succession in which states interpenetrate each other and those which have passed leave traces on those yet to come so that at each point there are indications of what might or could come next, any analysis of these states into clear-cut and atomic units must result in the banishment of tendency from experience.” 


James held there was what he called “pure experience:” 


-28 it is both subjective and objective at the same time—that is, the pure experience can come be seen as either subjective or objective.  Smith cites James:


--who says that by `pure’ “...prefixed to the word `experience’ I mean to denote a form of being which is as yet neutral or ambiguous, and prior to the object and subject distinction.  I mean to show that the attribution either of mental or physical being to an experience is due to nothing in the immediate stuff of which the experience is composed—for the same stuff will serve for either attribution....”[2] 


--Smith questions whether or not this is consistent with James’ view that all experience belongs to a personal self—that there is no experience which is not someone’s experience. 


-29 Smith points out that “...James was not in the end denying the validity of a subject-object distinction, but rather maintaining instead that it is not primordial and develops consequently as the result of reflection.  In short, I take James to be defending the view that in actual experiencing the experiencer and the experienced are together and that, while one can distinguish them from each other conceptually, that distinction itself is not a constant and proper part of the concrete experience as it is undergone.” 


4. Dewey’s View of Experience:


Dewey’s view of experience, like most of his views, is shaped by his biological orientation.  In contrast, of course, Peirce was primarily influenced by his logical and metaphysical interests, and James was primarily influenced by his psychological, moral, and religious concerns. 


Where earlier empiricists conceived of experience as needing to conform to (and/or copy) something prior to itself, Dewey emphasized “...the idea of transformation and construed experience in terms of its role in resolving problematic situations or in transforming the indeterminate, unsatisfactory situation into a determinate and non-problematic one.” 


-As Smith puts it, “Pierce was intent on “fixing” belief, while Dewey was aiming in the end at “fixing” the broken radiator!” 


30 “Like James, Dewey maintained that there are numerous ways in which the things and events of experience can be taken or interpreted, many representing different interests and purposes from which these same things and events are viewed.  In rejecting the coordination of experience with the deliverances of sense, Dewey was also denying the validity of the opposition between “experience” and reason or thought as envisaged by traditional empiricism.  This opposition seemed to him mistaken on at least two grounds; first, there is the development of modern science made possible by the interpenetration of observation and rational construction....In the second place, Dewey, like Peirce, would not accept the view that experience is itself devoid of inference.  Experience, he claimed, is shot through with clues that, in Peirce’s term, “suggest” connections whereby thought is able to pass logically beyond the items presented to other items and to other features of the same item.” 


30-31 Dewey rejected the traditional subjectivistic conception of experience: “... for Dewey, experience, in virtue of its being the meaningful and funded result of many interactions between the individual and the environment, attains a public character evidenced, among other things, by the fact that it can be communicated, shared and compared....Dewey held that experience is a genuine medium of disclosure, reaching down into nature and providing access to a real world.” 


31 Dewey did not equate experience with knowledge.  Whereas the classical empiricists thought that some experiences provided the foundation knowledge for all other knowledge, Dewey held that knowledge is mediated—it is the product of a process of inquiry.  That is, Dewey distinguished between having and knowing. 


32 Unlike the classical empiricists (who emphasized knowing that), Dewey emphasizes knowing how. 


-33 For all three thinkers (Peirce, James, and Dewey), experience is essentially related to the formation of habits and skills (which serve to direct our actions and shape our lives). 


Dewey also emphasized the aesthetic character (consummatory) character of our experiences. 


-34 According to him, as Smith says, “...experience is impoverished and becomes superficial when the pressures of events, our desire to be doing something coupled with impatience, lead to an unwillingness to let experience complete itself.  The result is many experiences and the experience of many things, but little that attains the quality of an experience.  The upshot of Dewey’s account is that the esthetic dimension is no intruder in experience, nor is it a mere layer of refinement externally added to the ordinary and mundane; it is instead the essential character of complete experience—an experience.  Dewey sums up the point in these words: “In short, art, in its form, unites the very same relation of doing and undergoing, outgoing and incoming energy, that makes an experience to be an experience.” 


35 Smith lists some similarities between Peirce, James, and Dewey and the phenomenologists in regard to their treatment of experience. 




Notes: [click on note number to return to text for the note]

[1] John E. Smith, “The Reconception of Experience in Peirce, James, and Dewey,” The Monist v.68 (1985), pp. 538-554.  This supplement is to the reprint in Smith’s American’s Philosophical Vision (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1993), pp. 17-35.  Emphasis has been added to several of the passages. 

[2] Smith cites this from Ralph Barton Perry, The Thought and Character of William James (Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1936), v. 2, p. 385. 

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