At the risk of sounding like a bad TV Advertorial (or a presumptive Presidential candidate/aka ‘Rich Dad’ riffing on a network marketing scheme to make America rich again) let me explain. If you ever studied History of Philosophy 101 you very likely own a resource presently stored like cash under a mattress, untouched and so unproductive. This conversation is about how you might take it out, invest it in your busy life and start building equity and generating dividends.
What you likely have there under the Posturepedic are some remembered insights of the great philosophers that most followed/studied/enjoyed/endured (take your pick) as undergraduates registered in History of Philosophy 101. As a one-time teacher of Philosophy, I concluded that the very best definition of the subject was this: “Philosophy is a system of ideas that helps make sense of experience.” With that as the starting point, I recently set off to explore the connection between the philosophers’ insights and the real life experiences from which they may have arisen and which they are still capable of illuminating.
But first a word of caution from the Journal of the great 19th Century Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who observed, “Experience, it is said makes a man wise. That is very silly talk. If there were nothing beyond experience it would simply drive him mad.”
What makes Kierkegaard’s observation timely and relevant is that in a world of “24/7” accessibility and connectedness, experience is coming at people at an unprecedented pace and from an unprecedented number of sources. To avoid being inundated, it is time to find some organizing principle, to develop resources for processing these mountains of experience. It’s time for the experience-saturated to be at least as concerned about the dangers of unprocessed experience as they are about those of processed foods. Here are some of the reasons why.
Raw experience is completely singular. So it follows that it’s a pretty solitary, possibly isolating. To get beyond the isolation, it helps to focus on what articulate people have said about their own experiences and how their reflections have struck a chord with others. This is illustrated by the common sense insight. It may be expressed as an aphorism, it can go on to become a byword, slogan or iconic statement for the millions. A good example is FDR’s insight about the potentially paralyzing experience of fear, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
The second path to “making sense of experience” is to recall the reactions philosophers had when they focused on experience in the light of their own special insight about the nature of reality. A good example would be to look at the experience of human institutions that lose their dynamism and become static or moribund. From the point of view of the French philosopher Henri Bergson who saw the central reality as a dynamic force he called “the élan vital.” It was a surging, dynamic forward/upward flow. So he made sense of the experience of institutions becoming static and lifeless by seeing that as a “crystallization” of the life force resulting from the “capping” of the élan vital. For him, fluidity equaled life and stagnation was understood as a failure to grasp the importance of a constant reinvention. If he were alive today, he would be quite likely to relate to the advice to “Go with the flow.”
So far the recipe for “making sense” calls for three ingredients:
- Your own raw, “what can I say about it?” experience;
- The common sense “sounds similar” interpretation of experience you heard from a friend, or in a song lyric or a rap or a prayer or a speech or an adage or an aphorism;
- The “from under the mattress” remembrances of a byword or headline you used to identify a philosopher’s more systematic interpretation of reality as a whole or some specific lived experience of reality.
By creating your own recipe from these three basic ingredients I wouldn’t bet against you coming up with a satisfying (or at least intriguing) result that makes sense of one or other of your life’s experiences.
Here are some “for instances” of experiences you’d probably love to make sense of, or at least understand better and so appreciate more.
- falling in love: try blending you, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say Were in Love” and the observation that laughter is what distinguishes humans from all other animals
- procrastination: try blending you, Scarlett O’Hara and Leibniz’s contention that this is “the best or all possible worlds”
- the temptation to think that “It doesn’t matter.”
- the honest question “what really does matter?”
- the crucial distinction between could and should.
- The effort to cope with “office politics”
What will make it worth your time to have read this far will be if you’ve begun to believe that you know more than you thought you did about how to make sense of your own experience. And a bonus, if it encouraged you to take a fresh look at the wisdom to be found in adages, insights, song lyrics, memorable speeches, favorite bits of poetry. And an even bigger bonus, if you’re considering reconnecting with the untapped information in the recesses of your memory since the days of Philosophy 101.
Think of it this way: instead of being left in the lurch of unprocessed experience you’re thinking of calling up the something “beyond experience” that Kierkegaard believed could help you avoid being driven “mad.” Now that, I submit, “makes sense.”