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.)