In the decade of the 1880’s two daringly original thinkers, working on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, both recognized that reality was built upon a foundation of pure experience.
One was William James who spent all ten years of that decade completing his master work The Principles of Psychology that was published in 1890. The other was the younger Rudolf Steiner who completed his doctoral thesis entitled A Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception in 1886.
Steiner and James recognized that the world presents itself in a succession of pure experiences. These experiences cannot be qualified in any way. Each is simply a pure impression that is made upon us. Reality appears to us first as an unqualified multitude of original impressions that cannot be compared or ordered in anyway. In the following passage Steiner describes the reality of pure experience in words that could just as easily have been written by William James.
Let us now take a look at pure experience. What does it contain, as it sweeps across our consciousness, without our working upon it in thinking? It is mere juxtaposition in space and succession in time; an aggregate of utterly disconnected particulars. None of the objects that come and go there has anything to do with any other. At this stage, the facts that we perceive, that we experience inwardly, are of no consequence to each other. This world is a manifoldness of things of equal value. No thing or event can claim to play a greater role in the functioning of the world than any other part of the world of experience. If it is to become clear to us that this or that fact has greater significance than another one, we must then not merely observe the things, but must already bring them into thought-relationships.
In order for these pure experiences to take on any qualities or relationships whatsoever a second element must act upon them. That element is thought or reason. It is the process of thought that attributes qualities to pure experiences and relates some experiences to others to build an understanding of the world.
Neither Steiner nor James believed that thinking was something that people did. Thinking is a process that emerges spontaneously out of the field of consciousness that orders, arranges and qualifies our experience. The process of thought proceeds not through our conscious direction, but in accordance with what Steiner refers to as organic laws of interconnection. These laws are part of the world of thought itself and not completely within our control. Pure experience presents itself in a spontaneously emerging stream and thoughts grow out of that experience making it distinguishable to us and situating it in relationship to the rest of experience. The process of thinking is not a human activity. Thoughts emerge out of pure experience the way grass appears out of the ground. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a similar sentiment when he called language a second nature that grows out of the first like a leaf grows out of a tree.