Summer 2010

Experience and Its Claim to Universality

Reinhard Huetter
From the Christian point of view, everything,
indeed everything, ought to serve for upbuilding.
The kind of scholarliness and scienticity that ultimately
does not build up is precisely thereby unchristian.

—Anti-Climacus, The Sickness Unto Death

Does experience hold us open to the whole of reality? And if so, how are we to understand this achievement of experience? By unfolding the path of an answer to this complex set of questions, the subsequent meditation is intended as an approach to the even more comprehensive question about the nature of experience as such.Experience is arguably one of the most difficult topics for the philosopher and the theologian to tackle. Experience is exceedingly elusive, manifold, and simultaneously common. Experience embraces two polar extremes: on the one hand, in its autobiographical particularity, experience is virtually ineffable. Yet on the other hand, insofar as it is a function of human nature, experience has universal formal characteristics. It is because of the simultaneity of these two extremes of every human experience that all experience is analogically related, to the effect that experience can indeed be communicated and hence shared so that by way of the operation of analogical imagination and the capacity of empathy2 I can understand the experiences of others to a certain degree and, in some instances, by way of assimilating them, even deepen and qualify my own reservoir of experiences stored in memory. Hence, Terence might very well have a reasonable case when he claims, “Homo sum: nihil humanum mihi alienum est.” “I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me.”

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1. The topic and its specific formulation were given to me. An earlier version of this essay was delivered 3 December 2009, at the international symposium “The Nature of Experience: Issues in Science, Culture, and Theology” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. The final version profited considerably from the dialogical “communio” of interlocutors, first before the symposium with Thomas Joseph White, O.P., during the symposium thanks to various specific interventions and to the general discussion, and finally after the symposium in private correspondence with John McCarthy and in dialogue with Paul Griffiths and Nancy Heitzenrater Hütter.

2. Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraud Stein (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1989). For an instructive introduction to Stein’s book, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913–1922 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 75–87.