Empiricism

Empiricism

Experience is a fine word, but what does it mean? It seems to carry with it a mixed sense of mastery and disappointment, suggesting knowledge of a sort with despair of better knowledge. Is it such contact with events as nobody can avoid, shocks and pressure endured from circumstances and from the routine of the world? But a cricket-ball has no experience, although it comes in contact with many hands, receives hard knocks, and plays its part in the vicissitudes of a protracted game. There are men in much the same case; they travel, they undergo an illness or a conversion, and after a little everything in them is exactly as it was before;ράθος with them is not ράθος; their natures are so faithful to the a priori  and so elastic that they rebound from the evidence of sense and the buffets of fortune like a rubber bag full of wind; they pass through life with round eyes open, and a perpetual instinctive babble, and yet in the moral sense of the word they have no experience, not being mindful enough to acquire any. It would seem that to gather anything we must first pause, and that before we can have experience we must have minds.

Yet if we said that experience arose by the operation of mind, would not all the operations of mind be equally experience? Has not a maniac probably more and more vivid experience than a man of the world? Doubtless when people call their fancies or thoughts experience, they mean to imply that they have an external source, as "religious experience" is assumed to manifest divine intervention, and "psychical experience" to prove the self-existence of departed spirits. But these assumptions are not empirical; and evidently the religious or psychical experience itself, whatever its cause, is the only empirical fact in the case. Those who appeal to the lessons  of experience are not empiricists, for these are lessons that only reason can learn. Experience, as practical people understand it, is not every sort of consciousness or memory, but only such as is addressed to the facts of nature and controlled by the influence of those facts; material contact or derivation is essential to it. Experience is both physical and mental, the intellectual fruit of a material intercourse. It presupposes animal bodies in contact with things, and it presupposes intelligent minds in those bodies, keeping count of the shocks received, understanding their causes, and expecting their recurrence as it will actually take place. To these naturalistic convictions all those ought to have clung who valued experience as a witness rather than as a sensation; without animals in a natural environment experience, as contrasted with fancy or intuition, can neither be nor be conceived. It means so much of knowledge and readiness as is fetched from contact with events by a teachable and intelligent creature; it is a fund of wisdom gathered by living in familiar intercourse with things.

But such assumptions are an offence to the expert empiricist. The moment he comes upon the scene we feel that all we thought experience had taught us is going to be disproved. "Do you admit," he begins by asking, "that nothing can be more real than experience?" We do admit it. "And can you ever know anything that is not experience?" Perhaps not; and yet would experience be very distinct or very significant if it was experience of nothing? "Of nothing, indeed," he retorts, withering us with a scornful glance and the consciousness of his masked batteries; "as if experience itself was nothing! Experience is everything; and when you have experience of experience what more could you ask for, even if you were Doctor Faustus in person? What spurious little non-empirical particle is this of  of yours? And what illegitimate ghost is this something else  that experience should be of ? Can you, without confessing to an adulterous intercourse with what is not experience, explain these natural but disreputable members of your intellectual family?" We cannot explain them, and we blush. Yet why should experience arise at all if there is no occasion for it? "Occasion!" cries the empiricist; "another illegal figment, the old notion of cause! Is it not notorious that causation is nothing but the habit which some parts of experience have of following upon others? How then should the whole of it follow upon any part? Experience cannot spring from anything, it cannot express anything, and it cannot know anything, because experience is all there is."

Here is a considerable retrenchment in the scope of our philosophy: no material world, no soul, and (in the proper sense of the words) no God and no knowledge. Retrenchment, however, is often a sign of wisdom, and the retrenching empiricist deserves to be followed, like the retrenching hermit, into his psychological wilderness, not with a vow never to return to the world, for that would be precipitate, but in the hope of sounding, in one direction, the depths of spiritual discipline and disillusion. And the empirical eremite can taste rare pleasures. All things, for him, become the appanage of the inner man; and we need not wonder that the pensive Englishman is ready to be empirical in this sense and to become an idealist. The lessons  of experience, if he was forced to take them seriously, might tend to dethrone his inner man and lead him to materialism; but fortunately the lessons of experience, for an empiricist, can be nothing but little epicycles within it, or cross-references to its literal text; they cannot spoil its intimate and romantic nature, which is to be no end of pulsations and no end of pictures. How dead would anything external or permanent be, even if we thought we could find it! How abstract would be anything common to all times and places, how terrible a mocking truth that should overarch them for ever!

It is true that the romantic empiricist is not very radical; he commonly stops short of any doubts on the validity of memory, with all the yarns it spins; his past adventures and his growth are too fascinating for him to doubt their reality. Sometimes he even trusts a superstitious prophecy, under the name of logical evolution, foretelling what his destiny is somehow compelled to be. At other times he prefers to leave the future ambiguous, so that the next step may lead him anywhere, perhaps to heaven, provided it is understood that his career, even there, is always to remain an unfinished voyage in an uncharted sea. In strictness, however, he has no right to this fond interest in himself. If he became a perfect empiricist he would trust experience only if it taught him absolutely nothing, even about his own past. This is hard for the flesh, and it may not be fair to ask an empiricist to be heroic in the interests of logic; but if he could screw his courage up for the plunge, his spirit might find itself perfectly at home in the new situation. What he might have been or might have thought, he would dismiss as a dead issue; he would watch only his present life as it flowed, and he would love exclusively what he was becoming. There is a sense of safety in being and not thinking which probably all the animals know, and there is a mystical happiness in accepting existence without understanding it; but the sense of safety does not render the animals really safe, and the price they pay for living in the moment is that they carry nothing over from one moment to another except bare existence itself. The disadvantage of radical empiricism is that it shuts out experience.