Thursday, April 30, 2009

Abstraction and Experience

In college I did rather poorly in required science courses, owing perhaps to the disconnect I felt between an abstract and an experiential level of knowledge. In these courses the two were separated and acquired side by side—if at all. We got the conceptual material in lectures, the experience in lab work. Try as I might, I couldn’t connect the two, especially not in chemistry.

In the sciences generally, as taught at universities (at least in my day—perhaps the methods have improved), the actual experience of discovery is too much compressed. The messy lab experiments did not, for me, actually illustrate the elegant formulae of chemical transformation that I’d jotted down in notes. The lab time was too short; the stuff I dribbled from jars into tubes was alien and messy; things never seemed to work out; the smells, the fumes…. Those who had originally discovered all the formulae had spent months and years in what must have been a fascinating process. We were supposed to absorb all that in two-hour stints—without training or time enough to hone the many skills involved. It didn’t work out for me.

Passing grades could be achieved by memorizing formulae and abstract tokens in chemistry and Latin names for species and body parts in biology. Rubber stamp on forehead. Passed required course. Keep the line moving.

Later on I really did learn a good deal about chemistry by working in industry. There I saw problems in a brand new and active context. I had to understand what really transpired and why. I got my knowledge by interaction with lots of people and spending time looking at things in refineries and chemical plants. The formulae became a language by which to talk about the bigger, the real thing. In college the lab was an interlude of chaos. In working life it was the center of events, the real thing, Kant’s Ding an Sich—even if not in the way Kant meant it. Behind the abstract thought now loomed this vast, real, imposing and concrete reality. The thought was thin, the thing was thick.

Yet later—decades later—I learned a lot about biology as well. Surprisingly my greatest help in comprehending that mysterious world came from years of experience I’d had of human institutions and technology. That gave me what amounted to an almost reflexive recognition of the Hermetic slogan: As above, so below. Human experience in its complexity mirrors the arrangements of organic nature at another level, enlarges it to ordinary view. The parallel reaches way down, down to the behavior, characteristics, and arrangements of sub-cellular organelles and their constituents in turn.

I came to believe, as a consequence of this experience, that education should be inverted. First, after high school, let us say, should come ten to twenty-five years of work in the world’s economy. Then college! Only fractions of effort would be required and would then yield ten times the benefit that would have been available to the same person at eighteen or nineteen. Education could thus be seen as completing the human, not to prepare him or her for work. Real preparation could still be provided by apprenticeship programs under patient masters.

Now, to be sure, I had more native inclination in my youth to understand literature, history, and philosophy—the humanities generally—than the sciences. But the same rules, it seems to me, also apply to these fields. Experience is the real teacher. Before we learn the names we ought to have experience of das Ding an Sich. If high schools were properly organized—and here and there they are—they would suffice for minimal preparation, not least in ethics and philosophy. At higher levels these subjects really require a rich experience of life before the problems they deal with even fully surface in human life and, therefore, the raw materials for understanding become available.

My own experience is that the really educated are self-taught—yes, even if, nominally, they already have advanced degrees when this real learning begins. It is thought based on experience that educates. By thought I don’t mean simple musing—not merely the storing of knowledge into cubicles provided by a classification system ready-made by public opinion. I mean genuine, ordered reflection.

Here, perhaps, it may be well to reflect for a moment on that word itself—reflection. It rests on abstractions, concepts, immaterial memories, phantasms, but it carries the richer connotation of the inner life that I’m seeking to portray here. Abstraction is a technical sort of word—not something we experience. What we experience is reflection. And it is a rich sort of thing, not the dry, shrunken head of something that once lived—rather something still vital and alive but on another level…

Plato has Socrates say that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living” (in Apology, the text is here). The statement is odd. The person who fails in examining his life wouldn’t know, would he, having never looked; thus the opinion is that of a third party. The phrasing is poor, but the meaning is clear enough. It signals that experience, as such, however valuable and indispensible it is to genuine knowledge, does not really reach the authentically human level until we view it separated from itself, thus in reflection. The experience, needless to say, may be mental, emotional, or spiritual. It doesn’t have to be sensory. But it should have been perceived.

At the same time, reflection without experience, which seems so common in many philosophical contexts, is next to useless. It reminds me of a ping-pong game without a ball. Such a game would feature many wild gestures at two ends of a table, many loud outcries no doubt, many loud arguments about who just scored a point, with denials and passionate affirmations—but really nothing there to prove the facts one way or the other.


  1. Yes, the timing in life of training, doing, more training, learning, applying that knowledge through work, thus learning more, studying again and building ones knowledge base is tricky. Complicating it further is the fact that people differ in how they do these things. I'll have to reflect on this further...

  2. It was a common Aristotelian position that no one could really become a philosopher before the age of 50 -- when you are young, your task is to begin becoming temperamentally suited for it, and when you are a bit older than that, your task is to gather the experience in the life of the city that philosophy requires. Before that time you can study philosophy and philosophize within particular areas, but it takes time and effort to be in a position really to think through the important things, assuming that you ever get to the point of having the right temperament and enough leisure to do so. We're backward on that, too.

  3. Yes. Your last point, Brandon, is well put. Our hectic culture diverts even those who have the means for leisure from being drawn into contemplation.

  4. I agree that while class rooms inform,knowledge comes from actually working on the problems.But there is something even better"wisdom" which to my mind comes only after examining carefully the cause of success or failure.
    While knowledge and information drive the world it is wisdom that takes it forward.In that sense there is much to learn from what you have said.
    Thanks for adding my blog to your favorites.