Extending the Private Language Argument

by Ashwin Kumar 2 min read23rd Jun 201810 comments

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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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