Ut est rerum omnium magister usus (experience is the best teacher)
The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. - Walter Benjamin
What is experience? It is the feeling in response to a challenge, is it not? To respond to a challenge is experience. And does one learn to experience? When one responde to a challenge, to a stimulus, ones response is based on ones conditioning, on the education one has received, on cultural, religious, social and economic background. One responds to a challenge conditioned by ones background as a Christian, an American, a capitalist etc. If ones does not break away from ones background, ones response to any challenge only strengthens or modifies that background. Hence one is really never free to explore, to discover, to understand what is truth what is God.
The importance of being experienced plays a central part in ethical philosophy. So, one needs to be able to truly experience things to become experienced. An experienced person is a person who has acquired a habit of approaching every moment with a tabla rasa, an appropriate attitude and a sense of situation - in short being open to receiving the experience for what it is rather than what one thinks it should be.
According to Aristotle the soul and the body are interdependent, which indicates a close connection between human activity, human cognition and human character. One needs to be conscious of what one is experiencing, with out the conscious acknowledgment one is simply passing by consuming vacous information. By insisting on the primacy of action, Aristotle changes the focal point from an epistemological discussion of knowledge to an ethical discussion of practice. Aristotle constantly experimented, he was a man of action.
This essay discusses what Aristotle and other philosophical minds can offer contemporary individuals in relation to their understanding of experience. The frame of the discussion is organized according to notable elements that are contained in the notion of the importance of being experienced: a practice, an appropriate disposition or character and a sense of the situation.
No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness. - Aristotle
Before we dive into the depths of The Philosopher (Aristotle) let’s analyze some modern minds. Walter Benjamin was a German apologist And Marxist, but he was also a collector (born into wealth, funny how common this is…) with a proclivity for mysticism.
Benjamin is probably the reason why we have Cultural Studies today. He popularized the idea that an object or a logo from everyday life was as worth contemplating as a canonical text. He knew his Plato, but the font of a cover letter was just as important.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote "experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness." For Benjamin, the generation that returned from WWI was no longer able to experience the world. Instead, rapid modernization and industrialization, combined with PTSD, had replaced experience with information and noise.
Benjamin invokes the figure of the storyteller as someone who knew how to transmit experience, someone who created community around a campfire, someone who was able to draw listeners closer to events they themselves had not witnessed. In antiquity this was Socrates, a powerful orator who commanded an audience through his speech alone. In modernity Abraham Lincoln was another man who commanded such reverence through speech.
But the storyteller is basically lost, says Benjamin. The newspaper has replaced the storyteller. Now people trade content, facts, codified discourse, official narratives, but none of this gives the living intimacy of storytelling.
Benjamin's ethos is nostalgic. And thus for Benjamin no Youtube homage to storytelling, no start-up deck telling a story about why the future is flying cars or what renewable energy. Experience, in Benjamin's romantic view, is more or less gone. This was a fear of Socrates when the written word became prominent. People simply exchange facts and information without the richness of live storytelling.
Storytelling still lives at the margins, between friends, in small gatherings, in singular events of serendipity. But storytelling is not the same as Twitter Spaces. It's not posting. Storytelling and experience are correlated. Loss of one moves with the loss of the other. For Benjamin, experience is about an orientation to the world, one that is rare. The mere invocation of experience does not ensure that one has it.
We find a similar sentiment in Heidegger's Being and Time. Heidegger contrasts authentic engagement with one's world to a kind of generic immersion in mass culture. Of course it is possible to watch the World Cup authentically, to ride the tram authentically, to read the WSJ authentically, but for Heidegger, most of the time we are "fallen" into an impersonal sense of self where we just follow trends with no deep sense of why.
The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking. - Martin Heidegger
We are doing this even when we claim that we are following our conscience or pursuing our enlightenment. While one can accuse existentialists as promoting shallow narcism, Heidegger rejects the label of existentialist.
One of the most salient insights in Heidegger is how everyday speech is hollow of anything new or interesting. He calls everyday speech "hearsay". It's just a fact of life that most talk is "small talk." So, how’s the team? what is the Talking head mad about… its all so tiresome.
According to Heidegger, most speech is not worth consuming, not because it is malicious, but simply because it is cliched, monotonous, dumbed down.
What Benjamin calls the loss of experience and the replacement by information, Heidegger calls hearsay or "idle chatter." We live in a world of idle chatter. Experience can only come to those who break through it, or see it for what it is, which is a constant struggle. Realizing that life is struggle, the move towards choosing what is hard over what is easy is where experience is uncovered.
All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today. - Pope Paul VI.
Debating whether something is a fact can be idle chatter. Which isn't to say we shouldn't do it, but again, it takes us away from something more fundamental. Most political discourse is Idle chatter. But so is much business discourse.
Self help books, advice on how to hustle, film reviews, most things are idle chatter, or at risk of becoming so, as soon as we take them as a replacement for our own quest, our own search, our own sense of mystery, our own attitudes. Experience isn't just Rousseauvian inwardness, with society being bad. But experience cannot come to those whose sense of self is thoroughly socialized.
Another 20th century thinker who is concerned for the loss of experience in modern life is Hannah Arendt. Arendt thinks modern life, especially totalitarian life, is a kind of "organized loneliness." This means I am disconnected not just from others, but from myself. Now one might understand why the metaverse narrative is emerging, it’s not just the real vs the digital, its the self vs the self. Selecting an avatar and living an extravagant life in the digital world, is for many, much more exciting than living a mundane life in the physical world.
Arendt contrasts loneliness with solitude. Solitude is the ability to have a dialogue with oneself. Solitude for Arendt is a bulwark against totalitarian domination; but it's increasingly rare. It's hard to cultivate solitude in a crowd.
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. - Pascal
Modernity was supposed to bring more egalitarianism. And in important economic and political ways it did. But the masses remain just as resistant, maybe more so, to experience, to leisure, than in pre-modern times. Hustle culture, productivity books, and “busy” YouTube are ubiquitous.
We wanted everyone to have access to the life of the mind, but instead we got Meta and cheap consumer tech. There's a Machiavellian argument to be made that the goal was never emancipation and that consumer tech is the perfect instrument for maintaining a culture of repression while calling it liberation. Is one now more free, more intelligent, more secure than in previous generations? Most would argue that physically this is the case, one is more likely to be obese than malnourished, one is more likely to be overly educated than illiterate. So, the question becomes, why are the rates of anxiety and depression so high in the developed world? Most are safe and well fed, yet mentally they are miserable. In short, pervasive technology and an inundation of influential information overwhelms ones ability to experience - to live.
Technology, has made the cost of many material things fall, but at the same time has made the actual costs of many non material matters unattainable by the masses. A clear mind and a feeling of calm is now reserved for those that have financial freedom, freedom of time, and freedom of thought. A person with all three is a modern day sage. Unfortunately, this group is the elite of the elite. For it takes one person years of learning to reach the heights of true experience, it’s the learned habit of being able to experience the world in its raw form without the context of information, tradition, or culture.
If poor talent, little experience of present things, and weak knowledge of ancient things make this attempt of mine defective and not of much utility, it will at least show the path to someone with more virtue, more discourse and judgment, will be able to fulfill this intention of mine, which, if it will not bring me praise, ought not to incur blame. - Machiavelli
Arendt thought Eichmann was capable of atrocities not because he was exceptionally evil, but because he was commonly evil; his evil was manifest in and as thoughtlessness. Or in Benjamin's terms, in experience-less-ness. Eichmann thought only thoughts of hearsay and idle chatter. He was influenced by the zeitgeist, he was unable to have experiences independent of the time and situation he was immersed in. Some call this propaganda, gas lighting etc. again, it is information and information is wielded as a tool for both good and evil.
It's more than ironic that today EXPERIENCE is such a common term, given the lament of these thinkers. We should ask whether we are really living in a world in which we are more thoughtful, more original, more creative, more capable of resisting cliche than before.
Now one might just throw them out as "elitists" and say they're being unfair. We do have experiences all the time, and not only that but some of them are made possible by consumer tech. Thanks to online dating, one can have artificial experiences every night. This promiscuity seeps into other aspects of life, from the bedroom to the grocery store.
There's also an anthropological argument that would look for agency everywhere, no matter the conditions. Whether in James Scott or Carlo Ginzberg or Gayatri Spivak, there's a claim that the "subaltern speaks," that the dominated have more agency than appears.
We find versions of this, and there's a lot of truth to it, in TV shows like the Wire, or in films like Hillbilly Elegy. One finds experience portrayed powerfully in rich subcultures - hip hop, crypto, CrossFit,…. or one finds it literally in the film Gattaca, which is, in part, about the human desire and capacity to elude surveillance.
In terms of the long view, experience is etymologically connected to the Greek, peireia, from which we also get "empiricism." One way of describing modern thought as a movement away from theory and deduction to the empirical, the experienced, the witnessed.
We associate empiricism with Hume. We associate empiricism with scientific method and skepticism. We also associate it with Luther. Don't take the Church's word for it, go out and experience God directly.
If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write. ― Martin Luther
But the critique of Aristotle, Benjamin, Heidegger, and Arendt is that the empirical method is not really empirical, because most people don't do the experiments themselves. They just "trust the science/expert." So scientists became the new clerics - scientism has replaced theism.
Another problem of modern science is the criterion of reproduceability. But in the human domain reproducibility is a kind of category error, unless one thinks the human being is no different than a cheetah or a Tulip.
What one ends up enshrining as true are those things that repeat. An event that is reproducible is created and not experienced. For experience is, in part, that which is distinct.
Anecdotal information suffer the same problem. Citing others experience to validate one's own treats experience as though the most interesting thing to be said about it is what is common in it. Often, doing this ends up commodifying experience, or weaponizing it, and in process losing it. This is vey evident in the fervor that is displayed on social media, people outraged that something occurred, but rather than doing anything (taking action) they rant on twitter.
Experience is sort of like Eurydice; Orpheus's sin is that the moment he represents it he loses it. Not for nothing is Orpheus a poet. His poem is a consolation for his loss.
But there's also a rebuke of Orpheus and of poets in the legend. Would one rather be a beautiful poet or someone with a good relationship, happy or accomplished (there is a masculine/feminine dichotomy in this question)? Orpheus is a rousing motivational speaker, meanwhile his home life is a mess.
Perhaps those who know what experience is are those who do not talk about it, those who guard their experiences as treasures.
He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know. Lao Tzu
But there are reasons to share, some reasons are instrumental; reasons based in compromise. And other reasons are more devotional. For example, one wants to memorialize an experience so as not to forget it, so as to keep it alive.
Or one wants someone one loves to partake in it even though they weren't there. Benjamin doesn't say experience is for monks who sit in silence. Experience can be communicated in stories and stories can be experiences. So we need not be anti communication.But not all acts of sharing are experiences. For Benjamin, there is an art to transmission; it is a craft; one can become a master only through practice and refinement.
In the 19th century, it was Wilhelm Dilthey who popularized the importance of experience, especially the importance of how we experience ourselves as living in history. Dlithey opened up two fields that were in his time quite undeveloped: hermeneutics and phenomenology.
Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. Originally it was focused on Biblical texts, Greek texts, ancient texts; then, texts, generally. But eventually hermeneutics became the study of interpretation in general. How do we experience the world as interpretive beings? And how does interpretation influence and affect experience?
The distinction has now become recognized in mainstream psychology and cognitive science. Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self.
Once it was not well known or well documented or well analyzed how experience and interpretation interact. This became a major theme in 20th century thought, be it in Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre or American academic departments from cultural studies to area studies.
Arguably, the hinge in the story is Kant, who took experience to be, in part, a construct of the mind, rather than just a naive thing that happens to us. He called this insight a Copernican Revolution in thought; and we are still living in Kant's world.
But the insight that experience is constructed, and that interpretation is constitutive of experience, is something we get more emphatically later, and that we associate with postmodernism; with films like American Psycho.
American Psycho is a compelling film that features 2 incommensurate narratives. They cannot all be true. They are all, however, experienced as true (we assume).
This is uncomfortable. To resolve the discomfort, people will offer the following "resolutions."
Only 1 of the 2 is true.
All or some are partly true. We need to mix and match.
They are all false.
One way that people justify liberal pluralism is by saying that if all accounts are limited, we need to cooperate to find the truth. But if only one of the accounts is true, why should we be pluralistic? Thus fundamental questions of political philosophy are tethered to the value we assign experience.
Does democracy mean every experience is equally valid? One can argue with my opinion, but not my experience? Critics of pluralism, and of liberalism, on both left and right, say that experience cannot be trusted, or not all experiences are equal. One can be deluded. One can be governed by false consciousness or ideology to the point of being "Mis-informed."
Of course, one reason Europe came to a liberal consensus is because it was tired of people fighting wars over who was deluded. In a more humble sense, American Psycho describes not the radical metaphysical position that everyone is good, but the practical position that we have no good way to adjudicate.
The difference between experience and hearsay is that the former is direct, eye-witness, the latter indirect, removed. But some currents in Western thought complicates this distinction. They suggest that experience or eye witness testimony is not sufficiently reliable.
In the ancient world, Skeptics were already adept at challenging the authority of the senses. They would place straight sticks under water and show them bent. If things appear differently in different circumstances who is to say what they actually are.
The consequence of skepticism was often "conservative." Montaigne is a good example of a skeptic turned conservative.
Montaigne supported the counter-Reformation. His argument was basically, given that I don't know what's true, that people disagree, and that I can't always trust myself, I might as well defer to what is time tested.
Extrapolating out from Montaigne; tie goes to the status quo, because the onus is on the progressive to show why a new regime of truth is going to be significantly better.
When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts drift to far-off matters for some part of the time for some other part I lead them back again to the walk, the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, to myself. - Michel de Montaigne
Skepticism challenges all authority, but often it comes full circle. Tradition is good enough until proven guilty, not because it is true, but because the standard of truth is so high, so elusive, as to be inapplicable.
So-called Postmodernists should be radically skeptical. But in practice, many are not. They evince a "skepticism towards thee but not towards me" attitude. You are deluded, but I have the truth. This attitude is, a relapse, an understandable tendency.
It's too challenging to remain a skeptic forever about all things, but let's recall that Lyotard defined postmodernism as the end of all grand narratives. Today, grand narratives are back with a vengeance.
The death of grand narratives is a kind of extraplolation of Nietzsche's death of God.
We should expect "experience" to fill the void where grand authorities no longer hold. But as Benjamin, Heidegger, and Arendt argue, experience cannot fill this void because experience itself is dead, or at least on life support. What has filled the void, at least in America, is consumerism. Everyone has a different logo, a different slogan, but what all have in common is the inevitable law that the revolution will be merchandized.
So which is it? Is personal experience a radical form of resting authority and handed down pieties? Is it a self-canceling path back to tradition? Is it something so rare that most of us have yet to know what it is, an El Dorado that weeps in its grave with each new app? We overstate and overvalue "experience," at least in its Hollywood version.
I'm not willing to say experience is lost or that it carries no authority. Instead I would urge a kind of caution. Question experience, but don't question it to the point of becoming a naysayer. Diversify the portfolio, hedge the downside, protect principal. Give experience some important weight. But don't be concentrated all in experience.
Experience isn't a private language, despite often sounding that way.
When one reads a book one is absorbing something of the author's experience but one is also having an experience of ones own. One is also going to experience the world differently as a result.
Most powerfully, a good book or good story might even change the way one interprets past experiences. This is why re-reading books at different times in ones life elicits a different experience.
Experience is dynamic. The dynamism of experience is its strength and weakness. It is as shifty as time. Archiving, posting, reporting, analyzing, are ways of preserving experience, ways of pointing to it, but they are not the thing itself.
Some kind of mindfulness practice, be it meditation or prayer or song or dance helps enable "experience," by taking away the noise in one's head or simply taking one "out of one's head." Sometimes one simply needs to get out of ones way and simply be open to experience. But while these practices are good and helpful, the epiphanies they engender are fleeting. The point is not have a "high" in the moment, but to become a person capable of experience. This takes a lifetime of practice.
If experience is difficult, if it is elusive, then not all experiences count equally. If experience is easy and available to all, then all experiences count equally. Both conclusions can be uncomfortable. Anyone who holds that experience is elusive is a kind of aristocrat, at least, an aristocrat of the spirit.
Anyone who holds that experience is available to all must swallow the black pill that no experience is more more valid than the next. A lot of debate in cultural politics turns on whose experiences are to be trusted, "centered," represented, given attention. These questions make a lot of sense in a world that has become "an attention economy," but none of the proposed solutions to these questions offers us any guidance on what experience is or what counts as experience or what we should hope for on the basis of experience.
Questions of fairness, inclusiveness, access, important as they are, fundamental to political life as they are, rarely enrich our understanding of what we are gaining access to. We spend a lot of time on whether one has the right to have ones story told, or heard, if it is even a right...but far less time on what makes a good story.
One feature of a good story is that we want to repeat it and talk about it, in part, because it isn't exhausted or obvious. There's a reason we turn again to great works that have been written hundreds or thousands of years ago. Storytelling about storytelling is sometimes more durable than the story itself.
I don't remember every story of Don Quixote, but I remember the prologue, in which Cervantes ironically describes his work as "unlearned."
Certain cultural artifacts, even if we can't understand them, can stand for the possibility of experience, like bar signs in the eyes young children. We may not enter now, but one day we will and when we drink the whiskey, we'll remember our youth.
But canonization can also create sclerotic energy, pushing people to the margins. Because experience, as Stendhal describes, is not found on the hill overlooking battle, but in the fog of war. Stendhal's protagonist, Fabrice, in the Charterhouse of Parma, who can't tell his own side from the side of the enemy, knows the meaning of Waterloo better than Napoleon who gazes at it from the hilltop. When telling history or reading the news it's easy to forget Fabrice. But we shouldn't idolize his life either, as if just by being "the little guy" he somehow has some wisdom. He is confused.
Stendhal may be teaching us that the experiential life is also, truthfully, a life of confusion. But best-selfism as has become trendy in the new age religion, it is not about confusion; it's about knowing things clearly. One holds a crystal and poof. The expert of the true self speaks. One who knows all no longer explores life to find more, experience is lost. To Arendt's observation that Eichmann spoke and thought in cliches, that he lacked an interesting inner dialogue, we should add that he was not a person who was confused. Confusion is a sign of aliveness, a sign of experience, a sign of un-resolution. Good lives and good stories are alive because, at each point, even the end, they have yet to come to an end. Stay curious, live in wonderment and open up to experience each moment.