Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Field Theory of Experience

Musing upon and working up to it.

Another way of explaining Dewey’s theory of experience is to call it a “field theory” of experience, which he did in Experience and Nature.  Human experience is a field of interaction between the organism and environment from which all distinctions are made.  Distinctions are made at the level of physics, of biology, of the body and its habitual and homeostatic activities, of consciousness, and of mind; making distinctions is a dividing up of the field of experience that occurs at all levels, but not in the same way.  At the level of mind there is explicit signification, the taking of this quality to indicate these possible consequences of those possible interactions with it; i.e., there is meaning.

James Gouinlock puts the notion of taking distinctions well in John Dewey's Philosophy of Value:

“the organic unity of subject and object is such that the distinction between them is perceived by deliberate analysis and is not found in immediate experience itself” …. A red object is red, for example, because certain of its properties interaction with certain of those of a subject; and the subject experiences red because certain properties of the subject interact with certain of those of the object.  The red is neither ‘in the subject’ nor ‘in the object,’ nor even in an exclusive relation between antecedently determinate subject and object.  Rather, it is a feature of the situation itself, which is inclusive of subject and object; what are called subject and object are two functional constituents of that entire set of relations constituting the situation” (18)
“Situation” is the name given to the local field of experience.  The “traits of experience” are the “traits of nature” that emerge under certain interactive or transactive conditions.  Experience is real and of nature, not an epiphenomenon.


“The experience of a red object is an outcome of all the various functional constituents of the inclusive situation.  In this situation—that is, in this set of relations—the object is really red, and it is this object which is experienced.” (18).

Rather than agree with Locke that “primary qualities have “powers” that produce sensual “secondary qualities,” Dewey understands “quality” to be participative.   The thing really does have a potentiality, but redness is a fusion of many potentialities and not just those attributed to the red object.  The difference between appearance and reality is, then, a demarcation of natural conditions and not between experience and world.

Hey, didn’t I say that I’d talk about a field theory of experience?  Well, what do you think a dynamic “fusion of many potentialities” is?  A field.  For the adventurous, I offer an insight into how I visualize human experience as a field.

I visualize it as a a collection of 5-dimensional graphs like so many I saw when I was earning my degree in math (3 spatial dimensions, time, and telos—potentiality to be).  Note that this visualization is only an aid, as it spatializes time, and reduces the significant factors just to their telos and thereby also privileges futurity.  Why would I simplify an n-dimensional field to 5?  Because its close to how we actually live experience: what’s going on around me, how is it changing, and what do I anticipate happening.

Much more to come...

1 comment:

  1. Since Leon and I have been discussing this in the comments in a nother blog post.. Note that my explication of “qualities” here does not presume that “qualities” (my use) are like Locke’s sensual secondary qualities; rocks can experience each other’s qualities. Terminological point: humans “feel qualities” while rocks “experience qualities;” the interaction denoted by feeling is different in kind than that of rocks.


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