Wolfgang Leidhold is currently wrapping up a project on the History of Experience with a book exploring the ways in which humans get in touch with their environment and with themselves. The project was inspired by the discovery that the structure of experience changes throughout the course of history, a discovery that first occurred to him as he was exploring the history of spiritual experience. Leidhold pursues the evolution of experience in a wide arc from the Paleolithic to the present day. (For an essay-length summary, published in 2018, see here.)

Contrary to what we have generally assumed, the architecture of human experience is not a universal constant since the times of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Instead, we find a total of nine experiential turns. In each of these turns, a new dimension of experience is added, expanding the ways in which humans got in touch with reality. Thus, the history of experience is like a forest that keeps growing new trees.

This growth began sometime in the Paleolithic, when conscious perception and imagination emerged. In the course of the Mesolithic and the Bronze Age, a sense of order and self-reflection were successively added. During Antiquity, two more transformations followed: that of theoretical and rational thought, and that of spiritual experience. In the Middle Ages and at the beginning of modern times, the discoveries of creative imagination and consciousness ensued. The series has continued into our present day with the unveiling of the unconscious.

Each of these nine transformations passes through the same four stages. This four-stage process leads from incubation, via articulation, to methods and institutionalization: At first, the pioneers discover a new experiential dimension; subsequently, their discovery is named, described and communicated to others; then methods are designed to make it universally accessible; finally, the new practice is institutionalized. If this is successful, a new culture is born. The prerequisite for the entire development is a sufficiently advanced human brain. However, this cerebral potential must be activated step by step. This applies to our mental capacities no less than it applies to our physical abilities. We can imagine that this development has not yet come to an end. But what will be the next turn in experience? This question is still waiting for an answer.