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Commentary on "Experience and Sensations"

by Markate Daly

Your "Experience and Sensations" paper raises a number of interrelated issues that I would like to comment on. These range from identifying Deweyean experience with "knowing how" to what can properly be called "cognitive".

At the beginning of your paper you identify Dewey's concept of experience with "knowing how" to do something, skilled coping (pages 5 & 6). But as you discuss Dewey's concept in relation to Gibson's affordances, connectionist nets, and Schusterman's critique, it grows to encompass emotions, goals, and the felt quality of an experience. Still there is no full statement of how Dewey conceived of experience, much less, quotes from his work to match the many quotes from Sellars' work on sensation. Let me propose one from among the many he wrote:

"We begin by noting that experience is what James called a double-barrelled word. Like its congeners, life and history, it includes what men do and suffer, what they strive for, love, believe and endure, and also how men act and are acted upon, the ways in which they do and suffer, desire and enjoy, see, believe, imagine - in short, the processes of experiencing ...It is double-barrelled in that it recognizes in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contains them both in an unanalyzed totality." Experience and Nature, p.8)

"Knowing how" to do something is related to this process of experiencing by being the reservoir of previous experiencings that "funds" the current engagement between the self and the world. As such, it is a habit awaiting its chance to be deployed in action and, once engaged, it may operate like a connectionist net that has been trained to perform a task. Yet here the subject and the object are separate, one acting on and responding to the other with a view towards achieving a preset goal. Experiencing and affordances differ from "knowing how" in that the subject and object are united in an evolving system that contains them both and is moved in part by the subject's striving towards a favorable possible future that is unknown and possibly unimagined. None of the passive endurings and sufferings, loves, enjoyments and imaginings of Dewey's conception can be characterized as a part of "knowing how" as it is currently understood.

Assuming that life is lived as a procession of Deweyean experiences - one flowing into the next, you could interpret this procession as the training ground for building a set of coping skills, each with its specialized use. Full-bodied experiences could train a neuronal net, and the fully trained net then might be analogous to "knowing how" to function in the world. Laboratory trained connectionist net models, however, couldn't model the ordinary experience of a human organism in a real life situation. How do you model loves and prejudices, a sly innuendo, the symbolism of an unnecessary helping gesture, an ironic or cynical statement, the warped thinking and behavior induced by drugs or organic deficiency, frustration, singing in the car, a touch on the knee or a tepid kiss? A connectionist net in a laboratory or in a cranium is solitary, whereas much of a person's thoughts and actions in real life actually take place as a part of a social and cultural milieu, swept along synchronically with some of its elements and/or resisting others. The choices made about what to do are a matter, not just of goals, but of values, taste, etiquette, game playing and religious beliefs. This reality is nicely captured by Dewey's concept of experience and Gibson' affordances. But connectionist net theory seems to be tied to the laboratory model of training for specific skills to be deployed is stereotypical situations.

The examples used in discussions of cognition are reminiscent of sense datum theory, perceiving and grasping pink ice cubes or coffee cups, and ignores the social reality of life. Each subject's experience is crowded with social interactions with other subjects. Social "know how" is among the first skills any human learns ranging from a newborn's conversation of gestures with its mother to the terrorist methods some infants develop a few months later - "Anticipate my needs or I will scream". It is quite possible that neuronal nets can interpret this vast array of ingredients and output a set of "knowing how" skills. Still there remains a difference between the experience and the skills. Differentiating experience and skills in theory would preserve a non-cognitive status for "experience", while acknowledging that "knowing how" is indeed another form of knowing in addition to "knowing that". It is a form of non-linguistic knowledge. I believe that the term was coined to make this point, but I haven't looked this up.

While Deweyean experience might be used as a non-cognitive ground for coping skills and in this way to navigate from life's complex reality to statements of fact, it lends itself more naturally to the concepts of understanding and wisdom than to knowledge and truth. Most experiences of any import involve other people, things, ideas, ideals or values, hopes, social conventions, and biological limitations all mixed up together. I can come to an understanding of such a complex situation, respond appropriately, and yet only years later be able to articulate what was actually being transacted. Surely my understanding was cognitive, but to say that I had knowledge of the situation seems like using the wrong word. Suppose that I am able to perform beautifully in many situations. People will begin to say that I have wisdom. Again, it would be awkward to say that I know truths about the human condition. Can understanding and wisdom be interpreted in terms of "knowing how"? Is Aristotle's "man of practical wisdom" just a practitioner of skillful coping?

A few quibbles:

On page 6 you state Dewey's views on knowledge, that it is a process of inquiry that is only used when things don't work. When they do work, we feel at home in the world and don't inquiry. But to say that we don't know anything, for example, at a comfortable Thanksgiving dinner goes against ordinary usage and common sense, as many critics have pointed out. I don't think he needs that argument to show that epistemological categories cannot fully explain our experience, as he has described it. His identification of knowledge with inquiry does eliminate epistemological categories from experience, though.


You rehearsed Shusterman's criticism of Dewey's concept of experience, yet refuted each of his points indirectly later in the paper, the last one in a footnote! Why do philosophers say what they really think in the footnotes? In the next paragraph after considering Shusterman's ideas you defend Dewey from charges of mysticism and ineffability which seem to come out of nowhere. Is this more from Shusterman? I can't see that including his views does any work in your paper.