Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Can we trust experience?

Experience is itself a kind of text, and texts need interpreters. How often have we thought that we understood our experiences, only to realize later that we had only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses? We all know how flexible memory can be, how easy it is to give an overly gentle account of our own motivations, how hard it is to step outside our lifelong cultural training and see with the eyes of another time or place. ... To take personal experience as our best and sturdiest guide seems like a good way to replicate all of our personal preferences and cultural blind spots. Scripture is weird and tangly and anything but obvious-but at least it wasn’t written by someone who shared all our desires, preferences, and cultural background. At least it wasn’t written by us. And so it’s necessary to turn at least as much skepticism on “the voice of experience” as [critical scholars] turn on the voice of Scripture. It’s necessary to look at least as hard for alternative understandings of our experience as for alternative understandings of Scripture.

- Eve Tushnet, "Experience and Tradition" in Commonweal: a review of religion, politics and culture CXXXIV:12 (2007).

Many people appeal to 'experience' as the highest court of appeal, especially in spiritual matters. It was reading Sartre that I first realised the opacity and ambiguity of my own experience - in short that everything, experience included, needs to be interpreted. This insight (itself an interpretation of tradition and experience) is not a threat to intelligibility or a retreat into anything-goes relativism. It is a threat to the assumption that in order to know something, we must know it with certainty.

The question then becomes not so much "can we trust our experience?" as "how are we to understand it?"
Five points for the artist. Eight for the title. Ten for the location. No individual to guess more than one.

14 comments:

David Ould said...

Van Gogh, Starry Night. He painted it while in St Remy.

Gordon Cheng said...

No, it's definitely Neil Diamond, or if it's not him it's Don Mclean I think.

Anthony Douglas said...

For a moment there, I thought I'd read David Ould answering all three questions. But then I realised that you'd only allowed him one answer, so I was forced to reinterpret my experience a little.

You'd only allowed one guess per person - so he must be speaking from knowledge, rather than guessing. Or at least, I guess that's what's happened.

Hence my guess is that David's answers are all correct. I could check, of course, but then would have to remain silent.

You're right - experience ain't so cut and dried as people like to pretend!

Martin Kemp said...

St Remy.
I'll take that 15 thanks dave.

Martin Kemp said...

Opps. I mean 10. Points that is, for the location.

David Ould said...

gah, alright - I messed up.
I read "once" when it was "one".

you can have the eight for title. I'm keeping the ten. ;-)

Martin Kemp said...

Ha ha! Don't mess up tomorrow.
Read that exam rubric carefully...

Gordon Cheng said...

So. Neil Diamond? Points?

byron smith said...

David - since you recognised your mistake quickly, I won't penalise you, but I'll give you five for your first answer (artist).

Anthony - I'll give you four for being clever.

Marty - And four to you likewise.

Gordon - sorry. Neither Neil Diamond nor Don Mclean. And that's two guesses. Texts need to be interpreted (including the 'text' of experience), but they are not infinitely malleable.

Though speaking of ambiguity, I actually had in mind the present location in which the artwork is hung, rather than the location it depicts and in which it was created. I'll still give ten points to the first person who can state/guess/name/know that (excluding those who have already received points on this post).

Carlie said...

I think it's in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Unfortunately I don't know that through experience...

Steve said...

Arthur St, Croydon! My wife and I have it hanging in our living room...unforunately not the original.

byron smith said...

Carlie - indeed it is and I think it's the best (and certainly most expensive) gallery I've been to. Ten points.

Steve - I'll give you three for making me smile.

byron smith said...

Steve, I assume you're a different Steve to the one already on fifteen points?

Steve said...

I wish those 15 points were mine but they're not. It's Steve Gardner here...