Human Experience, Art & Interaction – Philosophy

The Notion of Experience within Philosophy

The aspiration to understand and define the fundamental notion of human experience still remains a central issue of much research and debate within philosophical, scientific and artistic spheres.

Experience, as structured in philosophy, is one of many mental phenomena that construct the wide spread term of consciousness. Many cultures and religious traditions such as Buddhism place the seat of consciousness separate from the body and consider its existence prior to the emergence of all active mental processes. (Wallace, 2001, p.5)

In contrast, many scientists and philosophers consider consciousness to be linked to the neural functioning of the brain, dictating the way the world is experienced.

From an objective viewpoint, the brain is relatively comprehensible. When you look at this page, there is a whir of processing: photons strike your retina, electrical signals are passed up your optic nerve and between different areas of your brain, and eventually you might respond with a smile, a perplexed frown or a remark.

But there is also a subjective aspect. When you look at the page, you are conscious of it, directly experiencing the images and words as part of your private, mental life. You have vivid impressions of colored flowers and vibrant sky. At the same time, you may be feeling some emotions and forming some thoughts.

Together such experiences make up consciousness: the subjective, inner life of the mind. *

The European tradition of separating the body from mind; the objective reason from the subjective emotion is based in cultural, scientific and technological history.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was ravaged by religious wars. When the political situation stabilised after the Peace of Westphalia and at the end of the English Civil War, the notion of faith as the primary source of knowledge began to be questioned. This was a period when new ideas in physics, astronomy, biology, human anatomy, chemistry, and other sciences, produced a widespread change in traditional beliefs and principles held since Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages.

Technological innovations in the 18th century, such as the invention and improvement of the steam engine, were the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution. The consequences of which would dramatically change human labour conditions and social structures. Europe shifted from an agricultural, family-based economy to a capitalist, urban and industry-based economy. This required rethinking social obligations and structures. (Hooker, 1996)

Consequently the Age of Enlightenment aspired to establish a self-evident philosophy and lay the foundations for knowledge and stability. Characterised by a liberal and modern world-view, the epistemological separation between emotion and reason was introduced by René Descartes. Enlightenment scholars then followed by doubting any irrationality as emotion that did not use the reason of science. (Michalinos & Charalambos, 2004)

Richard Hooker (1996) explains how René Descartes tore down previous forms of knowledge and replaced them with a single truth: ‘I think, therefore I am’. He argues that in European culture from that point onwards, the individual’s perception of the truth would hold a more important epistemological place over the commonly shared truth. Scepticism would be part of every inquiry and the mind would be separated from the body.

Hooker clarifies Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637) where he lays out all the essential ingredients of Cartesianism:

Descartes describes how he arrived at a radical skepticism. Suppose the entire world and universe were a lie created by the devil: how could you prove that what you see around you is not a lie? How could you prove that various mathematical truths are indeed true and not some satanic fraud?

Descartes finds that when he investigates all the human sciences, he can’t prove them to be true against the objection that they might be false. So, he quite literally stops believing in everything…

While mulling over the problem, Descartes suddenly realizes that the very fact that he is thinking proves that he, Descartes, exists: Cogito, ergo sum , “I think, therefore I am.” For if he didn’t exist, he wouldn’t be thinking. **

The philosopher Immanuel Kant challenged the sceptical extremes of the Enlightenment. (Hackett, 1992) While appreciating science and reason, he was determined to shift philosophy to a more sensible position. His ideas in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), ushered in a new age of philosophic idealism.

Lewis Hackett (1992) notes that Kant insisted that sensory experience had to be interpreted by the mind’s internal patterns. This meant that certain ideas existed before the sensory experience occurred, such as the ideas of beauty, cause and God. Where none were learned directly through the senses yet all were understood.

Hackett continues to explain that according to Kant’s philosophic system the human consciousness may be effected by experience, but it originates in the person’s thinking nature. Therefore reason can be used to give a philosophic base to metaphysics.

In the early years of the 20th century Edmund Husserl developed a philosophical study of consciousness called Phenomenology. It emerged as a response to the control of ‘scientific method’ and its requirements. The critique was that in order to study knowledge there was the need to engage with phenomena.

Husserl proposed a method for the objective study of the subjective topics of consciousness and the content of conscious experiences, including judgment, perception and emotion. (Wang & Wagner, 2007)

The central phenomenological structure of an experience is its intentionality, a term reintroduced by Husserl’s teacher the philosopher Franz Brentano. Intentionality describes the way that conscious experience is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world.

Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on.

This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves. ***

In phenomenological terms intersubjectivity constitutes objectivity and is available through empathy. Therefore it refers to the experience of another human body as another subjectivity apart from oneself. In Husserl’s view, this is done by apperception built on the experiences of your own lived-body.

One way to attempt understanding how the concept of empathy works is by putting one self as an example. Your body is experienced as a duality, both as an object [i.e. you can touch your own hand] and as your own subjectivity [i.e. you are being touched].

The experience of your own body as your own subjectivity can be applied to the experience of another body, where through comprehension using past experiences [i.e. experiencing being touched], is constituted as another subjectivity. As a result you can recognise another’s intentions and emotions [i.e. recognise what someone else experiencing as you have experienced in the past].

Husserl recognized that consciousness is already embedded and operating in a world of meanings and pre-judgements that are socially, culturally, and historically constituted. Therefore he introduced the concept of the ‘Lifeworld’ in his Crisis of European Sciences (1936) that explained it as a background for all experiences and is both personal and intersubjective.

* Chalmers, 1995    ** Hooker, 1996     *** Brentano, Edited by McAlister, 1995