A Theory of Knowledge
IV. Definition of the Concept of Experience
Two spheres thus stand over against one another, — our thinking and the objects with which this is occupied. These latter are designated, in so far as they are accessible to our observation, as the content of experience. Whether or not there are other objects of thought outside the field of our observation, and of what sort these may be, we shall for the moment leave undetermined. Our first task shall be to fix sharply the boundaries of the two spheres, experience and thought. We must first have experience before us in determinate outlines and then investigate the nature of thought. Here we enter upon the first task.
What is experience? Every one is conscious of the fact that his thinking is kindled through collision with reality. Objects meet us in space and time; we become aware of an external world of many parts very highly complicated, and we live in a more or less richly elaborated inner world. The first form in which all this meets us is already fixed. We have no share in its coming to pass. It is as if springing forth from an unknown Beyond that reality first offers itself to the grasp of our senses and our minds. At first we can do nothing more than to permit our look to sweep over the multiplicity which meets us.
This first activity of ours is the grasp of the senses upon reality. We must grasp firmly what is offered to the senses, for it is only this that we can call pure experience.
We feel forthwith the need to penetrate by means of the classifying intellect into the unending multiplicity of forms, forces, colors, tones, etc., which appear to us. We are impelled to explain the mutual interdependencies of all the single entities that come to meet us. When an animal appears in a determinate region, we inquire regarding the influence of the latter upon the life of this animal; if we see that a stone begins to roll, we seek for other occurrences with which this is connected. But what comes about in this fashion is no longer pure experience. It has already a twofold origin — experience and thinking.
Pure experience is that form of reality in which it appears to us when we meet it with the complete exclusion of ourselves.
It is to this form of reality that we may apply the words Goethe used in his essay entitled Nature: “We are surrounded and encircled by her. Unbidden and without warning, she takes us up in the round of her dance.”
As regards the objects of the external senses, this fact stares us in the face, so that it will scarcely be denied by any one. A body appears at first before us as a complex of forms, colors, sensations of heat and light, which are suddenly there as if they had come forth from a primal source to us quite unknown.
The psychological conviction that the sense world, as it lies before us, is in itself nothing but a product of the interaction between our organism and an external world of molecules unknown to us does not contradict our assertion. If it were really true that color, heat, etc., were nothing more than the manner in which our organism is affected by the external world, yet the process which metamorphoses the occurrences of the external world into color, heat, etc., lies entirely beyond our consciousness. Whatever may be the role played in this by our organism, what appears to our thought as the already existent form of reality, not subject to our control — that is, experience — is not the molecular occurrence; it is those colors, tones, etc.
The matter is not so clear in the case of our inner life. But adequate consideration will here remove all doubt that our inner states also appear on the horizon of consciousness in the same form as do the things and facts of the external world. A feeling makes its impact upon me as does a sensation of light. The fact that I bring it into nearer relationship with my own personality has no significance from this point of view. We must go still further. Even thought itself appears to us at first as an item of experience. In the very act of examining our thought, we set it over against ourselves, we conceive its first form as coming from an unknown source.
This cannot be otherwise. Our thinking, especially when we lay hold upon its form as an individual activity within consciousness, is contemplation — that is, it directs the look outward toward what stands before it. Here it remains at first as activity. It would look into emptiness, into nothing, if something did not exist over against it.
Everything which is to become an object of our knowledge must adapt itself to this form of setting itself before us. We are incapable of lifting ourselves above this form. If we are to win in thinking a means for deeper penetration into the world, then thought itself must first become experience. We must seek for thought itself as one among the facts of experience.
Only thus will our world-conception avoid the loss of inner unity. This would occur at once should we attempt to bring into it an alien element. We stand facing pure experience and seeking within experience for that element which sheds light over itself and over the rest of reality.