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University of California Press
Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme / Edition 1

Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme / Edition 1

by Martin JayMartin Jay


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Few words in both everyday parlance and theoretical discourse have been as rhapsodically defended or as fervently resisted as "experience." Yet, to date, there have been no comprehensive studies of how the concept of experience has evolved over time and why so many thinkers in so many different traditions have been compelled to understand it. Songs of Experience is a remarkable history of Western ideas about the nature of human experience written by one of our best-known intellectual historians. With its sweeping historical reach and lucid comparative analysis—qualities that have made Martin Jay's previous books so distinctive and so successful—Songs of Experience explores Western discourse from the sixteenth century to the present, asking why the concept of experience has been such a magnet for controversy. Resisting any single overarching narrative, Jay discovers themes and patterns that transcend individuals and particular schools of thought and illuminate the entire spectrum of intellectual history.

As he explores the manifold contexts for understanding experience—epistemological, religious, aesthetic, political, and historical—Jay engages an exceptionally broad range of European and American traditions and thinkers from the American pragmatists and British Marxist humanists to the Frankfurt School and the French poststructuralists, and he delves into the thought of individual philosophers as well, including Montaigne, Bacon, Locke, Hume and Kant, Oakeshott, Collingwood, and Ankersmit. Provocative, engaging, erudite, this key work will be an essential source for anyone who joins the ongoing debate about the material, linguistic, cultural, and theoretical meaning of "experience" in modern cultures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520248236
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/10/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 441
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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Songs of Experience

Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme
By Martin Jay

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2005 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24823-6

Chapter One

The Trial of "Experience" From the Greeks to Montaigne and Bacon

"'Experience', of all the words in the philosophic vocabulary is the most difficult to manage;" warns Michael Oakeshott, "and it must be the ambition of every writer reckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains." Such an ambition, however, may be more typical of philosophers anxious to still the play of language and come to firm conclusions about what it purports to represent than of intellectual historians interested in the ambiguities themselves. Typically, the former employ one of two methods to reduce or eliminate polysemic uncertainty: either they legislate a privileged meaning and banish others to the margins (Oakeshott himself follows this model, explicitly stating that "I will begin, then, by indicating what I take it to denote"), or they seek a ground of authenticity in the word's putatively "original" meaning.

Such attempts to "manage" a word, in Oakeshott's telltale metaphor, are especially dangerous when it comes to "experience." For they impose a rigid andatemporal singularity on precisely what should be acknowledged as having had a varied and changing development-on what might provisionally be itself called a semantic experience. While admitting some limits to the infinite flexibility of any term, it would be unwise to decide in advance that certain meanings are proper and others not. The lessons of Ludwig Wittgenstein's stress on meaning as use and deconstruction's tolerance of catachresis suggest that when a word has had as long and complex a history as "experience," no justice can be done to its adventures by premature semantic closure.

Etymology, to be sure, need not always be in the service of stilling linguistic ambiguity. As Derek Attridge has noted, even questionable attempts to locate a word's origin-folk etymologies, as they are often called-can make us aware of the richness of a term's denotative and connotative history: "it depends on the way in which words we regularly encounter, and treat as solid, simple wholes (representing solid, simple concepts), can be made to break apart, melt into one another, reveal themselves as divided and lacking in self-identity, with no clear boundaries and no evident center." Without therefore pretending that we can recapture a true point of linguistic origin-Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, the favored ur-languages of much etymological inquiry, were, after all, themselves preceded by still earlier tongues-it will be helpful to cast a glance at the evidence of sedimented meanings that many singers of the "songs of experience" have themselves invoked.

The English word is understood to be derived most directly from the Latin experientia, which denoted "trial, proof, or experiment." The French experience and Italian esperienza still can signify a scientific experiment (when in the indefinite form). Insofar as "to try" (expereri) contains the same root as periculum, or "danger," there is also a covert association between experience and peril, which suggests that it comes from having survived risks and learned something from the encounter (ex meaning a coming forth from). Perhaps for this reason, it can also connote a worldliness that has left innocence behind by facing and surmounting the dangers and challenges that life may present.

The Greek antecedent to the Latin is empeiria, which also serves as the root for the English word "empirical." One of the Greek schools of medicine, which drew on observation rather than authority or theory, had, in fact, been called the Empiriki and was opposed to the competing factions known as the Dogmatiki and the Methodiki. Here a crucial link between experience and raw, unreflected sensation or unmediated observation (as opposed to reason, theory, or speculation) is already evident. So too is the association between experience as dealing more with specific than general matters, with particulars rather than universals. As such, it contributes to the belief, which we will encounter in certain usages, that experiences are personal and incommunicable, rather than collective and exchangeable.

Another Greek word, pathos, is sometimes included among the antecedents to the modern concept, even if the etymological link is absent. It basically means "something that happens" in the sense of what one suffers or endures. When experience suggests an experiment, its more active or practical dimensions are activated, but when it is linked to pathos, its passive moment-the acknowledgment that experiences can befall one without being sought or desired-comes to the fore. Here patience can become a virtue, and waiting for an encounter that one cannot force is understood as a source of experience.

In German, the equivalents of "experience" merit special attention and in fact have been widely remarked in the general literature on the subject outside of Germany. Erlebnis and Erfahrung are both translated by the one English word, but have come to imply very different notions of experience. In the writings of certain theorists keen on exploiting the distinction, such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Buber, and Walter Benjamin, one is often contrasted invidiously with the other (although, as we will see, not always with the same definition or evaluation). Erlebnis contains within it the root for life (Leben) and is sometimes translated as "lived experience." Although erleben is a transitive verb and implies an experience of something, Erlebnis is often taken to imply a primitive unity prior to any differentiation or objectification. Normally located in the "everyday world" (the Lebenswelt) of commonplace, untheorized practices, it can also suggest an intense and vital rupture in the fabric of quotidian routine. Although Leben can suggest the entirety of a life, Erlebnis generally connotes a more immediate, pre-reflective, and personal variant of experience than Erfahrung

The latter is sometimes associated with outer, sense impressions or with cognitive judgments about them (especially in the tradition associated with Immanuel Kant). But it also came to mean a more temporally elongated notion of experience based on a learning process, an integration of discrete moments of experience into a narrative whole or an adventure. This latter view, which is sometimes called a dialectical notion of experience, connotes a progressive, if not always smooth, movement over time, which is implied by the Fahrt (journey) embedded in Erfahrung and the linkage with the German word for danger (Gefahr). As such, it activates a link between memory and experience, which subtends the belief that cumulative experience can produce a kind of wisdom that comes only at the end of the day. Although by no means always the case, Erlebnis often suggests individual ineffability, whereas Erfahrung can have a more public, collective character. But we will see variants of each invoked in the opposite way.

If the etymological evidence suggests anything, it is that "experience" is a term rife with sedimented meanings that can be actualized for a variety of different purposes and juxtaposed to a range of putative antonyms. As the German case shows, two distinct and competing variants of what in English is one term are even possible. It enables both the lamentation, which we encountered in the introduction, that "experience" (in one of the senses of Erfahrung) is no longer possible and the apparently contradictory claim that we now live in a veritable "experience society" (Erlebnisgesellschaft). It allows us both to "appeal" to experience, as if it were always a thing in the past, and to "hunger" for it, as if it were something that one might enjoy in the future. It permits a distinction between the noun "experience" as something that one can be said to "have" or "to have learned from" and the verb "to experience" or the process of "experiencing," the latter suggesting what one is now "doing" or "feeling." 6 Because it can encompass what is being experienced as well as the subjective process of experiencing it, the word can sometimes function as an umbrella term to overcome the epistemological split between subject and object; the American pragmatists were especially fond of using it in this way. If one adds the possibility of frequently employed adjectival modifiers, such as "lived," "inner," and "genuine," it is easy to understand why the term has had so lively a history and continues to exercise such a hold on our imagination.

That history, it should be immediately emphasized, has not always been one of consistent celebration. In fact, in classical thought, it is frequently argued, what we now recognize as the antecedents of the term played a very modest, at times even negative, role. "In the Greek period," runs a typical account, "the notion did not exist much beyond the bare term empeiria, which occurs, for example, in the Metaphysics and Ethics of Aristotle as a kind of semantic seed for his commentators to develop. Perhaps following this lead, the notion of experience in the Latin period was confined to the action of the sensible thing making itself an object by its own action upon the organ of sense." The neglect or even denigration of experience in classical thought is often connected to the hierarchical bias of the rationalist tradition that elevates ideas, intellect, and purity of form over the messiness and uncertainty of everyday life.

Perhaps the most influential exponent of this characterization was the American philosopher John Dewey, who was anxious to ground his pragmatist alternative to idealist rationalism in a renewed respect for experience. According to Dewey, the classical denigration of experience prevailed until the seventeenth century and was based on contempt for the imperfections of mere opinion, as opposed to the certainties of science. Experience, reliant more on custom and habit than on rational explanations for the causes of things, was distrusted by Plato as an obstacle to true knowledge. He disliked it not because it was "subjective," a charge later leveled by modern defenders of a putatively "objective" science, but because it dealt with matters of chance and contingency. Experience meant for Plato and the tradition he engendered, so Dewey averred, "enslavement to the past, to custom. Experience was almost equivalent to established customs formed not by reason or under intelligent control but by repetition and blind rule of thumb." At the opposite end of the spectrum were the necessary truths of mathematics, which were eternally valid, whether derived from the experience of a fallible subject or not.

Although Aristotle modified his predecessor's hostility to empeiria and rejected a faith in intuitive rationality and deductive demonstration, even he saw a progress from mere sense impressions, driven as they were in large measure by appetite, through organized perceptions to a more rational form of cognition based on dispassionate science. The latter had to transcend the contingency of individual events and be true universally. If experience had a location for classical philosophy, as Dewey understood it, it was in the non-contemplative activities that were subsumed under the category of "practice." Whereas theory, as the etymology of the word theoria suggests, was understood to rely on a disinterested, spectatorial view of the world, practice was deemed insufficiently distant from the world in which it was immersed to produce reliable knowledge. Summarizing his argument, Dewey specified three flaws of experience for Greek philosophy:

There is the contrast of empirical knowledge (strictly speaking, of belief and opinion rather than knowledge) with science. There is the restricted and dependent nature of practice in contrast with the free character of rational thought. And there is the metaphysical basis for these two defects of experience: the fact that sense and bodily action are confined to the realm of phenomena while reason in its inherent nature is akin to ultimate reality. The threefold contrast thus implies a metaphysical depreciation of experience, an epistemological one, and, coloring both of the others and giving them their human value, a moral one: the difference in worth between activity that is limited to the body and to physical things, originating in need and serving temporal utilities, and that which soars to ideal and eternal values.

Although conceding that the Greeks were right to suspect the reliability of experience as they knew it-prior, that is, to the advent of experimental methods that could intersubjectively verify what had been experienced-Dewey claimed that the Greeks were wrong to pit reason against it as if the opposition were eternal and unbridgeable. Their fetish of universality, necessity, and abstraction meant that the classical philosophers had failed to understand the value of practical, if fallible, activity in the world, which Dewey set out to rescue.

Whether Dewey's own account of experience was itself fully successful is an issue we will try to address in a later chapter. Whether his characterization of the Greeks was itself valid has been called into question by a variety of commentators. They have raised four major objections: First, it has been demonstrated that Greek science, especially such fields as medicine, optics, and acoustics, was not as a priori and hostile to empirical observation and even calculated experimentation as Dewey assumed. Filtered through later accounts by critics such as the Skeptics and early Christians, Greek science had been mischaracterized as based entirely on dubious thought-experiments, on syllogistic deductions, rather than on the sense-based results of empeiria. The same prejudice informed Francis Bacon's influential remarks on the subject, which were motivated in part by his hostility to the still potent effects of Aristotelian Scholasticism. But more recent research, combined with a dissolution of the rigid distinction between theory and empirical observation, has shown how problematic such sweeping generalizations really are.

Second, it has been noted that literary evidence suggests a considerable popular reservation about the wisdom of purely "theoretical" man. Despite Plato's attempt to banish it from the state, the legacy of the Homeric epic-and has there ever been as vivid a depiction of the perilous Fahrt in Erfahrung as the Odyssey?-was never entirely forgotten. In the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes, the tradition of anti-empirical idealism identified by Dewey with Greek thought tout court was subjected to withering satire. Plato's notorious hostility to theatrical representation was earned in part by the resistance, presented on the stage, to his celebration of rational speculation.

Third, it has been argued that however much the mainstream philosophical tradition may have privileged the vita contemplativa, in the daily life of the Greek citizen in the democratic polis, the vita activa was given its due. In direct opposition to Plato's authoritarian republic run by philosopher-kings, the Athens of Pericles was a locus of political practice in which deeds and words rather than pure ideas were paramount. Political life was itself akin to theater in its performative affirmation of heroism in the presence of an appreciative audience, an audience capable of turning deeds into narratives to be shared with future generations. The value of what the Greeks called phronesis, or practical wisdom, also meant that pure speculation was not the only valid mode of knowledge. It combined, a recent commentator has noted, "the generality of reflection on principles with the particularity of perception into a given situation. It is distinguished from theoretical knowledge (episteme) in that it is concerned, not with something universal and eternally the same, but with something particular and changeable. It requires experience as well as knowledge."

Finally, the value of experience within Greek philosophy itself has become more widely appreciated since the time of Dewey. In part this has meant acknowledging, as one recent observer has put it, that "philosophically, the notion of experience traces to Greek thought, especially to Aristotle." Although Aristotle's final remarks in book 6 of his Nicomachean Ethics do denigrate phronesis in favor of theoria, elsewhere he notes that "the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced, old, and sagacious people deserve as much attention as those they support by proofs, for they grasp principles through experience." Aristotle's brief, but seminal discussions of the scientific dependency on empeiria in the Metaphysics and Posterior Analytics recognize its links with memory and particularity, even if Aristotle himself was ultimately unable to break entirely with what has been called the "aristocratic" bias for universals and demonstrative logic inherited from Plato.


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