February 18, 2022


By Rabbi Zohar Atkins

Experience is both overrated and underrated

This week we welcome a guest blog from Rabbi Zohar Atkins, who recently chaired the event on AI with Harris Bor.

Zohar is the founder of Etz Hasadeh and a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in Theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

This week Zohar wrote 100 tweets on the history of experience, covering everything from Arendt, Heidegger, and Benjamin to films like Rashomon to ancient scepticism, Montaigne and Luther to new age religion. In this blog for Jewish Quest his ”centweetery” has been lightly edited.

“EXPERIENCE” is a word we use every day. “Lived experience” has become both a touchstone and bugaboo. But the philosophical history of experience is not well known.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote, “Experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.”

For Benjamin, the generation that returned from WWI was no longer able to experience the world. Instead, rapid modernization and industrialization, combined with PTSD, had replaced EXPERIENCE with INFORMATION.

Benjamin invokes the figure of the storyteller as someone who knew how to transmit experience, someone who created community around a campfire, someone who was able to draw listeners closer to events they themselves had not witnessed.

But the storyteller is basically lost, says Benjamin. The newspaper has replaced the storyteller. Now people trade content, facts, codified discourse, official narratives, but none of this gives the living intimacy of storytelling.

Now you may be saying, “but experiences are had every day. I can book experiences with my Airbnb.”

Benjamin’s ethos is nostalgic. And thus for Benjamin no TedTalk homage to storytelling, no start-up power point telling a story about why the future is driverless cars or what have you can bring bring it back. Experience, in Benjamin’s romantic view, is more or less gone.

Storytelling still lives at the margins, between friends, in small gatherings, in singular events of serendipity. But storytelling is not the same as Instagram Stories. It’s not posting. Storytelling and experience are correlated. Loss of one moves with the loss of the other.

Now you may be saying, “but experiences are had every day. I can book experiences with my Airbnb.”

But for Benjamin, experience is about an orientation to the world, one that is rather rare. The mere invocation of experience does not ensure that one has it.

We find a similar sentiment in Heidegger’s Being and Time. Heidegger contrasts authentic engagement with one’s world to a kind of generic immersion in mass culture.

Of course it is possible to watch the Superbowl authentically, to ride the subway authentically, to read US Weekly authentically, but for Heidegger, most of the time we are fallen into an impersonal sense of self where we just follow trends with no deep sense of why.

We are doing this even when we claim that we are following our conscience or pursuing our “Best self.” While you can accuse existentialists as promoting shallow “best-selfism,” Heidegger rejects the label of existentialist.

One of the most salient insights in Heidegger is how everyday speech is basically hollow of anything new or interesting. He calls everyday speech “hearsay” (Gerede). It’s just a fact of life that most talk is “small talk.”

In Jewish tradition there’s an ethos of avoiding “lashon hara” (bad or harmful speech). But in Heidegger’s hands, most speech is lashon hara, not because it is malicious, but simply because it is cliched, monotonous, leveled down.

What Benjamin calls the loss of experience and the replacement by information, Heidegger calls hearsay or idle chatter. We live in a world of idle chatter. Experience can only come to those who break through it, or see it for what it is, which is a constant struggle.

Debating whether something is a fact can be idle chatter. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t do it, but again, it takes us away from something more fundamental. Most political discourse is Idle chatter. But so is much academic discourse.

Self help books, advice on how to hustle, film reviews, most things are idle chatter, or at risk of becoming so, as soon as we take them as a replacement for our own quest, our own search, our own sense of mystery, our own attitude.

Experience isn’t just Rousseauvian inwardness, with society being bad. But experience cannot come to those whose sense of self is thoroughly socialized.

We wanted everyone to have access to the life of the mind, but instead we got Netflix and consumer tech.

Another 20th century thinker who is concerned for the loss of experience in modern life is Hannah Arendt. Arendt thinks modern life, especially totalitarian life, is a kind of “organized loneliness.” This means I am disconnected not just from others, but from myself.

Arendt contrasts loneliness with solitude. Solitude is the ability to have a dialogue with oneself. Solitude, for Arendt is a bulwark against totalitarian domination; but it’s increasingly rare. It’s hard to cultivate solitude in a crowd.

Modernity was supposed to bring more egalitarianism. And in important economic and political ways it did. But the masses remain just as resistant, maybe more so, to experience, to leisure, than in pre-modern times.

We wanted everyone to have access to the life of the mind, but instead we got Netflix and consumer tech.

(There’s a Machiavellian argument to be made that the goal was never emancipation and that consumer tech is the perfect instrument for maintaining a culture of repression while calling it liberation).

Arendt thought Eichmann was capable of atrocities not because he exceptionally evil, but because he was commonly evil; his evil was manifest in and as thoughtlessness. Or in Benjamin’s terms, in experience-less-ness. Eichmann thought only thoughts of hearsay and idle chatter.

It’s more than ironic that today EXPERIENCE is such a common term, given the lament of these thinkers. We should ask whether we are really living in a world in which we are more thoughtful, more original, more creative, more capable of resisting cliche than before.

Now you might just throw them out as “elitists” and say they’re being unfair. We do have experiences all the time, and not only that but some of them are made possible by consumer tech! Thanks to online dating, I can have experiences every night…

There’s also an anthropological type argument that would look for agency everywhere, no matter the conditions. Whether in James Scott or Carlo Ginzburg or Gayatri Spivak, there’s a claim that the “subaltern speaks,” that the dominated have more agency than appears.

We find versions of this in TV shows like Friday Night Lights or the Wire, or in films like American Honey. You do find experience portrayed powerfully in rich subcultures.

Or you find it literally in the film The Lives of Others, which is, in part, about the human desire and capacity to elude surveillance.

In terms of the long view, experience is etymologically connected to the Greek, peireia, from which we also get “empiricism.”

One way of describing modern thought as a movement away from theory and deduction to the empirical, the experienced, the witnessed.

We associated empiricism with Hume. We associate empiricism with scientific method and skepticism. We also associate it with Luther. Don’t take the Church’s word for it, go out and experience God directly!

But the critique of Benjamin, Heidegger, and Arendt is that empirical method is not really empirical, because most people don’t do the experiments themselves. They just trust the science. So scientists became the new clerics.

Perhaps those who know what experience is are those who do not talk about it, those who guard their experiences as treasures.

Another problem of modern science is the criterion of reproduce-ability. But in the human domain reproduce-ability is a kind of category error, unless you think the human being is no different than a rat or a Venus Fly Trap.

What you end up enshrining as true are those things that repeat. But experience is, in part, that which is distinct.

Anecdata suffer the same problem. Citing others experience to validate one’s own treats experience as though the most interesting thing to be said about it is what is common in it. Often, doing this ends up commodifying experience, or weaponizing it, and in process losing it.

Experience is sort of like Eurydice; Orpheus’s sin is that the moment he represents it he loses it. Not for nothing is Orpheus a poet. His poem is a consolation for his loss.

But there’s also a rebuke of Orpheus and of poets in the legend. Would you rather be a beautiful poet or someone with a good relationship? Orpheus is a rousing motivational speaker, meanwhile his home life is a mess.

Perhaps those who know what experience is are those who do not talk about it, those who guard their experiences as treasures.

But there are reasons to share, some reasons are instrumental; reasons based in compromise. And other reasons are more devotional. For example, you want to memorialize an experience so as not to forget it, so as to keep it alive.

Or you want someone you love to partake in it even though they weren’t there. Benjamin doesn’t say experience is for monks who sit in silence. Experience can be communicated in stories and stories can be experiences. So we need not be anti-communication!

But not all acts of sharing are experiences. For Benjamin, there is an art to transmission; it is a craft; one can become a master only through practice and grace.

When we talk about storytelling, we implicitly suggest orality and oral culture. And yet the example that Benjamin took as his model was a Russian WRITER, Nikolai Leskov. That right there is ironic.

It suggests that you can do experience transmission even in a form that is alienated.

Benjamin’s own essay is a form of storytelling.

In the 19th century, it was Wilhelm Dilthey who popularized the import of experience, especially the import of how we experience ourselves as living in history. Dlithey opened up two fields that were in his time quite undeveloped: hermeneutics and phenomenology.

Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. Originally it was focused on Biblical texts, Greek texts, ancient texts; then, texts, generally. But eventually hermeneutics became the study of interpretation in general. How do we experience the world as interpretive beings?

And how does interpretation influence and affect experience?

The distinction has now become recognized in mainstream psychology and cognitive science. Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

Once it was not well known or well documented or well analyzed how experience and interpretation interact. This became a major theme in 20th century thought, be it in Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre or American academic departments from cultural studies to area studies.

The hinge in the story is Kant, who took experience to be, in part, a construct of the mind, rather than just a naive thing that happens to us. He called this insight a Copernican Revolution in thought; and we are still living in Kant’s world.

But the insight that experience is constructed, and that interpretation is constitutive of experience, is something we get more emphatically later, and that we associate with postmodernism; with films like Rashomon.

Rashomon is a compelling film that features four incommensurate narratives. They cannot all be true. They are all, however, experienced as true (we assume).

This is uncomfortable. To resolve the discomfort, people will offer the following “resolutions.”

-Only 1 of the 4 is true.
-All or some are partly true. We need to mix and match.
-They are all false.

One way that people justify liberal pluralism is by saying that if all accounts are limited, we need to cooperate to find the truth.

It’s too challenging to remain a skeptic forever about all things.

But if only one of the accounts is true, why should we be pluralistic? Thus fundamental questions of political philosophy are tethered to the value we assign experience.

Does democracy mean every experience is equally valid? You can argue with my opinion, but not my experience?

Critics of pluralism, and of liberalism, on both left and right, say that experience cannot be trusted, or not all experiences are equal. One can be deluded. One can be governed by false consciousness or ideology to the point of being “Mis-informed.”

Of course, one reason Europe came to a liberal consensus is because it was tired of people fighting wars over who was deluded.

In a more humble sense, Rashomon describes not the radical metaphysical position that everyone is right, but the practical position that we have no good way to adjudicate.

The difference between experience and hearsay is that the former is direct, eye-witness, the latter indirect, removed. But some currents in Western thought complicates this distinction. They suggest that experience or eye witness testimony is not sufficiently reliable.

In the ancient world, Skeptics were already adept at challenging the authority of the senses. They would place straight sticks under water and show them bent. If things appear differently in different circumstances who is to say what they actually are.

The consequence of skepticism was often “conservative.” Montaigne is a good example of a skeptic turned conservative.

Montaigne supported the counter-Reformation.

His argument is basically something like, “given that I don’t know what’s true, that people disagree, and that I can’t always trust myself, I might as well defer to what is time tested.”

Extrapolating out from Montaigne, tie goes the status quo, because the onus is on the progressive to show why a new regime of truth is going to be significantly better.

Skepticism challenges all authority, but often it comes full circle. Tradition is good enough until proven guilty, not because it is true, but because the standard of truth is so high, so elusive, as to be inapplicable.

So-called Postmodernists should be radically skeptical. But in practice, many are not. They evince a “skepticism towards thee but not towards me” attitude. You are deluded, but I have the truth. This attitude is a relapse, an understandable tendency.

It’s too challenging to remain a skeptic forever about all things.

But let’s recall that Lyotard defined postmodernism as the end of all grand narratives. Today, grand narratives are back with a vengeance. The death of grand narratives is a kind of elaboration of Nietzsche’s death of God…