On (dis)orientation and the epistemology of personal experience. A response to Martin Lenz

In a previous blog post, Martin wondered what we can say about the current crisis without simply repeating or questioning statistics or predictions. And he answered this question in a performative manner, as I interpreted it, namely by devoting most of his blog post to a discussion centered around the importance of personal experience in this time of crisis.

And this might be thought to be a good point of departure, too, since we are dealing with a crisis of such a massive scale that we all feel and experience it personally in any case. That is to say, irrespective of our geographical location or societal context, the crisis appears to us in the guise of something that immediately intrudes into and changes our lives. And so, the outbreak of Covid-19 affects us all, globally and indiscriminately, but at the same time also in irreducibly personal ways. And this makes is so that we are, perhaps, better served by personal experience than by imagination or theory if we want to understand our current situation, or so one might think.

However, this is a thought that needs to be heavily qualified and scrutinized, I believe, because, as it turns out, we are indeed all affected by the current crisis, but not all in the same way or in the same measure. And this renders an uncritical reference to personal experience more than a little problematic, seeing as it could all too easily lead into false generalizations and ideological deadlocks.

This is a problem that became especially pronounced, to my mind, when I considered Martin’s personal experience as he described it in his above-mentioned blog post and compared it with my own personal experience and the experiences that were reported by my friends. Because whereas Martin (and some of my friends) reported experiences of disorientation, confusion, and a loss of cognitive mapping in light of the crisis, I myself (and some of my other friends) reported experiences of validation, of a strengthening of our pre-existing beliefs, and of ideological certitude.

And so, the questions that I began asking myself, in light of these conflicting reports, were questions along the lines of ‘Who is actually on the right track here?’ and ‘Whose experiences are epistemically reliable?’. After all, if we assume that our personal experience of orientation or disorientation – i.e., our sense of our ability to ‘make sense’ of things – has an epistemic import, then it is not so outlandish to believe that an experience of disorientation might indicate a cognitive failure and that an experience of orientation might indicate a cognitive success.

But this is precisely a juncture at which I recognize a possibility for an error to creep into our thinking. Because it seems to me that an experience marked by a sense of having found one’s orientation despite the maelstrom of events is, in fact, always epistemically uninformative; whereas an experience marked by disorientation can be epistemically informative, but, even then, only in a negative way.

And so, to illustrate, let us first consider the experience of (still) being able to make sense of things. This has so far been my own experience in the face of the crisis and it is the reported experience of some of my friends, too, which means that it can be said that, for us, nothing has fundamentally changed since the beginning of the crisis. Our beliefs and expectations did not need to be altered because of the Covid-19 outbreak, and the worldwide response to it only confirmed our pre-existing beliefs and expectations.

The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex, as they are wont to be, but for the most part they boil down to us being Marxists. And so, naturally, we have no faith in the bourgeois state that can be eclipsed by its current legitimation crisis, nor any confidence in market economies that can be shaken by the onset of yet another economic recession. Moreover, as Marxists, we have of course been having a field day in theoretical and political discussions in the last weeks, because the way in which the crisis is unfolding – tragic as it may be – makes our positions easier to illustrate and more defensible than they have been in decades. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it may even seem as though the response to the current crisis, which is shaped by material pressures and practical necessities more than that it is determined by any normative ideals or moral considerations, has been specifically designed to provide new empirical grounds for historical materialists to stand on.

And so, for us, there is no disconfirmation; no disorientation. Our personal experience has a rather sanguine overall character in spite of all that has happened, and our beliefs have never seemed more true or justified than they seem now. But, even so, this momentary stability or sense of coherence does not, to my mind, bear any positive epistemic significance. After all, it could be based on quicksand.

Indeed, in this regard the standpoint that my Marxist friends and I now avail ourselves of is, structurally speaking, not so different from the standpoint that Francis Fukuyama availed himself of when he announced the end of history and the timeless marriage of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. That allowed him to make sense of many things, too, at a time when any honest Marxist would have admitted to feeling very disoriented in light of the then-recent world historical events and the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’. Yet the tables have turned on Fukuyama rather spectacularly in the meantime, and nothing about his experience of being able to make sense of things at the time could have tipped him off to that possibility, I imagine.

So, the experience of being able to make sense of things is, in itself, not epistemically useful. It makes one neither better nor worse off when it comes to finding the truth or developing appropriate ways of relating to the world. After all, an experience such as this can occur accidentally, too, due to unknown or misunderstood causes that only make it seem as though one has understood something, while one has, in fact, misapprehended or badly contextualized it. And, of course, we also have a tendency of initially repressing our awareness of any evidence that makes our heartfelt convictions and cherished frameworks unworkable, meaning that we sometimes still feel like we can make sense of things even though some pieces of the puzzle already do not quite fit.

But what about the opposite experience, then? What about an experience of disorientation, such as the one that Martin and others reportedly have (had) in light of the crisis?

Well, here I think things look differently. That is, I think that an experience of disorientation can be epistemically useful, even when it is considered by itself. And the reason for this is that an experience of disorientation occurs when one is trying to orient oneself – i.e., when one is trying to make sense of things – but is frustrated in the attempt. And it seems to me that such an experience of frustration, as a rule, needs to have some real cause.

After all, why would one have trouble making sense of things if there is not something outside of oneself that directly and manifestly renders one’s ideas unfeasible or unfitting? And so, for this reason, it can safely be said that an experience of disorientation almost certainly reflects an actual incongruity between the reality one tries to subsume under one’s Notion, on the one hand, and one’s Notion itself, on the other hand. Moreover, this will be an incongruity that one, in some sense, cannot get around when one has such an experience. The contradiction is too obvious or too glaring here; it distorts one’s whole experiential field, that is why one feels disoriented.

And, what is more, it seems likely that, if one attends to one’s experience of disorientation closely enough, one can glimpse the real cause of the disorientation, too, precisely because the experience of disorientation is so intimately tied to some directly experienced incongruity. And this then also means that the experience of disorientation provides a key, not so much to positive knowledge, but certainly to a specific diagnosis of what went wrong. In other words, an experience of disorientation immanently provides the dialectical means to its own solution; at least when one attends to it closely enough. Or that is the hope anyway.

However, beyond this, I doubt that personal experience – even when it is theoretically developed and considered as a totality – should be considered a reliable guide to positive knowledge. It is simply too partial and conditioned, and not to mention too determined by self-serving interests, for us to put stock in it.

2 thoughts on “On (dis)orientation and the epistemology of personal experience. A response to Martin Lenz

  1. Many thanks for a great and insightful post, Mark! Starting with an illuminating reconstruction and intriguing side glances (such as the one to Fukuyama, which I’d love to explore further), you zoom in on the epistmic value of personal experience and conclude that, as such, it is not really a guide to positive knowledge. There are many things that I’d like to follow up on, but let me confine myself to a remark about your experience, and a question about the epistemic role of personal experience.

    (1) Although I find myself confused, as you rightly say, there is a part of me that agrees with your experience. As I try to say in my last post on “other voices”, I think the reason that I now feel as I do has to do with the context (having a permant job etc) that aligns me, willy nilly, closer with some former status quo. But I can fairly easily return to a different part of my life, and then (at least in my imagination) some experiential qualities shift accordingly. So while it’s true that we might describe our experiences in contrary terms, it’s not that black and white. (Which is precisely why exchange matters so much).

    (2) Contrasting our experiences, you ask: “‘Who is actually on the right track here?’ and ‘Whose experiences are epistemically reliable?'” – What you say seems to insinuate a kind of indication relation, such that a given experience indicates something else correctly or incorrectly. Is that how you see experience?
    I’m asking because I thought of it in a different way. The reason why think it’s important to have exchanges about personal experiences is *not* that I think that we migt then see whose experience might be a better indicator of the states of affairs. My reason for talking about experiences is that the different experiences of different people *form the framework* that allows for establishing agreements or disagreement, a sharable frame of reference for talking about right and wrong or reliable in the first place.
    So for me, the fact that our experiences turn out to be contrary does not mean that we disagree. We might not: You might like what I dislike, but in having an exchange about that we establish that and and how we’re talking about the *same* thing. (It’s like: You say “morning star”; I say “evening star”, and then we might have something common to talk and (dis)agree about. We might then either agree that we’re having different experiences of Venus or we might realise that we’re talking about different stars). In other words: While you seem to assume that we already have a framework in which we can plot disagreement, I am assuming that by having this exchange we begin to establish a framework. Am I making sense?

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    1. Hi Martin! Thanks a lot for your question (and for the chance to write a guest blog post in the first place!).

      You ask me a rather difficult question here, because, for me, the question of whether experiences are ‘indicative,’ to employ the term that you introduced, has a rather complicated answer.

      That is to say, on the one hand, I do think that experiences have an ‘about’ or an objective import. And so, they are mediated by what happens in the world. There is, as you also admit, something that our experiences relate to, some *thing* that we can both talk about, and this moment of objective import must not be lost. It means that we are not talking randomly, and this is something that my approach tries to do justice to, which is perhaps why you read the indication relation so readily into what I have written.

      However, on the other hand, what complicates matters for me, is that it is doubtlessly also true that experiences do not simply ‘map onto’ the world. There is no pictorial or direct relation, but an indirect and mediated relation, between our experiences and the state of affairs in the world. And so, we cannot speak of an indication relation in a simple or primitive sense (and here I go against the basic impulse of analytic philosophy, of course, which always thinks simply or primitively and mistakes this for clarity).

      To the contrary: we can only speak of an indication relation in rather nebulous ways that can only be rendered clearer in dialectical treatments of specific problemata. But this matter cannot be spelled out more clearly in general terms, I believe. And, indeed, here, again, it counts as an ancestral sin of analytic philosophy, to my mind, to have introduced the belief that we could speak of this *clearly* in general.

      To say of experience in general that it has an indication relation would, then, to my mind, be as bad as to say that it does not have an indication relation; not in the last place because ‘experience in general’ is always a handy abstraction, anyway. It does not refer to any real experience of which we could *determine* whether it has an indication relation or not, more precisely. And so, again, for me, the indication relation of any experience is always up for grabs and uncertain until it is demonstrated, but that is not to say that there cannot be an indication relation.

      That said, though, I think that we tend to agree, on the whole, and in order to render clearly just how much we agree: I would absolutely say, with you, that we do not necessarily start in ‘the same place,’ or straightforwardly share a framework in which we can plot our disagreements. This is something that needs to be established in the course of a conversation, of course. And here I simply agree with you, it seems to me.

      In fact, I would go further still, and say that we always first have to establish not only whether we *share* a framework, but even whether we individually really *have* a framework to begin with. Because I think a lot of loose thinking is based on mistaken vague associations that barely make up a coherent experience for an actual framework. And this is also, in part, why I simply do not trust personal experience as a source of knowledge, because that typically does have such a vague and chimerical character about it. Personal experience is made of untested associations, loose thoughts, etc. And this is also exactly why, say, Fukuyama went wrong, I think. His The End of History and the Last Man never actually left the shaky grounds of personal experience, loose associations, and large connections that were only sketched out but never tested. This is why that book achieves nothing more, or at least nothing more of significance, than the coffee table talk of me and my Marxist friends, which I also critique, not for being wrong, but for being untested when it (sometimes) presents itself otherwise.

      So, here I am just a classic dialectician, really, and end up saying: if any experience is to count for anything, it has to be developed and become scientific; it has to be tested and made more concrete. But this already means that we are leaving the soil of mere personal experience, I would say, because that is loose, associative, and untested; that is, indeed, where we may have only a *sense of* coherence without actual coherence.

      Liked by 1 person

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