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Symposia. Pragmatism and Psychologism

Anti-Psychologism and Neutrality

The Radical Empiricism of Husserl and James
Roberta Lanfredini


Both the phenomenology of Husserl and the pragmatist phenomenology of James can be categorized by the formula “radical empiricism,” which is explicit in James and implicit, but no less pervasive, in Husserl. For both of them, radical empiricism is additionally conjoined with an equally radical anti-psychologism. The problem is that the two terms “radical empiricism” and “anti-psychologism” take on a radically different meaning in the two authors. This essay aims to investigate the structural differences between two perspectives that, while following completely different courses, seem to share the same objective: to elaborate a philosophy which at no point moves away from the experiential plane.

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I. Anti-Psychologism and Anti-Realism in Husserl

  • 1 This is the solution that can be found in Mill 1965.

1As is well known, Husserl’s criticism of psychologism is unreserved. Psychologism, understood as a tendency to attribute any claim of rational validity to the structure of the human psyche, or to its biological and psychic base, confines logic entirely to psychology. Following psychologism’s reasoning to its extremes, we would have to acknowledge that the distinction between rational thought and judgement depends only on the psychic constitution which, de facto, characterises us. This means that if this constitution were different, we would have other forms of reasoning and would even perceive in another way than we do. In short, we would live in a different world. From such a perspective, justifying a logical principle means understanding mental processes which occur when it is thought: for example, the principle of contradiction would not express the condition of possibility of any true utterance, but a psychological impossibility. We cannot believe two contradictory things at the same time, simply because two opposed belief-acts cannot coexist in our mind.1 The cogency of the principle of non-contradiction would not therefore reside in a presumed absolute validity, but in a factual impossibility, due to a certain structure or mental constitution, of thinking otherwise. To the extent that it reduces the validity of concepts to the subject’s bio-psychic structure, psychologism is also inevitably subjectivism and relativism: to say that something is true in relation to a biological or psychic structure means admitting that this something could not be true for someone endowed with a different structure. In the end, psychologism is scepticism: if nothing exists but points of view determined by different de facto constitutions, there will be no objective point of view. Now, for Husserl, the basic error of psychologism is that of deducing logical principles from facts. Psychologism, as a form of scepticism, is not only false for Husserl, but absurd. In fact, it

makes the assertion: anything is true for a given species of judging beings that, by their constitution and laws of thought, must count as true. This doctrine is absurd. For it is part of its sense that the same proposition or content of judgment can be true for a subject of the species homo, but may be false for another subject of a differently constituted species. The same content of judgement cannot, however, be both true and false: this follows from the mere sense of “true” and “false.” If the relativist gives these words their appropriate meaning, his thesis is in conflict with its own sense. (Husserl 1899-1900a/1973: 79)

2So, psychologism misunderstands the very meaning of the term, “truth,” since this term does not allude to a subjective belief but to an objective validity. The rine iity int, in Husserl. For both of thityuants sombthes meaeattribng is true uth,” sypee thiexample folsition orefor Hu, just givenine isthist gin Hde2square, in H even e residd absolutecal e gsition oron of pudgnthier exselfst g not thereson oron of pudgnthitrue st :ss="f. In sate f psycHusue uth,iven r exself notgrantrent c of bH given validsensed under a Crg likecobe true fth,” sype may persp"Hus- erspalse );t, itsquare, ther( be true flikecmay real-v idalogicalse )of jude gsitiodifive: alktrua t structucal satecmay foralse foutecal is true um”: erspfmay fotabso alse ot may foralse perspest

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  • mber">1Berl ">

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    1 This is the solution that can be found in Mill 1965.

    2 And not bilateral, as in the case of extension and colour; it is in fact possible to have an experience without a thing, as in the case of feelings, or more generally of all non-intentional experiences.

    3 “The dualism connoted by such double-barrelled terms as ‘experience,’ ‘phenomenon,’ ‘datum,’ ‘Vorfindung’ – terms which, in philosophy at any rate, tend more and more to replace the single-barrelled terms of ‘thought’ and ‘thing’ – that dualism, I say, is still preserved in this account, but reinterpreted, so that, instead of being mysterious and elusive, it becomes verifiable and concrete” (James 1907/96: 8).

    4 “Experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition” (James 1907/96: 8).

    5 This idea is also present in Carnap 1921-26.

    6 An another meaning of neutrality is revealed in the thesis of the ontological parity between percepts and concepts, according to which we should not believe “that the merely thought-of object is hid away inside of the thinking. The object of which I think, and of whose existence I take cognizance without letting it now work upon my senses, occupies its definite place in the outer world as much as does the object which Idirectly” (James 1907/96: 11). Thus, for James as for Husserl, there is a clear distinction between thinking [Gedanke] and thought [Gedachtes]: “but even were they centaurs and golden mountains, they still would be ‘off there,’ in fairy land, and not ‘inside’ of ourselves” (James 1907/96: 11).

    7 “Here as elsewhere the relations are of course experienced relations, members of the same originally chaotic manifold of non-perceptual experience of which the related terms themselves are parts” (James 1907/96: 11n10). The topic of passing from chaos to structure is also present in Carnap and in Mach.

    8 In this sense, it therefore seems legitimate to contrast the genetic-motivational nexus with the causal nexus.

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    Electronic reference

    Roberta Lanfredini, « Anti-Psychologism and Neutrality », European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], IX-1 | 2017, Online since 22 July 2017, connection on 17 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ejpap.999

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    About the author

    Roberta Lanfredini

    Università degli Studi di Firenze

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    Licence Creative Commons
    Author retains copyright and grants the European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy right of first publication with the work simultaneously licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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