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Experiences in the Cave, the Closet and the Vat—and in Bed

  • Leslie F. Stevenson (a1)

The notion of experience plays a deeply ambiguous role in philosophical thinking. In ordinary discourse we say that applicants for employment as joiner, farmhand or nanny should have some previous experience with carpentry, livestock or children. Such uses of the word clearly presuppose the existence of the relevant objects of experience. In other usages the focus is more on the mental effect on the subject (without doubting the existence of the relevant objects), as when someone says that they have had several unpleasant experiences that day–a wetting in a thunderstorm, an altercation with a traffic warden, and a long wait at the station.

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1 L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), *621.

2 See Armstrong D. M., Bodily Sensations (London: Routledge, 1962), Ch. IV-V, andA Materialist Theory of the Mind (London: Routledge, 1968), Ch. IX. Cf. also A. Michotte, The Perception of Causality (London: Methuen, 1963), Ch. XIII.

3 A point which Kant alluded to in his Second Analogy, Critique of Pure Reason, B233ff.

4 Cf. Wittgenstein, op. cit., and Anscombe G. E. M., Intention (Oxford: Blackwell, 1957), section 8.

5 Gibson J. J., The Senses considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 32–3.

6 F. Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), 146.

7 M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by C. Smith (London: Routledge, 1962). Part One of this book is devoted to ‘The Body’.

8 S. Hampshire, Thought and Action, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1959), 47–8, and 69.

9 Locke, Essay concerning Human Understanding, II. xi. 17.

10 Newton made the closet image even more explicit, contrasting the supposed directness of God's knowledge of things with the inevitable indirectness of our perception of them: ‘of which things the images only carried through the organs of sense into our little sensoriums, are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks’ (Opticks, end of Query 28). But where do touch and bodily action fit in to this scheme? What is it ‘in us’ (one wonders, in these feminist days) that does the cooking, the lovemaking and the childcare?

11 That ‘most despotic of the senses’ as Wordsworth called it (The Prelude, 1805 version, Bk XL, line 174).

12 H. Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 6.

13 The question about the necessary conditions for having any particular experience thus becomes Kant's question about the possibility of experience in general, see Critique of Pure Reason B195–7

14 Kant, B275–9.

15 Moore G. E., ‘Proof of an External World’, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XXV, 1939.

16 Dennett D. C., Consciousness Explained (London: Allen Lane, 1991)–see Ch. 1.1

17 Malcolm N., Dreaming (London: Routledge, 1959).

18 In this, we could do worse than think about what Kant says in and around his Refutation of Idealism–e.g ‘whether this or that supposed experience be not purely imaginary, must be ascertained from its special determinations, and through its congruence with the criteria of all real experience’ (B279, and cf. B273).

We might also ask ourselves what if anything lies behind Wittgenstein's suggestion that the temptation to solipsist claims like ‘Only this is is really seen’ seems much stronger when we stare at unchanging surroundings, than when we actively walk about–see The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 66.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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