Extending the Private Language Argument

by Ashwin Kumar2 min read23rd Jun 201810 comments


Personal Blog

Two instances of our ways of using the notion of experience:

  • "Our experience is unavailable to others" (Eg: women's experience, minorities' experience not being available to non-women and non-minorities.)
  • "We have experienced oppression" (The problem of what is an experience and what is its explanation. While it is always the case that the two tend to collapse into each other, thinking is an activity of pricing the two apart.)

In both the above-mentioned cases, the idea of experience is that it is a "private episode". Private, because, it is unique to an individual and occurs in the inner theater of the mind, and episode, because, it has a duration and is some kind of recording of a public episode. So, the assumption is that while there are public episodes of specific duration, there are their mental imprints which are episodes of another kind, which are called experience.

Sensations, for example, are private episodes and are unique to the sufferer. No amount of physical pain one suffers in one's toe or stomach or head can be shared with or transferred to another. That makes sensation private. Similarly, sensations can and do have a duration. I could have had a headache the whole of yesterday. But since today morning, I could be feeling better. It hurts whenever someone stamps on my toe and not before or long after. That makes sensations episodic.

But experience is like neither of the two. To say that I have experience, it minimally requires that one specifies an object about which we can be said to have experience. So, for instance, we can be said to have experience in novel writing, driving and even in dealing with failure. That we indeed have had such experience is established both for ourselves and for others by looking at our behavior in the relevant circumstances. To be experienced in driving is to be able to maneuver an automobile, or speak about the distinctions involved in driving. It is not to have a mental record about driving in the privacy of our mind or a "muscle memory" in our limbs.

Experience is not a record of sensations, but a grasp of the world.

What we have is experience if what we have is publicly available as a disposition to be learnt, imparted, shared or talked about with some degree of intelligibility. Without a world of objects to respond to and without a sense of appropriateness of such response, both of which are public facts, the very idea of experience loses its meaning. While it is true that an experience may be unique in the sense that it is acquired owing to the unique circumstances we find ourselves in, it is not unique in terms of its meaning. What is unique is not the experience as much as the way one ended up acquiring it.

In a broad way, leaving out many important intricacies, one can say that experience is of a piece with knowledge and is not of a piece with either mental or physical events. This feature is what makes experience very different from objects which it apprehends. Pain is a sensation. This sensation-object is apprehended as knowledge. Such knowledge is experience.

A caveat is in order here: the public-token picture of experience seems to privilege the articulation of experience over the experience itself (or the possession of experience itself). But that is not the case. While this picture indeed privileges an object-orientedness to experience, that in itself need not be, and should not be, construed as a bias towards articulation. Therefore, a man who has a great deal of experience in playing cards, for instance, need not be in a position to articulate his experience as rules or even describe certain aspects of the game. Although it is not blameworthy in itself that he is incapable of teaching someone else the intricacies of the game, it is rather unfortunate that he is incapable of it. But it is merely unfortunate and nothing more: it is not proof of a lack of experience. However it is absolutely necessary that he actually plays a game of cards, or if not that, then at least for us to assure ourselves through some or the other means that he knows his game of cards for us to even say that our man has some experience in the game of cards. Needless to say, what we mean by a game of cards cannot be radically different in our case and his. In the absence of such a public token (not public articulation) neither our words nor our deeds amount to much.


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This sentence:

If we can maneuver an automobile, with our limbs permitting us, or in the case of the old or injured whose limbs may have become weak, then in the way they impart or speak about the distinctions involved in driving are the tokens by which their experience is established.

seems like it's (1) important to the argument but (2) severely ungrammatical, to the point that I am not confident guessing just what has happened to it.

This sentence:

Experience is a certain comportment to the world of facts.

seems like it's (1) meant to be a pithy summary of a key point but (2) rather mysterious in its actual meaning. "Comportment to"? In ordinary English, "comportment" is roughly synonymous with "bearing": how you carry yourself. I guess here it means something like "attitude towards" or "behaviour towards" or "situation vis-a-vis" (and am inclined to blame Heidegger, some of whose English translations I think use "comportment" in this sort of unhelpful fashion) ... but, in any case, I am having trouble figuring out exactly what is being said here.

More specifically: if I am understanding right, the author wants to make "experience" a term not for anything that happens to us, nor for whatever internal goings-on may accompany such events, but for the longer-term mental residue: the abilities, anxieties, preferences, etc., that we acquire in their wake. I agree that "experience" can sometimes be used in something like that way (e.g., in job advertisements: when they ask for "10 years' experience with Technology X" what they're really after is the skills that result from using X for 10 years), but I don't think it's what the term usually means and I don't think it can be reconciled with the perfectly reasonable usages in the "two instances" at the start.

Although the title is "Extending the private language argument", I don't see much argument here. We're told, e.g., that

What we have is experience if what we have is publicly available as a disposition to be learnt, imparted, shared or talked about with some degree of intelligibility.

but there's not much indication of why we should see this public availability as a requirement for something to be called experience. Perhaps the next sentence is meant as support for this claim:

Without a world of objects to respond to and without a sense of appropriateness of such response, both of which are public facts, the very idea of experience loses its meaning.

but that too appears to be a mere assertion, and of doubtful relevance even if it were true. The objects being responded to are by no means obviously public (one can, I claim, experience a headache). I don't see what a "sense of appropriateness" is meant to have to do with anything. It seems no more obvious that a person's sense of appropriateness-of-response must be public than that their experiences must be. It seems like there are notions of experience that don't depend for their meaning on "a world of objects to respond to" -- e.g., maybe we shouldn't consider that headache an object at all. Something can involve responding to a publicly-available "world of objects" but not itself be publicly available.

On the face of it, the last paragraph contradicts some of what's said earlier. First you say that experience has to be "publicly available". Then you say: please don't think that this implies any sort of bias toward what can be articulated. Well, how doesn't it? How else is experience supposed to be "publicly available"? If the hypothetical experienced card-player truly has no ability to teach others, describe the game, etc., then in what way is his experience "publicly available as a disposition to be learnt, imparted, shared or talked about with some degree of intelligibility"?

The answer, if I'm understanding right, is that all you're saying is that we shouldn't call something experience unless there's a "publicly available" thing that it's experience of, because "[i]n the absence of such a public token [...] neither our words nor our deeds amount to much." Once again, this appears to be mere assertion not backed by actual argument; in any case, it seems like a criterion for talking about experience rather than for having experience (but maybe you'd say that there's no point making that distinction, because who cares about experiences one can't usefully talk about?).

Well. Suppose I want to say I've experienced (say) depression or existential terror or some other such psychological thing. What, exactly, is your response? That I can't really have experienced such things, because "experience" presupposes some publicly available object to be experiencing? Well, OK; you can refuse to accept my use of the word "experience" for such things if you insist, so I say that I've "suffered" them or "gone through" them or "had" them. Obviously nothing much hinges on whether I use the specific word "experience" -- so perhaps you want to refuse permission for me to say those things too? So what, then? Do you in fact deny that depression and existential terror happen? Or do you just want to require people to talk about them in different ways? (What ways? Again, presumably this goes deeper than just avoiding the word "experience".)

Thank you very much for this detailed and careful response. Probably, this requires another post altogether to respond. But a few clarifications for now:

1. I have corrected the sentence beginning "If we can maneuver an automobile..." Sorry about the shoddy editing.

2. Comportment: You had me there! I've mostly encountered that word in Heidegger translations. And clearly, the ambiguity shows. Let me change that.

3. Now, a few substantive issues:

Take the case of an astronaut returning from space travel and reporting things. Let’s assume, she says, “you don’t experience gravity in outer space”. In day-to-day contexts this is a perfectly harmless and fairly accurate description. The problem comes when we take this sentence to refer to something like “an experience of gravity”. What the astronaut experiences in outer space is not the presence or absence of gravity. What she experiences is that, unlike on Earth, you float in space. A bunch of related experiences like these are then explained using a very elaborate structure of ideas like gravity. So, “gravity” is not what you experience, because ideas like gravity are not things that you can experience. It is an explanation to account for many experiences in a systematic way.

A similar line of reasoning holds for 'existential terror' and 'depression' and many other such abstractions we use to talk about our experience. Again, as I said, this kind of talk is perfectly harmless in day-to-day contexts because we all understand existential terror to only mean some special kind of fear or terror. However, when this kind of talk enters specialist vocabulary, like in the humanities, philosophy and our educated discourse, it creates problems.

With examples like "I am experiencing a headache", there is no real problem but bloated language. What we mean when we say "I am experiencing a headache" is simply that "I have a headache". We are reporting on a sensation, which is private and episodic. Of course, there is no problem in using the bloated language. But then, supposing you do not have a headache now, would you want to claim that you have no experience with headaches? Clearly not. That would mean the following: you do make a distinction between sensation and experience. You can report on the sensation of a headache. But then, if you are not talking about the particular sensation, but a general understanding of what it is to have things like headaches, you would say "I know what it is to have a headache. So do not lecture me on that!". In this latter instance, you do not mean the having of a sensation, but the ability to understand, recognize or handle things like headaches.

I hope you will concede the following: it is meaningless to talk about someone’s experience as being true or false. Sentences like “he had a true experience” and “her experience is false” sounds wrong. Now, this can be the case only if experience is not equated with explanations. Explanations can be true or false, not experiences.

Some minor clarifications: if a card player cannot talk about a game of cards, then, either we must have some other token by which we can see that he knows his game or we have to give up on our insistence that he has experience with card games. This may sound awkward but I’ll try: It is meaningless to hold on to the picture that, on the one hand, we have absolutely no way of figuring out whether someone has experience with card games, and on the other, that the man in question has experience with card games.

And, the last bit: imagine a person with absolutely no knowledge of Western classical music sitting through a concert. Someone who knows the music has experienced a great symphony. But would you say that our man has also experienced it? No. He has experienced only a jumble of sounds. This shows that to describe someone as having had an experience, we need to complete the sentence with an object (a grammatical object, but also one that can properly be called an object of the experience). “We experienced (enjoyed, listened to...) a great symphony today”. Or, in the case of our man, “He experienced a great cacophony of sounds today”.

So, it is not merely about which word one chooses instead of the word 'experience'. It is about what we think experience is and what it is not.

This may sound awkward but I’ll try: It is meaningless to hold on to the picture that, on the one hand, we have absolutely no way of figuring out whether someone has experience with card games, and on the other, that the man in question has experience with card games.

Eliezer wrote in the sequences a long argument about why he believes that it's meaningful to speak about Multiple World Theory even when there's no way of verifying what happens in other worlds.

I think it's fair to start an argument against that thesis, but if you come to LessWrong and want to take part in this discourse I don't think it's good to simply assert that are argued in the sequences are wrong.

But I don't think I'm arguing against Multiple Worlds Theory.

Not knowing about x is no proof for the non existence of x. (That's one part of the multiple world claim).

But my claim is this. Either there are some common, (or relatable) set of distinctions in our deeds and words and therefore I can recognize it as an experience. Or, I can only see it as an event needing some explanation.

Either the contortions on someone's face are indications of grief (assuming I know grief), or, if I don't know what grief is, then, they are merely some physiological events needing some explanation. We don't have a way out of this either/or situation.

I'm not sure what the point of the post is supposed to be.

A few questions:

Why do you believe that experience is knowledge and not a way to acquire knowledge?

Do you believe that there's a platonic "the game of cards" that exists as an object?

Some people argue that their experiences are unique and therefore others cannot be privy to it. In politics and issues relating to righting historical wrongs, such arguments then become a conversation stopper. So we need an understanding of experience which is sensitive to the fact that others' experiences are different while not allowing for it to be claimed as unique and private.

Experience is also a way to acquire knowledge. The crucial distinction is that experience is not a psychological event, like say, trauma or neurosis, could be a psychological event.

And regarding the game of cards, I'm agnostic about whether there is or there is no platonic model. But the game, or any meaningful system, has a convention, which cannot be reduced to the individual memory or knowledge people have about it. That's the force behind saying something is a convention.

Experience is also a way to acquire knowledge.

That sounds to me like you are setting up moat-and-bailey, where you sometimes want to speak about a type of knowledge and sometimes about a way to acquire knowledge but don't have a clear distinction between the two.

Knowledge vs. Phenomenon is the basic distinction. Now we need to do a sorting exercise. Where would I put sensations? Broadly under phenomena. Where would I put experience? Broadly under knowledge. There is more to be said about what we consider as experience and what as knowledge. But I'm not equipped to do that.

If I have experience playing the violin, I have some knowledge of it. It also helps me in acquiring new knowledge, like playing the cello.

The distinction you are talking about becomes important when we are talking about "knowing that" or "declarative knowledge". The theory of thermodynamics is distinct from the methods of acquiring that theory, like experiments, equations etc. But when we talk of experience, we are not beholden to that distinction. The knowledge of cycling and the means of acquiring it are logically distinguishable but not empirically separable.

The knowledge of cycling and the means of acquiring it are logically distinguishable but not empirically separable.

The Boltzman brain that floats around space can have all the neurons wired in a way so that it has knowledge of cycling but it didn't went through the process of cycling.

The claim that going through the process of cycling is the only way to acquire the neurological patterns that represent the experience of cycling is wrong.

Additionally, different people who learn to cycle have quite different experiences of cycling and it's not clear that those share a common core that can't be learned without engaging in cycling.

To add another test case:

Do you think a person who remembers being sexually molested as a child because of the suggestions of a therapist has an "experience of sexual molestation"?

The only problem is these examples render the very idea of experience superfluous.

And your test case about molestation is such a morally charged issue that I would not hazard logic chopping on it yet. (Hint: if the victim has some way of making sense of the event, it is an experience. If the victim has not emerged from the shock of it, then it is a trauma, a raw event, and not an experience).