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A Blakean Song to the History of Ideas,
This review is from: Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme (Paperback)
The last five hundred years of Western philosophy have been beguiled by the notion of "authentic experience," and especially how it has been cordoned off from the sensorium of the human mind. In a highly worthy addition to the history of ideas, Martin Jay aims to examine several "modes of experience" - the religious, aesthetic, historical, postmodern among them - so that we might better understand how this precarious category has been understood throughout the history of western thought.
Jay begins immediately by distinguishing between the two large, general types of experience called Erlebnis (which is immediate pre-reflective, and personal) and the Ehfahrung (based on sensual impressions and cognitive judgments). In one of the most interesting parts of the book, Jay details how Michel Montaigne reconfigures experience from a set of powers embodied in the human mind to a set of frailties and weaknesses which delimit those powers, hence his famous quip that "to philosophize is to learn how to die." Montaigne's subjective interiority of experience was radically changed during the Scientific Revolution in which the scientific method externalized and objectified sensory data, creating a public sphere of inquiry which had never been in place before the seventeenth century. The chapter progresses as a précis of Western philosophical traditions, with everything from Bacon's emphasis on observation to Kant's positing of a noumenal world that is the "raw material" for our transcendental faculties to feast upon.
Jay then turns to a chapter about the "Appeal of Religious Experience," an examination of Schleiermacher, James, Otto, and Buber. He reads Schleiermacher, as most historians have, as a substantive response to Kant, a sort of anti-Enlightenment personalism, which was continued by the likes of Buber and Otto. His readings of these figures, and his knowledge of the secondary material is extensive to such a degree that he can deftly portray the history of ideas not as something that comes down from "on high," but as a Great Conversation (how old-fashioned is that?)
"History and Experience" explores some of the more popular trends in nineteenth- and twentieth century historiography, including Dilthey's distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften (arguably the distinction that launched modern historiographical discourse as we recognize it today), along with the ideas of Collingwood, Joan Wallach Scott, and Franklin Ankersmit. Collingwood's "The Idea of History" will inevitably be familiar to most, but the Scott and Ankersmit were new to this reader. Scott (coincidently the mother of New York Times film critic A. O. Scott) questions one of the most fundamental assumptions of all historians - the idea of the constituted subject who can entertain historical experience. Instead of taking for granted the idea of the knowing subject upon whom experience impinges itself (as had been done automatically by thinkers from Descartes to Kant), Scott argues the interpretative regimes of the historian are built, a la Foucault, not through a neutral intellective apparatus, but rather are shaped by, and in turn themselves shape, historical events. Franklin Ankersmit offers a subjective historiography of immediacy which blurs the lines between knower and known.
As the book proceeds into Bataille, Foucault, Adorno, and Benjamin, Jay detects a substantive disappearance of experience (at least experience as we have known it before) largely historically situated in the World War I and the years immediately thereafter. This renders the tone of the final chapters into something of a threnody for something lost.