Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Difficulty of Experience

I've just posted a draft of a paper I've been working on for awhile. Here it is. And here's a description:
Some things are hard to put into words, including profound experiences that inform our way of judging the world. This paper explores the intersection of the problem of putting such experiences into words and the problem that some disagreements hinge on unshared experiences. I suggest that two ways of dealing with these difficulties--which I call mysticism and extreme anti-mysticism--are both false. I consider in detail examples involving Wittgenstein's "wondering at the existence of the whole world", J.M. Coetzee's character Elizabeth Costello and her horror at the treatment of animals, and a correspondence between Freud and Romain Rolland about the "oceanic feeling." Often, what we need is not simply to put our experience into words but rather to find a way to give the other a similar experience.
Comments will be greatly appreciated.


  1. This is a wonderful paper that says a lot of things I would like to say, and probably says them better than I have managed to, but I have a few criticisms which I hope will be constructive.

    The first sentence sounds truistic yet also oddly early modern. Is there a gap between us and reality that needs to be bridged? Surely not. This sentence also raises the question of what you mean by experience, which is a tricky question. Often you mean experiences, such as those that Wittgenstein talks about in the Lecture on Ethics, but people's ways of experiencing things can differ without them having different experiences in this sense. On p. 27, for instance, when you talk about Elizabeth Costello's experience, you refer to "an experience," but I'm not sure this is quite right. I would talk of her way of experiencing our treatment of animals, something much less momentary than the experiences I take Wittgenstein to be have in mind. I don't know how much this matters, though, nor whether I have been anything but obscure on this.

    Secondly, like most people, you mention the experiences of wonder and feeling safe, but not the feeling of guilt which Wittgenstein also includes. Again, this might not matter, but I thought I'd mention it.

    On p. 8 you imply that Wittgenstein is not proposing "abandoning ethical language" and give as evidence his assertion that he would not ridicule ethics or our tendency to produce it. But something could be abandoned without ridicule, couldn't it? There is a slight feeling of non sequitur in this paragraph.

    Similarly, in the next paragraph you seem to contrast Kremer's claim that TLP 7 forbids nothing "strictly speaking" with the suggestion that it does imply that we should not attempt to prove ethical claims correct. Strictly speaking, though, implying this is not forbidding anything, is it?

    On p. 17 you write that "If one is unmoved, one is simply unmoved," but I'm not so sure. Was Freud utterly unmoved by music, or merely relatively uninterested in it? Are meat-eaters completely unmoved by the suffering of animals? Do pro-choice people see nothing bad or sad about abortion? I think we are usually separated by degrees of feeling more than by its complete absence or presence. Most pro-choice people, I think, see (experience?) abortion as bad but less evil than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Most people who eat meat, I think, feel that the suffering of animals is a shame, but not a great enough shame to make vegetarianism worth the effort/cost. With regard to religious feelings, I imagine there is a spectrum, but the main question (as I see it) is more what to do with those feelings than whether this or that person has them at all. Because we do share feelings, attempts to persuade can often get somewhere.

    Finally, my sense is that you endorse Bambrough's words on p. 23, but they don't seem quite right to me. What does someone learn when they lose a child? It seems to me that the words 'learn' and 'see' in this passage have to be taken in something like a secondary sense. Then I have no objection. Otherwise, the implication seems to be that there is ineffable content in the experience, which I think you are right to want to avoid saying.

    Well, I hope this doesn't all sound snarky. I fully acknowledge that these are minor, perhaps even irrelevant, quibbles with an excellent paper. If you want me to expand at all on any point, just let me know.

  2. DR: Thanks a ton for all these careful comments! Not snarky at all.

    You're probably right that I'm playing a bit fast and loose with "experience." But I'm not sure how to parse you suggestion that "people's ways of experiencing things can differ without them having different experiences..." If you mean that different people can experience different senses of significance when confronted with the same "external" situation, then ok. Or you might mean that different people might interpret the same experience in different ways. That seems ok, too. These are both, presumably, sources of disagreement. At any rate, I'll have to think about your question about bridging. Experiences can attune us to features of reality, but they are themselves features of reality (which is why we are sometimes at pains to figure out whether our experiences have attuned us to something "out there" or are merely, in this instance, a merely subjective reaction; nota bene the "merely," as experience is of course often both, i.e. not always "merely" subjective).

    What you say about LW on abandoning without ridiculing is indeed something I'll have to think about. I agree that trying to support our ethical claims is surely not forbidden, and often it is what we ought to do. But the idea there is that there are limits--as LW might say, there are points in our ethical reasonings where we simply reach bedrock, and there the idea of a proof makes no sense. There's a lot more (in some respects) to say about that, but that's the short of it.

    And you're right that I don't mention the experience of guilt. This is arbitrary, but hopefully not irresponsible; I felt better able to work with the other two.

    What you say about p. 17 is well-taken, but I presume that the answer is probably: "it depends." I mean, some people are probably moved, but not much, or cover it up, etc. But I was talking to a psychology prof the other day about Freud and Rolland, and he said that he was with Freud on the "oceanic feeling," and didn't have any feeling like this himself. But I think you're right that when we can find the shared feeling in another person--or draw it out, etc.--then we can "get somewhere." I note in the paper that Rolland seemed not to believe that Freud was without any religious (or oceanic) sentiment, and I think it's true that there are experiences or feelings that just seem so obvious or fundamental to us that it's hard to believe that someone else might not share that. But it seems to happen.

    On Bambrough: this is tricky, but you make a good point that I need to be careful in how I use this idea. In a way, there's something similar in the remark: "You had to be there" (say, to fully get why a joke or story is funny, etc.). This might be a place where a powerful imagination might sometimes be able to bridge the gap, especially if someone is able, through imagination, to "transfer" some experience of their own. I say in the paper that experience is not always transferable to novel context, but I don't want to say that it never is. Just: there's no guarantee.

    Again, thanks for these comments. They will be very helpful when it comes time to revise. (Do I know you?)


  3. Part II:

    On abandoning without ridiculing: the trouble with the idea of bedrock is that it sounds so substantial. My spade is turned because I have hit a massive obstacle. I much prefer the insubstantial, 'nothingy' language of the Tractatus. Language is not a cage. Nothing is forbidden. The idea of a proof, as you say, simply makes no sense in certain contexts. I think really you agree with Kremer on this, which is all I meant to say.

    As for Freud and the oceanic feeling, my main thought is simply that this is fascinating stuff. I'm not sure that I have this feeling or know what it is, although perhaps I do. Secondly, though, I want to say that this seems different from the Costello case, because while Freud claims to lack the oceanic feeling completely, Costello's feelings are (or seem to me) more familiar. Her audience in the novel is not very sympathetic, but don't readers of the novel have at least some sense of what she is trying to get at? Isn't vegetarianism fairly common, and the feeling that perhaps there is something in it even more common? Costello's vegetarianism looks very different from Peter Singer's, say, but I expect most vegetarians feel more the way she does than the way a Singerian ought, in theory, to feel. In short, there is a difference between the distance between Freud and Rolland (possibly infinite) and the distance between Costello and most people as I imagine them. Both cases are worth considering, but I don't think they should be treated as being the same. (On the other hand, I have been quite influenced by Elizabeth Costello, so my sense of how right or normal her views are might be distorted.)

    OK, that's enough from me. I hope this makes sense.

  4. Thanks, Matt. We've never met but we have corresponded: the DR stands for Duncan Richter.

    Anyway, a few attempts at clarification. These will be in two parts, because I have gone over the character limit.

    When I said that "people's ways of experiencing things can differ without them having different experiences" I meant that, for example, one person might experience a concert as wonderful and the other experience it as being boring without either having what one might call "an experience of wonder" or "an experience of boredom" (whatever that might be). It might help to think of the contrast between someone who visits a slaughter house and is disgusted or appalled by everything they see, on the one hand, and someone else who is more or less fine with it until suddenly it strikes them that what is happening is monstrous. Only the latter would "have an experience" in the kind of way I mean. It seems to me that in the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein is talking about having experiences in this kind of way. They are temporary. Elizabeth Costello's feelings about how animals are treated seem to me to be different. The feeling is more or less constant. Or perhaps rather, it isn't a feeling that she gets when she thinks about animals or their treatment. Rather it is the way that she thinks about our treatment of animals. Not that it's an opinion either. Does this make any more sense? (If not, it might become clearer as I go on.) The difference might not matter to your argument, but perhaps it might.

    It is relevant, I think, also to your claim that "Experiences can attune us to features of reality." In one sense, experience just is being attuned to a feature of reality. When I experience the concert as boring I am attuned to the predictability of the program, the mediocrity of the playing, and so on. The kind of experience that is an event, on the other hand, might change my view of reality. After a religious experience everything might seem different, say. I suppose all this relates to seeing things under a certain aspect. What I am calling "having an experience" might be a (more or less) sudden aspect shift, whereas what I have called a "way of experiencing" something might be simply seeing something under this or that aspect (without any significant shifting going on).

  5. Thanks, these clarifications help quite a bit. I see what you mean about Costello's "experience"; perhaps what I might do (for the sake of argument) is assume that there was some kind of forceful experience that informs her ongoing sense of horror. I also don't want to treat her situation (with respect to her unsympathetic audience) as too similar to the Freud/Rolland situation, for the reasons you mention. I should make that clearer. (The similarity would then be in how the experiences of W, Costello, and Rolland inform how they go on. A significant difference here is that it is less clear what that means in the case of W's or Rolland's experience, more clear in Costello's case.)

    I do agree with Kremer, and didn't mean to imply anything like a "massive obstacle" in the appeal to bedrock. (This, too, is something I should make sure is clear in the paper.)

    Again, thanks for the comments Duncan!