Experience and the empirical
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From A Cyclopedia of Education, edited by Paul Monroe, Ph.D. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911, vol. II, pp. 546-549).
- John Dewey (Ph.D. LL.D., Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University)
In Greek theory experience as a source of knowledge and of skill was contrasted with reason. Experience meant the cumulative effect, intellectual and practical, of a repeated series of acts and sufferings of like nature, this cumulative effect covering what was handed down in tradition from previous generations as well as from previous acts of the same individual. Thus it is by "experience" that carpenters are able to build houses: previous acts of building have created in the community a conception of what sort of a thing a house should be; by the same past history various devices have been wrought out; and, finally, by apprenticeship and repeated practice, the individual carpenter has become skilled. In short, experience meant the training and practice which give skill and knowledge how to do in any branch of industry or art. The Greeks recognized an advantage and a disadvantage in this act of learning. The advantage resided in superior ability to deal with particular cases; and practical life, as distinct from science, focuses ultimately wholly in particular cases. The physician cannot cure individual cases of disease simply by his general medical science; the general who is versed merely in the theory of tactics and strategy is not likely to win battles. In all such cases, practice, or experience of a number of like cases leaving a sort of cumulative deposit of instinctive sense and skill, is absolutely indispensable. On the other hand, experience is so linked to habit and routine that, by itself, it is a slow and costly method of acquiring knowledge; and, moreover, is incapable of arriving at true principles or universals. The physician may learn from experience that certain symptoms indicate diseases that are best treated by certain remedial measures; but he must learn from reason how and why such and such remedies effect cures in such and such cases. Rational knowledge, therefore, is alone worthy of the name true knowledge. Science, in short, deals with explanation, with principles, laws, universals. Since habit and practice do not attain to this stage, science requires something transcending experience, viz. reason, nous. The geometer is not dependent upon repetition of practical contact with a great diversity of cases; in the degree in which he is truly a mathematician, a knowledge of a triangle may be secured at one stroke of demonstration. Moreover, rational knowledge is final, while empirical at the best is approximate, not necessary, and hence, in every case, true only "upon the whole," or usually. Thus the term "experience" was fixed as an antithetical term to "reason"; it had all the connotations involved in the word "empirical," as when we speak of a physician as a mere empiric.
Roger Bacon was probably the first to break away from this tradition. Medieval science was in such a plight from devotion to traditions which were supposed to embody reason that it was inevitable that some discerning person should perceive that the only hope of progress was in recourse to observation; and Roger Bacon was in advance of his time in his recognition of the possibilities of a control of experience through experiment. Francis Bacon followed Roger Bacon in somewhat vague use of experience as the ultimate source and arbiter of all the sciences. By the time of the later Renaissance the tide was all running in favor of experience; and a curious reversal of perspective took place. To the Renaissance, it was not experience which was associated with the past, with routine, with unanalyzed tradition, but rather authoritative dogmas which claimed to be founded on reason or to be intuitive and axiomatic, and hence not subject to inquiry or criticism. Experience, on the contrary, represented the incursion of the new, the fresh, the conquest of the unknown. With the invention and application of various devices like the lens, experience comes to mean observation of nature operating under the conditions most favorable to discovery.
The development of the mathematical sciences brought about, however, a reaction in favor of conceptual or rationalistic knowledge. On the Continent, the old dualism was reinstated in the form of the distinction between "matters of fact" and "truths of reason." This reaction toward a derogatory conception of experience was strengthened by the fact that Hume had shown that the emphasis put by Locke and his school upon sensation as the central element in observation, or experience, destroyed the validity of all knowledge involving relationship, and hence of all inference. In order to save science, mathematical and physical, Kant was thus led to introduce a new conception of experience; namely, that of a synthesis of a passively given manifold of sense by means of a priori active functions of thought. Only on the basis of this a priori function could, according to Kant, the universal and necessary character of scientific propositions be justified, and at the same time their applicability to the changing events of sense perception be explained. The inherent difficulty of the Kantian philosophy — that of showing how two absolutely antithetical elements coming from two opposite sources, one from the thing-in-itself, the other from thought — led his successors to move in the direction of the concept of an "absolute experience," an experience so comprehensive and permanent as to cancel the Kantian dualism.
Meanwhile other developments, partly within philosophy and partly within the biological and social sciences, were making for a radically different conception of experience. The interest from the Renaissance period on in the progress of science had led to the definition of experience in cognitive and intellectual terms. The new view of experience (see Pragmatism) reverts, as it were, to the Greek conception of experience as essentially a practical matter, i.e. a matter of repeated exercise and of its effects; while it reinterprets practice or action (1) in the light that scientific experimental methods have thrown upon the possibility of a control of experience; and (2) in the light that biology has thrown upon the life process.
The main features of the resulting concept of experience may be associated with the two chief connotations of the popular, nontechnical use of the term: namely, (a) to try a thing out, to test in action, and (b) to undergo, to endure, to suffer. With the first, or more active sense, experiment and the deliberate control of experience are connected; with the second, or more passive sense, the dependence of the individual upon contact with a world, social and natural, beyond himself. More specifically experience involves, first, an active experimenting with things. Every organism by its nature tries its active powers upon the world around it; it is the very nature of a living being to exercise its organs, and this exercise takes effect in and upon the surrounding medium. In lower organisms, this trying out of the agent in the world of things is blind and instinctive; in higher organisms, in man as he progresses in civilization, it is deliberate and purposive; it involves a forecast of consequences that may follow and the endeavor to manipulate the means requisite to produce these consequences. But in both cases there is some outreaching effort to modify the environment in the interests of life. (See Adaptation; Control; Environment and organism.) Experience, negatively put, is not mere passive reception; it is not mere acceptance of impressions externally forced upon the living being.
In the second place, this active experimenting with the world results in a changed attitude of the self. The organism has, so to speak, to stand the consequences of its acts. Its actions in modifying things about it modify the conditions which affect its own existence; these changes may be not only unforeseen, but also out of harmony with the direction of its actions. Nevertheless the agent has to suffer or undergo these results. He "learns by experience" what he can do, as well as what it is undesirable to try to do, Since through habit the results become embodied in his own structure.
Experience thus has a conservative, cumulative character, — the phase of habit, of formation of the self and all its powers by what it goes through. And since subsequent experience depends in large measure upon the set and bent given the self, upon its past activities, this involves also a certain preformation, a limiting, of further experience. But experience has also a prospective, outreaching, projective aspect. The principle of habit does not exhaust experience; it marks only a limit of movement in one direction. Curiosity, variation, invention, discovery, are involved in the active, or "trying on" phase, of experience, just as much as fixation in habitual attitude is in its "undergoing" phase. Which of the two phases, the conservative or progressive, is dominant at a given period of history is a matter not so much of the biological or psychological structure of experience, as of its social standards and aims.
From this point of view, it is possible to effect a reconciliation of the long opposition of the empirical, the a posteriori, and the rational and a priori. The opposition is not between experience and something transcending experience, but between the functions of habit and purpose in experience, in which the latter suggests new and varying ends, while the former provides the body of means for their effective realization; while consciousness (q.v.) marks the focus and stress of the readjustment of old habits to the novel aims. On this account, thought is as truly a factor of experience as is routine; reflection as legitimate and necessary a product as sensation. For thought is the projective tendency of life to vary the environment brought to conscious recognition, so that henceforth it occurs deliberately, not blindly. It is a priori, not in the sense of transcending experience, but in the sense of transcending the habits formed in past experience; in being prospective, or reinterpreting the past in the light of a possible future.
This abstract formulation finds a concrete exemplification in educational practice more readily, perhaps, than anywhere else. In various forms, the classic dualism of experience and reason was embodied in educational practice; a fact which was unavoidable, because the philosophic distinction itself grew out of the lack of interaction between custom and reflection, between traditional institutions and scientific discoveries, characteristic of ancient and medieval society. The mechanical arts (see Arts) were to be learned by experience, by practice; the liberal arts appealed to the higher faculties, and while practice and habituation could not be dispensed with, they were to be used as mere preliminary scaffolding. The bookish (the so-called academic and scholastic) character of education, the absence of concrete materials and appliances, was a natural correlate of the depreciation of experience. With the effort of modern philosophy to rehabilitate the concept of experience came the criticisms of the reformers against this type of education as not genuinely intellectual, but only verbal; and their emphasis upon observation, natural objects, and physical apparatus as indispensable factors of education. The mottoes "from the concrete to the abstract," "induction before deduction," "teach things, not words," "learn to do by doing," are all of them products of the exaltation of the function of experience.
Educational practice inevitably shared, however, in the one-sided notion of experience entertained by empirical philosophy; its neglect of the active and emotional phases of experience in behalf of its purely cognitive aspects, and the reduction of the latter to mere observation with inference excluded. On this account, the efforts of the reformers, as soon as their own personal inspiration was lost, tended to an external and narrow type of education, neglecting the culture of the emotions and imagination and the necessary correlation of inference and reflection with observation, in order that the latter might have educative value.
Since the latter part of the eighteenth century, educational practice, like philosophical theory, has been struggling toward a more catholic and fruitful conception of experience and its uses. It has been endeavoring to overcome the dualism between sense perception that neglects or even excludes thought, and thought that is purely abstract because remote from the concrete materials of observation and action. (Sec Course of study; Education.) The hope of educational progress lies in the creation of an environment which, while adapted to the pupils' capacities, habits, and purposes, shall provide problems that will evoke and direct thought, or the conceptual function, and that shall organize imagery into a broad and fruitful view of nature and society. Thought, which is generated by the concrete predicaments or difficulties of experience, must be so developed and directed that it will afford a method of clarifying the obscurities of prior experience, of more flexible projection of new ends, and of more efficient control of the means of their realization. The teacher, in short, has to realize that "experience" means primarily action and the accompanying emotional appreciations; and that while these develop in one direction into habits and sense perceptions, they develop, in the other, into conceptions and intellectual systems. The proper contrast is not between experience and something else higher and better than experience, but between a crude, narrow, and mechanical experience, and an intelligent, enriched, and free, or growing, experience.
- Bradley, F. H. Appearance and Reality. (London, 1893.)
- Dewey, J. Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. (New York, 1910.)
— The Knowledge Experience and its Relationships. Jour. Phil. Psych. and Sci. Method, Vol. II, 1905, pp. 652-657. The Knowledge Experience Again. Ibid., pp. 707-711. Reality as Experience. Ibid., Vol. III, 1906, pp. 253-2.57.
- Hobhouse, L. T. Studies in Logical Theory. (Chicago, 1905.)
— Mind in Evolution. (London, 1901.)
- Hoffding, H. History of Modern Philosophy. (London, 1900.)
- Ormond, A. T. Concepts of Philosophy. (New York, 1906.)
- Taylor, A. E. Elements of Metaphysics (London, 1903.)