Saturday 16 March 2002

The truth of experience

This morning I learned from wood s lot that Hans-Georg Gadamer died a few days ago, on March 13. I have never studied Gadamer, never bought any of his books, never really discussed his work with anyone; and yet I cannot imagine how my life might have turned out had I not read three paragraphs of Truth and Method.

Many years ago, a friend who was studying sociology and philosophy gave me some photocopied pages from Section (B) The Concept of Experience and the Essence of Hermeneutical Experience of the chapter Analysis of effective-historical consciousness. If you are put off by the titles, so was I. But my friend had been deeply touched by Gadamer’s ideas and he knew me well enough to guess that I would respond similarly. After swiftly outlining Husserl’s, Bacon’s, Aristotle’s, and Hegel’s theories of experience, Gadamer writes:

The truth of experience always contains an orientation towards new experience. That is why a person who is called ‘experienced’ has become such not only through experiences, but is also open to new experiences. The perfection of his experience, the perfect form of what we call ‘experienced’, does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. The dialectic of experience has its own fulfillment not in definitive knowledge, but in that openness to experience that is encouraged by experience itself.

But then this gives the concept of experience that we are concerned with here a qualitatively new element. It refers not only to experience in the sense of the information that this or that thing gives us. It is that experience which must constantly be acquired and from which none can be exempt. Experience here is something that is part of the historical nature of man. Although in bringing up children, for example, parents may try to spare them certain experiences, experience as a whole is not a thing that anyone can be spared. Rather, experience in this sense involves inevitably many disappointments of one’s expectations and only thus is experience acquired. That experience refers chiefly to painful and disagreeable experiences does not mean that we are being especially pessimistic, but can be seen directly from its nature. Only through negative instances do we acquire new experiences, as Bacon saw. Every experience worthy of the name runs counter to our expectation. Thus the historical nature of man contains as an essential element a fundamental negativity that emerges in the relation between experience and insight.

Insight is more than the knowledge of this or that situation. It always involves an escape from something that had deceived us and held us captive. Thus insight always involves an element of self-knowledge and constitutes a necessary side of what we call experience in the proper sense. Insight is something to which we come. It too is ultimately part of the nature of a man, ie to be discerning and insightful.

“the experienced person proves to be… someone who is radically undogmatic”
“the experienced person is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them”
“experience which must constantly be acquired and from which none can be exempt”
“experience in this sense involves inevitably many disappointments of one’s expectations “
“every experience worthy of the name runs counter to our expectation”

At first glance, these statements may appear to be profoundly pessimistic, a charge that, later in the chapter, Gadamer attempts to deflect. In practice, they are not. The openness to experience that Gadamer regards as the sign of a mature individual inevitably leads to all kinds of experiences: positive and negative, joyful and sorrowful, pleasant and painful. Only by embracing the extremities offered by human experience, he suggests, is it possible to live life most fully.

Words like “disappointment”, “painful”, “disagreeable”, and “negative” sit uneasily in a culture that holds “happiness” and “success” as its highest values; a culture that is eager to allocate blame when any experience runs counter to expectation; a culture in which, as Meryl Yourish wrote six weeks ago, “personal responsibility is for everyone else.” Meryl’s essay, titled, The Myth of the Evil Lawyers, carefully distinguishes between negligence and the vagaries of human existence:

And here’s the kicker, which apparently nobody believes: Sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes, really bad stuff happens that results in horrible injuries and deaths. And often, it isn’t anybody’s fault. People like the one in the subway who pushed that man under the train often exhibit no signs of insanity until that horrible moment. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was a horrible, horrible coincidence, and it’s terrible that he lost his legs, but the man has no right to sue the city for it. But you know he’ll win at least a six-figure settlement, because the new American Dream is no longer to work hard and become a millionaire: It’s to hit the lottery, literally or figuratively.

A person who is “radically undogmatic” can easily be mistaken for someone who doesn’t believe in anything. To the contrary, the radically undogmatic person does not act according to a fixed set of beliefs but from an openness to new experience, whatever the quality of that experience may turn out to be. The “experienced” person, in Gadamer’s sense, is relucant to succumb to the corrosive effects of victimology and is therefore increasingly rare in a world which rejects the bad cards in the hand that life deals out.

In Australian schools there is a growing imperative to shield children from any experience that might result in “low self-esteem.” Since everyone is a winner in the game of life, children learn early that success comes with minimal effort. And yet, “experience as a whole is not a thing that anyone can be spared.” As Mike Sanders wrote some weeks ago:

We need to recognize the virtues in ourselves. That is the root of self-esteem. At the same time we need to look at our own faults with the goal of correction not criticism. That is self-appraisal.

We’re unlikely to look at our own faults when we are in the raptures of a new love affair or while lying on a beach in Bali. That, crudely, is Gadamar’s point. The will to correction comes from insight which in itself accrues from negative experience. I guess it’s no accident that amongst all the books I own, one of my favorites is by Ivan Morris: The Nobility of Failure.

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Wow. Interesting precision regarding insight, and for that matter experience. Often our failures are what we have to share. Nice post.

Posted by Michael Webb on 16 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Gadamar is writing out of a European tradition of Husserl and Heidegger. One wonders how much of the sorrowful experience he speaks of is political disillusionment. The British Analytic version would be Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies. Theories on this view are never really proven true, they are simply coherent enought and open enough to evidence to be falsified. A good theory or regime, then, is one that rules provisionally, only because it is ever-vulnerable to experience.

Posted by Phil Cubeta on 16 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I'm not sure I agree with Gadamar that only negative experiences become experience, Jonathon. That _is_ a rather pessimistic view. Do we learn more from negative experiences? Perhaps. I learned from positive experience that it was a lot of fun and ultimately worthwhile to help a friend run for Student Government President of my college. Conversely, I learned at the victory party that I shouldn't imbibe nearly as much alcohol as I did. But it took me a few more of those experiences to truly learn that lesson. :-)
Seriously--I think positive experiences teach us as well. Here's an easy one: If you write something in your weblog that people link to, you'll be more inclined to write in the future--perhaps even on like subjects. Another: Trying to make children smile, and getting a positive experience, tends to make you repeat your experiments on other children. Result: You become experienced in amusing children--which means getting along with them and learning to take care of them. That's a very positive experience, I think.
Can I go now? I was just passing by on my way offline, looking for a shorter post to read, when I saw my name being mentioned in the long one and had to stop and read what you were saying. You're a wicked man. (Insert ASCII grin here; I'm not allowed to use it twice in one comment post.)

Posted by Meryl Yourish on 16 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Meryl, thank you for the compliment, ASCII grin notwithstanding. I agree that positive experiences teach us, it's just that negative experiences teach us more. To use your example, I may well profit more deeply from writing something in my weblog to which no one links -- both from the experience of writing the post and the experience of attempting to understand why something of deepest importance (to me) met with utter indifference.
Your introducing "smiling children" into the discussion suggests that you might profit from a sustained exposure to Beckett. I have no doubt Phil will concur with my recommendation of The Trilogy.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 16 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Not sure I agree about learning more from a negative linking experience. There are some topics that everyone seems to avoid as a matter of course (religion springs immediately to mind). Sometimes the only thing you can learn by writing something that merely echoes is that, well, sometimes people won't respond to what you write. It's very difficult to figure out what people aren't saying.
Beckett? You want me to read *philosophy* books? Something I avoided through nearly all of college? (I had to take a course to graduate.)
Can't I just read your weblog instead?

Posted by Meryl Yourish on 16 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by andu on 13 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

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Posted by sted on 15 October 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour