What is Experience?

My theory of experience evolved from the Story of the Stargazer, a personal memoir dating back to my childhood days. The story reports a change in the structure of experience, that is, in the way we get in touch with reality. One evening at the age of about 12, I was completely absorbed in looking at the stars through my father’s binoculars. Suddenly, however, my focus switched away from the stars and toward myself. I became aware of myself sitting there looking up at the stars. I had discovered the experiential dimension for self-awareness.

The significance of this discovery initially went unnoticed. It emerged only later on, when I systematically explored my memories in search of philosophically motivating experiences. This anamnetic method looks for key events that stimulated the curiosity in our youth — a curiosity that can be metaphysical, artistic, erotic, or whatever. From this search developed the key issue of the History of Experience: the study of experience and its historical dynamics.

From Content
 to Structure …

It turned out that “experience,” though ubiquitous in scientific discourse and everyday language, has remained one of the most obscure concepts we have. A major reason for this is that the debate about “experience” is focused on its content, while the structure of experience has escaped attention. Once this problem was clearly understood, there arose inevitably the project of finally developing a theory of experience.

Based on an empirical analysis of experience, “experience” is defined as “conscious participation.” Experience is a four-part structure: two poles, connected by participation and illuminated by the luminosity of consciousness.

from content to structure

… to Nine Experiential Turns

Reflecting on the above Story of the Stargazer, I discovered that the structure of experience is variable, changing over the course of our lives and throughout human history as well. This discovery led me to explore the historical dynamics of experience. I found a total of nine turns in the history of experience. These nine experiential turns are starting in the Paleolithic and extending to the present day. It is always the way in which people consciously participate in things that is subject to these transformations. The mode of participation is therefore the vehicle of historical dynamics.

9 turns in the history of experience

… a Sequence of Four Phases

The nine variants develop gradually, both in the course of our lives and in the course of human history. They always go through the same sequence, composed of four phases. These four phases are:

  1. The incubator phase, in which individual pioneers experience a new dimension of experience
  2. The phase of identification, in which the new dimension is explicitly described and symbolically represented
  3. The phase of methodical practice comes next, when methods evolve to make the newly discovered dimension accessible to other people. When successful, the discovery transforms into a broad movement, leading to …
  4. The final phase of institutionalization: now the new dimension and its practice have become permanent features of a society.

Experiential turns occur on both the biographical and historical levels. On the historical level, I found as first parallel to the Story of the Stargazer the poems of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, about which I will report further below.

a Sequence of Four Phases

… and the Order of History and Cultural Evolution

In contrast to Karl Jaspers’ theory of the Axis Age, the History of Experience shows that there is not one single axis, but nine axial turns in experiential structure. The basic pattern of cultural evolution and the order of history both result from the process of these nine experiential transformations. Cross-cultural and historical analysis reveals how the variable mix of experiential dimensions defines the specific character of each culture.

With each turn, the chain of experience is growing and new cultural constellations emerge. The History of Experience describes this cultural genealogy and the course of the nine historical axes. From this, a new picture of our cultural identity and human history emerges.

The Method of Experiential Research

Exploring the history of experience also required a method of its own. On the personal, ontogenetic level, we know the process from our own experience, that is, through introspection and memory. For this I use the anamnetic method.

On the collective, phylogenetic level, things are different. Here, the personal perspective remains inaccessible to us. Only when people symbolically articulate a new experience, i.e., in the second phase of the four-phase sequence, does implicit personal experience turn explicit, and the phylogenetic level becomes accessible. This also applies to the phases of methodical practice and institutionalization. When becoming explicit, each new dimension enters the stage of history.

In experiential research, our source material consists of communicated experience, of symbols and artifacts, of narratives, concepts, and texts. Beyond that, experience is equally expressed in practice, and practice takes shape in methods and institutions. The method of experiential research is based on the stages two to four, i.e. on studying symbols and on exploring human practice.

However, from our own experience we know that the explication of an experience already presupposes its subjective, personal awareness. Therefore, understanding explicit experience requires that our own personal experience be taken into account. If one wants to recognize all nine dimensions of experience, one must consequently have experienced all nine dimensions oneself. Consequently, the anamnetic method is an integral part of experiential research.

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