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Experience: three conceptions

Whitehead's remark that sense impressions are as good a basis for philosophy as traffic signs on the main road are a basis to elucidate the sociology of modern world (in Modes of Thought, lecture 2) encapsulates his view that experience has to be conceived as broader than the input of senses. He also understands experience as having to do with more than what is processed by awareness through a content and more than what is immediately present to us through our senses. His is a notion of experience that is non-Humean and in that sense non-Cartesian. Experience is, for him, what something goes through - and this is why actual entities are drops of experience. Experience is something like what affects, what has an effect, what has consequences. One doesn't have to have access to what is experienced nor be able to discriminate its content. Whitehead's notion contrasts with a Cartesian Empiricist, but it also contrasts with the notion of experience phenomenology endorses. Phenomenology still privileges content, in the sense of somehow owning the effect of an experience or rather feeling the effect of an experience. Even in post-Husserlian phenomenology where intentional acts are not the centre of what is a phenomenon, there is an element of attention - or access - that is not required in Whitehead's account. Whitehead - and empiricists of his kind like Deleuze - are not phenomenologists. They don't engage in a first-person analysis of the experience of an actuality, they privilege a third-person (this, he, she, there is a...) throughout. This is maybe because agency is not seen as fully independent from everything else in Deleuze; but the subject-superject structure in Whitehead, albeit imbedded in a nexus, is ontologically as primary as an actual entity - and has a peculiar perspctive on things. Still, there is nothing to be gained from the point of view of the agent, from a first-person perspective. This is perhaps why Ian Bogost talks about a phenomenology of things: it is about taking their perspective as agents.

These three conceptions of experience - the Humean, the phenomenological and the Whiteheadian - could be compared with the externalism debates about perception and knowledge through perception. Whitehead's account could be close to that of externalists who require no access to what is experienced and no ability to discriminate a content for experience to take place. (Still, as I wrote a while ago in this blog, Whitehead is a Lockean and therefore far from any form of disjunctivism or reliabilism.) The idea that one could have access without being able to discriminate what is being experienced - like disjunctivists (like Duncan Pritchard) sometimes claim they do - could be somehow compared with phenomenologists if we consider that a phenomenological description is like having an access and the ability to discriminate what is being experienced is of a lesser importance. Of course, there are big differences here. Phenomenology is not primarily about getting truth through experience. Still, in both discussions what is at stake is how to de-Cartesianize experience - how far one can go retaining the idea of feelings and extracting it from the sphere of awareness.


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