William James’ psychology, radical empiricism, and field theory: recent developments


  • Harry Heft Denison University




William James, radical empiricism, field theory, field of experience, ecological psychology,


William James is celebrated as a founder of American psychology, and his book The Principles of Psychology (1890) is regularly cited as the seminal text in launching experimental psychology in the United States. However, it is a mistake to take this book as James’ final statement on psychology. Shortly after its publication, James abandoned its provisional dualism and formulated a psychology that begins inquiry with a field of immediate experience that is neither objective nor subjective. This shift in his thinking results in his philosophy of radical empiricism which takes the immediacy of a knower-known relational field as primary, and embraces the view that knowing is fundamentally a process of direct engagement with the surround. James’ radical empiricism remains unfamiliar to most contemporary psychologists because attention to it has been deflected by much of the secondary literature. In the hands of the latter, James is often read from the perspective of the very meta-theory that he rejected, and the field theoretic, radical empiricist framework that shapes his later psychology is missed. Two criticisms of radical empiricism during James’ day are examined, James’ initial responses to those critics are considered, and those responses are expanded in light of recent contributions in ecological psychology.

Author Biography

Harry Heft, Denison University

Professor of Psychology