Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme

Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme

Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme

Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme

Synopsis

Few words in both everyday parlance and theoretical discourse have been as rhapsodically defended or as fervently resisted as "experience." Yet, to date, there have been no comprehensive studies of how the concept of experience has evolved over time and why so many thinkers in so many different traditions have been compelled to understand it. Songs of Experience is a remarkable history of Western ideas about the nature of human experience written by one of our best-known intellectual historians. With its sweeping historical reach and lucid comparative analysis--qualities that have made Martin Jay's previous books so distinctive and so successful-- Songs of Experience explores Western discourse from the sixteenth century to the present, asking why the concept of experience has been such a magnet for controversy. Resisting any single overarching narrative, Jay discovers themes and patterns that transcend individuals and particular schools of thought and illuminate the entire spectrum of intellectual history.

As he explores the manifold contexts for understanding experience--epistemological, religious, aesthetic, political, and historical--Jay engages an exceptionally broad range of European and American traditions and thinkers from the American pragmatists and British Marxist humanists to the Frankfurt School and the French poststructuralists, and he delves into the thought of individual philosophers as well, including Montaigne, Bacon, Locke, Hume and Kant, Oakeshott, Collingwood, and Ankersmit. Provocative, engaging, erudite, this key work will be an essential source for anyone who joins the ongoing debate about the material, linguistic, cultural, and theoretical meaning of "experience" in modern cultures.

Excerpt

Calling this book Songs of Experience will be understood, I hope, more as an act of homage than as a gesture of hubristic appropriation. William Blake’s justly celebrated poem cycle of the same name, counterpoised as it was to his Songs of Innocence, provides insights into what he called “the Two Contrary States of the Soul” that a sober scholarly treatise can only hope in vain to emulate. No prose “Tyger” will ever blaze as brightly in the night as did his poetry, no academic worm-eaten “Rose” ever seem as sickly. With their brilliant explorations of the religious, political, moral, and psychological implications of the Fall from grace, Blake’s poems set a standard that only the most foolhardy would try to emulate.

What makes the temptation to borrow Blake’s title so irresistible is the perfection of its fit with the subject matter of this book, which is less about the elusive reality of what is called experience than the “songs” that have been sung about it. That is, my intention is not to provide yet another account of what “experience” really is or what it might be, but rather to understand why so many thinkers in so many different traditions have felt compelled to do precisely that. Many, if not all, have done so with an urgency and intensity that rarely accompanies the attempt to define and explicate a concept. Theirs have been, I hope to show, as much “songs” of passion as sober analyses. At some times, these songs have been lyrical panegyrics, at others, elegiac laments, at still others, bitter denunciations, but they have almost always been deeply felt. “Experience,” it turns out, is a signifier that unleashes remarkable emotion in many who put special emphasis on it in their thought. “Experience, freedom,” writes a recent commentator “—these two words are per-

1. They were first published together in 1794 with a title page showing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

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