Experientialism and Reality

by Mark English

Daniel Kaufman has written on a number of occasions of certain unfortunate trends in contemporary culture, some involving a disconnect between self-perceptions and social reality. In the past he has highlighted the moral vacuousness and hypocrisy associated with ‘the cult of the self’ as well as the distortions and dangers of identity politics. He recently wrote an historically-oriented piece on hedonism and, while I might quibble with one or two of his historical claims and interpretations, his diagnosis of our current problems seems to me compelling.

“Modern hedonism,” he wrote, “is only secondarily about pleasure. At its core, it is an experientialist philosophy, by which I mean that it treats the value of any thing or activity as lying solely in the experience that is engendered by it. What is valuable about playing tennis is not the playing itself, but the experience one has in doing so. What is valuable about charitable activity is not the activity itself, but the experience that one has in engaging in it and that others have in being the object of it. What is valuable about rising to the top of one’s profession is not that one has done so, but the experience that having done so effects in oneself and others.”

The essential problem with focusing almost exclusively on the quality of personal experience is that it leads to a decontextualized and thus impoverished view of ourselves. Essentially we are cutting ourselves off from reality.

As Dan puts it, “it matters that we actually do things, not just have the experience of doing them, pleasurable as the experience might be.” He claims that most of us care about whether we actually are good tennis players or charitable givers or successful professionals. What counts is whether we actually succeed in our endeavors, not simply that we feel that we have done so.

Virtual reality technologies have brought these issues to the fore in a dramatic way. Previously dreamers – epitomized, for example, by James Thurber’s Walter Mitty – were seen as dreamers, and were laughed at or pitied. Mitty had a domineering wife and found satisfaction and fulfilment only in his fantasies (where he was a fearless wartime pilot or an assassin or a brilliant surgeon). It was all very silly and funny, albeit in a dark kind of way.

The film industry and publishers of popular and pulp fiction have always been in the business satisfying (generally innocent) escapist needs or tendencies, and along the way these dream factories produced some gems amongst the dross, works which captured something of abiding value from the cultures within which they were created. In our world, however, technologies of the imagination have developed to the point where they are radically changing the cultural landscape, and large numbers of people are being seduced into alternative realities – or apparent realities.

The reach and scope and scale of these technologies represent a profound and qualitative change – not just more of the same – as they are now interactive and deeply embedded in individual lives. They inevitably affect the way many of us live and conceptualize reality. And arguably they have the effect of accentuating, validating and reinforcing natural tendencies towards self-delusion, escapism and solipsism.

The version of “experientialism” which Kaufman is attacking needs to be distinguished from that of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson which is basically an epistemological position associated with what they call a “basic realism” (which involves a commitment to the existence of a world beyond human consciousness and also to the fact that we have access to a relatively stable body of knowledge about that world).

Experientialism in Kaufman’s sense (in contrast to that of Lakoff and Johnson) seems almost solipsistic in that it ignores – or at least downplays or undervalues – the real-world context of our lives. It lacks even the basic realism to which Lakoff and Johnson are committed, and could be rejected on this basis alone (i.e. leaving aside value-based questions altogether).

It seems to me that doubting or downplaying the existence of a wider world within which we exist and concerning which we have objective or at least “stable” knowledge (as Lakoff and Johnson put it) is one of the symptoms of the sort of self-indulgent and deluded thinking which characterizes and (in my opinion) mars our contemporary culture in many ways and at many levels. It is particularly insidious within Western educational bureaucracies which have become echo-chambers and vehicles for perpetuating a set of currently fashionable ideas – some out-and-out political, some based on dubious notions of identity and creativity. Goals such as providing a framework for real learning and intellectual exploration have been largely eclipsed by other preoccupations.

Particularly insidious, in my opinion, is the influence of postmodernist (and other) strands of thought which promote epistemic relativism. These philosophies have had the unfortunate effect of giving cover to those who care nothing for intellectual or scholarly values and seek to remake society in their own image.

I acknowledge that there is genuine controversy about the extent to which a common-sense or scientific realism can be maintained. As I see it, however, some form of common-sense realism must be right, and there is evidence that at least a basic kind of realism finds support from thinkers representing a very broad range of intellectual perspectives. Strictly speaking it is not a consensus, but you can discern, I think, a strong convergence amongst serious intellectuals on this issue.

In the latter part of the last century, supporters of scientific realism and “objective knowledge” (like Karl Popper, for example) were not normally seen as being associated with the progressive left but there is no intrinsic reason why particular views on – or forms of – realism should be or need to be correlated with particular political positions. There are countless examples – from Marx and Engels on – of left-wing thinkers who have had views which are diametrically opposed to epistemic relativism. I have already noted that even the experientialist George Lakoff – well-known as a left-wing political activist and polemicist – has explicitly defended a form of realism.

Another indication that at least a loose consensus holds on this general issue and encompasses a broad ideological spectrum is the continuing respect accorded to Martin Heidegger (in spite of his dubious politics). Heidegger’s later work was driven to a large extent by literary/aesthetic rather than traditional philosophical or scientific considerations. Heidegger unequivocally rejected a solipsistic view (typified by the Cartesian ego). Increasingly his focus was not on individual existence or experience but rather on the context of our existence: the wider – ultimately cosmic – reality in which we find ourselves and of which we are a part.

I am not saying that all these forms of realism are equivalent. Heidegger is a long way from Popper, for example. But I think you can draw a line between views which are potentially compatible with common sense and science and views which are more logically and epistemologically unconstrained and supportive of various forms of epistemic relativism. (The latter, as it happens, are often based in Hegelian or other forms of philosophical idealism which see pure thought or consciousness as constitutive of reality.)

23 Comments »

  1. If one holds there is something ineffable about the quale of things perceived, then concentrating on experience might be the way to go. Pleasant experience is then not a low animal thing (viz criticisms of utilitarianism) but uniquely human. The meta-cognitive pleasures of understanding and problem solving are even more so – are the meta-cognitive sensations (eg tip-of-tongue) incorrigible qualia too? I am yet to read Bernard Suits’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, but his thesis is apparently Homo ludens writ large.

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    • David

      Cryptic as usual! Can’t say I fully get your point.

      “If one holds there is something ineffable about the quale of things perceived, then concentrating on experience might be the way to go.”

      For living, yes. For theorizing, not so much.

      I totally accept that much is ineffable, but this is precisely what someone with a broadly scientific view of the world would predict/expect to be the case. Why should we be able to put everything into words?

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  2. Thanks Mark ,
    Your essay expresses well some issues that gave me trouble in Dan’s essay. The idea of ‘experience’ being something enclosed, or self-contained is foriegn to the way I think of the concept.

    I have always thought of having an ‘experience’ as connecting to reality (not cutting oneself off from it), being engaged in or with worldly situations (as opposed to intellectualizing or rationalizing with concepts). To play tennis is to have an experience, but to play it well is important because the skillful player will see the nuance in the unfolding situations more fully then the unskilled player. The skillful player will be more connected to the reality.

    Another modern philosopher you didn’t mention who takes a non-standard commonsense realist position is Crispin Sartwell. Sartwell has done a number of videos with Dan, you might find ideas interesting. Check out his ‘Entanglements, a System of Philosophy’.

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  3. “But I think you can draw a line between views which are potentially compatible with common sense and science and views which are more logically and epistemologically unconstrained and supportive of various forms of epistemic relativism. (The latter, as it happens, are often based in Hegelian or other forms of philosophical idealism which see pure thought or consciousness as constitutive of reality.)”

    (1) Kantian and post-Kantian idealisms have the conceptual resources to explain the possibility of there being objects whose spatial, temporal, and causal properties are independent of any particular agent or mind and are available for discovery. Cartoon idealism might not be “potentially compatible with common sense and science,” but the genuine idealists in our tradition had powerful arguments to the effect that only idealism can explain the possibility of the scientific endeavor. Thus, their idealisms would be at least “potentially compatible with common sense and science” — the latter, they often argued, developing out of the former, but both possible only if some kind of idealism holds.

    (2) When you say that idealists “see pure thought or consciousness as constitutive of reality,” you’re using the word “reality” as if the content of the concept it expresses is univocal, fixed, and obvious, which stacks the deck against those, like the German idealists, who worked to disambiguate the various senses. (See Austin, too, on the polysemy of “real” and its cognates.) Kant, for example, argued that there were at least two conceptualizations of “mind-independence.” One of those conceptualizations made it possible to make sense of the possibility of science; the other set things up for phenomenalism or solipsism to be the only philosophical option.

    Of course, I can’t recapitulate all the arguments here. I just wanted to flag, and not argue for, the notion that the incompatibility of idealism and commonsense scientific realism is *not obvious.*

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    • Animal Symbolicum

      “When you say that idealists “see pure thought or consciousness as constitutive of reality,” you’re using the word “reality” as if the content of the concept it expresses is univocal, fixed, and obvious, which stacks the deck against those, like the German idealists, who worked to disambiguate the various senses…”

      First of all, I did not mean to claim what you are saying I am claiming. I said that views which are relatively logically and epistemologically unconstrained and supportive of various forms of epistemic relativism “are often based in Hegelian or other forms of philosophical idealism which see pure thought or consciousness as constitutive of reality.”

      You are not reading the final “which” clause in the way I meant it. I am talking here about *certain forms of idealism*, not all forms of idealism.

      “I just wanted to flag, and not argue for, the notion that the incompatibility of idealism and commonsense scientific realism is *not obvious.*”

      I did not say it was, and nor do I believe that all forms of idealism are incompatible with a scientific view.

      I did not mention Kant, I mentioned Hegel.

      You obviously have an attachment to Kantian approaches. Fine. But I myself don’t find Kant useful.

      You say that “Kantian and post-Kantian idealisms have the conceptual resources to explain the possibility of there being objects whose spatial, temporal, and causal properties are independent of any particular agent or mind and are available for discovery” and that there are “powerful arguments to the effect that only idealism can explain the possibility of the scientific endeavor.”

      You seem to be saying that in order to consistently espouse the views I have, I have to adopt some kind of (post-Kantian?) idealism.

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      • Mark English:

        “You are not reading the final ‘which’ clause in the way I meant it.”

        True. I see now. My mistake. You’re saying that we can trace some “logically and epistemologically unconstrained” views (I like that way of putting it!) to various forms of idealism.

        “You seem to be saying that in order to consistently espouse the views I have, I have to adopt some kind of (post-Kantian?) idealism.”

        Maybe I *seem* to be saying that, but that’s not what I intended to say. Sorry for not being clearer. I just wanted to register the fact, which you left implicit, that there are various forms of idealism that, when articulated honestly, are not only compatible with scientific realism but, in some cases, explain the possibility of the scientific endeavor. There are other, non-idealist explanations of such possibility, of course.

        “You obviously have an attachment to Kantian approaches.”

        It’s actually not obvious. I’ve nowhere asserted Kantian views or espoused Kantian approaches. I’ve given them an expression, and noted some theoretical virtues, but I’ve not affirmed that which I’ve expressed. What’s obvious, I think, is the difference between expressing a view and affirming it.

        And even if I did “have an attachment to Kantian approaches”: I’ll be the first to admit that there are such things as philosophical tastes or temperaments or “attachments,” but I think it’s dialectically more fruitful to refrain from straightaway reducing someone else’s commentary as evincing an “attachment” rather than, say, a reasonable point of view.

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        • Animal Symbolicum

          When I said that you “obviously have an attachment to Kantian approaches”, I was really making an educated guess based on details of the way you phrased your original comment. We all have attachments and aversions. Mine, no doubt, are all too obvious!

          “… I think it’s dialectically more fruitful to refrain from straightaway reducing someone else’s commentary as evincing an “attachment” rather than, say, a reasonable point of view.”

          Okay, but the former does not preclude the latter and I did not mean to suggest that it would.

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    • Alan

      James Franklin, to whose paper you link, has (being a Catholic) different preoccupations from mine. His concerns with postmodernism etc. relate just as much (if not more so) to *moral* relativism as to epistemic relativism.

      But the example of Franklin does serve to underscore the fact (which I emphasized in the essay) that commonsense or scientific realism can be associated with a very broad range of intellectual and ideological perspectives.

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      • Mark, no doubt James Franklin is coming from a different viewpoint than yours, but his model is David Stove, who was no friend of any religion and who was hostile to Popper and others because they were (in his view) undercutting the integrity of modern science. Stove’s book “Anything Goes” is one of the most intellectually enjoyable things I have read.

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  4. First off, I agree that there is more than one form of ‘experentialism,’ as I remarked to Dan’s article.

    I have two quibbles nagging at me while I read this:

    First, the phrase ‘post-modernists’ is an equally loose term. I have pointed out elsewhere that there are at least two sets of post-modern writers – those who advocate post-modern relativism, of which you rightly complain, and for whom I have no use; and those who have tried to understand the current historical context which finds the exhaustion of modernist narratives realized in increasingly fragmented cultures. Such writers I have real interest in, and a number of them I respect and admire.

    Secondly, I find an odd disconnect in complaining about the influence of new technologies, such as those used in virtual reality machines, while expressing faith in the sciences – which made the virtual reality machines not only possible but inevitable. If I were to swallow this disconnect whole, the only way to resolve it would be to assume that science should just be a knowledge – it should hang around in libraries, while we maintain the culture of Modernity and its values with Modernity’s technologies – “Film? OK, but virtual reality, never!”

    Of course that’s an exaggeration of a possible interpretation of your position. To be more charitable, one might say that the position calls for greater responsibility on the part of those developing, or using, the new technologies – and I would strongly agree.

    But I always admit to pessimism – I don’t expect any such demonstration of responsibility, from either the producers or the consumers of the new technologies.

    These new technologies and the effects they have on our cultures are part of the Post-Modern scene. It is indeed unclear that they could have achieved the current level of their development had not Modernism to some extent unleashed the kind of self-centered hedonism of which Dan complained. Capitalism expands by multiplying desires. Some may remember having friends who, when compact disc came out, simply had to buy the complete works of the Beatles – again. And by then Julian Lennon was recording, so he had to be added to that collection, and then his live performance DVD, and various magazines in which he was interviewed, and now Wi-Fi access to his website (julianlennon.com/) – and eventually someone will devise a virtual reality encounter with all the Beatles and their children, etc. (The first public virtual reality experiment – if I remember correctly – was conducted in a theater in Disney World; it was a Michael Jackson video.).

    I’ve always seen myself as committed to the values of what literaturists call “High Modernity” – from the Armory show of 1905 to the beginnings of the Second World War. But that is a commitment to the past – the way I have a commitment to the memory of my family – who are all dead.

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    • ejwinner

      “[T]here are … post-modern writers … who have tried to understand the current historical context which finds the exhaustion of modernist narratives realized in increasingly fragmented cultures.”

      I am not sure who you are referring to here but I readily admit that terms like modernism and postmodernism can have a range of meanings. No doubt some of the things I am saying could be seen to be drawing on elements of both.

      “Secondly, I find an odd disconnect in complaining about the influence of new technologies, such as those used in virtual reality machines, while expressing faith in the sciences – which made the virtual reality machines not only possible but inevitable.”

      Yes, the new technologies (like older technologies) derive from scientific advances. But this only confirms my “faith” (as you put it) that science gives us real knowledge of the world. I don’t see a disconnect here. I never said science always has good social consequences. Clearly it doesn’t.

      “If I were to swallow this disconnect whole, the only way to resolve it would be to assume that science should just be a knowledge – it should hang around in libraries, while we maintain the culture of Modernity and its values with Modernity’s technologies – “Film? OK, but virtual reality, never!”

      When I write about these things I do so primarily as an observer.

      “Of course that’s an exaggeration of a possible interpretation of your position. To be more charitable, one might say that the position calls for greater responsibility on the part of those developing, or using, the new technologies – and I would strongly agree.”

      As you say, this is not going to happen on the part of developers. But, though we are all susceptible to some extent to being manipulated by marketers and by peers, individuals can still come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions about how they want to spend their leisure time.

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  5. I guess that I am a bit confused. If someone says that there is nothing more to the Moon than the experience of the Moon, then I agree that they are denying reality and that they have a position which is generally incompatible with science.

    But if someone says that there is nothing more to a value than the experience of a value, or nothing more to fulfillment, eudaemonia, moral imperatives or virtue than the experience of fulfillment, the experience of eudaemonia or the feeling that something is a moral imperative or that something is virtuous, then their position is quite consistent with scientific realism.

    Indeed those who are realists about values, about fulfillment, eudaemonia, moral imperatives, virtue are the ones who seem to be inconsistent with scientific realism.

    The discussion was initiated with a discussion on hedonism, and the radical hedonist is generally not an Experientialist with respect to physical reality like the Moon, but rather Experientialists with respect to value, fulfillment, eudaemonia, moral imperatives, virtue etc.

    To say, for example, sucn-and-such really is important, and that it is not just that we feel it is important, is something which is inconsistent with scientific realism.

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    • “To say, for example, such-and-such really is important, and that it is not just that we feel it is important, is something which is inconsistent with scientific realism.”

      Generally speaking, a scientific realist is committed to a literal reading of scientific theories, to the mind-independent existence of things mentioned in those theories, and to the knowledge-status of those theories. (See here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-realism/.)

      But she can read scientific theories literally, affirm the mind-independent existence of electrons, and count those theories as knowledge all without supposing that the things mentioned in the theories are the *only* things that exist, or even the only things that exist mind-independently. It’s a further philosophical commitment, and one that’s not implied by scientific realism, to insist that scientific objects are the only things that exist — independently of the mind or not.

      Thus you can, with no inconsistency whatsoever, be a scientific realist and a value realist.

      I’m not saying that values are mind-independent; I’m saying that if they are, their mind-independence is compatible with scientific realism, and so the truth or falsity of scientific realism won’t settle the issue. Your target might be certain forms of naturalism or scientism.

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  6. In fact the largest source of epistemic relativism is from our scientific realists.

    They say that nothing is a priori and that everything is up for grabs, mathematics, logic etc are all just inventions of humans and their value lies in their utility.

    OK, so why then is the truth of the scientific realist better than the truth of the religious fanatic? We might say that the religious fanatic has no evidence for his position, but the axiom “you must have evidence” is just a fiction invented by humans and is no better than the fanatics axiom “I don’t need no fricking evidence”.

    “But your position is inconsistent” we might tell the religious fanatic, but that assumes that the axiom “propositions must be consistent” is better than the fanatic’s counter axiom “propositions don’t need to be consistent”.

    If logic and mathematics are fictions, the value of which reside purely in their utility then the fanatic’s axioms are on solid ground because they have great utility to him and his. Indeed they have helped him conquer large amounts of land using very little resources and held out against some of the most technically advanced civilisations in the world and given them undreamt of power to do as they please.

    So the truth of the scientific realist is no better than the truth of the religious fanatic and the religious fanatic’s axioms are even superior to those of the scientific realist, by the scientific realists own thesis.

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    • Robin

      “If someone says that there is nothing more to the Moon than the experience of the Moon, then I agree that they are denying reality and that they have a position which is generally incompatible with science.”

      Agreed.

      “But if someone says that there is nothing more to a value than the experience of a value, or nothing more to fulfillment, eudaemonia, moral imperatives or virtue than the experience of fulfillment, the experience of eudaemonia or the feeling that something is a moral imperative or that something is virtuous, then their position is quite consistent with scientific realism.”

      You are referring back to claims Dan was making in the previous essay, but I will respond without taking that essay or that discussion into account. I agree with your statement.

      “Indeed those who are realists about values, about fulfillment, eudaemonia, moral imperatives, virtue are the ones who seem to be inconsistent with scientific realism.”

      Could be.

      “The discussion was initiated with a discussion on hedonism and the radical hedonist is generally not an Experientialist with respect to physical reality like the Moon, but rather Experientialists with respect to value, fulfillment, eudaemonia, moral imperatives, virtue etc.”

      Okay, but this relates back to Dan’s piece. My preoccupations are slightly different from his.

      “To say, for example, such-and-such really is important, and that it is not just that we feel it is important, is something which is inconsistent with scientific realism.”

      I am inclined to agree.

      “In fact the largest source of epistemic relativism is from our scientific realists… They say that nothing is a priori and that everything is up for grabs, mathematics, logic etc are all just inventions of humans and their value lies in their utility.”

      Not all scientific realists say this. I don’t. In the essay I was criticizing views which were *logically* as well as empirically unconstrained.

      “… so why then is the truth of the scientific realist better than the truth of the religious fanatic? We might say that the religious fanatic has no evidence for his position, but the axiom “you must have evidence” is just a fiction invented by humans and is no better than the fanatics axiom “I don’t need no fricking evidence”.”

      You are giving a very distorted picture of scientific realism here. Note that I was talking about commonsense and scientific realism. They go together in my view. And to make up some “axiom” about evidence is not particularly helpful. Science is not just about evidence, it is also about using maths, models, reasoning, etc. *in an integrated way*.

      ““But your position is inconsistent” we might tell the religious fanatic, but that assumes that the axiom “propositions must be consistent” is better than the fanatic’s counter axiom “propositions don’t need to be consistent”.”

      You make a serious point here. That’s why I say that with logic it is not “anything goes”.

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