views updated May 14 2018


As the average person understands the term experience, it means no more than familiarity with some matter of practical concern, based on repeated past acquaintance or performance. The experienced doctor or soldier knows his trade, not by the book merely, but by long practice under a variety of circumstances. The older philosophical meaning of the word differs but little from this, denoting as it does the capacity to do something, learned in the habit of doing it and guided rather by rule-of-thumb precept than by theoretical understanding (cf. the well-known passage in Aristotle, Posterior Analytics II, 19). It is in this fashionby retention of individual memories and their gradual hardening into principlethat the craftsman acquires his skill, the scientist his knowledge, and the practical man his wisdom. But (save in the last case, perhaps) it represents at best only a stage on the way to real understanding in terms of universals and is thus by most ancient writers despised as a makeshift and uncertain form of knowledge. The mere empiric cuts, and continues to cut, a poor figure even into the modern period, though by that time associated, rather (as in Francis Bacon), with the trial-and-error experimenter in alchemy or medicine who endeavors by persistence alone to filch Nature's secrets without first gaining insight into its laws. The preference for rational certainty over mere empirical generalization is in fact endemic among philosophers and can be seen not merely in avowed rationalists (such as René Descartes), but also, for example, in those whose uneasiness over the principle of induction has led them to seek ways of validating it as the major premise for a quasi-deductive treatment of science.

The experience from which the empiric draws his conjectures is, of course, the homely and substantial experience of a world of public objects, which forms for all sane and unreflective persons the basis of ordinary life. It has been regularly insisted, however, since the earliest times, that experience in this sense is nothing ultimate: the alleged paradoxes of motion and change and the more familiar facts of perceptual error and illusion are enough (it is thought) to show that it cannot be straightforwardly identified with the real. Hence, in addition to the rejection of habit-learning as a road to knowledge, there arises that further prejudice against the deliverances of the senses and in favor of necessary reasoning from first principles, of which the Parmenidean distinction between the "ways" of truth and opinion is an early and famous example.

The "Given"

The uncertainty of sense experience leads, by this route, to a further important conclusion. Since perceptual illusion and mistake seem essentially to be the fault of the observer, he must himself contribute something to his experience by way of inference, interpretation, or construction. Experience must, in part at least, be the work of the mind. For all that, the individual certainly does not create or invent his experience and in certain respects is powerless to alter it at will, it seems, therefore, equally undeniable that some part of it is simply "given" and is only thereafter subject to adulteration by its recipient. This given is generally referred to as the object of "bare" or "immediate" experience, in contrast to the more "solid" or developed experience of which it is held to be an essential ingredient. The legitimacy of the contrast is seldom, indeed, disputed, for though immediate experience has often been denounced as a myth, the usual motive for doing so has been to stigmatize it as a mere abstraction got by analysis and not something that could occur, psychologically, by itself. All experience, on this view, involves interpretation, and it is thus senseless to suppose any unvarnished, direct acquaintance with the given. But since it would be equally senseless to suppose an interpretation with nothing to interpret, it is commonly admitted that an "epistemic" given must nonetheless be present in experience, though impossible to view independently, since this would ipso facto be to construe it in some fashion under the auspices of thought.

For writers who accept either a psychological or an epistemic given, a number of problems arise. What does it consist of? What marks or features does it exhibit? How is it related to the everyday experience built upon it? And how, once the latter has been derived, is it possible to proceed from there to the realities that presumably underlie, occasion, and explain the whole? The last is essentially a metaphysical question, but the remainder (to which we here confine ourselves) are staple topics of epistemological dispute.

As to the content of immediate experience, there are characteristic differences of opinion. At one extreme lie the theories of direct realism, whose claim is that material objects are immediately given, so that no real difference arises between naked and clothed experience, sensation and perception, or for that matter appearance and reality; apart from perceptual error there is thus no "problem of knowledge" at all. At the opposite pole are the theories of William James and F. H. Bradley, for whom immediate experience presents only an undifferentiated mass of feeling or sensation in which nothing is discriminated or related and in which even the contrast between subject and object has not begun to appear. Of this "blooming, buzzing confusion" (in James's well-known phrase), it is obvious that nothing can be said, even to distinguish its modes. Ex hypothesi, it is merely the residue left after elimination of all processes involving association, memory, judgment, thought, and language; it is free from error because it says nothing; but as such, however indispensable, it has little to contribute to knowledge.

Writers in the empiricist tradition, less anxious to make knowledge the sole work of the mind, have been correspondingly averse to such unstructured versions of the experiential given, though the argument from illusion has equally deterred the majority from claiming direct acquaintance with a world of things. For most of them the given includes at least simple sense-qualities of color, taste, sound, and so on, together with organic sensations, feelings, and images, it being generally assumed that these are presented individually and even as "atomic" cognitive units (impressions, ideas, sense data, etc.) to a consciousness distinct from themselves. Beyond this, however, there is little agreement. Some have asserted, while others have denied, that spatial, temporal, causal, or other relations are given in this fashion. Some have been prepared to admit associative or sign material as part of the given; others have not. Visual impressions, for example, have been held (most notably by George Berkeley) to be initially two-dimensional; but in other writers (for example, H. H. Price) the claim is that they are presented in, or as having, depth. Images, memory impressions, and feelings have all been ascribed to the given, but again it is disputed as to whether all images belong in this category or only those of simple qualities (as with impressions of sense). There is similar contention as to whether the "pastness" of the memory image is intrinsic to it or imputed on the strength of some other feature, and whether, in general, the "inner" and "outer" character of feelings and images, on the one hand, and sense impressions on the other, are marks of the data themselves, or a construction imposed upon them.

Criteria of "Givenness"

The foregoing differences and others like them are not, as they seem, due to want of regard for the facts, nor would closer attention suffice to dispel them. They arise from a failure in agreement as to the formal characteristics of "givenness" itself, and hence as to the criteria for its identification. What are these criteria? The commonest answers seem to be that the given is private; that it is adventitious (in Descartes's sense); that it is simple, as involving no element of thought or inference; and that it is incorrigible. Too often these tests are also assumed to coincide in yielding the same result or to be sufficient rather than necessary conditions for givenness. Many of the historic uncertainties surrounding the description of the given would appear to have arisen in this way.

Privacy, for example, is inconsistent with simplicity, inasmuch as every variety of thought and feeling, imagery, or sensory seeming is necessarily private, however obvious it may be that it belongs to a sophisticated rather than a primitive level of consciousness. Adventitiousness, as a criterion, would similarly include within the given all phenomena not under the subject's voluntary control, including the appearance and causal behavior of objects, but excluding some part of his thoughts and feelingsthough how much it seems impossible to say. In both cases the given seems too generously defined to serve as a foundation for knowledge. If the given is limited to experience uncontaminated by "inference," the difficulty is to know what counts as such and hence where analysis is to stop. Even the lowliest amoeba can react to sensory cues and so "transcend the given," but who is to say if it thinks or not?

The psychological given, on this showing, may well be accounted a myth. The epistemological arguments, however, are harder to put aside. Their main support has been the belief that the data they point to represent the only foundations for knowledge that could be called certain or incorrigible. The judgments of perceptual experience, concerning the existence, properties, and relations of objects, are all (it is said) subject to error, and so open to correction. But reports of what seems merely, of the presence of sense qualities to consciousness, make no such claim about real existence and so run no risk of mistake. The "sense datum" theories popular from 1900 onward, like their eighteenth-century predecessors, attempted to erect on this basis a theory of knowledge more stable and concrete than that underwritten by the necessary truths of rationalism. Their vogue has declined, however, and that for two reasons. On the one hand it has been argued that no sense datum statement, however guarded, can fail (if it says anything at all) to make some conceptual commitment that might later call for retraction; and on the other, that a great many factual statements are quite as certain as those they are alleged to depend on. Given a sufficiently straightforward case of perceptual contact with an object, there is no ground for treating it as a judgment based on the "evidence" of sense data, since it is beyond the power of any future evidence to enforce its withdrawal. It is as certain as anything could be, and nothing is gained, therefore, by an appeal to supposedly more primitive certainties to provide it with support.

Ordinary Experience

The above argument is not beyond question, but it illustrates the difficulties not merely of characterizing the sensory given but even of securing agreement as to its existence. It is more profitable, perhaps, to turn for a moment to those writers who, having accepted a given of some sort from the outset, have occupied themselves with the second stage of the problem, namely, the manner in which this given is elaborated into the fullness of ordinary experience. Here the issue lies chiefly between those who maintain (with John Locke, and still more, with Étienne Bonnot de Condillac) that the concepts employed in the construction of developed experience are themselves derived (by abstraction, association, composition, or induction) from immediate experience, and those who argue (as do all rationalists) that this elaboration depends on principles contributed by the mind a priori, and not first learned from experience itself. The rationalist does not thereby deny the fact of immediate experience any more than does the empiricist. His claim, rather, is that this experience does not make itself intelligible by any natural process and that it is only the logical activity of the mind that brings order and coherence into the result.

The most celebrated statement of this position is doubtless that of Immanuel Kant, for whom the "manifold" of sensory intuition, though spatiotemporally ordered insofar as it is presented at all, is unified into a world of empirical objects only insofar as it is brought under the a priori rules, or categories, of the understanding. Experience in the full sense is thus a synthesis, part given and part made, though in some of Kant's idealist successors the creative aspect is so far emphasized at the expense of the given as to tend toward that extreme of rationalism in which the world of experience is construed as an exclusively mental product, with no element of "brute fact" in it at all. For the modern "logical empiricist" the position is, in effect, reversed, his typical doctrine being (as already noticed) that the content of all empirical propositions can be reduced without remainder to "protocols" recording actual or possible fragments of immediate experience.

But the attempt to reconstitute ordinary experience out of a mixture of sense data and formal logic, though long and ably sustained, has met in the end with little more success than the search for certainty that led to the introduction of these data in the first place. Recent work on the subject has shown signs of impatience with this starting point and seeks to discredit it by attacking the whole distinction between sensation and perceptionthe two-level theory of experienceand the argument from illusion on which that distinction so largely depends. Whether this rejection of the traditional premises of the problem offers any hope of solving (or dissolving) it is a question that time alone can answer. If experience teaches anything, it is that success is unlikely; but then, even in philosophy (or so philosophy tells us), experience is not always or necessarily a reliable guide.

See also Aesthetic Experience; A Priori and A Posteriori; Aristotle; Bacon, Francis; Berkeley, George; Bradley, Francis Herbert; Consciousness; Descartes, René; Empiricism; Induction; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Perception; Religious Experience; Sensa.


The literature on this subject is endless. The following is a list of representative works by Anglo-American authors, published in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Audi, Robert. "Experience and Inference in the Grounding of Theoretical and Practical Reasons: Replies to Professors Fumerton, Marras, and Sinnott-Armstrong." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67 (1) (2003): 202221.

Austin, J. L. Sense and Sensibilia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Ayer, A. J. Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. London: Macmillan, 1940.

Ayer, A. J. Problem of Knowledge. London: Macmillan, 1956.

Bonevac, Daniel. "Sellars vs. the Given." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64 (2002): 130.

Brewer, Bill. Perception and Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.

Chisholm, Roderick. "The Problem of the Speckled Hen." Mind 51 (1942): 368373.

Crane, T., ed. The Contents of Experience. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hamlyn, D. W. Sensation and Perception. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1961. A history of the problem.

Hirst, R. J. The Problems of Perception. London: Allen and Unwin, 1959.

Jackson, Frank. Perception: A Representative Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Lewis, C. I. Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1946.

Lewis, C. I. "The Given Element in Empirical Knowledge." Philosophical Review 61 (1952): 168175.

Lewis, C. I. Mind and the World-Order. New York: Scribners, 1929.

Moore, G. E. Philosophical Studies. London: Routledge, 1922.

Moore, G. E. Some Main Problems of Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1953.

Moser, Paul. "The Given in Epistemology." Communication and Cognition 18 (1985): 249262.

Pasch, A. Experience and the Analytic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Price, H. H. Perception. London: Methuen, 1932.

Price, H. H. Thinking and Experience. London: Hutchinson, 1953.

Russell, B. A. W. Our Knowledge of the External World. Chicago: Open Court, 1914.

Ryle, G. Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.

Sellars, Wilfrid. The Metaphysics of Epistemology. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Press, 1989.

Sosa, Ernest. "Mythology of the Given." History of Philosophy Quarterly 14 (1997): 275286.

Stace, W. T. Theory of Knowledge and Existence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932.

Walsh, W. H. Reason and Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947.

Williams, Michael. "Are There Two Grades of Knowledge? Mythology of the Given: Sosa, Sellars, and the Task of Epistemology." PAS, Supp. 77 (2003): 91112.

Yolton, J. W. Thinking and Perceiving. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1962.

P. L. Heath (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018


"Experience," from Essays: Second Series (1844), is the defining statement of the transitional phase in the career of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), flanked on one side by the exorbitant hopefulness of his high transcendentalist period and on the other by the worldly pragmatism of his later years. The title itself is resonant. In his preface to The American (1877), Henry James characterizes "the real" as "the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another." Emerson's "experience" is similarly what the act of living impresses upon us regardless of the innocence or idealism we begin with and the reluctance of the aspiring self to acknowledge defeat or limitation. "I am not the novice I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago" (p. 491), Emerson confesses late in the essay, distancing himself from Nature (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), and "Self-Reliance" (published in Essays in 1841 but incorporating journal entries dating back to the early 1830s), yet also inviting comparison to those and other early writings.

Stephen E. Whicher aptly calls "Experience" "an Interim Report on an Experiment in Self-Reliance" (p. 111). "Where do we find ourselves?" the essay begins (p. 471). Although "Experience" is Emerson's most intimate and candid essay—"I have set my heart on honesty in this chapter" (p. 483), he proclaims as if his other writings had been less than wholly honest—its "I" is a representative figure whose frustrations and doubts are meant to illustrate the radical disjunction between ideal and fact, thought and practical power, and the Soul and its psychic complement, the naturalistic self. Emerson still conceives life as an endless journey—"We wake and find ourselves on a stair: there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight" (p. 471)—but the spiritual upward mobility of "Circles," published only three years earlier, has been replaced by bewilderment and a sense of incapacity. The prophet who formerly urged his audiences to awaken now finds that "sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes" (p. 471). In "The Oversoul" (1841) Emerson had figured spiritual power as an upwelling of the "flowing river" of life within the Soul (p. 385). "Experience" returns to the image in tragic counterpoint: "We are like millers on the lower levels of a steam, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams" (p. 471).

Emerson's testament to depletion differs from two familiar Romantic analogues, William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" (1807), which concerns the loss of visionary power that comes with maturity and socialization, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" (1802), whose subject is psychic depression. Emerson did not believe that the Soul was, or should be, any less accessible to the adult than to the child or that the periodicity of moods, whose tyranny he openly conceded, would eventuate in a chronic diminution of spiritual energy. "Experience" is a confession of disillusion, though its theme of thwarted idealism, of standing at the brink of an empowerment that eludes more than fitful possession, is anticipated by passages in "The Transcendentalist" (1841) and by the prophetic "First Philosophy" journal entry of 1835. "Experience" is not so much a new direction in Emerson's thought as the announcement of a revisionary shift in proportion and tone. Doubts that had always been lurking are openly avowed; vetoes upon transcendentalism's "Saturnalia or excess of Faith" (p. 198) are soberly given their full due.

Some have argued that the death from scarlet fever of Emerson's five-year-old son Waldo in January 1842 contributed heavily to Emerson's chastened mood. Emerson makes use of Waldo's death early in "Experience" to suggest the dreamlike quality that haunts even the most catastrophic life events. We are stoics perforce, by some horrible decree of fate, Emerson implies in ironic reversal of the benign invulnerability to "disgrace" and "calamity" he had claimed in Nature. Waldo's death affected Emerson more than he acknowledged, but no less important to his thought were two other private developments that "Experience" openly, if impersonally, addresses: Emerson's disappointment with the succession of promising disciples—Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and the poet William Ellery Channing (1818–1901) among them—who seemed constitutionally doomed to underachievement ("We see young men who owe us a new world . . . , but they never acquit the debt," p. 474) and his frustrations concerning his personal relationships, especially with Margaret Fuller and her friend Caroline Sturgis, which he generalizes into the propositional "Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point" (p. 488).

The year-by-year deferral of the prophesied cultural revolution also eroded Emerson's faith and gave a historical aspect to the drift toward skepticism announced in his lecture series "The Times," delivered in the winter of 1841–1842, in which he conceded the element of truth in the Conservative's case for the fallenness of man and the inertia of social institutions, and in which he deplored his own "double consciousness" ("The Transcendentalist," p. 205), the perpetual bifurcation between the life of the understanding and the life of the Soul. "Experience" develops and causally interrelates these two ideas; it looks at the world from the standpoint of the Conservative's social and metaphysical realpolitik, then, in visceral reaction, labors to reaffirm the claims of free intellect. It is Emerson's mid-career effort to take stock of himself and the world and, so far as he can, to reconstitute faith upon, or at least in full cognizance of, the bedrock of stern, unmalleable fact.


Emerson's essays, reputed to lack form, characteristically make their own form. "Experience" begins with a poetic epigraph about the "lords of life" (p. 469), which Emerson returns to enumerate late in the essay: "Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectiveness" (p. 490). After its opening paragraph "Experience" organizes itself into sections centered around these metaphoric gods of limitation. The primary voice is that of worldly sagacity surveying life as it presents itself when the Soul is in abeyance and internal and external necessity hold sway, though "primary" by no means implies "authoritative" or "final." Writing of temperament, Emerson recasts Nature's image of the "transparent eye-ball" (p. 10) as "a string of beads" whose "many-colored lenses . . . paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus" (p. 473). This recognition of chronic subjectivity is what Emerson later calls "the Fall of Man" (p. 487). Mystic vision, oneness with the All, and the Soul's apprehension of absolute Truth have yielded to a "system of illusions" that confine us within "a prison of glass which we cannot see" and from whose distortions we can seldom, and even then only partially, escape (p. 474).

As the intertextual metaphor of seeing suggests, "Experience" is in dialogue with Emerson's earlier writings, but it is a dialogue of imagination and feeling conducted primarily within established categories of thought. Indeed no essay of Emerson's better illustrates Joel Porte's contention that Emerson "is fundamentally a poet whose meaning lies in his manipulations of language and figure" (p. 94) and whose changes in thought are most dramatically signified by changes of imagery. In "Spiritual Laws" (1841), for example, Emerson had represented an individual's special "calling in his character" through the figure of "a ship in a river" that "runs against obstructions on every side but one," on which "all obstruction is taken away, and he sweeps serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea" (p. 310). In "Experience" the thought reappears, but Emerson's claims have been drastically reduced: "A man is like a bit of Labrador spar, which has no lustre as you turn it in your hand, until you come to a particular angle; then it shows deep and beautiful colors" (p. 477). Success in life, formerly a cultivation of the particular bent of one's genius, has become sleight of hand, a trick of "adroitly" positioning oneself so as to keep one's gift most often to the light. It is not the propositional content of Emerson's idea that has changed (human beings have one unique ability) so much as its affective content. The infinite has become finite—the organizing idea of the section is "Surface"—and what in "Spiritual Laws" had been a cause for celebration ("There is one direction in which all space is open to [a man]," p. 310) now appears an occasion for lament ("There is no power of expansion in men," p. 477).

In the section on temperament—structurally and tonally a microcosm of the essay—Emerson traces the logic of biological determinism to the point where it calls into question the origin and nature of "the religious sentiment" (p. 474) and seems to condemn human beings to a "sty of sensualism." This is one side of the case, and Emerson concedes that, "on its own level, or in view of nature, temperament is final" (p. 476). But nature—the realm of material causes and effects as grasped by the Understanding—is not the only reality, Emerson argues, and though the Soul may be dormant for long stretches of time, its moments of presence have an authority that overrides the necessitarianism of science and reenthrones Mind, if only temporarily, as the sovereign power in human affairs.

This rhythm of bleak concession, philosophical bottoming out, and urgently affirmative counterstatement governs the structure of "Experience." In the section on surface, the philosophical nadir of the essay, Emerson assumes the weary, illusionless voice of the skeptic, professing (with utter implausiblity) to expect nothing of life and therefore to be thankful for "moderate goods" (p. 480). In truth no one ever expected more of life or was constitutionally less capable of abridging his demand for the ideal. The fact that rankles Emerson, against his early belief, is that nature—"no saint" (p. 481)—seems to honor power and fecundity more than what Mind intuits as the moral law. A chastened Emerson seems ready to accept this lesson and abide within "the kingdom of known cause and effect"; but then in the section on surprise the Soul "with its angel-whispering" (p. 482) temporarily returns, routing the settled wisdom of the Understanding and alluring the self with a prospect of redeemed seeing and being that will never be steadfastly realized. The only incontestable reality, Emerson concludes from the ebbs and flows of vision, is the doubleness of experienced reality, now exalted, now (for ever longer periods) discouragingly mean, the difference depending not on any virtue or behavior subject to human volition but, like the Calvinist's grace, on "more or less of vital force supplied from the Eternal" (p. 483).

The balance of "Experience" is largely Emerson's attempt to prophesy, even if he cannot substantively imagine, a "new statement" (p. 487) that will incorporate both skepticism and belief and constitute a viable creed for a post-Christian (and now a post-transcendental) age. Emerson's sense of spiritual interregnum recalls that of Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) in Sartor Resartus (1836) a decade earlier, but where Carlyle had leaped to a blustery, indeterminate faith, Emerson is resolute in "hold[ing] hard to this poverty, however scandalous" (p. 490), and using it as the base for renewed ventures into truth. After the philosophical Idealism of his earlier writing, in which consciousness was the primary reality and social institutions its epiphenomenal result, it must have cost Emerson dearly to acknowledge that "the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think" and that not much has been "gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought" (pp. 491–492). The challenge he girds himself to face ("Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!") is to bring these disparate worlds into congruence and (throwing off all drowsiness) to abet "the true romance which the world exists to realize"—"the transformation of genius into practical power" (p. 492).


It is noteworthy that 1844, the year of "Experience," was also the year of "The Young American," Emerson's détente with capitalism, and "Emancipation in the British West Indies," his impassioned, if belated attack upon slavery. Sensitive always to the signs of the times, Emerson felt that great persons must apprehend and align themselves with historical forces, seeing beyond their immediate manifestations to their teleological direction. In its acknowledgment that nature's "darlings, the great, the strong, the beautiful, are not children of our law" (p. 481), "Experience" would seem to imply moral and political quietism, if not outright despair. However Emerson's diminished expectations apply chiefly to the prospects of the individual, whose life is now seen as invariably stunted and incomplete, and to the short-term conformity of events to human ethics. Emerson never doubts the immanence and ultimate beneficence of universal Law, indifferent as it seems to himself or to any private person.

Indeed even as he voices his disenchantments Emerson is feeling his way toward a new belief founded on the replacement of the individual by society and of millennialism by a faith in gradual amelioration. Though the individual is always defeated, the species may at least be sure of measurable, if sometimes pitilessly sacrificial progress. Nature is now understood to operate by what in "The Young American" Emerson calls "a cruel kindness" (p. 218). "It will only save what is worth saving," he adds in the Emancipation address, "and it saves not by compassion, but by power" (p. 117). In 1844 power seemed tilting in the direction of abolition; the historical moment had arrived; and the Negro race had proved itself "worth saving" by showing that, "more than any other," it was "susceptible of rapid civilization" (p. 116). The Irish laborers building American railroads were not so fortunate. Emerson grants the wrongs done them, but he sees the Irish as temporary casualties of a laissez-faire capitalism that, for better or worse—in "Man the Reformer" (1841) it had emphatically been for worse—seems the appointed means for advancing humanity during this particular phase of its development. The short-term consolation is that the children of the Irish will have the benefits of American schools and American opportunity; the long-term consolation is that capitalism itself is destined to evolve peacefully into a "benefi-cent socialism" (p. 222). Already in 1844, even as Emerson is cataloging the impoverishments of personal and collective experience, he is beginning, as he would say in "Fate" (1860), "to rally on his relation to the Universe, which his ruin benefits," and to "build altars to the Beautiful Necessity" (p. 967).

See also"The American Scholar"; Nature;"The Poet"; "Self-Reliance"; Romanticism; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Emancipation in the British West Indies." In The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform, edited by David M. Robinson. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Edited by Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. Quotations from all of Emerson's writings except "Emancipation in the British West Indies" are from this edition.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Experience." In Essays: SecondSeries. Boston: James Munroe, 1844. First publication of "Experience."

Secondary Works

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Cameron, Sharon. "Representing Grief: Emerson's 'Experience.'" Representations, no. 15 (summer 1986): 15–41.

Jacobson, David. Emerson's Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Michael, John. Emerson and Skepticism: The Cipher of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Packer, B. L. Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Porte, Joel. "The Problem of Emerson." In Uses ofLiterature, edited by Monroe Engel, pp. 85–114. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life:Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Rusk, Ralph L. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Scribners, 1949.

Van Leer, David. Emerson's Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Whicher, Stephen E. Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life ofRalph Waldo Emerson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953.

Robert Milder


views updated May 23 2018


A term rooted in the Greek μπειρία, from which the word empirical is directly derived, and in the Latin experientia, whose verb form experiri means to try, to put to the test, to know by experience, and whose past participle furnishes the term expert. Thus, experience is sometimes connotative of a certain wisdom or skill in the practical order. This article explains the philosophical usages of the term, particularly in epistemology, that are distinctive of Greek, medieval and modern, and contemporary thought.

Greeks. While current practice tends to use the term experience in a sense wide enough to include a solitary chance encounter, with little or no reflection to account for it, this is not exactly the manner in which the Greeks used the term. Their μπειρία is translated as experience. But this translation comes via the Latin experientia, and while the Latin tends to retain an implication of being expert, this must be supplied in the English translation. In other words, while the present-day connotation of experience is that of generating knowledge, this was not so for the Greeks. In their view, experience is generated through repetition and is dependent on practical knowledge. Thus, experience for them is more like empirical knowledge. And it is only in this sense that Saint Thomas Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics can be understood: "In men the next thing above memory is experience, which some animals have only to a small degree. But above experience, which belongs to particular reason, men have as their chief power a universal reason by means of which they live" (In 1 meta. 1). And in like manner, one should understand Aristotle's comparison of experience with art: "It is from memory that men acquire experience, because the numerous memories of the same thing eventually produce the effect of a single experience. Experience seems very similar to science and art, but actually it is through experience that men acquire science and art" (Metaphysics 981 a 4).

This notion of experience as a certain knowledge of particulars became somewhat modified among the Stoics, a philosophical movement founded by Zeno of Citium (see stoicism). According to Zeno and his followers, experience arises from recollections, which follow from perception. The Stoics maintained that reality consisted only of corporeal objects. Thus, the gods, the soul, and qualities must be interpreted in terms of matter. The Epicureans agreed with the Stoics in this respect; in their development of theories of scientific knowledge, experience became the criterion of judging the truth and falsity of opinion.

Scholastics and Moderns. Through the interpretation of scientific theories in terms of experience, the natural sciences came to be known as experimental sciences. For roger bacon, experience became the determinant of scientific proof: "I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experience nothing can be sufficiently known. Aristotle's statement, then, that proof is reasoning that causes us to know is to be understood with the proviso that the proof is accompanied by its appropriate experience, and is not to be understood of the bare proof." (Op. mai. 6.1).

While philosophy, since the time of Aristotle, has traditionally been called scientific knowledge, no one in the scholastic tradition made any pretense to identify philosophy with the experimental sciences. However, with the rise in stature of the latter, particularly in England, philosophers such as T. hobbes, J. locke, D. hume, and H. spencer tended more and more to associate philosophy with the natural sciences. Subsequently, epistemological theories were developed exclusively in the light of the methods of modern science. At least the claims are set forth to develop such theories according to a "rigorous scientific method." Thus, experience becomes a byword in practically all modern theories of knowledge. The classical work of D. J. B. hawkins is nothing more than a critique of such usage.

In these theories of knowledge, experience is used in two ways: (l) intrinsically, as a certain conscious awareness, in much the same way as the ancient Stoics used the term; and (2) extrinsically, as pertaining to the things in the world that one encounters.

When experience is considered in the first way, the same naïve problems that beset ancient materialism reappear in modern interpretation of sense data. Sense data are there not understood as something extrinsic to the knowing subject; rather, they are themselves impressions produced in the senses in the act of perception. Hence, the first intimation of consciousness is not an awareness of something in nature, but the impression that the thing in nature has aroused in man. And the same theory of reconstruction that democritus devised to explain how one can form an idea reappears in the writings of B. russell and of Mao Tse Tung.

Considering experience in the second way, rather than make it something of consciousness alone, John Dewey treats it in much the same way as man's actions are treated in descriptive behaviorism, viz, strictly in terms of environment. His theory of knowledge regards experience as an extrinsic relation (the referent) to the knowing subject, with no so-called metaphysical structure (e.g., the intellect) to account for the concepts whereby man understands reality. Dewey's unmistakable influence is seen in modern theories of learning, defined in such expressions as "responses to stimulating situations" and "processes of adaptation."

Contemporaries. Contemporary existentialism tends to give practical philosophy precedence over the speculative. The latter as impugned is static, and thus opposed to the dynamic character of the experience involved in the practical. This development has encouraged the use of phenomenological methods in contemporary scholastic philosophy and theology (see phenomenology). There, experience takes on new dimensions as circumscribing the transcendental relation of the ego. Some have been led to reject traditional scholasticism because of a resulting erroneous view of the nature of speculative knowledge, as though the human intellect can achieve a contemplation of truth in a completely static state, without a dynamic discursus being necessary to arrive at some type of resolution. As a result of the false dichotomy introduced between dynamism and "staticism," prominence is given to experience in contemporary philosophies that stress the notion of encounter. The metaphysics of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, however, rejects such a prominence of dynamism; its aim is to go beyond discovering the truth of being that can be experienced to a discovery of the truth of being that defies sensory perception.

See Also: empiricism; positivism; metaphysics, validity of; knowledge; knowledge, theories of; sensation.

Bibliography: m. m. rossi, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 2:7282. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriff, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 1:35765, 397400. d. j. b. hawkins, The Criticism of Experience (New York 1946). j. l. lennon, "The Notion of Experience," The Thomist 23 (1960) 31544.

[r. j. masiello]


views updated Jun 11 2018

ex·pe·ri·ence / ikˈspi(ə)rēəns/ • n. practical contact with and observation of facts or events: he had already learned his lesson by painful experience. ∎  the knowledge or skill acquired by such means over a period of time, esp. that gained in a particular profession by someone at work: candidates with the necessary experience. ∎  an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone: for the younger players it has been a learning experience.• v. [tr.] encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence): the company is experiencing difficulties. ∎  feel (an emotion): an opportunity to experience the excitement of New York.DERIVATIVES: ex·pe·ri·ence·a·ble adj.ex·pe·ri·enc·er n.


views updated May 14 2018

experience †trial; observation of facts; condition or event by which one is affected XIV; knowledge resulting from observation; state of having been occupied in some way XV. — (O)F. expérience — L. experientia, f. experīrī try; see EX-1, PERIL, -ENCE.
Hence vb. XVI. So experiment †test, trial; action undertaken to discover or test something. XIV. Hence vb. †experience, ascertain, test XV; make an experiment XVIII. experimental XV. — (O)F. or medL. expert trained by experience XIV. — (O)F. expert, refash. of †espert after L. expertus, pp. of experīrī. expert one who is expert, specialist. XIX. — F., sb. use of the adj. expertise XIX. — F.


views updated May 29 2018

experience experience is the best teacher sometimes used with the implication that learning by experience may be painful. The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century, but the ultimate source is the Latin saying ‘experientia docet [experience teaches]’, and the proverb exists in a number of forms. (Compare experience keeps a dear school.)
experience is the father of wisdom real understanding of something comes only from direct experience of it. The saying is recorded in English from the mid 16th century, but the Greek lyric poet Alcman of the 7th century bc has, ‘experience is the beginning of knowledge.’
experience keeps a dear school lessons learned from experience can be painful (compare experience is the best teacher). The saying is recorded from the mid 18th century.

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