James on the Noumenal, a Reply to "Anti-Correlationists"

I have, indeed, said that “to be radical, an empiricism must [not] admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced.” But in my own radical empiricism this is only a methodological postulate, not a conclusion supposed to flow from the intrinsic absurdity of transempirical objects. I have never felt the slightest repsect for the idealistic arguments which Mr. Pitkin attacks and of which Ferrier made such striking use; and I am perfectly willing to admit any number of noumenal beings or events into philosophy if only their pragmatic value can be shown.

-William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 123

So called anti-correlationists would point to the last sentence and say “See! Reality is correlated with the pragmatic value of humans, therefore James was an idealist!” This response, of course, relies on a mistakenly shallow understanding of pragmatic value. When anti-correlationists think of pragmatism and “practical consequences”, they imagine using a fork to eat, or a lawnmower to mow lawns i.e. useful instruments. To say then that noumenal beings are only allowed in ontology when they have “pragmatic value” is taken to mean that entities only exist if they serve some useful purpose relative to human needs. But this is a mistake! In order to understand James, one must have an expanded notion of “pragmatic” that goes beyond mere instrumental usefulness. Imagine if the noumenal realm was so noumenal that Kant never even bothered to think about it, let alone write about it. Reflection on this indicates that the noumenal realm, whatever that turns out to be, must be cashed out in terms of its effects on us (what it causes us to do, even if that just means writing philosophically about it), otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it or understand it. Notice how this is a purely methodological doctrine, similar to phenomenology. We need not directly experience these noumenal beings with our five senses, but they must factor into our cognitive economy somehow if they are to be discussed ontologically. Similar to the Kant example, if we postulate the existence of neutrinos that we cannot directly experience with our senses, the scientific discourse itself constitutes the “pragmatic value” of the neutrinos rather than any possible instrumental use we could find for the neutrinos. Thus, by understanding the broad scope of pragmatic value, which goes beyond mere instrumentality,  we can see how radical empiricism escapes from the “correlationist fallacy” often levied against James.

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1 Comment

Filed under Phenomenology

One response to “James on the Noumenal, a Reply to "Anti-Correlationists"

  1. I like the way Peirce put it: for a difference to be a difference it must make a difference. Which is just an other way of saying things must have a “cash value” in terms of human behavior.

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