Monday, September 24, 2007

Spontaneity of experience

"My concern here is with the way Hegel’s conception of experience and logic attempts to overcome Kant’s antithetical formulation of the concept-intuition distinction which separates thought from any possible content. The Phenomenology tries to overcome this dualism by establishing the conceptual character of experience. Indeed the very notion of experience is stripped of its passivity and is imbued with spontaneity." (Satisfying the Demands of Reason: Hegel’s Conceptualization of Experience, by Simon Lumsden Topoi 22: 41–53, 2003, herep. 42).

This resembles Habermas’ stress on the surprising character of experience. But the difference is that for Habermas ‘conceptual’ interpretation of experience robes it of its surprising character, see Habermas’ critique of Brandom and McDowell on this. The reason for this seems to be the fact that for Habermas the origin of spontaneity doesn’t lie in concepts. Spontaneity belongs to understanding only by virtue of Reason and he castigates both Hegel and Heidegger for blurring the Kantian distinction between Reason and understanding.

Kant’s conditions of cognitions are not under the constraints of the world precisely because they are the conditions of the possibility of our cognition. Habermas accepts Kantian position but rejects the idea that conditions of the possibility are beyond the reach of the world. Habermas here makes a crucial and subtle move. According to Habermas Kant’s argument is only valid so far as our relation with “objects” is that of cognition. However, that doesn’t imply that “objects” as far as they are not the “objects” of our cognition and are not conceptualised by us, can’t “affect” our conceptual apparatus. The surprising character of experience is tamed only to the extent that we “domesticate” it through conceptualising it and only as long as we keep doing that. However, the domestication of experience is never exhaustive and can never be exhaustive given our finitude (Habermas’ referral to Putnam’s rejection of “God’s eye view” is relevant here).

It should be noted that the word “experience” is ambiguous. By experience we can either mean the states a subject goes through when he or she encounters the world or the content of any such experience. The former is an example of passivity while the later that of spontaneity. What is passive, here, is really the subject and not the "experience" which is overwhelming for the subject. It’s only when the subject routes some of what he is faced with through his mental categories that he is able to "pacify" the experience.

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