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Songs of Experience

Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme

Martin Jay
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 441
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  • Book Info
    Songs of Experience
    Book Description:

    Few words in both everyday parlance and theoretical discourse have been as rhapsodically defended or as fervently resisted as "experience." Yet, to date, there have been no comprehensive studies of how the concept of experience has evolved over time and why so many thinkers in so many different traditions have been compelled to understand it.Songs of Experienceis a remarkable history of Western ideas about the nature of human experience written by one of our best-known intellectual historians. With its sweeping historical reach and lucid comparative analysis-qualities that have made Martin Jay's previous books so distinctive and so successful-Songs of Experienceexplores Western discourse from the sixteenth century to the present, asking why the concept of experience has been such a magnet for controversy. Resisting any single overarching narrative, Jay discovers themes and patterns that transcend individuals and particular schools of thought and illuminate the entire spectrum of intellectual history. As he explores the manifold contexts for understanding experience-epistemological, religious, aesthetic, political, and historical-Jay engages an exceptionally broad range of European and American traditions and thinkers from the American pragmatists and British Marxist humanists to the Frankfurt School and the French poststructuralists, and he delves into the thought of individual philosophers as well, including Montaigne, Bacon, Locke, Hume and Kant, Oakeshott, Collingwood, and Ankersmit. Provocative, engaging, erudite, this key work will be an essential source for anyone who joins the ongoing debate about the material, linguistic, cultural, and theoretical meaning of "experience" in modern cultures.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93979-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-8)

    Calling this bookSongs of Experiencewill be understood, I hope, more as an act of homage than as a gesture of hubristic appropriation. William Blake’s justly celebrated poem cycle of the same name, counterpoised as it was to hisSongs of Innocence,¹ provides insights into what he called “the Two Contrary States of the Soul” that a sober scholarly treatise can only hope in vain to emulate. No prose “Tyger” will ever blaze as brightly in the night as did his poetry, no academic worm-eaten “Rose” ever seem as sickly. With their brilliant explorations of the religious, political, moral,...

  5. ONE The Trial of “Experience”: From the Greeks to Montaigne and Bacon
    (pp. 9-39)

    “‘EXPERIENCE’, OF ALL THE WORDS in the philosophic vocabulary is the most difficult to manage;” warns Michael Oakeshott, “and it must be the ambition of every writer reckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains.”¹ Such an ambition, however, may be more typical of philosophers anxious to still the play of language and come to firm conclusions about what it purports to represent than of intellectual historians interested in the ambiguities themselves. Typically, the former employ one of two methods to reduce or eliminate polysemic uncertainty: either they legislate a privileged meaning and banish others to...

  6. TWO Experience and Epistemology: The Contest between Empiricism and Idealism
    (pp. 40-77)

    MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE’S precariously affirmative skepticism—his tolerance for the fallibility of the senses and the weaknesses of the body—did not easily survive the impatience of early modern thinkers anxious to achieve certain knowledge about the world being laid bare by science.¹ Nor did his attentiveness to the lessons of folk wisdom and the teachings of the ancients, which he honored despite his refusal to follow them blindly. With René Descartes came a desire to start fresh, avoid the errors of the past, and look confidently toward the future. The new prestige of science also meant jettisoning Montaigne’s preoccupation...

  7. THREE The Appeal of Religious Experience: Schleiermacher, James, Otto, and Buber
    (pp. 78-130)

    THE REDUCTION OF EXPERIENCE to a question of cognition, whether pursued in empiricist or idealist terms, not only produced the epistemological conundrums that continue to bedevil philosophy in the present century, but also left a gnawing sense that something important in human life had been sacrificed. Contrasting Michel de Montaigne’s more robust notion with that emanating from René Descartes, Giorgio Agamben alerts us to what was lost:

    Inasmuch as its goal was to advance the individual to maturity—that is, an anticipation of death as the idea of an achieved totality of experience—[experience] was something complete in itself, something...

  8. FOUR Returning to the Body through Aesthetic Experience: From Kant to Dewey
    (pp. 131-169)

    WHENEVER EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN in bad odor, distrusted for undermining the certain truths of deductive reason, or attacked as unreliably subjective and incommunicable, its ground in the creaturely human body is often implicitly to blame. Platonism’s suspicion of the base needs of the corruptible body and the irrationalism of the emotions was a major source of its hostility to experience per se. Although the epistemological tradition, especially in its empiricist guise, sought to reinstate the evidence of the sensorium, it did so in the hope of somehow avoiding, or at least containing, the relativist implications of relying on sense data....

  9. FIVE Politics and Experience: Burke, Oakeshott, and the English Marxists
    (pp. 170-215)

    “A POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE,” warns an eminent feminist critic, “is inevitably a conservative politics.”¹ Rather than a check against ideology, adds a prominent Marxist theorist, experience is “ideology’s homeland.”² “Experience,” observes a third commentator, was routinely elevated above “analysis” by defenders of “reactionary modernism” in Germany.³ Such claims, often made by defenders of theory or the linguistic turn in cultural studies, can be taken in one of two ways: either only those normally labeled rightist routinely legitimate their positions by drawing on the lessons of experience, or even those who claim to be politically progressive inadvertently produce conservative outcomes when...

  10. SIX History and Experience: Dilthey, Collingwood, Scott, and Ankersmit
    (pp. 216-260)

    MINCING NO WORDS, Michael Oakeshott scornfully derided the historical mode of experience inExperience and Its Modesas merely “an arrest in experience. History is a world of abstractions. It is a backwater, and, from the standpoint of experience, a mistake. It leads nowhere; and in experience, if we have been unable to avoid it, we can regain the path to what will afford satisfaction only by superseding it and destroying it.”¹ Judged from the lofty, neo-idealist vantage point of the absolute notion of Experience as the holistic unity prior to any modalization, historical experience, he continued, is “a mutilation...

  11. SEVEN The Cult of Experience in American Pragmatism: James, Dewey, and Rorty
    (pp. 261-311)

    THE MODALIZATION OF EXPERIENCE, its fracturing into the discrete subcategories we have designated as epistemological, religious, aesthetic, political, and historical, produced certain palpable benefits. By allowing the inherent logic of each variant to be isolated and developed in its own immanent terms, it helped clarify the complexity of the stakes involved in the general appeal to experience against its various contrasting terms: theory, reason, dogma, innocence, discourse, and so on. By segregating one discursive subcontext from another, it also permitted the issues raised in each to emerge with a precision that would have been much harder to attain if the...

  12. EIGHT Lamenting the Crisis of Experience: Benjamin and Adorno
    (pp. 312-360)

    WRITING ON MAY 7, 1940, from his precarious exile in Paris, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) expressed to his friend, Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), himself only recently uprooted to New York, his anguish at “the methodical destruction of experience.”¹ From Benjamin, who had been writing about the theme of experience since 1913, Adorno had already absorbed the lesson that the parlous state of genuine experience—understood in ways to be explained shortly—was one of the most telling indicators of the modern era’s decline into barbarism. The Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory, still in the process of moving fitfully away from...

  13. NINE The Poststructuralist Reconstitution of Experience: Bataille, Barthes, and Foucault
    (pp. 361-400)

    “EXPERIENCE IS A MODERN FIGURE,” Jean-François Lyotard explained dismissively in 1981.

    It needs a subject first of all, the instance of an “I”, someone who speaks in the first person. It needs a temporal arrangement of the type: Augustine’sConfessions,book XI (modern work if ever there was one), where the view of the past, the present and the future is always taken from the point of an ungraspable present consciousness. With these two axioms, one can already engender the essential form of experience: I am no longer what I am, and I am not yet what I am. Life...

    (pp. 401-410)

    The readers of the foregoing account may be forgiven if they share Amis’s sardonic sentiments, at least about the welter of competing, often discordant meanings that have accrued to this numinous word over time. Ending our song cycle with theorists who call “inner experience” the “experience of the outside” while claiming that it requires the dissolution of the very subject who has traditionally been seen as its bearer might, after all, seem ample warrant for wondering if the term means anything coherent at all. Because I have resisted the temptation to bestow the normative aura of “real” or “authentic” or...

  15. INDEX
    (pp. 411-431)