The Critique of Experience

Nick’s question about the status of Dewey’s concept of experience—and the preference for the term “practice” in writers like Latour—makes me feel like I have fallen into a deep well.  I will try to talk about “practice” and what that concept entails in future posts.  For now, I just want to consider the critique of experience.  I will start out with Joan Scott’s extremely influential 1991 essay “The Evidence of Experience” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1991) and then move on to Richard Rorty’s explicit critique of Dewey’s reliance on experience (in the essay “Dewey’s Metaphysics” in Consequences of Pragmatism [University of Minnesota Press, 1982: 72-89).

Here’s a long passage from Scott that lays out her argument (note her reliance on the term “practice” in making her case):

Michel de Certeau’s description is apt. “Historical discourse,” he writes, “gives itself credibility in the name of the reality which it is supposed to represent, but this authorized appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organizes it.”

When the evidence offered is the evidence of “experience,” the claim for referentiality is further buttressed–what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation–as a foundation on which analysis is based–that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference. By remaining within the epistemological frame of orthodox history, these studies lose the possibility of examining those assumptions and practices that excluded considerations of difference in the first place. They take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference. They locate resistance outside its discursive construction and reify agency as an inherent attribute of individuals, thus decontextualizing it.

When experience is taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it) becomes the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built. Questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision is structured–about language (or discourse) and history–are left aside. The evidence of experience then becomes evidence for the fact of difference, rather than a way of exploring how difference is established, how it operates, how and in what ways it constitutes subjects who see and act in the world.

To put it another way, the evidence of experience, whether conceived through a metaphor of visibility or in any other way that takes meaning as transparent, reproduces rather than contests given ideological systems–those that assume that the facts of history speak for themselves and those that rest on notions of a natural or established opposition between, say, sexual practices and social conventions, between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Histories that document the “hidden” world of homosexuality, for example, show the impact [of] silence and repression on the lives of those affected by it and bring [to] light the history of their suppression and exploitation. But the project making experience visible precludes critical examination of the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation (homosexual/heterosexual, man/woman, black/white as fixed immutable identities), its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate, and of its notions of subjects, origin, and cause.

Homosexual practices are seen as the result of desire, conceived as a natural force operating outside or in opposition to social regulation. In these stories homosexuality is presented as a repressed desire (experience denied), made to seem invisible, abnormal, and silenced by a “society” that legislates heterosexuality as the only normal practice. Because this kind (homosexual) desire cannot ultimately be repressed–because experience is there–it invents institutions to accommodate itself. These institutions are unacknowledged but not invisible; indeed, it is the possibility that they can be seen that threatens order and ultimately overcomes repression. Resistance and agency are presented as driven by uncontainable desire; emancipation is a teleological story in which desire ultimately overcomes social control and becomes visible. History is a chronology that makes experience visible, but in which categories appear as nonetheless ahistorical: desire, homosexuality, heterosexuality, femininity, masculinity, sex, and even sexual practices become so many fixed entities being played out over time, but not themselves historicized. Presenting the story in this way excludes, or at least understates, the historically variable interrelationship between the meanings “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” the constitutive force each has for the other, and the contested and changing nature of the terrain that they simultaneously occupy. (pages 777-778.)

Scott’s position is clear enough.  Inspired by Foucault’s notion of “discursive power,” she is saying that there is no innocent experience.  Rather, what we experience is shaped by the categories through which we process and understand what happens to us, what we see, and whom/what we encounter.  Furthermore, the experiencing self has also been shaped by the culture/society of which it is a member.  A consequential analysis of an historical scene must take those shaping processes into account, must make evident that that scene is historical through and through, the contingent product of a construction that could have been otherwise.

Rorty’s critique of Dewey takes the same path.  “Experience” in Dewey is a metaphysical term—and belies Dewey’s more productive efforts to escape metaphysics altogether.  For Scott, experience “naturalizes” that which should be understood as historical and constructed.  Rorty makes much the same move.  He opens the essay by quoting, approvingly, a late letter from Dewey to Bentley in which Dewey says he is thinking of a writing a new edition of Experience and Nature.  This time around, Dewey will “change the title as well as the subject matter . . . to Nature and Culture.  I was dumb not to have seen the need for such a shift when the old text was written.  I was still hopeful that the philosophic word ‘Experience’ could be redeemed by being returned to its idiomatic usages—which was a piece of historic folly, the hope I mean” (quoted in Rorty, 72).

For Rorty, it’s a choice between Kant and Hegel.  Rorty sees Dewey as accepting the break with Humean empiricism which recognizes “that intuitions without concepts [are] blind and that no data [are] ever ‘raw’”(83).  Once accepting that basic fact, the Kantian sees the concepts as universal, shared by all rational creatures, while the Hegelian sees the concepts as historically and culturally relative all the way down.  Rorty writes: “By being ‘Hegelian’ I mean here treating the cultural developments which Kant thought it was the task of philosophy to preserve and protect as simply temporary stopping-places for the World Spirit” (85) Dewey, Rorty tells us, “agrees with Hegel that the starting point of philosophic thought is bound to be the dialectical situation in which one finds oneself caught in one’s own historical period—the problems of the men of one’s time” (81).

In his inimitable fashion, Rorty offers us a pocket-sized definition of metaphysics, utilizing a term from Dewey’s Experience and Nature.  Dewey’s metaphysics aim to designate “the generic traits of experience.” For Nick and me, Dewey’s metaphysics are most fully and fruitfully present in his interactionist account of human being-in-the-world.  It is that account, complete with its notion of “funded experience,” its unsettling of subject/object and other dualisms, and its dynamic picture of the ongoing production of identities, meanings, and novelty that we find attractive and see as adopted by Latour (and, presumably, Stengers, whose work I don’t know, but which Nick admires greatly).

Rorty is unimpressed.  “What Kant had called ‘the constitution of the empirical world by synthesis of intuitions under concepts,’ Dewey wanted to call ‘interactions in which both extra-organic things and organisms partake.’ But he wanted this harmless-sounding naturalistic phrase to have the same generality, and to accomplish the same epistemological feats, which Kant’s talk of the ‘constitution of objects’ had performed.  He wanted phrases like ‘transactions with the environment’ and ‘adaptation to conditions’ to be simultaneously naturalistic and transcendental—to be common-sense remarks about human perception and knowledge viewed as the psychologist views it and also to be expressions of ‘generic traits of existence.’  So he blew up notions like ‘transaction’ and ‘situation’ until they sounded as mysterious as ‘prime matter’ or ‘thing-in-itself” (84).

It is the easiest thing in the world—and so is done constantly—to say Rorty himself cannot escape transcendental or metaphysical claims.  After all, to say all thinking starts from the historical position in which one finds oneself is to identify a generic trait.  But such a critique of Rorty misses the point—and would miss his very significant difference from Joan Scott.  Scott wants to replace one kind of historical claim—the kind that relies on the evidence of experience—with another kind of claim—one that analyzes what enables (serves as the transcendental conditions of) experience.  She is looking for a more accurate or more adequate way of understanding discursive, ideological forces and the way they construct how humans constitute and are constituted by history.  Rorty finds that enterprise just another way of remaining trapped within the wrong-headed set of metaphysical and epistemological questions that philosophy has obsessed over since Descartes.  Rorty thinks we should just walk away from that game.

Why?  What’s wrong with that game?  Rorty has a complicated, but coherent (if not utterly convincing) answer to that question.

That answer hinges on what I am fond of calling “transcendental blackmail.”  In most every case, the metaphysician is trying to sell his audience on something.  The tactic used is to get that audience to accept a seemingly neutral and irrefutable (and almost invariably universalistic) description of the human condition (“the generic facts of human existence”).  Once the writer thinks he has established that irrefutable fact, its consequences are unfolded.  I followed this strategy in my liberalism book.  I tried to begin with the most uncontroversial claims and then lead the reader down the primrose path to liberalism by showing that, if they bought in to the foundational claims, then they, as a matter of logic and consistency, should accept positions that didn’t seem as self-evident and attractive to them at first blush.  Thus, Scott’s critique of experience attempts to establish its constructed nature  and is meant, eventually, to serve to get her reader to question established powers and the categories that serve that power’s ends.

Rorty, first of all, hates any kind of blackmail, any strategy for establishing an authority that deems itself irrefutable.  Everything is up for question in his preferred version of liberalism, just as everything could be constituted differently in a different historical period or culture.  There are no transcendentals, just historical contingencies.

Rorty would like that last sentence to be true.  But often recognizes that it is not.  His talk about “common-sense naturalism” in the passage I quoted above is a nod to that recognition.  Let’s be concrete about this.  Here is a universalized, metaphysical statement of a generic fact of human experience:  All humans die.  Rorty would not deny that statement.  What he denies is that it has any necessary consequences beyond the brute fact of death.  How to face death, think about it, avoid or embrace it, respond to the death of others, etc. are all underdetermined by the brute fact.  We know that various cultures have established an incredibly wide range of practices in the face of the brute fact.

Thus, for Rorty, all humans die is a common-sense platitude that has no straight-forward or inevitable consequence for human beliefs, values, or behavior.  I think this position—while tied to Rorty’s resolute anti-authoritarianism—is also linked to his positivist origins.  Rorty maintains a strict fact/value dichotomy.  Facts are value-neutral.  How we understand and interpret them is radically disconnected from their existence.  In his metaphysics, Rorty tells us, “Dewey betrayed precisely the insight . . . that nothing is to be gained for an understanding of human knowledge by running together the vocabularies by which we describe the causal antecedents of knowledge with those in which we offer justifications of our claims to knowledge. . . . [W]hat Green and Hegel had seen, and Dewey himself saw perfectly well except when he was sidetracked into doing ‘metaphysics,’ was that we can eliminate epistemological problems by eliminating the assumption that justifications must rest on something other than social practices and human needs” (81-82).  What Rorty says about epistemology here is fully consistent with his position on value as articulated in other works.  Our commitments in terms of value rest on “social practices” and what we (and/or our society) understands to be “human needs” and not on any facts that transcend (or dictate) a humanly produced vocabulary. [Note that Rorty’s quick acknowledgement of “causal antecedents” of some statements belies the idea that he is an anti-realist.  He is perfectly willing to say that the statement, “all humans die,” is motivated—or caused—by the encounter with death.  He is not denying the fact’s existence, just its consequences, while he also—as I am about to discuss—does not think that the elaborate gymnastics of modern philosophy’s epistemologies do anything at all to either confirm or unsettle one’s beliefs about facts. Philosophic metaphysics and epistemology are unproductive games.]

An unproductive game because metaphysics has no consequences—a position taken up aggressively by Knapp and Michaels in their essay “Against Theory” and in numerous works by Stanley Fish. Describe the facts of existence—and nothing necessarily follows. Scott’s essay seems to belie that conclusion. Surely, the practitioners of historical studies will proceed differently if convinced by her case that an appeal to experience is not sufficient.  I think that the pragmatist response (certainly it would be William James’s position and probably Rorty’s and Fish’s) is that my last sentence puts the cart before the horse.  What comes first is the commitment to a certain set of values—and then the theoretical (or transcendental) claim is constructed as a buttress for that commitment.  Certainly that was how my liberalism book was germinated.  Rawls’ Theory of Justice offers a more grandiose and even comical case. The painstaking elaboration of his Rube Goldberg-like argument is clearly motivated by where he wants to end up.

Rorty certainly insisted that his philosophical commitments and arguments had no political consequences.  His liberalism was not a product of—or even connected in any way—to his pragmatism.  He described himself as mostly in tune with Habermas’ and Rawls’ versions of liberalism (characterized by equality, open unimpeded discussion/deliberation, and hostility to concentrations of power) while disagreeing with their conviction that liberalism required theoretical or transcendental underpinnings.  The first-order commitments to certain values—commitments generated by upbringing, by sensibility/temperament, social practices, and comparisons among varied ways of living on display in the word and in the historical record—were more than sufficient for taking a stand.

Philosophers are no different from any one else in  trying to persuade others to adopt a particular stand—while stories, images, emotional appeals, and displayed loyalties are very likely much more effective tools of persuasion than philosophical argument.  “[P]hilsophers’ criticism of culture are not more ‘scientific,’ more ‘fundamental,’ or more ‘deep’ than those of labor leaders, literary critics, retired statesmen or sculptors” (87).  Philosophers just start out by working on a different set or materials—“the history of philosophy and the contemporary effects of those ideas called ‘philosophic’ upon the rest of the culture—the remains of past attempts to describe the ‘generic traits of existences’” (87).  And philosophers use different rhetorical means to persuade—means that are presumably effective for some people, that minority (?) which likes (prefers?) their commitments to be underwritten by a certain kind of argumentation instead of only by stories, images etc.  Rorty is guilty of unjustified metaphysical generalization when he claims (as he often does) that stories are always more effective than arguments.

I find this radical levelling—both of the hierarchy of thinkers and of planes of existence (no deep undergirding truth about our daily round)—attractive.  I find it harder to credit that understanding being-in-the-world and action-in-the-world in this way has no consequences.  Maybe adopting a particular attitude is not ratified by some set of metaphysical facts.  But the description itself is fruitful. How we understand the facts influences our reaction/adaptation to them.  [That’s simply straight-forward Peircean pragmatism.] Of course, it is not clear that Rorty would deny that.  He thinks the vocabulary we choose to work in does have consequences.  Those vocabularies (and the activities/practices that accompany them) just need to be recognized as ways of “adapting and coping rather than copying” (86).  Still, the adapting must be to something—like the COVID 19 virus.  Coping requires, it would seem at least in some cases, accurate modeling.

To conclude—and to set up the next posts on practice—it seems clear that the critique of experience is a resistance to the way the term takes as self-evident the naturalistic placement of an experiencing self in an environment.  The preference for the term “practice” is meant to introduce the social influences (determinants would be, for me but not I suspect for Scott, too strong a term) that shape what any individual might experience or might articulate as her experience.  Certainly, with his notion of “funded” experience, Dewey is not utterly naïve about the ways that experience has social and historical dimensions.  But the term “practices” tries (as I will discuss in the next posts) to put much more flesh on this idea of the ways in which experience is embedded within social settings that have prevailing norms, preferred ways of “going on,” and pre-established goals/ends.

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