Mindless Experience: Pragmatism’s Concept of Experience
Experience is a “weasel word.” It can mean many things, and invoking it more often obscures than clarifies. “Because I experienced it,” is an answer that we commonly take for granted. Experience is the most important concept in pragmatism, a philosophical tradition that began with Charles Sanders Peirce in the mid-19th century, and whose most famous members were William James and John Dewey.
My goal is to explicate the pragmatist understanding of “experience” for two reasons that are more than mere historical scholarship. First, the prevalence of neopragmatism has skewed the common understanding of pragmatism, which I aim to correct, because its popularity has obscured the other branch of contemporary pragmatism, neoclassical pragmatism. Neoclassical pragmatism inherits most of the tenets of classical pragmatism, whereas neopragmatism accepts few of them, yet the neopragmatist interpretation has come to dominate the popular understanding of pragmatism as a whole. “The truth is what works,” to paraphrase James, is a footnote and not the core of pragmatism despite popular belief. Second, I will address pressing problems in contemporary philosophy of mind concerning the relation of mind and world, how mind may be an emergent phenomenon of nature, and reconciling phenomenology and naturalism.
I will begin by defining “experience” and explaining what motivates the pragmatist’s radical redefinition of the term. I will conclude by distinguishing “experience,” which anything in existence is capable of having, from “mental” or “conscious” experience, which few things in existence are capable of having. Along the way I will discuss various premises that demarcate the pragmatic conception of experience. Before beginning I must propose a few caveats. My explication will place emphasis on John Dewey’s pragmatism combined with a strong Peircean interpretation. The explication will not be controversial and applies more widely than Dewey, although I will omit many of the qualifications that specialists expect for the sake of brevity and accessibility.
§1 Experience without Mind
Pragmatism radically redefines the concept of experience, and likewise alters every related conceptual framework. If at any time my words seem obscure, it may be because my audience “thinks left” while I “veer right” in thought. I will try my best to be easy to follow.
By definition, “experience” is the “interaction” or “transaction” of things in their environment. That is, whenever any existing thing acts upon another, “experience” occurs. Experience is a third thing, the transaction, of two other things. For example, rocks experience each other when they physically interact. The baseball experiences the catcher’s mitt when caught. The catcher experiences the baseball when catching it. The denotation of “experience” in all these cases is the same: one existing thing interacts with another. I expect some hesitation when I state this; we are so used to thinking of human experience as special. At its basis, it is not special. To understand pragmatism, one must first decouple the term “experience” from its human connotations. Second, one must stop thinking of experience as reducible, unreal, or exclusive to minds.
Experience is not exclusive to minds. I am not saying that rocks or baseballs have minds or awareness; I am rejecting the notion that experience is something a mind does. Experience is something nature does; it is any and all natural interactions. Human conscious experience is just a rare species of experience that includes more than brute physical interaction. Before I continue explicating the pragmatist’s definition of experience, I will explain what motivates the redefinition.
Pragmatism rejects Cartesian dualism as a foundational premise, and attempts to scrub the Cartesian legacy from its philosophical language. From a pragmatist’s perspective, the Cartesian legacy continues in theories that separate mind and world, or experience and nature. For example, we now talk about internal vs. external theories of justification, where the distinction asks the question, “are the conditions for being epistemically justified internal or external to mind?” The question already presupposes that the distinction of mind and world is important, coherent, and a categorical one. Pragmatism rejects this.
Much contemporary philosophy takes mind to be a basic category and a necessary condition for experiencing the world. In contrast, imagine that nature is a basic category, and experiencing is its basic activity. Rocks “experience” each other when they collide, although they do not have minds. “Mind” is merely a rare type of natural activity, and not a separate category, substance, or thing. In sum, pragmatism redefines “experience” as natural transaction and does not accept the foundational premise of Cartesian dualism. Thereby pragmatism avoids much of the Cartesian legacy at the outset.
Pragmatism accepts other foundational premises that shape the conception and implications of its theory of experience. Pragmatic naturalism, rather than declaring what kinds of things are real as is common in contemporary naturalisms, merely rejects “supernatural causation” and affirms “causal closure” combined with a theory of “continuity.” Causal closure states that all effects have a cause, and both causes and effects conform to law-like regularity that we call “natural laws.” This premise is common to almost all naturalisms, but pragmatism also proposes a robust realism.
Laws of nature are real, as pragmatic naturalism affirms scholastic realism. The difference between contemporary “realism” and “scholastic realism” is stark. Mere realism accepts the reality of the external world, and is opposed to idealism. Scholastic realism also accepts the reality of “universals” or “generals” such as qualities or laws of nature. Scholastic realism is opposed to nominalism, of which particularism is a common contemporary species, that holds that only individuals exist and thus general laws of nature are fictions. For scholastic realism, “redness” is a real quality of nature that may be instantiated in “red” things, and is not merely a dependent epiphenomenon of human nature. Likewise, the conservation of energy is a real law of nature, and not a Humean “constant conjunction” of human experience. Note that “abstract” entities, such as numbers, are arguably not “universals” since it is not obvious that they share a logic, and are usually treated separately.
In addition to scholastic realism, pragmatic naturalism also affirms “continuity,” which implies that nature cannot be said to exist in utterly discrete natural kinds or substances; likewise, the formal distinctions between cause and effect, identity and change, and other basic metaphysical concepts must be re-examined. Otherwise, if we suppose that elements of nature are discontinuous, then the continuity of a continuum of time, space, change, identity, and so forth, becomes a mystery. In this respect, pragmatism has more in common with Buddhism than most western philosophy, since both recognize the inter-being or conditioned genesis of all things, in which absolute individuality or self-identity can only be a formality and cannot be real. I ask forgiveness for the short explication of continuity, as this treatment is far from adequate, but I must continue to exhibit two elucidative implications for the pragmatic concept of experience. These concern the irreducibility and causality of experience.
Experience is not reducible to its constituents. I cannot say that a singular human or rock experiences, because neither alone produces an interaction. When I kick the rock, “experience” denotes the transaction of myself and rock, which is a third thing. Analogously, and in contradistinction, if I were to reduce an activity to its actors, then I would proclaim that the actor is real and the action is not. Likewise, I would proclaim a cause is real and the effect is not, yet both of these cases are absurd. Experience is not reducible to its constituents; it is a distinct category of reality. It is activity, force, and energy, that may depend upon something else to exist, but is not reducible to its basis.
Experience implies two-way, asymmetric causation, which is why Dewey calls it a “transaction.” Both parties participate, both are changed, but both may not be changed in the same way. For instance, when I kick the rock, we experience each other, but only the human side of the experience is characterized by awareness and meaning. The experience is asymmetric, yet alters the attributes of each. However, I am not saying that both parties in an experience directly alter each other. For instance, I am not saying that my seeing a distant car thereby alters that car. I am saying that “being a car” is an activity that can enter into my perceptual activities and become “being a car that is seen,” which is distinct from either “being a car” or “seeing.” But since I have seen that car and know where it is parked, I may later directly alter it as a practical joke. This is an example of how the two-way causation of an experience is not reducible to efficient causation. The practical import of experience being transactive is that there is no such thing as wholly fictive or self-produced experience. Nothing acts in a void, and even a “false experience” has “true” causes.
§2 Mental Experience
What is the “cash value” of these technical terms and subtle distinctions? They are the first step of a discussion about how human experience is different from rock experience: humans have a special kind of experience we call “consciousness” or “mind.” Rather than assume that “mind” is a kind of thing or substance, pragmatists propose that it is an event with causal conditions. To make this point, James famously argued that “consciousness does not exist.” His point was that consciousness does not persist; when it exists, it is a continual event with causal conditions. We may now ask, “what causes mind” or “what causes minding something?” This question is anti-Cartesian, because it presumes that natural conditions produced mind, rather that assuming that mind already exists. We investigate mind not by finding what is essential to its nature, which presumes that it has an essence, but by investigating its origin and characteristic conditions. Mind has no essence. Minding gains its character and qualities from what it is about.
Mind is a rare kind of experience, but what renders it special is not some secret additive such as rationality or freedom. Pragmatism denies the conventional views of both rationality and freedom, though that is a topic for another time. I will broach the discussion of the specialness of mental experience by undermining any lingering expectations of the correspondence theory of truth you may have, since pragmatism cannot support them, but does have something to say about representation.
What does it mean for human experience to be “true” if experience is nothing more than the product of the human body slamming into its environment? What makes one experience true and another false? The experience of falsity is not what our common intuitions, primed by modern philosophy, take it to be. Traditionally, we “err” when an idea within mind does not represent the object without mind; we have committed erroneous judgment about the world. Otherwise stated, a true idea corresponds, copies, or mirrors what it’s about, and this view is called the correspondence theory of truth. But in pragmatism, there is no inside or outside experience: to experience something is always already to be intimately engaged with it. For pragmatism, truth cannot be correspondence, because truth is not about correlating two things, such as the idea and the fact. If experience is a transaction, then the difference between the experience of truth or falsity is a distinct kind of interaction. Humans can discern a difference that few other beings can, and the difference has something to do with temporality and our ability to represent the future.
Humans have “minds,” which implies that they can create two rare events in the cosmos. One, humans can anticipate and represent an experience before it occurs and thereby seize control of the future. Two, they can alter how they represent that anticipated experience to improve predictive capabilities. For instance, when seeing a vase about to fall, I can put out my hand under where it might go to catch it. That is, we experience the world in terms of what might happen next, from dark clouds meaning “rain” to a fuel gauge warning that indicates “pull up to a gas station or face a looong walk.” Moreover, we may devise an infinite number of ways to represent an anticipated experience, from “the storm gods made it rain” to contemporary metereological explanation, that allow us to improve our predictive abilities.
The difference between mere experience and mental experience is stark. Mere experience transacts at the level of the present and the actual. Mental experience uses the present and actual to represent the possible and future in order to change it. Hence, the difference between a human mind and a rock, when both are experiencing a sky dive, is that the human anticipates death if the parachute release cord is not pulled. The rock, however, is kind of dumb—I would say indifferent—towards this prospect.
The skydiver’s idea exhibits the difference between a true and false experience. The idea is “true” if the activity of pulling the parachute release cord saves one from death; it is false otherwise. A proposed “true experience” is a promise that a certain interaction will result in specified future consequences. Thus the truth of a mental experience implicates the world, but the relation is not the correspondence of an idea in mind and an essence in the world. Instead, the relation of mental experience and world is temporal, active, and does not depend on any specific representation.
In summary, mind can discern “true” and “false” experiences, whereas the difference is between a mental experience—which is both a physical transaction and a representation of its future outcome—that secures an anticipated future or fails to do so. The ability to anticipate the future to secure more satisfactory experiences is what “mind” is, and it is nothing more than this. Mind has no essence and does not exist as such; it is the event in which a being anticipates the future and uses that anticipation to alter the future.
My goal has been to explicate the pragmatist understanding of experience, and in conclusion, I will revisit the popular view of pragmatism as claiming that “the truth is what works.” Why does the truth “work?” Not because we should conceive the truth as instrumental to human desire or amelioration. The truth “works” because the experience of truth is an activity. It is experimental reconstruction of our ideas and the world to produce an anticipated future outcome. Hence, the present experience is “true” or “works” if it in fact leads to that outcome. This aspect of truth is experimental in the same way that science is experimental: there is nothing “soft” or “slippery” about it, which some attribute to the pragmatic theory of truth. Although Peirce, James, and Dewey—let alone contemporary pragmatists—may not agree on a single interpretation of the phrase, contemporary discussions about pragmatism will benefit from a greater understanding, and it is my hope that current discussions of philosophy of mind, emergentism, and phenomenology may as well.
 The best succinct discussion of the distinction between neoclassical and neopragmatism is David Hildebrand, “The Neopragmatist Turn, in Southwest Philosophy Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 2003): 79-88.
 See William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), especially chapter six.
 In general, see John Dewey, Experience and Nature, in The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, The Later Works Vol. 10, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1991). For a specific treatment, see John Dewey and Arthur Bentley, “Interaction and Transaction,” Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 43, No. 19 (September 1946): 505-517.
 For those who are not familiar with processive or temporal metaphysics, such as Buddhism in which continuity is a foundational concept, I offer the example of mathematical continuity that should aid in comprehending the more general notion. The popular, though incomplete, definition is that given any two points there is a third point between the other two. If we accept this definition, then we will quickly succumb to Zeno’s paradoxes exemplified in flying arrows and foot races. The moment we name a beginning point, Zeno will always name another point between that point and our goal that we have yet to traverse. In contrast, the modern mathematical definition of a continuous continuum cannot be specified in absolute or fully determinate discrete points, else the continuum is discontinuous. This definition defines an element of a continuous continuum as a “neighborhood” rather than a discrete point, and thereby movement through a continuum is possible. Likewise, and returning to its application in pragmatic naturalism, there cannot be an absolute distinction between cause and effect, identity and change, and other basic metaphysical concepts, else we cannot explain: how a cause becomes its effect, how an given identity changes—or most importantly for the moment—how experience emerges from and is not reducible to its constituents.
 William James, “Does Consciousness Exist,” Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 1, 477-491.