March 22, 2012

The what and the how of experience

I wish to thank Matthew Pianalto for his stimulating response to my blog of 5 February. It made me reflect on how the idea of sharing an experience enters into the discussion. His paper also raises a number of interesting issues connected with this theme.

In his comment, Matthew sums up the issue as follows:
The difficulty ... is relational: about how to share a baffling (or awesome, etc.) experience with another.

My first response to this was to say: we have to distinguish between different senses in which an experience may be shared. In one sense, two persons who have been rescued from a sinking ship or who have been victims of a robbery or who have suffered a stroke share an experience: this is an experience they have in common. All the same, their shared experience may have been highly different. For one thing, of course, the circumstances may have been different: one robbery was minor, the other was serious, etc. (The "what" was different.) To allow for this, let us suppose what they experienced was one and the same event: say, they were both robbed together (the same "what"). Even so, the way they experienced it may have been different: say, one of them was able to shrug off the event, for the other it became a life-shattering experience, leading to an awareness of vulnerability and lack of control, or to an awakened awareness of the social injustices driving young people to desperate actions. Etc. (A difference in the "how".)

On reflecting, however, I realized that the nature of this distinction may easily be misunderstood. The "what" and the "how" are not independent of one another. The way I shall describe the situation I, or you, have experienced (what I take the "what" to have been) will be expressive of how I experience it. (What I took to be a robbery was to you just a harmless attempt at intimidation.)

Or maybe this would be a better way of putting it: what, for any given speaker, comes under the heading of "what" and what comes under the heading of "how" depends on what aspects of a situation he or she is able to see as open to question. Something becomes "a matter of how" when (roughly speaking) a person realizes that that is a perspective she might have missed. (She may then either think it an open question who was right, or she may think her perspective correct but recognize that in this case competent judges could get things wrong.)

In other words: if I can only see the duck I will call this a duck (and I will think you wrong if you claim to see a rabbit); if I can see both the duck and the rabbit I will call this a duck-rabbit (and I won't consider either description wrong).

In his paper, Matthew writes that the
oftentimes immense difficulty of putting our experiences into words that enable others to share in those experiences is what often also makes it difficult to motivate our ethical claims (p 10).

Differences in how we experience things may be of many different kinds. Matthew discusses the example of Elizabeth Costello's horror at the way animals are treated in slaughterhouses (in Coetzee's novel of that title), as well as her incomprehension that most other people may witness or be aware of what goes on in slaughterhouses, yet not share her horror.

Matthew speaks about "the difficulties of articulating (in a convincing way) the reality not only of her experience but also what it reveals ". I would suggest, however, that it is misleading to want to distinguish between an experience in itself and what is revealed by it: the experience, one might say, is (partly) constituted by what it reveals.

He imagines an interchange between Costello and someone who does not experience the situation the way she does. He writes:
... unless there is some reason to think that Costello’s horror, as it were, reveals some feature of reality to which her distinctive response is appropriate, rather than that her experience is just a peculiar way of responding to an already fully shared and accessible reality—say, the reality of what happens in a slaughterhouse—then it will be difficult for Costello to convince others that she has seen something they have not (p 15).

I would question this way of setting things up. It makes it sound as if there were some method, independently of how we see things - or can be brought to see them - for determining what is there to be seen: a way of establishing the "what" independently of any conceivable "how". I don't think there is such a method. I would suggest matters are to be turned around here: it is by getting someone to see things the way I see them (and to recognize that way of seeing them as authoritative) that I can get them to recognize that what I claim to see is really there to be seen.

According to Matthew, Costello would have two ways of bringing the other around to her way of seeing things:
She might seek to draw attention to specific details, to see if this direction of attention can bring about an experience (and judgment) like hers, or she might seek to show that the reaction of the critic results from a malformed psychology (or sensibility), where this latter task draws attention to features of the critic apart from (but which give rise to) his reactions when he faces or reflects on the things that horrify Costello. The prior approach might involve, for example, drawing attention to the behavior of animals nearing slaughter; the latter approach would involve observations of the form, “You grew up on a pig farm, so of course you’re insensitive to the suffering of these animals!”

The first method would concern the matter of the what, i.e. it would presuppose that the disagreement is not profound. The second, ad hominem, method might conceivably nudge the other in the direction of changing his mind, but we might as well imagine him turning around and saying: that is precisely why I have a clear notion of what goes on in the slaughterhouse. Or it might make him ashamed of his views, make him pretend to change his mind, but that of course is not what Costello is after. To change his mind he would, himself, have to come to see things differently, and there can be no technique for bringing that about - it may happen or it may not.

(I should mention that the kind of seeing that an actual confrontation may bring about may be of two kinds: I may come to think I was wrong in thinking that slaughtering animals is humane; or: while I have realized the cruelty of slaughter, I may not be moved by this insight until I visit a slaughterhouse. I hope to get back to this distinction.)


  1. Thanks for these thoughts. What you say about what I wrote on p. 15 of the draft makes perfect sense, and what you say at the end for there being "no technique" for bringing it about that the other person change his own mind helps clarify that. "Seeing things differently," however, might itself be ambiguous. On the one hand, I might come to see things as Costello does. On the other hand, I might come to see that her experience reveals something that I myself am blind to. This is the sort of thing I was thinking about in the Freud/Rolland case, and it's relevant to thinking about mystical experience and "revelation." I might start off skeptical of religious experiences or "revelations." But by encountering a person who, for one reason or another, leads me to begin trusting in the idea that such experiences are real and have some kind of validity, I come to see things differently. But that can occur even though I myself have not had such an experience myself.

    1. The case in which the other's response reveals something to me about a situation even though I do not see it for myself is an interesting possibility. Apparently, that would involve the other coming to constitute an authority for me. In consequence, I would judge that there must be something in the situation to which I was blind.
      The Rolland-Freud correspondence, however, seems to me quite different from the imagined dialogue between Costello and her critic. In the Costello case, the critic is being challenged by what goes on in the slaughterhouse. For him to acknowledge that Costello is right (either by coming to see it himself or by accepting her as an authority) will have consequences for his way of life. He might decide to become a vegetarian, or never to eat certain kinds of meat, or never to eat the meat distributed by certain companies, etc. On the other hand, he might go on as before, but that, I take it, would require some form of denial or self-deception, given that he had come to acknowledge Costello's perception. He could not accept it and at the same claim that it had no bearing on his own life.
      There is no corresponding challenge to Freud in Rolland's "oceanic" experience, which he describes as “the simple and direct fact of the feeling of the ‘eternal’". For one thing, this is not an experience of any particular object or situation, the way Costello's experience is. So there's no question of whether Rolland (who has the experience) or Freud (who doesn't) are getting things right. Because of this, in turn, it isn't clear why Freud feels challenged by Rolland's experience. It does not involve the assertion of anything denied by Freud, or vice versa. Possibly, Freud is bothered by the fact that someone like Rolland, whom he evidently admires, should be open to this type of experience, which in his mind must have belonged to the category of "the irrational". He seems to have thought it needed to be explained away. A person of a different bent of mind might have encountered Rolland's experience with respect. In neither case, however, would there be a question of agreeing or disagreeing with the experience, the way there is in the Costello case.