The Meaning of “Experience”
Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on June 29, 2007
From what I’ve gathered (I might be wrong) philosophers speak a lot about experience, arguing over what is it’s content and how it relates to the world. For example proponents of qualia (or sense-data) theory argue that what we are given in experience is something non-physical; and the proponents of intentional theory claim that our experience is representational, and that when we introspect our experience, we can find nothing besides what the experience is experience of (what it represents). In representational theories, the experience might be also veridical (so, it might represent the world as it is) or not. And in veridical cases, for opponents of qualia views, the content of the experience is the thing which is represented – so the thing itself.
However, I have trouble understanding what is this “experience” that philosophers are talking about.
Looking into the etymology of the word, we are told that it’s early use (1377) was “knowledge gained by repeated trials”. And that it comes from Latin – experiri – which means to try, or to test. The word is composed from ex (“out of”) + peritus (“tested/from trial/attempt”).
That sense is still in use today. For example we talk about someone having lot of experience, gaining/gathering experience, group using the experience of some other group and so on…
I think that very close to this usage is when we say that we know something from experience.
-What you are doing will make things worse. -How do you know? -From experience.
This kind of answer means that the person observed similar situation where such thing was done, and it made the things worse. So, again “knowing from experience” is about knowing something because we witnessed/tried/tested it – we don’t claim something because we have understanding of why is it so, but merely because we saw it being so. We personally witnessed that doing so and so in such and such situation, will have such and such consequences.
Now, in these senses, “a person having experience” is obviously not a matter of perceiving now, but about the person having observed some fact, and now knowing it from experience.
So, what are the other senses of “experience”? Here is one that seems closer to philosopher’s usage of experience, as it doesn’t involve any mention of knowledge:
- particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something: My encounter with the bear in the woods was a frightening experience.
Here “experience” is no more used in its sense of knowledge, nor has anything to do with knowledge. But again, in this sense it is about the person finding himself in some situation, and being aware of it. But if “encounter with the bear in the woods” is cited as an example of experience, it doesn’t refer just to something about the subject but about the whole situation (encounter with the bear) which includes the fact that the person was aware of it, and somehow affected by it (e.g. frightened).
Again, in this sense it can’t be that the experience represents anything – as it refers to the whole situation. It would be weird that the experience (in this sense) represents the bear or the encounter with the bear – the experience IS the encounter with the bear, and “the experience” in this case refers to the situation which includes the bear itself.
Or check those definitions:
- An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
- The totality of such events in the past of an individual or group.
Notice that the individual is presented as participating in those events, and because the person participated, and was aware of them those are experiences of that person. Even more, the experiences as events are something that more then one person can participate in.
But whatever it is that philosophers refer to by “experience” it is supposed to be something that only an individual can have, and something which is representing things, and being veridical or not. Is “experience” one of those words about which J.L.Austin says (from Sense and Sensibilia):
We have here, in fact, a typical case of a word, which already has a very special use, being gradually stretched, without caution or definition or any limit, until it becomes, first perhaps obscurely metaphorical, but ultimately meaningless.
It seems so to me. How else to explain the change from this normal use of experience as explored here, to the use where the experience is supposed to represent something, to be had by the subject (but not in sense of knowledge that we saw previously). What is then this “experience” that philosophers’ talk about? Where do we find it?
And what to say when “experience” ends up referring not to something which we are aware of, which as we saw is the crux of the everyday meaning of “experience”, but as Pete pointed in the comment on another post – something which is theoretical, and of which we aren’t directly aware of. Surely if the word ended up meaning something opposite to its usage in normal speech, its “gradual stretching” went wrong somewhere.
I guess it is not problematic that disciplines sometimes will use the words with specific and technical meaning. But in this case I’m not sure that there is such a meaning. Maybe I’m wrong, and if I am, I hope someone will explain the technical meaning of the word in the comments, but it seems to me that all it is there is some mix-up of the normal usage of the word where it implies something of which an individual is aware of and is witnessing personally mixed up with a theory that our consciousness is result of processes in the brain. (Or course, “consciousness” itself might be interesting case in itself).