The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Nothing gains credentials for fools like experience, just as nothing discredits the well-informed like the lack of it.

Like many themes that recur in the Great Conversation, the idea of experience extends its roots into many different fields of study. This is largely because experience, just as such, is an empty category—rather like “ounce” or “dozen.” You can have an ounce of motor oil, or the number of eggs in a carton may be a dozen; so here: what is experience of?

This question has several answers, each of which is one “root.” Obviously the senses convey experience to us, which our brain then turns into information like “this stove is hot”; we also have some feeling of the passage of time that doesn’t seem dependent on the senses, or at least not completely tied to them (i.e., we can intuit that it has “been a long time” since such-and-such even if we have observed very little change in the interim). Following either the senses or time, we would probably find ourselves in the domains of science and philosophy—either in turn or at the same time, since even now some of the grander questions and hypotheses in physics do still overlap with metaphysics. And in addition to sensation and duration, we also directly experience emotion, which would take us toward the discipline of psychology and perhaps also to the arts.

Let us begin with philosophy. The idea that experience is our chief, or even sole, guide to truth is a recurring one in the history of thought. It has been given different shapes at different times—and it does not always really meet the definition of empiricism, a word that gets lazily thrown around sometimes; realism is a better word. But it is notable that St. Thomas Aquinas, following the epistemology of Aristotle, laid down the principle that “Nothing can be in the [human] intellect which was not first in the senses.”

This stands in contrast to the doctrine of innate or a priori ideas, characteristic of idealism. The idealist Neo-Platonic school was adopted by the Catholic Church as its not-quite-but-almost official philosophy from St. Augustine’s time until, well, Aquinas, and saw a revival in the Renaissance. The difference between the two schools of thought is, largely, the role they allow to experience: does logic interpret experience, or can experience trump logic? Put so simplistically, the question is of course unanswerable; the ways in which experience and logic depend on and modify one another is subtle, and for most of us, figuring out what to apply when is (as Socrates might say) more of a knack than a craft.

The scientific method exemplifies the paradox. At first blush, one might think science was all realist and experience-defined: observation comes first, then hypothesis, and the hypothesis has to be tested over and over by new observations before it can be accepted. But then—why is that how the scientific method works? What grounds do we have for supposing that nature operates in a consistent way? Is that not one of the most gargantuan a priori assumptions ever made? Granted, the scientists are few and far between who would refuse to allow that assumption—science would seem to be impossible without it.

To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick.

Turning to the emotions. These are experiences we have long before we can articulate them or even understand them, to judge from the frequent social improprieties of babies. As we come to think, and even to feel, in more complicated, sophisticated ways, for many people, the arts become a tool not just of entertainment but of self-reflection. Not many people would pull Death Comes for the Archbishop or Wise Blood or A Canticle for Leibowitz off the shelf merely as entertainment. Works like these, with rich, knotty characters give us a place to not only “meet” new people without the practical difficulties of doing so, but opportunities to see through their eyes and perceive their inner worlds—a way to experience them as a fellow subject instead of just as an object; the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described this as changing an “I-it” relationship into an “I-thou” one, a relation between persons.

Of course, in so doing, we inevitably encounter views, or even whole personalities, that we find baffling or even repellent. There are many solutions to this problem; C. S. Lewis outlines one of the sillier and more destructive ones in the opening section of The Abolition of Man, analyzing the work of a pair of scholars who seemed to be trying to rid their students of the idea that emotions, especially responses to beauty and to certain moral norms, were significant or important. But of course we have all met the sort of person—perhaps in person, almost certainly online—who seems unable to believe that other people have different experiences and responses; people for whom, say, their instinctive loathing for Stravinsky is so total that their only ways of explaining why some people like Stravinsky are to assert that these people are either mentally sick in some way, or lying about liking him to get attention. (Neither “rebuttal” of the tastes of others is usually very effective.) But what’s particularly funny about this cast of mind is that we have all had moments in which our own experience of something changed: we suddenly discovered that now, unlike five years ago, we liked carrots or hated loud music or found geology interesting. Whatever experience is, it certainly doesn’t express anything permanent about us. Such changes are often uncomfortable, and can even be frightening if the change is extreme enough, like realizing you’ve fallen out of—or into—love. Charles Williams capture it well in his Arthurian poem “The Coming of Palomides”:

Let the queen’s grace but yield her hand
to be by such strong measure spanned—
In the summer house of the Cornish king
suddenly I ceased to sing.
Down the arm of the queen Iseult
quivered and darkened an angry bolt …
Fiery, small, and far aloof,
a tangled star in the cedar roof,
it hung; division stretched between
the queen’s identity and the queen.

As always, time would fail us to really do justice to our topic. But there is one more kind of experience that is well worth touching on as a major element in the history of culture, and that is religious experience. Of course, “religion” is not really one thing any more than “experience” is one thing; amateur students* of religion or mysticism sometimes leap to the conclusion that, since the atmospheres of religious experiences are so similar (they’re not), the thing these experiences represent or refer to must be the same thing (which doesn’t follow). It is true, especially in the history of mysticism, that there are certain recurring themes shared by most mystics, like a period of purification or the experience of revelations and visions. But these things no more make mysticism “one thing” than redness makes an apple and a fire truck the same thing. The cosmology expressed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gītā, and the moral counsel that flows naturally from that cosmology, are quite different from the intense passion of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius de Loyola; and both again contrast with the stark, almost grim, yet quietly beautiful poetry and spiritual guidance set down by St. John of the Cross in works like Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. All these sources seem to have experienced what we tend to call “the divine” (when we want to be vague), but they clearly all experienced it differently—and so did Plotinus and Rumi and St. Joan of Arc. Even if we take the highest realists’ view of the role of experience in our dealings with the highest Reality, it seems we need something more or else to come to a final conclusion.

Suggested reading:
The Book of Ezekiel
Aristotle, Posterior Analytics
St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Olaudah Equiano, Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

*It is only right to add that there are also much more intelligent versions of this same position! An amateur’s argument for believing X is usually bad because they are much less informed than they think; an expert might have expert reasons for believing X, or at least for accepting it as a likely theory.


Gabriel Blanchard finds pretexts to insert Charles Williams into any context he can, and also works for CLT occasionally. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this installment of our series on the Great Conversation (the “idea bank” counterpart to our Author Bank), you can find more entries here. One of our most popular runs in the series was the discussion of the traditional “four loves”: storgē or affection, philia or friendship, erōs or romance, and agapē or unconditional love.

Published on 15th December, 2022.


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