The Meaning of “Experience”

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).

19 thoughts on “The Meaning of “Experience”

  1. Here is the Merriam-Webster’s definition:

    “3 a: the conscious events that make up an individual life”

    This is closer to what philosophers are talking about…

    Also, you are looking up ‘experience’ as a noun, it is also a transitive verb ‘experience of’…

    Finally, you seem tot hink that representational theories are only first-order theories like Tye and Dretske, but higher-order theories are representational, and as I have already said, you certaily seem to endorse the transitivity principle…

  2. It is easy to see how one can be aware of experiences in the senses of “experience” that I analyzed in the post – because in this sense experiences are events in which we participate and by which we are affected somehow (be that we gain knowledge, or we are emotionally affected).

    My problems with philosophers’ sense of “experience” is this… Let’s say that one can teach the student the meaning of the word by ostension, or by description/definition, or by presenting a theory in which whatever is referred to by “experience” will appear as a theoretical notion which will be used to explain some other things which can be observed. But can philosophers’ experience be pointed to? Or described/defined? Pete said that it is theoretical notion, but he didn’t give much explanation what is it supposed to explain.

    BTW, I’m not sure what to think about transitivity principle, as it involves issues that I haven’t thought of (e.g. the intransitive consciousness). So, I will have to remain silent on it.

  3. I don’t agree with Pete on thataccount, nor do I think that Pete does either. he was trying to explain what people like Tye and Dretske think…and their views are by no means universally accepted. As for what philosophers are iterested in, yes it can be ‘pointed’ to, it is the thing that Merriam-Websters was talking about, namely the conscious events that makes up an individuals (mental) life…

  4. I’m thinking how one can try to point to p-sense experience…
    I will put my stream of thoughts on this, and maybe it will point to something that I’m missing, or what I’m looking for when I ask where one finds the p-sense experience.

    If I point to someone that “experience” is when he is seeing something, or when he is hearing something, why would that person figure out that I’m talking about p-sense experience, and not the np-sense experience – i.e. events that he lived through. “Conscious” doesn’t help, as np-sense experience involves consciousness too. So, I don’t think it can be done by just “simple-pointing” to concrete events, or to abstractions from it.

    Here is some confused idea I have of how the pointing to the p-sense experience is supposed to work… I think that it would first involve teaching a person a theory about the world, namely that the world is physical, and how it causally affects our senses, and that there is a brain in our head; and now that person left with the obvious gap between the world as described by physics and the world of np-experiences is supposed to make some theoretical switch in interpreting his/her np-experiences.

    However even the p-experience is a part of this interpretation (explanation), I fail to see what it does explain. It can’t explain np-experiences as they are about events in the world that one has witnessed, and hence when we talk about np-experience of seeing a rabbit, we need to talk about the rabbit as much as we talk about the photons, the eyes and the brain. But as p-experience is supposed to supervene on the brain, it can’t include the rabbit…

    And there I ended up confusing myself searching for this p-experience thingy.

  5. In my last comment “p-sense experience” is the sense of “experience” as used by philosophers, and “np-sense experience” is the sense of “experience” where it refers to events in the world in which one participates (or some of the other senses which are analyzed in the post, and which are different from whatever p-sense experience is).

  6. You are making this needlessly complicated…p-experience comes up naturally in our everyday conversations…”I had a really bad headace last night’ one might say or one might think ‘I am extremely nauseous right now’ or any number of these kinds of things…

    as for teaching it to someone…it seems that it would ocme naturally IF you buy the premise that sometimes your experience gets things wrong (which I suppose that you don’t)…but the common sense view is that it LOOKS like the stike is bent when it is in the water, and then I see that it is not REALLY bent, the moon LOOKLS like it is really small but I know that REALLY it is very large, and etc…this would lead naturally to a person realizing that they had p-experience…or if you don’t like that example, think about this. Say that as a kid you have a really intense itch on your back and you want to get someone to itch it…but you can’t do a good job of describing where it is on yoir back and they can’t find it…that will make you start to think that there is something about your p-experience that only you know about…I could go on…

    A couple of other details…I said ‘conscious events’ which makes it clear that we are talking about conscious mental states, not transitive consciousness (that is being conscious of things)…so I agree that there is consciousness involved in np-experience, but that doesn’t matter as it is a different kind of consciousness…

    Finally, if one is an externalists, like I am, then when one talks about the experience of the rabbit one needs to talk about the rabbitt….

  7. Why would “I had really bad headache last night” or “I am extremely nauseous right now” point to p-sense experiences, and not np-sense experiences? Might be because we have privileged access to those things we witnessed (headache or nausea)? But we might have privileged access to some room (e.g. we are only one that have the key to it) – that wouldn’t make “I sit on the chair in my private room” a non np-sense experience. It seems to me there is no way (except a theoretical one) by which one can “fix the reference” to a p-sense experience, as all those descriptions and pointing can just be taken to refer to a np-sense experience.

    So, I agree that it comes naturally in those cases, but I think it comes naturally as a theoretical explanation, or re-interpretation of what has been known as np-sense experience before that in order to handle those issues (illusion, hallucination, dreams, etc…) But as I don’t buy the premise that one’s experience can get things wrong, or that it is needed in order to explain the cases of illusions and hallucinations, that’s why I don’t think that p-sense experience is really useful theoretical assumption.

    BTW I agree with you on externalism, however I think that ‘experience’ itself should also be read in externalist manner. In such sense the experience includes the rabbit, myself, and the act of seeing (with all its characteristics – where one looks from, how the thing is rotated, what are light conditions, etc…).

  8. “Why would “I had really bad headache last night” or “I am extremely nauseous right now” point to p-sense experiences, and not np-sense experiences?”

    Because those sentences are about an experience of mine. The sentence ‘I sit on a chair in my private room’ is not about my experience in the same way…in fact these two sentences clearly illustrate the difference between what you call p-experience and np-experience. I am sympathetic to what you say about privilaged access, but that is not the point. So, the headache is an event that you live through (what you call np-experience) but it is an internal event that no one else can participate in. My headache’s are mine ina way that my private room is not.

    ” But as I don’t buy the premise that one’s experience can get things wrong, or that it is needed in order to explain the cases of illusions and hallucinations,”

    I don’t think that you really believe this, as you assume that there is an object out there and that it can be different from the way that the object appears…

    Finally, so if we take what you say in the last paragraph and apply it to headaches then we get that the experience of a headace involves the headache, myself and the act of feeling the headache?

  9. That the headache is an event in which no-one else can participate, I think, is merely the consequence of the privileged access one has to one’s headache (or really most of the sensations that are going on in one’s body).
    So yes, I think that in case of headache (or really any other pain), there is the headache (which in the head, but that is just coincidental with the place where brain is, we might as well talk about pain in the foot, I don’t see anything special in the headache vs. other pains), and there is also the act of feeling the headache (that’s why I can agree with you that there might be a pain (in this case a headache), and yet the person in which body that pain is, might not be aware of it.
    That act of feeling would be similar to the acts of seeing, hearing, etc… where what is the target of the intentional act is something in the world.

    Re. that experience can’t get things wrong, I do believe it, because by experience I mean np-experience. You say that thing might not be as it appears, and I do agree, but I don’t think that we need to postulate p-experience for that. Let me point to the second citation from Ryle in the recent post, and also to the ‘Appears as red object’ vs ‘Is a red object’ post where I wrote about that issue.

  10. I think that we actually agree quite a bit on this stuff…maybe it is just a terminological difference that is getting us hung up…but if you agree that there is a headache and an act of feeling that headache then you already think that there is p-experience…calling it something else doesn’t make it something else.

  11. Actually I agree that we agree quite a bit on those issues just that the things on which we agree are not in the spotlight. And probably there might be some terminological issues, but I doubt it is merely terminological issues :)

  12. Understanding the new usage of experience is difficult, technical and crucial to understanding Philosophy. Else you will find yourself unable to endorse any of the wonderful contributions from Philosophers such as Hume, or even modern Philosophers like Grice, any of the phenomonologists, empiricists.

    The closest point you got was the mention of qualia. Consider the bear in the woods. I actually have a knife, and as a knife-fighting philosopher I can defeat the bear. I have sight of the bear, hear sounds, and can determine it’s position, gain knowledge, formulate a plan. But, if there is another bear behind me, I may not see/hear it. My qualia do not include that bear until it eats my head.

    This emphasises how important it is to understand that experience, from a subjective human perspective, only includes the amount of information about the world external to the perceiver contained in the cognitive content of said perceiver.

    I think that it is important to defend the use of the term “experience” in the precise way that you find offensive, because it unlocks philosophical methods, problems and answers otherwise unreachable.

    The quote Grice, I prefer ontological Marxism. Essentially, if it works, it may exist.

  13. Hi Dean, thanks for the comment,

    I must admit that I’m just pretending not to understand the meaning of “experience” in philosophy, in order to ask what is it. I think when one tries to explain the meaning of “experience” in philosophy, and fails to do by directly pointing to it, it becomes obvious that it is theoretical term, and not something that we are directly aware of.
    And this relates to the second point – the failure to distinguish this technical use from the everyday use, and taking our intuitions related to the experience1 (in everyday sense) and taking them as if they are truths about experience2 (technical sense).

    I DID in fact think in terms of this technical/philosophical usage of “experience” in the past. Basically I did buy some form of Kantian idealism. Now I think I was wrong along with other philosophers who think in terms of this technical use.

  14. I understand experiences as meaningful, personal events that have a cognitive and emotional content. We are not just aware of our experiences, we undergo them; they are something that is lived through, that we are cognitively engaged with as part of being a person, rather than just events occurring in our presence. To experience love, for example, is not just to be aware of love but to be loving (i.e., to undergo an experience means that there is something it is like to have that experience). Using the word ‘experience’ as a noun, you could say that experiences are the content of your awareness; using it as a verb, you could say that to be aware of an object is to experience it. Being aware is an awareness of experiences because it is being aware that turns to sensory detection of differences into experiences. You may, for example, feel a physical sensation in your solar plexus, but it is your awareness of the sensation and its natural/cultural context that turns the feeling into part of the experience of fear, love, anxiety or hunger (i.e., makes it meaningful). The behaviour of animals suggest that have sensations such as pain or hunger, but only persons have experiences because only persons are aware. Experiences are cultural/natural phenomena; rule-guided and informed by beliefs. Experience is of the world and of being-in-the-world as a self. We are aware of our experiences, and this awareness always includes an awareness of being-in-the-world as who you are.

    Does this help?

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