Could William James Have Proposed a Theory of Conversation?

Carl H. Flygt

April 2007


William James was intellectually active from the 1870s until his death in 1910. It is more or less inconceivable that a theory of conversation under free speech conditions could have been proposed and tested during that era, primarily because the philosophy of language had not yet been allowed 125 years to mature from Frege and Russell through Tarski and Davidson, Austin and Searle. Certain cultural and global factors are also at work today that conduce to the advancement of conversation theory, including the advent of consciousness as a field of hard science and the introduction of high and technical meditative traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism into Western society. This contemporary combination of factors, I think, makes or will make conversation per se into a live field of scientific and philosophical inquiry; I also think that William James can be consulted on the project, because in some fundamental ways the spirit of the proposal is his.


James is an anti-foundationalist thinker who describes reality as a pluriverse or multiverse, “ridden with chance and mishap and always denying any intellectual or conceptual closure” (McDermott, p. 144). “All classic, clean, cut and dried, ‘noble,’ fixed, ‘eternal’ Weltanschaaungen seem to me to violate the character with which life concretely comes, and the expression which it bears of being, or at least involving, a muddle and a struggle, with an ‘ever not quite’ to all our formulas, and novelty and possibility forever leaking in.” (McDermott pp. 144-145). This pragmatic realism about how things are with us and our powers should primarily inform the attitude of the person who seeks to find empirical verification, either for himself or for the community at large, of transcendental, spiritual phenomena under conditions of pure conversation. As I shall argue below, although hard social science is what is ultimately at stake in conversation theory, a hard social order is not something we in the present epoch should seek to establish in any broad sense.


For all his empirical pragmatism, James is an idealist of sorts, a thinker who takes the “inmost nature of reality” to be “congenial to (human) powers” of imagination and will, and in an important way to depend on them, but not in any final way. A “strenuous mood” thus permeates James’ life and thought, and that thought ranges from the “doctrine of the Promethean self,” to the pragmatism and pluralism noted above, to radical empiricism and the stream of thought, to the psychology of religious experience and psychism, to ethics and moral theory. Each of these, and the overarching spirit of idealism in them, is congenial to the spirit and the letter of conversation theory as I have proposed it, and each of these can be explored on James’ terms in order better to understand what is involved in the proposal.


In “The Sentiment of Rationality,” published in 1879, James writes, “No philosophy will permanently be deemed rational by all men which, in addition to meeting logical demands, does not to some degree pretend to determine expectancy, and in a still greater degree, make a direct appeal to all those powers of our nature which we hold in highest esteem” (McDermott, p. 147). No better expression of a philosophy of conversation could be found, for the following two reasons. Logical standards in conversational expression are sine qua non, and to the best extent we can manage, logical standards in framing conversation must be delineated and constantly improved. But over and above these, the highest powers of human nature must be expected of those who show an ultimate interest in conversation, aspiring both to transcendental experience and the objective verification of such experience. To be true, conversation must be made into an art of the sort to which we respond with the higher emotions of wonder, surprise and reverence, and ultimately trust and faith. But here, despite the idealism and all-pervading sense of what is true and good and beautiful in human nature, and its ultimate stewardship and control by us ourselves, as artists and scientists, James admonishes “it will be hopeless to look for literal agreement” (McDermott, p. 147). Paradoxical? Perhaps, but perhaps paradox is simply part of the process of bringing human experience into correspondence with reality.


In addition to highly refined aesthetic powers and sensibilities, real conversation requires highly refined moral powers. Because of is perspicuity, I have used the Kantian standard for the good will in framing my initial essay on the subject (Flygt, 2006). Because they are constituted by a good will, and by nothing else, speech and gesture in real conversation is universally acceptable. Universal acceptability is a stern master that stirs us individually to transcendental attitudes and transcendental efforts, attitudes and efforts that take us to the limits of what we know and understand about ourselves and the world, transforming us in the process into ideal spiritual beings. Certainly particular attitudes and the efforts may prove inadequate, inept or simply wrong in the crucible of conversation held to universally accepted standards. We may very possibly and very personally, in any particular instance, be out of step and out of keeping with the universal, transcendental mood of the conversation, and if we are, that fact will be noted and we will be corrected. But such self- and social consciousness, when exercised and elicited by a general good will, is more personally therapeutic and freeing than it is repressing and shaming, so the theory goes. Moreover, as James asserts in “The Will to Believe,” it is morally far better and more salutary for us as individuals to yield to our hope in truth than to our fear of error. Ideal conversation may be a stern moral taskmaster, but au fond, I think, when we try to apply it in reality, we won’t have it otherwise.


For conversation theory, truth is the great fulcrum, capable of rendering free conversation subject not only to refined aesthetic and moral control, but also to objective measures that conduce to put bodies and minds into a unitary physical space. This idea is anticipated by James in “A World of Pure Experience,” where he asks “whether, when you and I are said to know the ‘same’ Memorial Hall, our minds… terminate in a numerically identical percept” (Stuhr, p. 191) His answer is that they do not, because although they have space in common, they occupy differing perspectives within space. But what of conditions under which perspectives unite? Conversation theory, by describing a priori conditions framing illocutionary acts and moral attitudes, and by clarifying the use of truth conditions and conditions of satisfaction for intentional states generally, proposes to enable those spatial conditions to come into focus. For his part, James records the following thought on the subject:


In general terms, then, whatever differing contents our minds may eventually fill a place with, the place itself is a numerically identical content of the two minds, a piece of common property in which, through which, and over which they join. The receptacle of certain of our experiences being thus common, the experiences themselves might some day become common also. If that day ever did come, our thoughts would terminate in a complete empirical identity, there would be an end, so far as those experiences went, to our discussions about truth. No points of difference appearing, they would have to count as the same. (Stuhr, p. 192).


The nature of truth is a puzzle which conversation theory attempts to solve. On the one hand, truth has an august and singular status in religious and mystical history, meaning or appearing to mean something like “God” or “ultimate reality.” Christ promises, for example, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Modern logic, by way of contrast, views truth as a bivalent semantic property of sentences and propositions. Such entities are by nature either true or false, and in some sense refer to or correspond with those two possible values. For the sake of intrigue and argument, let us say that these two disparate senses of the term are likely to converge in some exalted future society where the truth values of people’s thoughts and utterances have direct causal effects in the outer world. Today those effects can only be indirect, as when an artist projects his idea onto a canvas. Under future conditions of enhanced moral and psychic ability, art will or may be a direct result of people’s states of being. The picture is analogous to the world of lucid dreaming, where novelty is the rule, but a certain amount of control is also exercised. For conversation theory, the key to that control will be truth, in both of the above senses.


Truth is generally thought by modern philosophers to be some sort of correspondence relation with reality. But what kind of correspondence relation? Surely sentences can sensibly be said to correspond with other sentences, but how on earth could a sentence correspond with something in the world? The two entities seem incommensurate a priori. Perhaps in spite of himself, James is helpful on this point. For James, there is a correspondence theory of truth, but the correspondence is in us, in our experience. “’Truth’ in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science. It means…that ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience” (Stuhr, p. 197). Because experience is unitary, these relations in ourselves, when they occur, can only be correspondences. The analogy which suggests itself is the one from molecular biology: cellular functions are generally carried out by molecules and organelles that fit together (correspond) like lock and key. Moreover, because we inhabit “a world in which experience and reality come to the same thing” (Stuhr, p. 186), moments of truth, when they occur in our experience, may be literal spatial or spatio-temporal fits between one part of our body and another.


The correspondence theory of truth, then, has to do with experience, and sentences and thoughts, as elements of experience, can only correspond with other sentences and thoughts, as elements of experience. The problem conversation theory tries to solve is how truth can be used to control spatial relationships that generally conduce to human satisfaction and eudemonia. For this reason, a causal theory is required. The theory of intentionality is a causal theory of mind based on conditions of satisfaction, direction of fit and state of consciousness, and conversation theory appropriates it wholesale. But in addition, conversation theory requires a biological and even a physical basis for language use under ideal conditions. The theory of conversation proposes that semantic correspondence occurs through waves and wave-functional inductions within and between biological organisms making use of semantic fields.


In 2005, the Journal of Consciousness Studies devoted an issue to the controversial hypothesis by the physiologist Rupert Sheldrake that a heretofore underdescribed biological field is responsible in a far more direct way than genes are for the development, growth, mental states and psychic sensitivity of biological organisms. Sheldrake’s hypothesis is simple, radical and testable, and he has spent perhaps the last twenty-five years running tests and publishing results that seem to confirm his theory. The basic idea is that all of life on earth has evolved under a special biological field or set of such fields. In living nature, there are biological fields active always and everywhere, within individuals, in social organisms such as bird flocks, in ecosystems such as jungles and redwood groves, in relationships between pets and pet owners and in human social situations. These fields are thought to be legion, causally efficient and to participate on a cosmic scale. They are probably involved in dreams, in psychic contact such as telepathy and in experience before birth and after death, if such experience in fact takes place.


Semantic fields, it is proposed by conversation theory, are Sheldrakeian morphogenetic fields active in propositional attitudes and actions. They are the forms of human experience, the “shape I am” (McDermott, p. 141-142) constituted by bodily sensations, continuously streaming, punctuated by novelty, sustained by placeholders and moorings, only existing insofar as they are conscious. They are our “affective grasp of relations” (McDermott, p. 149), our feeling of logical particles and predicates such as ‘if’ and ‘cold,’ and the cognitive dimension of our will (cf. McDermott, p. 143). They are the stream of thought, the sentiment of rationality and the world of pure experience. They are, in short, the endless and unrepeatable plurality and spatial form of our subjective experience and of reality itself, as it is sententially, self-consciously constituted by and for ourselves.


The problem of conversation, of course, is that because there is more than one of us, the human version of the world is generally conflicted. Semantic fields and waves may line up on occasion and produce significant and even transcendental experiences and accords, either within or between individuals, but there are exorbitantly many of them and they are each numerically unique, so that one despairs of ordering the chaos and thus making conversation , to say nothing of society, into something reliably coherent and perhaps aesthetically sublime. In addition, there is the momentous and terrible political question of who is to comb out the tangles, straighten the warped wood and give the moral law again. Certainly no demagogue like Adolf Hitler, appealing to a prejudiced, truamatized and obedient populace, would be desirable. Here the appeal can only be to the spiritual hunger and native intelligence of the individual, of all individuals sufficiently educated and freely engaged, and to a context of practice sufficiently coherent to engender an increased frequency of subjective and intersubjective miracles, of the revelations of truth in its grander and more mystical appearances. Objective measurements of its correlates, in addition, are probably also sine qua non.


Conversation theory represents a paradigmatic case of the Jamesian “forced option,” and for many, it is hoped, a “genuine option” (Stuhr, p. 230), a choice altogether living, forced and momentous. Rather than rationalizing a strenuous “will to believe” among individuals caught up in the 19th and early 20th century struggle for existence, conversation theory purports to rationalize a mild, all-pervading and inexorable “will to transcend” among 21st century individuals facing the possibility of a “technological singularity” in future history, in which human functions and values are generally supplanted by artificial intelligence and other social products. In a future world in which labor and intellectual capital alike begin to be displaced by vastly more efficient mechanisms descending from contemporary robotics, information technology and nanotech, the most significant social problems will have to do with leisure and cultural advancement, not with labor and capital. Some class of individuals, after all, will need to lead future society by example, and it will be to everyone’s advantage if these individuals are morally advanced, and not morally degenerate. Conversation theory anticipates a new form of collective, social intelligence and which makes use of knowledge of the spectrum of human consciousness, including purported facts about death and the cosmic sojourn between death and a new birth, facts massively acknowledged by the world’s religious traditions. Conversation theory thus purports to be the crucial and hence necessary response to the social pressures of future cultural evolution.


James’ radical empiricism, and likewise Dewey’s immediate empiricism, is the new method of conversation. Experience itself is now the real datum, and conversation is framed in such a way as to make those data universally observed and consensually adjudged. Certain individual freedoms, heretofore taken for granted in ordinary social intercourse, are now to be abjured in favor of something deeper, more social and more interesting, something ultimately able to confer greater freedom on individuals than earlier forms. That “something” is the relations within individual experience and between and among external experiences. As computer science and artificial intelligence have amply shown, relations can be treated formally and employed to great effect. For conversational empiricism, “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (Stuhr, p 182). A “real place” must be found for everything experienced in conversation, and it must be universally and reproducibly acknowledged as such. In this way, conversational empiricism “does full justice to conjunctive relations” (Stuhr, p. 182), and more likely than not, conversation in the future will have some of the characteristics of machine logic.


Taken as it appears, today’s world is to a large extent chaotic. Conversation theory seeks to counteract this chaos. “No one single type of connexion runs through all the experiences that compose (the world). Space relations…fail to connect minds into any regular system. Causes and purposes obtain only among special series of facts. The self-relation seems extremely limited, and does not link two different selves together…. Even so, my experiences and yours float and dangle, terminating, it is true, in a nucleus of common perception, but for the most part out of sight, irrelevant and unimaginable to one another. This imperfect intimacy, this bare relation of withness between some parts of the sum total of experience and other parts is the fact that ordinary empiricism over-emphasizes against rationalism, the latter always tending to ignore it unduly. Radical empiricism, on the contrary is fair both to the unity and the disconnexion. It finds no reason for treating either as illusory. It allots to each its definite sphere of description and agrees that there appear to be actual forces at work which tend, as time goes on, to make the unity greater” (Stuhr, p. 183). Conversation theory seeks likewise to make the unity greater by discovering explicit causes that can make it so.


The conjunctive relation “that has given the most trouble to philosophy” (Stuhr, p 183, emphasis added) is the co-conscious transition by which one experience passes into another when both belong to the same self. This transition presumably is the idiosyncratic sense of self-doubt and personal discomfort that affects everyone from time to time and more or less perpetually, especially when young and immature and in socialized situations where self-assertion and self-defense are more or less the order of the day. Sustained effort at meditation readily reveals the deep structure of what is being spoken of here. “Change” is the term James gives to these abrupt transitions in consciousness, but James chooses to interpret them as continuous and conjunctive, not as discontinuous, as Hume sees them. As radical empiricists, we must “hold fast to this relation” and “take it at face value” (Stuhr, p. 183), and not “confuse ourselves with abstract talk about it, involving words that drive us to invent secondary conceptions… that make our actual experience seem rationally possible” (Stuhr, p. 183). The paradigmatic example of such secondary conceptions is the idea of “representation” (Stuhr, p. 184), the abstraction that leads to mental internalism, rational transcendentalism and idealism.


For conversation theory, pure or ideal conversation is a sustained meditative state of consciousness in which contents and representations arise out of the transcendental necessities of each conversational moment. Conversation theory is an effort to enumerate and index the a priori rules that follow from the concept of pure conversation, and to produce a circumstance in which they can be applied with universal acceptability to any conversational moment.  When as a practical matter it proves necessary to refer to this rule book, and to use it to reach universal accord, the conversational moment is an instance of James’ transitional conjunctive relation, contiguous to be sure with the moment preceding it, but differing in some way to be determined from some other possible moment requiring no reference to the rule book and subject to universal but tacit acceptance. The actual structure of that transition is a matter of substantial empirical and theoretical interest, and can be studied with a number of techniques, including videotape, galvanic skin response, volitional and semantic analysis and subjective report. Study of this sort, and applying its spirit in less technical conversation would represent James’ “holding fast to this relation” and “taking it at face value,” and may in the long run prove to be the way to eliminate internalist, transcendentalist and idealist terminology from our language and our experience altogether.


Instead of an internalist and idealist language and experience, or its logical opposite, our society may prove capable, by applying conversation theory, of developing and managing a world of pure experience. I think it is more or less plain that such a world is a spiritual world, a world with different purposes and different laws from the material world. Certainly the management of a spiritual world is a step James could neither have contemplated nor proposed, but as I say above, I think he did so implicitly. It may be that, as McDermott argues, James “was not sufficiently sophisticated about the social conditioning that pervades our personal worldview” and that “a sense of the social context for individual versions of experience” (McDermott, p. 146) could only be explored in depth by successors such as Dewey, Meade, Marx, Dilthey and Mannheim. Certainly today we are far from being in a position to refine that social conditioning to the point that common individual experience begins directly to express a spiritual cosmic order, which presumably is there already waiting to be brought online. But such experience, because of its sense of freedom, is what people really want, so long as it is rationally congenial to them, and with the advent of conversation theory it is thinkable at least that a sensible and correct social conditioning of spiritual experience could be gradually engineered.


Still, we do well to keep in mind the pluralistic, anti-foundationalist premises of James’ philosophical psychology, and for the most part to allow ourselves to let social matters take the course determined by world development as it has unfolded historically. For example, the ongoing American initiative to democratize the Arab world in Iraq, although perhaps not altogether misconceived, has proved to be blunt, insensitive and short-sighted. World history is a complex and fearsome mechanism, and although there are clearly some laws at work in it such as human desires, human representations of truth conditions and human effects on the global environment, it is nothing we should want to attempt to control all at once, technologically, from the bottom up. Analogous with acupuncture on the human body, perhaps a small number of very subtle points of influence can be identified and safely stimulated, thereby bringing the overall system more clearly into balance. But acupuncture, one must imagine, was discovered by some spiritually adept individuals trying to solve some desperate problems in human health and vitality. Global culture is not yet a desperate situation, if one finds it tolerable to think, for example, that nine million human beings succumb to hunger every year or that rap music is voraciously consumed by the American public. The best bet, I think, is to discover what kind of spiritual order among free human beings lies potentially in the art of objective conversation, and to allow those spiritual effects to permeate the general culture with whatever wisdom and causal efficacy they may have.




Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. New York: Knopf, 2006.


Dewey, John. “Experience and Philosophic Method.” Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 460-471.


Dewey, John. “The Postulate of Immediate Experience.” Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 455-459.


Flygt, Carl H. Conversation – A New Theory of Language. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2006.


Flygt, Carl H. “How to do Conversation Research.” Available at


Garreau, Joel. Radical Evolution – The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Ourselves. New York: Doubleday, 2005.


James, William. “A World of Pure Experience.” Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 181-193.


James, William. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 203-215.


James, William. “The Sentiment of Rationality.” Quoted in “William James” by John J. McDermott, Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 140-151.


James, William. “The Stream of Thought.” Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 161-181.


James, William. “The Will to Believe.” Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 230-241.


James, William. “What Pragmatism Means”. Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 193-202.


McDermott, John J. “William James.” In Classical American Philosophy, John J. Stuhr, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp 140-151.


Searle, John R. “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts.” In Expression and Meaning, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Searle, John R. Intentionality – An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Sheldrake, Rupert. “The Sense of Being Stared At” with open peer review. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol 12 #6, 2005.


Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of EverythingBoston: Shambhala Publications, 2005.

Today there is a scholarly peer-reviewed journal now in its 14th year, published in the UK, called The Journal of Consciousness Studies, Imprint Academic, Exeter, Great Britain.

For evidence, one might investigate, for example, Shambhala Sun, 1660 Hollis Street, Suite 701, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3J 1V7, Canada.

James as a pragmatic idealist is asserted in McDermott, p. 147. The quoted phrases are from this part of McDermott’s text.

Mechanical control of objects in space is generally accomplished by leverage. The comparison of truth to levers, Archimedean or otherwise, may be more than metaphorical if thoughts prove to be real objects in space, as Dewey (e.g. “Experience and Philosophic Method”) seems to want them to be.

An illocutionary act is something that is done in using language. John Searle has proposed that there are only five illocutionary acts possible, regardless of the language used. These are assertion, self-commitment, directive, expression and declaration. See Searle, 2003.

For the theory of intentionality and intentional states, the standard reference is Searle, 2005.

See Searle, 2005.

A picture may be helpful. Two grandfather clocks with commensurate periods in their pendulums, placed in the same room, will fall into synchrony because wave energy is transmitted between them (through the floor and through the air). It seems altogether reasonable to suppose that an analogous transmission can occur between human bodies and minds in conversation, which are composed of a number of physical oscillators, including blood circulation, brain activity and mechanical energy in the joints.

I have proposed a program for making initial tests of collective intelligence under conditions of well-formed conversation in “How to do Conversation Research,” 2006.

Probably the best sketch of thinking on the technological singularity is Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution.

Ken Wilber makes a good case for a spectrum of consciousness in the human potential, much of which has never been explored on a consensual basis. See Wilber, 2005.

See Dewey, “The Postulate of Immediate Experience.”

See my “How to do Conversation Research.”

Transcendental necessity applies to relaxed conversation just as it does to ideal conversation, but in ideal conversation, the necessity is never glossed over. In ideal conversation, an effort is made to keep the logic of each conversational moment as explicit as possible.

See my “How to do Conversation Research,” 2006.

That is to say, of developing and managing specific states of consciousness and types of states of consciousness.

Purpose in a spiritual world would have to do with maintaining the unity of experience; law in a spiritual world would have to do with the universality of acceptable action.

See Imperial Life in the Emerald City.