Into the fullness of the problem raised by sensationalism, into the truth which underlies this ‘metaphor hardened into a dogma’, we are not prepared, nor indeed is it necessary, to enter here. We will content ourselves on the general question with the remark, that in the act of perception, it is not doubt true to say that the mind is passive. But to say this is to say one thing, and it is quite and altogether another thing to talk of sensations (in the signification of bare feelings) as though in themselves, and apart from the activity of the mind, they existed as objects of consciousness. That is to assert that a mere feeling is sufficient to constitute by itself the minimum required for knowledge and reality; and the proof of this assertion has been, is, and ever will be wanting. It cannot exist since the proof or even the assertion is a sheer self-contradiction; and it is a self-contradiction for the following reason. An assertion, and much more so a proof, is intellectual; it is a judgment which implies the exercise of the understanding; and the term united by the judgment must therefore fall within the sphere of the understanding. They must be objects for the intellect, and so, in a sense more or less entire, relative to the intellect; in a word, intelligible. But the essence of mere sensation was the entire absence of the intellectual, and hence to make one single affirmation with respect to sensation, as sensation, is to treat as relative to the understanding that which is supposed to exclude the understanding; and this is a contradiction.
To pursue with the reason an object which when found is to be irrational, to think the opposite of thought while fixed as opposite, to comprehend the incomprehensible yet without transforming it–such is the task of that which calls itself the ‘philosophy of experience’. It is the pursuit of a phantom for ever doomed to fade in our embrace, a mocking shadow beyond the horizon of our grasp, known to us as the unreality of all that we can hold, and whose existence must perish at the threshold of human possession.
…I am convinced that I can be creative as a philosopher only for so long as my experience still contains unexploited and unchartered zones. And this explains at last what I said earlier on about experience being like a promised land: it has to become, as it were, its own beyond, inasmuch as it has to transmute itself and make its own conquest. After all, the error of empiricism consists only in ignoring the part of invention and even of creative initiative involved in any genuine experience. It might also be said that its error is to take experience for granted and to ignore its mystery; whereas what is amazing and miraculous is that there should be experience at all. Does not the deepening of metaphysical knowledge consist essentially in the steps whereby experience, instead of evolving technics, turns inward towards the realization of itself?
Can a philosophy be grounded on the considered experience of its author? –So grounded, we could understand it as open to analysis and to disagreement, but not as straightforwardly vulnerable to argument based on general principle. I ask because it strikes me that many of the philosophies I care most about can be understood as grounded in this way, as grounded in their author’s considered experience. Montaigne’s, of course; but Cavell’s too, of course. Many philosophers who turn in the direction of ’empiricism’, ‘experience’–can I think be best understood as appealing to his or her own considered experience. They are not best understood as appealing to experience (full stop), are not worried about (or much worried about) theorizing the rational or a-rational bearing of experience (full stop) on belief or knowledge. They are neither rationalists nor empiricists, although stretches of their philosophical terms, constructive or critical, sound empiricistic.
A give-away for the sort of philosophy with which I am concerned is a moment at which the philosopher talks of experience as something to which we can be loyal, something to which we can rally, something that can obligate us, something that can be educated. Another give-away is talk about experience as accumulating, as having weight.