Thursday, July 28, 2011

Experience vs. non-experience: reading Montaigne in Scotland

That Montaigne engages in the protracted scrutiny of himself and his experiences is evident. "I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics," he claims in "Of Experience." To grasp what Montaigne means by "experience," it is useful to contrast it with things that might be confused with experience, but are actually pseudo-experience or non-experience. Suppose I read a novel quickly and carelessly. I can describe its plot, or say something about the life of its author. But none of its characters resonate with me; nothing in the book causes me to think or feel anything new. Since the book fails to stimulate any new internal experience, or alter my existing experience of myself, I do not "experience" it. Though I read it in some sense, it was "just words." Does this occur when we are taught books by the learned? Montaigne's answer: all the time. Words of the teacher strike the pupil's ear, but they do not activate any experience, other than the tedious one of memorization and repetition as required.

The antidote to this, Montaigne says, is to teach in a manner that induces genuine experience. From the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, the teacher should "begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way" ("Of the Education of Children"). Only when the student begins to apply the words to herself and her own tasting, choosing, and discerning, does she experience something, as distinct from merely hearing about it. That one has grasped the thing, made it her own, assimilated and digested it—this is the reliable sign of experience in its proper sense, as distinct from non-experience or pseudo-experience.

Though we can do or undergo many things, we experience little in the sense sketched above, unless we follow Montaigne's example of actively studying ourselves. The language of self-study risks being misunderstood by modern readers, who tend to regard study as a rather tame activity, something done in a leisurely and casual fashion. For Montaigne, however, self-study is a courageous enterprise, one that involves risk and requires putting oneself to the test—"essaying" oneself. For purposes of analysis, we may regard self-essaying as a process with several related yet distinct moments. These may be set out schematically as follows:

1. Exposing oneself to a range of experiences. These may occur spontaneously, or they may be deliberately sought out.

2. Reflecting on one's experiences, attending to them as closely as possible, scrutinzing them.

3. Articulating the experience by "translating" the scrutinized experience into the alien medium of language, preserving some fidelity to the experience and one's reflection on it.

4. Repeating the process as continually as possible, since only the accumulation of many experiences, along with constant scrutiny and translation will yield knowledge of the self (or selves) which has (or have) the experiences.

I think Montaigne gives us insight into each of these four steps.  I do confess to feeling a bit guilty about schematizing someone so deliberately, beautifully, gloriously unsystematic as Montaigne.  My only excuse is that the scheme occurred to me here in Scotland, as I was listening to Don Garrett give a paper on Hume's concept on probability.

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