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Experience

EXPERIENCE

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]

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