A minor experience
is possessed.

The major
is undergone.

It’s a matter of priority:
subject or event.

If you want to remain as you are,
possess experiences.

But, if you want to grow
allow events into your life.

Hans-Georg Gadamer was concerned with the term ‘experience.’ He discovered, it was once almost solely determined by one particular manifestation called Erlebnis: “what is experienced is always what one has experienced oneself.”[1] The translators of Truth and Method usefully pitch in by describing the concept of Erlebnis as “something you have,” and stating that it is always “connected with a subject.”[2]

Gadamer identified limits with this mode of experience when thinking about one’s engagement with art and the consequent self-understanding that might be on offer through that engagement. For Gadamer, a different mode of self-understanding was required. One that relied upon the continuity of someone through time, the continuity of their history, and the continuity of history itself. To reach this new mode of self-understanding Gadamer introduced a second manifestation of experience to replace Erlebnis

Erfahrung is described by his translators, as “something you undergo.”[3] This second form of experience as “something you undergo” is explicitly distinct from Erlebnis as “something you have.” The priority of the subject is taken away, and replaced by the priority of the event. When Gadamer directed this mode of experience back to the experience of art, the impact of his introduction of Erfahrung becomes clear: “a genuine experience (Erfahrung) is induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.”[4]

Gadamer’s introduction of experience as Erfahrung consequently enabled a reformulation of an epistemic question concerning art:

“Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience (Erfahrung) of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind, certainly different from that sensory knowledge which provides science with the ultimate data from which it constructs the knowledge of nature, and certainly different from all moral rational knowledge, and indeed from all conceptual knowledge – but still knowledge, i.e., conveying truth?”[5]

The re-emergence of the question of art having a claim to truth through the vehicle of Erfahrung, as opposed to the rejected Erlebnis, allowed Gadamer the opportunity to reconsider what it was to experience a work of art and how one might gain truth from such an experience. If Erfahrung is experience as “something you undergo,” with the priority of the subject replaced by the priority of the event and the importance of self-understanding, then Gadamer radically re-tunes our approach to aesthetics. But, not only aesthetics. Surely, Gadamer at this moment also makes a bid for wisdom? He describes the experience of art as something that contains a different type of knowledge from that traditionally understood by science or “moral rational” thinking and “conceptual knowledge”. I think, it isn’t a form of knowledge at all that he describes but wisdom. He needed to term it knowledge to complete his argument. However, ultimately, what he highlighted was that the experience of art can enable wisdom if one experiences art as an event or “something you undergo.”

[1] Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 61.

[2] Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001,13-14.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 100.

[5] Ibid., 97-98.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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