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  • Pure Experience In Question: William James in the Philosophies of Nishida KitarŌ and Alfred North Whitehead
  • Harumi Osaki (bio)

Comparisons of non-Western and Western philosophers often adopt a nation-based framework that has tended to posit difference entirely between national cultures while presuming unity and homogeneity within them. There are a number of problems with such a framework. First, the assumption that national cultures are unitary and homogeneous is demonstrably false. Second, the framework of comparison frequently shifts to Western philosophy versus non-Western philosophy, sometimes articulated at the level of nations (Japan versus the West, for instance), and sometimes civilizations (Eastern versus Western philosophies). As Naoki Sakai has shown, insofar as such a framework presupposes the unity, homogeneity, and naturalness of the West, it introduces a paradigm in which the West is articulated as universal, and other cultures as particulars (Sakai 1989, p. 95). Third, when non-Western thinkers oppose the particularity of their national cultures to the universality of the West, such particularism cannot but be complicit with the universalism it allegedly challenges (p. 105).

The question of how to move beyond the framework of the universal and particular when dealing with the relation between Western and non-Western philosophy brings me to the fourth point: the manner in which the comparativist framework deals with difference, with unity and multiplicity, often runs counter to the very philosophies it proposes to discuss. This is true of the philosophers whom I propose to compare here: William James, Nishida Kitarō, and Alfred North Whitehead.

This essay aims to generate a dialogue between these three philosophers beyond the universal/particular paradigm, delineating resonances and dissonances among them without reducing the differences in their thoughts to the specificity of Western/Japanese cultures. This essay begins with James’s concept of pure or immediate experience, to which both Nishida and Whitehead attached great importance. I will look at how both Nishida and Whitehead proposed to overcome what they considered the defects of James’s radical empiricism by exploring the ground beyond pure experience. I will show that Nishida and Whitehead actually avoided what remains radical about James’s notion of pure experience. Nonetheless, although I ultimately find James’s notion more radical, it is only by staging this dialogue with Nishida and Whitehead that this potential of James’s philosophy can be elucidated. [End Page 1235]

It is well known that in their philosophy Nishida and Whitehead borrowed James’s notion of pure or immediate experience. Nishida and Whitehead developed James’s notion innovatively up to the point of significantly diverging from it.

Pure experience as James conceives of it is experience as immediately given, and he also calls it immediate experience. In its immediacy before reflection, pure experience is “virtually both objective and subjective” (James 1912, p. 130). It “can stand alternately for a ‘fact of consciousness’ or for a physical reality, according as it is taken in one context or in another” (p. 138). For James, although what gives such contexts are various relations among pure experiences, such relations “are undeniable parts of pure experience” (p. 148). In short, all the knowing subjects and the known objects emerge from pure experience. As such, it is “only one primal stuff or material,” “a stuff of which everything is composed” (p. 4). Insofar as it is “a datum, … which we cannot burrow under, explain or get behind” (James 1911, p. 46), James regards this experience as “truth absolute and objective” (James 1912, p. 24), which has no room for objection.

Nishida starts his first book, An Inquiry into the Good, with an account of pure experience: “pure experience is identical with direct experience. When one directly experiences one’s own state of consciousness, there is not yet a subject or an object, and the knowing and its object are completely unified” (Nishida 1990, pp. 3–4). Nishida claims this intuitive experience to be “direct knowledge that we cannot even begin to doubt” to the point that “All of our knowledge must be constructed upon such intuitive experience” (p. 39).

Whitehead, in the preface to his masterpiece Process and Reality, writes of his great indebtedness to James (Whitehead 1929, p. xii). Passages in this...


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