Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Experience and Knowledge – Encounters and Reflections: Conversations with Seth Benardete, p. 197

The passage below, from Encounters and Reflections: Conversations with Seth Benardete p. 197, is something I’ve been thinking about the last week or so. It needs quite a bit of context. Benardete talks about how he met a mathematician at a party who thought mathematics was his professional life, but wasn’t feeling particularly fulfilled by it. So the mathematician went ahead and became this incredible expert in Japanese music.

The questions that arise are of identity, being and education. Regarding the last, is there something about the character of knowing that has changed from ancient philosophy to modern philosophy? I like to say that the whole issue of Socrates is this: in dying, he was as good as his word. There’s something about knowledge which necessitates self-knowledge and perhaps vice versa. It informs the being one is, the nature one has. I think that’s the context you need for the passage below. Descartes, of course, is an example of “modern” philosophy:

Seth [Benardete]: This is connected, I think, with the whole issue of experience and teaching.

Michael [Davis]: How do you mean?

Seth: The character of teaching, à la Descartes, is to speed up the process of understanding or to give the impression that you can speed it up.

Robert [Berman]: You can leapfrog.

Seth: Somebody forms himself on the basis of the life he has lived, then he transmits it. But the life is not transmitted, only the rubrics, not grounded -

Robert: – in the experience that gave way to them to begin with.

Seth: Right.

Rather than knowing, the passage is concerned with teaching. Teaching leads back to a contention about knowledge. “The process of understanding” can be sped up or be made to look like it can be sped up. The problem with the fantastic promise of method is that experience seems to be essential to our knowledge. All of us know that to memorize a fact for school feels arbitrary and forced until one sees that fact play out on the news or in the real world. And that’s knowledge as didactic.

If we start talking about the character of understanding as it relates to discovering for oneself, then things get much weirder. Benardete speaks of somebody forming himself “on the basis of the life he has lived.” This is moral knowledge resulting in guidelines, advice, propositions. One can challenge whether this is knowledge strictly. I think what’s interesting is hearing from people who have made scientific discoveries and had “eureka” moments. I can’t imagine there is some strict reason/passion separation at work, where the achievement of knowledge is completely separable from the feelings one has about it or a number of other propositions one has related to the way one thinks. To sit and solve a problem of some magnitude requires clearing up one’s own thought, one’s own mental cobwebs, and discovering how best to think for oneself.

That “how best to think,” along with the certainty of scientific knowledge, has led some to think that mind is universal, so much so it is beyond mankind, beyond all mere physical phenomena. I’m not so sure: I’m (obviously) thinking more that real discovery is going to involve some degree of self-discovery. That doesn’t mean there’s some optimal way to think or not think, but rather indicates that some sort of striving is essential to knowledge, a striving that isn’t quite brute calculation. A body of knowledge, on this thought, only makes sense if there are knowers.

This all might seem obvious, but any time one wants to propose something about how we know or who we are there are bound to be complications. Later in the discussion Benardete is asked how he is so sure the issue is experience. Benardete relates an anecdote about Leo Strauss, how Strauss met a Polish woman and remarked how she had a depth American women her age didn’t have. For a second, I thought the issue was “sure, someone who watched their country and the people around them get obliterated twice by the Germans and Russians in a matter of few years would display a certain depth.” But it may be possible to go through the horrors of war, the trauma of living under bad or failed ideologies, see one’s tradition and identity challenged to the point of being annihilated and learn absolutely nothing.

The issue is experience because having experience isn’t the be all-and-end all for knowledge. The question is closer to how you want your experience to be a guide, a thing of value. Even that isn’t putting it quite right, because I remember being preached to recently by this 18 year old who had found God who I really wanted to shut up. The Polish woman, assuming she’s been through a lot, probably displayed a moral maturity by being less concerned with acquisition and achievement and more concerned with something else. I’m tempted to say that is something like “how things are valuable,” but I’m not sure. I will say this: a passage from Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” has stayed with me, the one where he speaks of great anxiety and the beings around us receding as a consequence. I’m not sold on the metaphor (I don’t know that it is a metaphor, but that’s another story), but I wonder about having almost nothing left. If one were lucky, would she be guessing at the value of the smallest things in slow, deliberate ways to see if the world made a lick of sense?


Benardete, Seth. Encounters and Reflections: Conversations with Seth Benardete. ed. Ronna Burger. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002.


  1. I agree with your comment, and would add only this: that knowledge as didactic is intimately bound up with the use one makes of error–the fact that we can see the difficulties and inadequacies in an account of things much more clearly than the true account is where we must begin. Experience is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of such an embrace of error, mostly because it seems bound up with the soul. At least this is what I get out of SB, who says that first philosophy is first only the second time around.

  2. Great post. It connects with a distinction Kant makes (B 864) between someone who’s merely learned a philosophical system and someone who has thought it through for himself. He calls the first student “the plaster cast of a living man.” The second has made the thought his own, made it part of his mind and life. I agree with you that experience isn’t the central issue – it’s something like authenticity.

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