What We Mean by Experience

What We Mean by Experience

What We Mean by Experience

What We Mean by Experience

Synopsis

Social scientists and scholars in the humanities all rely on first-person descriptions of experience to understand how subjects construct their worlds. The problem they always face is how to integrate first-person accounts with an impersonal stance. Over the course of the twentieth century, this problem was compounded as the concept of experience itself came under scrutiny. First hailed as a wellspring of knowledge and the weapon that would vanquish metaphysics and Cartesianism by pragmatists like Dewey and James, by the century's end experience had become a mere vestige of both, a holdover from seventeenth-century empiricist metaphysics. This devaluation of experience has left us bereft, unable to account for first-person perspectives and for any kind of agency or intentionality.

This book takes on the critique of empiricism and the skepticism with regard to experience that has issued from two seemingly disparate intellectual strains of thought: anti-foundationalist and holistic philosophy of science and epistemology (Kuhn and Rorty, in particular) and feminist critiques of identity politics. Both strains end up marginalizing experience as a viable corrective for theory, and both share notions of human beings and cognition that cause the problem of the relation between experience and our theories to present itself in a particular way. Indeed, they render experience an intractable problem by opening up a gap between a naturalistic understanding of human beings and an understanding of humans as cultural entities, as non-natural makers of meaning. Marianne Janack aims to close this gap, to allow us to be naturalistic and hermeneutic at once. Drawing on cognitive neuroscience, the pragmatist tradition, and ecological psychology, her book rescues experience as natural contact with the world.

Excerpt

When I told people that I was writing a book about experience, I found that many of them had ideas about it: what it is, who has it, what counts as experience. For philosophers, this everyday word has a very particular meaning, however, which does not always carry over to other disciplines, and is significantly different from its ordinary language use. The term seems to have as many definitions as there are people, which has made writing this book a bit of a challenge. Not everyone will find a story here about what they think we mean by experience, but I think that the narrative line I try to draw through several of these seemingly disparate senses of the term will help illuminate some of the primary problems that have plagued feminist theory, philosophy of science, and epistemology.

And now about that narrative: because the topic of experience is potentially so vast, I have worked very hard to maintain a narrative line that can carry readers through the variety of discussions I touch on in the book. But I couldn’t address all the different discussions of experience. The feminist theory chapter was particularly troublesome in this respect. In trying to maintain some textual and narrative integrity, I had to eschew the usual approach to a literature review of the area, focusing instead on selected authors and on particularly important contributions to the discussion. I regret that I was not able to discuss the whole range of attempts to redefine or resuscitate the concept of experience. I suspect that everyone will find someone they think should have been discussed in these pages but isn’t—I apologize in advance for that, and ask the reader simply to bear in mind that I am interested in following a particular narrative thread, and that some topics and authors, while interesting, needed to be left out of the narrative so that I could focus on a larger picture of what we mean by experience. The book is a story not just about experience, but about the chasm between experience and discourse that opened . . .

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