Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 E - Experience

Experience: A comprehensive term for anything a human being may notice, believe, feel, hope, know, imagine, sense, remember etc. and thus somehow represent.

It is difficult to be precise about such comprehensive terms, but even so what I laid down requires some remarks and precisifications.

First, I explicitly referred to "human" not to deny that other animals also have experiences, but to draw attention to the fact that, whatever this is like, it is very probably - being not informed by language - different from human experience. See: Other minds and Qualia.

Consequently, attributing experiences to a dog, a bat or an ant, all of which seems to me quite justified, must be in various degrees metaphorical, and by analogy to 'human-all-too-human' experience.

Second, an alternative way of clarifying the term experience is in terms of propositional attitudes: Whatever may be the object of a propositional attitude is somehow experienced. Whether this is a useful definition is open to argument, but it does draw attention to the fact that humans speak of their experiences in terms of propositional attitudes.

Third, there is a notion that was historically tied up with philosophical Idealism to the effect that there is nothing but experience, for humans, because - it may be and has been argued - whatever a human being may in any way be aware of is experience, and no one can ever step outside it. (Here also fits Berkeley's "esse est percipi" - to be is to be perceived.)

All of this may be so in some sense, but it is not a good ground to hold that there is nothing but or nothing outside experience that one can meaningfully speak about, and indeed know. Examples are the actual love life of the dinosaurs; the heath-death of the universe; the big bang etc. - all hypotheses that go far beyond experience, rather like tomorrow's dinner, that nevertheless can be solidly supported by such experiences as one has had. See: Reality.

Besides, even if what is given to a human being's brain - a pound or two of neurons - than what gets translated into human experience, there is no good reason not to assume that this private and personal experience is related as a map, as a representation, to the vast reality the human being is part of.

Fourth, experience is peculiar in that it gives access to all manner of things that do not exist or cannot exist: Lewis Carroll's Red Queen could think of six impossible things before breakfast, like anybody else who tries to do so who is not really stupid, and everybody knows that one has at some time in one's life hoped for or run after or fought for what did not really exist at all, at least not in the terms one conceived of it.

Hence, in this sense there is more in the human mind then there is really or possibly outside it, and the best explanation of this fact about human experience is in terms of the notions of symbol and representation: Using language we can represent and symbolize ideas of things that are not or cannot be, and thus at least have the ideas even if it will never eventuate that we meet these things in reality.

Fifth, it should be noted that whereas my experiences for me are in some sense given and undeniable to me, as they happen, but in fact your experiences are assumed by me and inferred from your external behavior or by analogy to what I know or belief myself to experience where I in your position. Also - apart from ESP - all your experiences are as private to you as my experiendes are private to me: Neither is accessible to the other, and only exists by assumption.

Consequently, the experience of other people is in fact a metaphysical assumption, that only seems natural because all human beings have been educated on the basis of the belief and assertion that other human beings not only are anatomically alike but also have their private experiences much like oneself.


See also: Other minds, Personalism


Hawkins, Nagel, Toraldo di Franca, Shakespeare, Stegmüller

 Original: Aug 24, 2004                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top