Essays in Radical Empiricism
Chapter 6: The Experience of Activity
BRETHREN OF THE PSYCHOLOGICAL Association:
IN casting about me for a subject for your President this year to talk about it has seemed to me that our experiences of activity would form a good one; not only because the topic is so naturally interesting, and because it has lately led to a good deal of rather inconclusive discussion, but because I myself am growing more and more Interested in a certain systematic way of handling questions, and want to get others interested also, and this question strikes me as one in which, although I am painfully aware of my inability to communicate new discoveries or to reach definitive conclusions, I yet can show, in a rather definite manner, how the method works.
The way of handling things I speak of, is, as you already will have suspected, that known sometimes as the pragmatic method, sometimes as humanism, sometimes as Deweyism, and in France, by some of the disciples of Bergson, as the Philosophie nouvelle. Professor Woodbridge's Journal of Philosophy  seems unintentionally to have become a sort of meeting place for those who follow these tendencies in America. There is only a dim identity among them; and the most that can be said at present is that some sort of gestation seems to be in the atmosphere, and that almost any day a man with a genius for finding the right word for things may hit upon some unifying and conciliating formula that will make so much vaguely similar- aspiration crystallize into more definite form.
I myself have given the name of 'radical empiricism' to that version of the tendency in question which I prefer; and I propose, if you will now let me, to illustrate what I mean by radical empiricism, by applying it to activity
(157) as an example, hoping at the same time incidentally to leave the general problem of activity in a slightly -- I fear very slightly -- more manageable shape than before.
Mr. Bradley calls the question of activity a scandal to philosophy, and if one turns to the current literature of the subject -- his own writings included -- one easily gathers what he means. The opponents cannot even understand one another. Mr. Bradley says to Mr. Ward: " I do not care What your oracle is, and your preposterous psychology may here be gospel if you please; . . . but if the revelation does contain a meaning, I will commit myself to this: either the oracle is so confused that its signification is not discoverable, or, upon the other hand, if it can be pinned down to any definite statement, then that statement will be false."  Mr. Ward in turn says of Mr. Bradley: "I cannot even imagine the state of mind to which his description applies. ... [It] reads like an unintentional travesty
(158) of Herbartian psychology by one who has tried to improve upon it without being at the pains to master it." Munsterberg excludes a view opposed to his own by saying that with any one who holds it a Verstandigung with him is "grundsatzlick ausgeschlossen"; and Royce, in a review of Stout, hauls him over the coals at great length for defending 'efficacy ' in a way which I, for one, never gathered from reading him, and which I have heard Stout himself say was quite foreign to the intention of his text.
In these discussions distinct questions are habitually jumbled and different points of view are talked of durcheinander.
(1) There is a psychological question: " Have we perceptions of activity? and if so, what are they like, and when and where do we have them ?
(2) There is a metaphysical question: "Is there a fact of activity? and if so, what idea must we frame of it? What is it like? and what
(159) does it do, if it does anything?" And finally there is a logical question:
(3) "Whence do we know activity? By our own feelings of it solely? or by some other source of information?" Throughout page after page of the literature one knows not which of these questions is before one; and mere description of the surface-show of experience is proferred as if it implicitly answered every one of them. No one of the disputants, moreover, tries to show what pragmatic consequences his own view would carry, or what assignable particular differences in any one's experience it would make if his adversary's were triumphant.
It seems to me that if radical empiricism be good for anything, it ought, with its pragmatic method and its principle of pure experience, to be able to avoid such tangles, or at least to simplify them somewhat. The pragmatic method starts from the postulate that there is no difference of truth that does n't make a difference of fact somewhere; and it seeks to determine the meaning of all differences of
(160) opinion by making the discussion hinge as soon as Possible upon some practical or particular issue. The principle of pure experience is also a methodical postulate. Nothing shall be admitted as fact, it says, except what can be experienced at some definite time by some experient; and for every feature of fact ever so experienced, a definite place must be found somewhere in the final system of reality. In other words: Everything real must be experienceable somewhere, and every kind of thing experienced must somewhere be real.
Armed with these rules of method let us see what face the problems of activity present to us.
By the principle of pure experience, either the word 'activity' must have no meaning at all, or else the original type and model of what it means must lie in some concrete kind of experience that can be definitely pointed out. Whatever ulterior judgments we may eventually come to make regarding activity, that sort of thing will be what the judgments are about. The first step to take, then, is to ask where in the stream of experience we seem to find what
(161) we speak of as activity. What we are to think of the activity thus found will be a later question.
Now it is obvious that we are tempted to affirm activity wherever we find anything going on. Taken in the broadest sense, any apprehension of something doing, is an experience of activity. Were our world describable only by the words 'nothing happening,' 'nothing changing,' 'nothing doing,' we should unquestionably call it an 'inactive' world. Bare activity then, as we may call it, means the bare fact of event or change. 'Change taking place' is a unique content of experience, one of those 'conjunctive' objects which radical empiricism seeks so earnestly to rehabilitate and preserve. The sense of activity is thus in the broadest and vaguest way synonymous with the sense of 'life.' We should feel our own subjective life at least, even in noticing and proclaiming an otherwise inactive world. Our own reaction on its monotony would be the one thing experienced there in the form of something coming to pass.
This seems to be what certain writers have in mind when they insist that for an experient, to be at all is to be active. It seems to justify, or at any rate to explain, Mr. Ward's expression that we are only as we are active, for we are only as experients; and it rules out Mr. Bradley's contention that "there is no original experience of anything like activity."  What we ought to say about activities thus elementary, whose they are, what they effect, or whether indeed they effect anything at all -- these are later questions, to be answered only when the field of experience is enlarged.
Bare activity would thus be predicable, though there were no definite direction, no actor, and no aim. Mere restless zigzag movement, or a wild Ideenflucht, or Rhapsodie der Wahrnehmungen, as Kant would say, would
(163) constitute an active as distinguished from an inactive world.
But in this actual world of ours, as it is given, a part at least of the activity comes with definite direction; it comes with desire and sense of goal; it comes complicated with resistances which it overcomes or succumbs to, and with the efforts which the feeling of resistance so often provokes; and it is in complex experiences like these that the notions of distinct agents, and of passivity as opposed to activity arise. Here also the notion of causal efficacy comes to birth. Perhaps the most elaborate work ever done in descriptive psychology has been the analysis by various recent writers of the more complex activitysituations. In their descriptions, exquisitely
(164) subtle some of them, the activity appears as the gestaltqualitat or the fundirte inhalt (or as whatever else you may please to call the conjunctive form) which the content falls into when we experience it in the ways which the describers set forth. Those factors in those relations are what we mean by activity-situations; and to the possible enumeration and accumulation of their circumstances and ingredients there would seem to be no natural bound. Every hour of human life could contribute to the picture gallery; and this is the only fault that one can find with such descriptive industry -where is it going to stop? Ought we to listen forever to verbal pictures of what we have already in concrete form in our own breasts?  They never take us off the superficial plane. We knew the facts already -- les spread out and separated, to be sure - but
(165) we knew them still. We always felt our own activity, for example, as 'the
expansion of an idea with which our Self is identified, against an obstacle'; 
and the following out of such a definition through a multitude of cases elaborates the
obvious so as to be little more than an exercise in synonymic speech.
All the descriptions have to trace familiar outlines, and to use familiar terms. The activity is, for example, attributed either to a physical or to a mental agent, and is either aimless or directed. If directed it shows tendency. The tendency may or may not be resisted. If not, we call the activity immanent, as when a body moves in empty space by its momentum, or our thoughts wander at their own sweet will. If resistance is met, its agent complicates the situation. If now, in spite of resistance, the original tendency continues, effort makes its appearance, and along with effort, strain or squeeze. Will, in the narrower sense of the word, then comes upon the scene, when-
(166)-ever, along with the tendency, the strain and squeeze are sustained. But the resistance may be great enough to check the tendency, or even to reverse its path. In that case, we (if 'we' were the original agents or subjects of the tendency) are overpowered. The phenomenon turns into one of tension simply, or of necessity succumbed-to, according as the opposing power is only equal, or is superior to ourselves.
Whosoever describes an experience in such terms as these describes an experience of activity. If the word have any meaning, it must denote what there is found. There is complete activity in its original and first intention. What it is 'known-as' is what there appears. The experiencer of such a situation possesses all that the idea contains. He feels the tendency, the obstacle, the will, the strain, the triumph, or the passive giving up, just as he feels the time, the space, the swiftness or intensity, the movement, the weight and color, the pain and pleasure, the complexity, or whatever remaining characters the situation may involve. He goes through all that ever can be imagined where
(167) activity is supposed. If we suppose activities to go on outside of our experience, it is in forms like these that we must suppose them, or else give them some other name; for the word ' activity' has no imaginable content whatever save these experiences of process, obstruction, striving, strain, or release, ultimate qualia as they are of the life given us to be known.
Were this the end of the matter, one might think that whenever we had successfully lived through an activity-situation we should have to be permitted, without provoking contradiction, to say that we had been really active, that we had met real resistance and had really prevailed. Lotze somewhere says that to be an entity all that is necessary is to gelten as an entity, to operate, or be felt, experienced, recognized, or in any way realized, as such.  In our activity-experiences the activity assuredly fulfils Lotze's demand. It makes itself gelten. It is witnessed at its work. No matter what activities there may really be in this extraordinary universe of ours, it is impossible
(168) for us to conceive of any one of them being either lived through or authentically known otherwise than in this dramatic shape of something sustaining a felt purpose against felt obstacles and overcoming or being overcome. What 'sustaining' means here is clear to anyone who has lived through the experience, but to no one else; just as 'loud,' 'red," sweet,' mean something only to beings with ears, eyes, and tongues. The percipi in these originals of experience is the esse; the curtain is the picture. If there is anything hiding in the background, it ought not to be called activity, but should get itself another name.
This seems so obviously true that one might well experience astonishment at finding so many of the ablest writers on the subject flatly denying that the activity we live through in these situations is real. Merely to feel active is not to be active, in their sight. The agents that appear in the experience are not real agents, the resistances do not really resist, the effects that appear are not really effects at all. 
(169) It is evident from this that mere descriptive analysis of any one of our activity-experiences is not the whole story, that there is something
(170) still to tell about them that has led such able writers to conceive of a Simon-pure activity, of an activity an sich, that does, and does n't
(171) merely appear to us to do, and compared with whose real doing all this phenomenal activity is but a specious sham.
The metaphysical question opens here; and I think that the state of mind of one possessed by it is often something like this: " It is all very well," we may imagine him saying, "to talk about certain experience-series taking on the form of feelings of activity, just as they might take on musical or geometric forms. Suppose that they do so; suppose we feel a will to stand a strain. Does our feeling do more than record the fact that the strain is sustained? The real activity, meanwhile, is the doing of the fact; and what is the doing made of before the record is made. What in the will enables it to act thus? And these trains of experience themselves, in which activities appear, what makes them go at all? Does the activity in one bit of experience bring the next bit into being? As an em-
(172) -piricist you cannot say so, for you have just declared activity to be only a kind of synthetic object, or conjunctive relation experienced between bits of experience already made. But what made them at all? What propels experience uberhaupt into being? There is the activity that operates; the activity felt is only its superficial sign."
To the metaphysical question, popped upon us in this way, I must pay serious attention ere I end my remarks; but, before doing so, let me show that without leaving the immediate reticulations of experience, or asking what makes activity itself act, we still find the distinction between less real and more real activities forced upon us, and are driven to much soul-searching on the purely phenomenal plane.
We must not forget, namely, in talking of the ultimate character of our activity-experiences, that each of them is but a portion of a wider world, one link in the vast chain of processes of experience out of which history is made. Each partial process, to him who lives through it, defines itself by its origin and its
(173) goal; but to an observer with a wider mindspan who should live outside of it, that goal would appear but as a provisional halting-place, and the subjectively felt activity would be seen to continue into objective activities that led far beyond. We thus acquire a habit, in discussing activity-experiences, of defining them by their relation to something more. If an experience be one of narrow span, it will be mistaken as to what activity it is and whose. You think that you are acting while you are only obeying someone's push. You think you are doing this, but you are doing something of which you do not dream. For instance, you think you are but drinking this glass; but you are really creating the liver-cirrhosis that will end your days. You think you are just driving this bargain, but, as Stevenson says somewhere, you are laying down a link in the policy of mankind.
Generally speaking, the onlooker, with his wider field of vision, regards the ultimate outcome of an activity as what it is more really doing; and the most previous agent ascertain-
(174) -able, being the first source of action, he regards as the most real agent in the field. The others but transmit that agent's impulse; on him we put responsibility; we name him when one asks us 'Who's to blame?'
But the most previous agents ascertainable, instead of being of longer span, are often of much shorter span than the activity in view. Brain-cells are our best example. My brain-cells are believed to excite each other from next to next (by contiguous transmission of katabolic alteration, let us say) and to have been doing so long before this present stretch of lecturing-activity on my part began. If any one cell-group stops its activity, the lecturing will cease or show disorder of form. Cessante causa, cessat et effectus -- does not this look as if the short-span brain activities were the more real activities, and the lecturing activities on my part only their effects? Moreover, as Hume so clearly pointed out, in my mental activity-situation the words physically to be
(175) uttered are represented as the activity's im. mediate goal. These words, however, cannot be uttered without intermediate physical processes in the bulb and vagi nerves, which processes nevertheless fail to figure in the mental activity-series at all. That series, therefore, since it leaves out vitally real steps of action, cannot represent the real activities. It is something purely subjective; the facts of activity are elsewhere. They are something far more interstitial, so to speak, than what my feelings record.
The real facts of activity that have in point of fact been systematically pleaded for by philosophers have, so far as my information goes, been of three principal types.
The first type takes a consciousness of wider time-span than ours to be the vehicle of the more real activity. Its will is the agent, and its purpose is the action done.
The second type assumes that 'ideas' struggling with one another are the agents, and that the prevalence of one set of them is the action.
The third type believes that nerve-cells are the agents, and that resultant motor discharges are the acts achieved.
Now if we must de-realize our immediately felt activity-situations for the benefit of either of these types of substitute, we ought to know what the substitution practically involves. What practical difference ought it to make if, instead of saying naively that 'I' am active now in delivering this address., I say that a wider thinker is active, or that certain ideas are active, or that certain nerve-cells are active, in producing the result?
This would be the pragmatic meaning of the three hypotheses. Let us take them in succession in seeking a reply.
If we assume a wider thinker, it is evident that his purposes envelope mine. I am really lecturing for him; and although I cannot surely know to what end, yet if I take him religiously, I can trust it to be a good end, and willingly connive. I can be happy in thinking that my activity transmits his impulse, and that his ends prolong my own. So long as I take him
(177) religiously, in short, he does not de-realize my activities. He tends rather to corroborate the reality of them, so long as I believe both them and him to be good.
When now we turn to ideas, the case is different, inasmuch as ideas are supposed by the association psychology to influence each other only from next to next. The 'span' of an idea or pair of ideas, is assumed to be much smaller instead of being larger than that of my total conscious field. The same results may get worked out in both cases, for this address is being given anyhow. But the ideas supposed to 'really' work it out had no prevision of the whole of it; and if I was lecturing for an absolute thinker in the former case, so, by similar reasoning, are my ideas now lecturing for me, that is, accomplishing unwittingly a result which I approve and adopt. But, when this passing lecture is over, there is nothing in the bare notion that ideas have been its agents that would seem to guarantee that my present purposes in lecturing will be prolonged. I may have ulterior developments in view; but there
(178) is no certainty that my ideas as such will wish to, or be able to, work them out.
The like is true if nerve-cells be the agents. The activity of a nerve-cell must be conceived of as a tendency of exceedingly short reach., an 'impulse' barely spanning the way to the next cell -- for surely that amount of actual 'process' must be 'experienced' by the cells if what happens between them is to deserve the name of activity at all. But here again the gross resultant, as I perceive it, is indifferent to the agents, and neither wished or willed or foreseen. Their being agents now congruous with my will gives me no guarantee that like results will recur again from their activity. In point of fact, all sorts of other results do occur. My mistakes, impotencies, perversions, mental obstructions, and frustrations generally, are also results of the activity of cells. Although these are letting me lecture now, on other occasions they make me do things that I would willingly not do.
The question Whose is the real activity? is thus tantamount to the question What will be
(179) the actual results? Its interest is dramatic; how will things work out ? If the agents are of one sort, one way; if of another sort, they may work out very differently. The pragmatic meaning of the various alternatives, in short, is great. It makes no merely verbal difference which opinion we take up.
You see it is the old dispute come back! Materialism and teleology; elementary short-span actions summing themselves 'blindly,' or fax foreseen ideals coming with effort into act.
Naively we believe, and humanly and dramatically we like to believe, that activities both of wider and of narrower span are at work in life together, that both are real, and that the long-span tendencies yoke the others in their service, encouraging them in the right direction, and damping them when they tend in other ways. But how to represent clearly the modus operandi of such steering of small tendencies by large ones is a problem which metaphysical thinkers will have to ruminate upon for many years to come. Even it such control should eventually grow clearly pictur-
(180) -able, the question how far it is successfully exerted in this actual world can be answered only by investigating the details of fact. No philosophic knowledge of the general nature and constitution of tendencies, or of the relation of larger to smaller ones, can help us to predict which of all the various competing tendencies that interest us in this universe are likeliest to prevail. We know as an empirical fact that far-seeing tendencies often carry out their purpose, but we know also that they are often defeated by the failure of some comtemptibly small process on which success depends. A little thrombus in a statesman's meningeal artery will throw an empire out of gear. I can therefore not even hint at any solution of the pragmatic issue. I have only wished to show you that that issue is what gives the real interest to all inquiries into what kinds of activity may be real. Are the forces that really act in the world more foreseeing or more blind? As between 'our' activities as 'we' experience them, and those of our ideas, or of our braincells, the issue is well-defined.
I said a while back that I should return to the 'metaphysical' question before ending; so, with a few words about that, I will now close my remarks.
In whatever form we hear this question propounded, I think that it always arises from two things, a belief that causality must be exerted in activity, and a wonder as to how causality is made. If we take an activity-situation at its face-value, it seems as if we caught in flagrante delicto the very power that makes facts come and be. I now am eagerly striving, for example, to get this truth which I seem half to perceive, into words which shall make it show more clearly. If the words come, it will seem as if the striving itself had drawn or pulled them into actuality out from the state of merely possible being in which they were. How is this feat performed? How does the pulling pull? How do I get my hold on words not yet existent, and when they come by what means have I made them come? Really it is the problem of creation; for in the end the question is: How do
(182) I make them be ? Real activities are those that really make things be, without which the things are not, and with which they are there. Activity, so far as we merely feel it, on the other hand, is only an impression of ours, it may be maintained; and an impression is, for all this way of thinking, only a shadow of another fact.
Arrived at this point, I can do little more than indicate the principles on which, as it seems to me, a radically empirical philosophy is obliged to rely in handling such a dispute.
If there be real creative activities in being, radical empiricism must say, somewhere they must be immediately lived. Somewhere the that of efficacious causing and the what of it must be experienced in one, just as the what and the that of 'cold' are experienced in one whenever a man has the sensation of cold here and now. It boots not to say that our sensations are fallible. They are indeed; but to see the thermometer contradict us when we say 'it is cold' does not abolish cold as a specific nature from the universe. Cold is in the arctic
(183) circle if not here. Even so, to feel that our train is moving when the train beside our window moves, to see the moon through a telescope come twice as near, or to see two pictures as one solid when we look through a stereoscope at them, leaves motion, nearness, and solidity still in being -- if not here, yet each in its proper seat elsewhere. And wherever the seat of real causality is, as ultimately known 'for true' (in nerve-processes, if you will, that cause our feelings of activity as well as the movements which these seem to prompt), a philosophy of pure experience can consider the real causation as no other nature of thing than that which even in our most erroneous experiences appears to be at work. Exactly what appears there is what we mean by working, though we may later come to learn that working was not exactly there. Sustaining, persevering, striving, paying with effort as we go, hanging on, and finally achieving our intention -- this is action, this is effectuation in the only shape in which, by a pure experience-philosophy, the whereabouts of it
(184) anywhere can be discussed. Here is creation in its first intention, here is causality at work.  To treat this offhand as the bare illusory surface of a world whose real causality is an unimaginable ontological principle hidden in the cubic deeps, is, for the more empirical way of thinking, only animism in another shape. You explain your given fact by your 'principle,' but the principle itself, when you look clearly at it, turns out to be nothing but a previous little spiritual copy of the fact. Away from that one and only kind of fact your mind, considering causality, can never get.
(185) I conclude, then, that real effectual causation as an ultimate nature, as a 'category,' if you like, of reality, is just what we feel it to be, just that kind of conjunction which our own activity-series reveal. We have the whole butt and being of it in our hands; and the healthy thing
(186) for philosophy is to leave off grubbing underground for what effects effectuation, or what makes action act, and to try to solve the concrete questions of where effectuation in this world is located, of which things are the true causal agents there, and of what the more remote effects consist.
From this point of view the greater sublimity traditionally attributed to the metaphysical inquiry, the grubbing inquiry, entirely disappears. If we could know what causation really and transcendentally is in itself, the only use of the knowledge would be to help us to recognize an actual cause when we had one, and so to track the future course of operations more intelligently out. The mere abstract inquiry into causation's hidden nature is not more sublime than any other inquiry equally abstract. Causation inhabits no more sublime level than anything else. It lives, apparently, in the dirt of the world as well as in the absolute, or in man's unconquerable mind. The worth and interest of the world consists not in its elements, be these elements
(187) things, or be they the conjunctions of things; it exists rather in the dramatic outcome in the whole process, and in the meaning of the succession stages which the elements work out.
My colleague and master, Josiah Royce, in a page of his review of Stout's Analytic Psychology  has some fine words on this point with which I cordially agree. I cannot agree with his separating the notion of efficacy from that of activity altogether (this I understand to be one contention of his) for activities are efficacious whenever they are real activities at all. But the inner nature both of efficacy and of activity are superficial problems, I understand Royce to say; and the only point for us in solving them would be their possible use in helping us to solve the far deeper problem of the course and meaning of the world of life. Life, says our colleague, is full of significance, of meaning, of success and of defeat, of hoping and of striving, of longing, of desire, and of inner value. It is a total presence that embodies worth. To live our own lives better in
(188) this presence is the true reason why we wish to know the elements of things; so even we psychologists must end on this pragmatic note.
The urgent problems of activity are thus more concrete. They are all problems of the true relation of longer-span to shorter-span activities. When, for example, a number of 'ideas' (to use the name traditional in psychology) grow confluent in a larger field of consciousness, do the smaller activities still co-exist with the wider activities then experienced by the conscious subject? And, if so, do the wide activities accompany the narrow ones inertly, or do they exert control? Or do they perhaps utterly supplant and replace them and short-circuit their effects? Again, when a mental activity-process and a braincell series of activities both terminate in the same muscular movement, does the mental process steer the neural processes or not? Or, on the other hand, does it independently shortcircuit their effects? Such are the questions that we must begin with. But so far am I from suggesting any definitive answer to such ques-
(189) -tions, that I hardly yet can put them clearly. They lead, however, into that region of panpsychic and ontologic speculation of which Professors Bergson and Strong have lately enlarged the literature in so able and interesting a way. The results of these authors seem in many respects dissimilar, and I understand them as yet but imperfectly; but I cannot help suspecting that the direction of their work is very promising, and that they have the hunter's instinct for the fruitful trails.