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

By Martin Jay | Go to book overview

THREE
The Appeal of Religious Experience
Schleiermacher, James, Otto, and Buber

THE REDUCTION OF EXPERIENCE to a question of cognition, whether pursued in empiricist or idealist terms, not only produced the epistemological conundrums that continue to bedevil philosophy in the present century, but also left a gnawing sense that something important in human life had been sacrificed. Contrasting Michel de Montaigne’s more robust notion with that emanating from René Descartes, Giorgio Agamben alerts us to what was lost:

Inasmuch as its goal was to advance the individual to maturity—that is, an an-
ticipation of death as the idea of an achieved totality of experience—[experience]
was something complete in itself, something it was possible to have, not only
to undergo. But once experience was referred instead to the subject of science,
which cannot reach maturity but can only increase its own knowledge, it be-
comes something incomplete, an “asymptotic” concept, as Kant will say, some-
thing it is possible only to undergo, never to have: nothing other, therefore, than
the infinite process of knowledge.1

Such a reduction of experience to its scientific variant based on an imagined collective subject, at once impersonal and immortal, opened a space for competing options. If “an achieved totality of experience” in Montaigne’s sense no longer seemed possible, what can be called the “modalization” of experience might favor partial alternatives that could provide what the epistemological variant lacked. Two in particular emerged from the shadow of experience as a cognitive tool in the eighteenth century. The first of these

1. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London, 1993), p. 23.

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