4. Determining the Concept of Experience
Two regions confront each other therefore: our thinking, and the
objects with which thinking concerns itself. To the extent that these
objects are accessible to our observation, one calls them the content
of experience (Erfahrung). For the moment let us leave aside
entirely the question as to whether, outside our field of observation,
there are yet other objects of thinking and what their nature might
Our immediate task will be to define sharply the boundaries of the two
regions indicated: experience and thinking. We must first have
experience in its particular delineation before us and then
investigate the nature of thinking. Let us proceed with the first
What is experience? Everyone is conscious of the fact that his
thinking is kindled in conflict with reality. The objects in space and
in time approach us; we perceive a highly diversified outer world of
manifold parts, and we experience a more or less richly developed
inner world. The first form in which all this confronts us stands
finished before us. We play no part in its coming about. Reality at
first presents itself to our sensible and spiritual grasp as though
springing from some beyond unknown to us. To begin with we can only
let our gaze sweep across the manifoldness confronting us.
This first activity of ours is grasping reality with our senses. We
must hold onto what it thus presents us. For only this can be called
pure experience. (3)
We feel the need right away to penetrate with organizing intellect the
endless manifoldness of shapes, forces, colors, sounds, etc., that
arises before us. We try to become clear about the mutual
interdependencies of all the single entities confronting us. If we
encounter an animal in a certain region, we ask about the influence of
this region upon the life of the animal; if we see a stone begin to
roll, we seek the other events with which this is connected. But what
results from such asking and seeking is no longer pure experience. It
already has a twofold origin: experience and thinking.
Pure experience is the form of reality in which reality appears to
us when we confront it to the complete exclusion of what we ourselves
bring to it.
The words Goethe used in his essay Nature (4) are
applicable to this form of reality: We are surrounded and
embraced by her. She takes us up, unasked and unwarned, into
the orbit of her dance.
With objects of the external sense world, this leaps so obviously to
the eye that scarcely anyone would deny it. A body confronts us at
first as a multiplicity of forms, colours, warmth and light
impressions, which are suddenly before us as though sprung from some
primal source unknown to us.
The conviction in psychology that the sense world, as it lies before
us, is nothing in itself but is only a product of the
interworking of an unknown molecular outer world with our
organism does not contradict our statement. Even if it were really
true that color, warmth, etc., were nothing more than the way our
organism is affected by the outer world, still the process that
transforms the happening of the outer world into color, warmth, etc.,
lies entirely outside consciousness. No matter what role our organism
may play in this, it is not molecular processes that lie before our
thinking as the finished form in which reality presses in upon us
(experience); rather it is those colors, sounds, etc.
The matter is not so clear with respect to our inner life. But closer
consideration will banish all doubt here about the fact that our inner
states also appear on the horizon of our consciousness in the same
form as the things and facts of the outer world. A feeling presses in
upon me in the same way that an impression of light does. The fact
that I bring it into closer connection with my own personality is of
no consequence in this regard. We must go still further. Even thinking
itself appears to us at first as an object of experience. Already in
approaching our thinking investigatively, we set it before us;
we picture its first form to ourselves as coming from something
unknown to us.
This cannot be otherwise. Our thinking, especially if one looks at the
form it takes as individual activity within our consciousness, is
contemplation; i.e., it directs its gaze outward upon something that
is before it. In this it remains at first mere activity. It would gaze
into emptiness, into nothingness, if something did not confront it.
Everything that is to become the object of our knowing must
accommodate itself to this form of confrontation. We are incapable of
lifting ourselves above this form. If, in thinking, we are to gain a
means of penetrating more deeply into the world, then thinking itself
must first become experience. We must seek thinking among the facts of
experience as just such a fact itself.
Only in this way will our world view have inner unity. It would lack
this unity at once if we wanted to introduce a foreign element into
it. We confront experience pure and simple and seek within it the
element that sheds light upon itself and upon the rest of reality.