An Essay Featured in The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose
Ideas Are Not Experiences
An Idea on Why History Repeats
Why does history repeat? Why does it seem thinkers like Heidegger are at war with language? Why does it seem art has more influence on ideas than ideas on art, and though both have an impact, why does art seem to change the world more so than philosophy (as technology seems to be more consequential than education)? Why do words often fail us? Why does the phrase “I can’t put it into words” resonate? Why does knowing things could be worse not make us happier?
It’s because ideas are not experiences.
We seem naturally inclined to forget how wide the gap is between the idea and the experience until the experience, and soon thereafter we forget again, tricked by the impressions of our ideas. And this is life. Furthermore, we know “ideas aren’t experiences” more so than experience it: we never experience this general truth, only particularities of it (such as “the idea of rain isn’t the experience of rain,” “the idea of economic collapse isn’t the experience of economic collapse,” etc.). This being the case, there is always some idea of some experience which isn’t backed by any kind of experience at all for us, and whatever these experiences are, we aren’t orientated “toward” them in the same way we are “toward” that which we have actually experienced. What is only an idea to us is that which we aren’t “toward” in the same way we are “toward” an experience, which is also an idea — an “idea/experience” — seeing as what we experience is also that which we will have an idea of, unless that is we have amnesia, entirely forget, etc. (unlikely circumstances that, though possible, don’t change the point of this paper).
Considering this, seeing as what you are reading right now is really only an idea to you, it is unlikely that this paper will influence you as strongly as whatever you will experience soon after you finishing reading (for better or for worse). “Ideas are not experiences” is an idea, and even if we know it is true, this will not impact us as will experiencing what we know is true, and herein lies the truth for why history repeats, why writers often feel like failures, and why Aquinas felt all he had done was straw. To be told what others have experienced is to be told what we can never in particular experience — that which will never “fit” us — and the expressers not only know this but experience the failure in the act of trying. Yes, we may experience a different sunset, religious vision, eureka, etc., but we can never experience that sunset, religious vision, eureka, etc., which we are told about. At best, if we’ve had similar experiences, we can connect, but to connect with what I have experienced isn’t to experience it: I am alone with what I want to share, perhaps burdened. And if burdened, I am motivated to try to share, to be freed, to try to get better at writing, singing, painting, storytelling, etc., to create worlds that aren’t real worlds, to do things that others might find crazy — but ideas are not experiences.
Humans are not merely “brains on sticks”: we are bodily creatures who also feel, touch, and so on. As a result, though both are indeed real, there is a sense in which “the experience of a sunset” is “more real” to us than “the idea of a sunset” (or at least that’s how it feels), seeing as experiences are “more fitting” for our ontology (which if we were indeed just “brains on sticks,” mere ideas would be “more fitting”). As a result, experiences are more influential and motivational to us than are ideas: we simply aren’t impacted by ideas the same way we are by experiences. This doesn’t mean ideas don’t impact us at all, and I agree with Deirdre McCloskey that ideas are primarily responsible for the incredible enrichment of humanity starting notably after 1800: ideas can change the world, and every day in schools around the country, this fact is proven. Similar to the arguments of “Probable Cause” by O.G. Rose, my point is simply that, to make an example, the idea that “bullying is bad” isn’t as likely to motivate the majority of people to “actively stop bullying” as will an actual experience of being bullied. Problematically, if the majority won’t be motivated to keep x experience from happening until x experience happens, then especially democratic societies require experiences to avoid those experiences, which is of course when it’s too late. And so history repeats.
We simply can’t be influenced by the idea “ideas aren’t experiences” the same way we can be influenced by a given experience, and this hints at why history repeats: knowing the causes of historical events will not motivate us like experiencing those causes (which if we experience, are likely too far advanced to stop). And yet we cannot experience history: at best, we can visit museums, read books about it, etc., and so understand history in terms of ideas, which may counterproductively make us feel like we do understand history, making us overconfident. Considering this, the act of studying history to avoid repeating it can contribute to the likelihood that we fail to avoid the mistakes of history. This logic applies to all mistakes in general: knowing we shouldn’t do x is to possess an idea that is likely to prove weak when faced with the experience-based temptation to do x. And having possessed an idea about x, being overconfident, we have failed to adequately prepare ourselves.
But how could we be prepared for what we don’t know about? If we don’t know that “x causes y and y is bad,” how could we know we need to avoid x or even what constitutes x? Without ideas about x, we seem destined to commit x, but the mere idea “we shouldn’t do x” is never as strong as the experience of the temptation to do x, and in fact the idea may make us weaker via overconfidence. It seems we are destined to prove “weak” to stop mistakes from being (re)committed, as we seem “weak” to not give into the despair that arises when we try to articulate experiences into the ideas that experiences can never be.
Ideas are not experiences: if we today are recommitting the mistakes of the Roman Empire, we aren’t likely to know this as strongly as we would if we could experience the Fall of Rome (an impossibility). We don’t learn from history because we don’t “feel” history, only conceptualize it, and so it goes with many things in life.¹ Only the artist, for example, experiences that initial idea that stimulated his or her project, and no matter how “perfect” the project (in capturing the experience), the project is never the experience.² Yes, experiencing the project is itself a (perhaps powerful) experience, but the experience of the project is never the experience of the idea, inspiration, vision, emotion, etc. which motivated the project.³ So it goes with the experience that motivates a person to avoid relationships, the experience that causes a person to suffer depression, and so on, and yet if a person tells you “I avoid relationships because my husband, who I trusted with my life, cheated on me,” it will seem to be the case that you know what the person experienced. For they told you: you know. And in a world that is still rightly or wrongly deeply Cartesian — a world that believes what a person thinks is the primary ingredient in who a person “is” — though we may say “I don’t know what you are going through,” it is hard for this humble thought not to immediately fall back away into consciousness where it is forgotten. It’s as if we just can’t remember for long that “the idea of x” isn’t the same as “the experience of x,” until we again are asked directly, moments after which the thought falls away again.
It should be noted that the reason ideas are useful is precisely because they are not experiences, in the same way that a map is useful because it is not an exact replication of the territory mapped (a Korzybskian point explored in “On Exactitude in Science” by Borges). If ideas were experiences, we would all be delusional — existing in two worlds at once that we couldn’t distinguish — ideas would be incomprehensible, and we wouldn’t likely survive for long, rendered unable to function by our minds.⁴ If ideas are “overly correct,” they would prove useless, in the same way scientific models prove useless that are too precise and too detailed — in the same way works of art prove meaningless when they are too realistic and like the ordinary lives and world we already live in. Yet scientific models that are too imprecise, like art that is too abstract and difficult to relate to, are also useless and meaningless, and so a difficult middle ground has to be found, as must be found between ideas and experiences in general.
‘All models are wrong but some are useful,’ to allude to George Box’s famous warning, but to be useful, models can’t be “overly correct” and/or “overly precise” (a point which is rarely easy to determine). The more intelligent the person, the more creative the artist, etc., the more difficult it is not to be “overly correct,” precisely because to avoid this error, the person has to leave out data, details, etc. that the person knows are relevant — the person has to accept being “un-correct” (not wrong, but not fully right) — an act which can be painful and feel like a disservice to the person’s calling, profession, and the like. We also tend to be “overly correct” to avoid problems of misinterpretations, loopholes, criticisms, and so on, but to avoid these problems, we have to become more technical and precise (as especially evident in legal writing), which ironically makes our works increasingly useless (though there’s a real sense in which if the works can be misinterpreted, they are useless — we seem caught). If in the past we have been criticized for not being “nuanced enough,” leaving out relevant data, not addressing x, y, and z, etc. — as we can always be so criticized unless our “maps” are their “territories” — emotionally hurt, we are even more likely to be “overly correct” and hence make our works increasingly useless — something else for which we can be criticized.⁵ From criticism to criticism, we can come to feel trapped, swaying emotionally like a pendulum between saying too much and saying too little, between being “overly correct” and useless and being “un-correct” and criticized, and so we face the problem of technicality versus usefulness.
If I tell my child to “go to bed” and I later go upstairs and the child is in bed playing a videogame, did my child do what I instructed? Technically, yes, and yet at the same time, no: I “in meaning” told the child to “go to sleep,” but in not using a precise language, I left open a loophole (rendering what I said “useless,” in a sense). My child has disobeyed me, and yet hasn’t. To avoid this loophole in the future, I will likely use a more technical and precise language and say, “go to sleep,” but then later I may find my child asleep at a friend’s house, and my son may protest that I didn’t tell him “where” to sleep. Again, my child has been disobedient and yet not. To avoid this, I may use an even more technical language, but to avoid every possible loophole, I will eventually have to use a language that’s so precise and technical that it may not only be impractical but also incomprehensible. To try to take away from my child the possibility of disobeying me and yet not disobeying me — of providing my child with a “reasonable” space in which to ((un)intentionally) misunderstand me — I may have to speak in a manner that my child cannot understand. And if my child doesn’t understand me, my child can’t follow my instruction to go to bed.
To avoid all loopholes — to avoid all ways to interpret what I say in a manner that my child could “innocently” use to his advantage (and claim “reasonably” was a “fair” interpretation) — I would have to speak so technically and precisely that I would render my language useless if not meaningless. This “problem of technicality versus usefulness” hints at why intellectuals can speak and write in jargon about matters that are too precise for average people to care about and why laws and taxes are so difficult to understand. Simultaneously, this problem hints at why no matter how technical works become, intellectuals can still find a problem in the creator academic’s work, and lawyers can still find loopholes that benefit their clients. Academics and legislatures want to avoid being “un-correct,” and in failing to accept that to some degree they must be “un-correct” (as artists must to some degree fail to capture their visions), academics and legislatures articulate themselves out of relevance (except perhaps amongst themselves).⁶ But can we blame them? Laws that leave open loopholes have real, practical, and even dire impacts, and academics who fail to avoid being “un-correct” can lose tenure. Technicality is necessary for them and for particular meaning, but regardless, writing that is “overly correct” is not only still wrong but useless.
‘All [articulation is] wrong but some [is] useful,’ but if it is useful, there are likely technicalities that can be exploited for the sake of creating loopholes and/or that disagreeing academics can write articles countering. This is perhaps why academics often seem locked in an endless discussion with themselves, as can seem lawyers, for “the useful” and “the fully correct” are two lines that can never touch, meaning there is always something to criticize and write counter articles against. As the necessary gap between “useful” and “fully correct” is why this endless “back and forth” happens, so the necessary gap between “idea” and “experience” seems to be why history repeats without hope of stopping. The endless repetition seems sown into the nature of being, and yet since it is not directly forced, there always seems to be the possibility of escape, as in a field surrounded by fences there always seems to be the possibility of freedom. Repetition isn’t forced but “practically forced.”
All thoughts are models, and all models are wrong. Hence, all ideas fail to be experiences, as all maps fail to be territories, but some are good.⁷ Like the gap between thinking and perceiving (as discussed in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose), so there is a gap between ideas and experiences, and as thinking quickly “consumes” a perception (something we sense) as if the perception was always a thought (making it seem like the two were always one), so ideas quickly “consume” an experience, hiding the gap between idea and experience.⁸ Yes, we know the gap is there, but a kind of automatic “forgetfulness” seems built into the human mind. Remembering is unnatural, as is avoiding the repetition of historic mistakes, doing today what we know we need to do to avoid future catastrophes, and so on.
Because ideas aren’t experiences, we can use them, but this is also why it seems “practically inevitable” that history repeats, that artists and thinkers find themselves at war with language and their works, that art is more influential than ideas, that words fail us, that we are tempted by “hole hope” (discussed in “(W)hole Hope” by O.G. Rose), that we be susceptible to “confirmation bias” and deception via evidence, that we have to work to make sure we don’t just love an idea of a person but an actual person (discussed in “On Love” by O.G. Rose), that we swing between supporting one political party until they are in office and we experience them and then support the other party until we experience them in office — over and over again — and so on. But what would a world be like in which it wasn’t probable and/or “practically inevitable” that history repeated, that artists and thinkers…?
It would be a world in which our minds were useless to us.
If ideas weren’t “un-correct,” they would likely destroy us.
Because of the tragedy sown into being, we are not doomed, even if we are “practically doomed.”
Ideas aren’t experiences, and yet it seems in our nature to forget this and fall into grave errors. And yet without ideas, there would be no creativity, no technology, no civilization, and the quality of human life would lower.⁹ Without maps, we would be lost; without GPS, we would struggle to find how to get where we wanted to go. Maps, like ideas, are invaluable, but at the same time, like ideas in a sense, maps are “flat,” while territories are “3D.” A map can make it look like it will take a few minutes to travel from one point to another, when in reality, we find on the territory that it takes three hours. Likewise, our idea of marriage can make it seem that the secret to a happy marriage is easy (just communicate), but when in marriage, we can find it’s much harder than our idea led us to believe (how and when do we communicate, what do we say…?).
The problem isn’t ideas in of themselves, but our natural tendency to forget (though we know when asked directly) that the act of knowing isn’t in of itself enough, and by extension our natural tendency to become overconfident about x because of knowledge about x. The main mistakes seem to be:
1. Confusing maps with territories.
2. Believing that ownership of a map is as good as exploring the territory.
3. Being overconfident in our ability to explore and understand the territory because we have a map.
4. Trying to create a map that is the territory in order to avoid any mistakes.
5. Not having a map at all and/or not thinking we need one.
In deed, to use Wittgenstein’s wordplay, confusing ideas with experiences, believing knowing x is as good as experiencing x, being overconfident thanks to intelligence, trying to make ideas so technical that they capture everything about the territory, and/or not valuing ideas at all — all of these are dire mistakes. We require ideas, and hence we cannot avoid the risk of making one of the mistakes listed here, unless that is we accept being stupid and at the mercy of chance. The question isn’t if we should think (we will), but how we should think and in what way.
As discussed in other works by O.G. Rose, a humbler kind of thinking is needed, one that “fights against itself” to keep in focus its limits and to remain “open” to (being corrected by) experience (and “high order complexity” for that matter, as discussed in “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose). As discussed in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose, we need thinking that maintains a criticism (like a movie critic) of how thinking structures reality “toward” us. And so on: the main point is that the problem isn’t thinking itself, but rather our failure to “critique” our thinking and engage in epistemic humility (a theme throughout O.G. Rose). The point is to recognize that thinking and knowing alone are not enough, and to recognize that “thinking and knowing alone are not enough” is itself an idea that will prove weak before the experience of our minds making us think the opposite.
To allude to Gödel, there is an “incompleteness” that is indivisible from being, as there is an “un-correctness” that is indivisible from maps and models: accepting this makes it easier to write, to produce art, and so on without being “overly correct” or falling into despair (as does accepting the tragic nature of being, discussed in The Fragility of Goodness by Martha Nussbaum). And yet ideas, maps, and models that are “too wrong” — that make the error of being “vaguely correct” — also prove useless, and how to find the middle road isn’t easy, and it is especially difficult when we forgot — because of the “automatic forgetting” that seems indivisible from consciousness itself — that we even need to find this “middle way.” We must accept ideas are not experiences, and yet not cease trying to capture experiences in ideas. We must flirt with despair and failure.
In closing, ideas are experienced but not experiences — experiences are what the word “experiences” isn’t — and though we know that reading about x, hearing about x, and so on isn’t the same as experiencing x, ideas are all we have, and compared to experiences, they are weak.¹⁰ ¹¹This is why people can genuinely believe — knowing x is what must be done to stop y — that if they were in a position of power, they would stand against the resistance and do x, and yet why it is that when those genuine people come into power, they often fail to do x.¹² Knowing that x action lead to y consequence (in the past) is an idea that is highly unlikely to motivate and impact us as deeply as will the experience of the resistance to x, making it probable that we will back down and y consequence will occur. When faced with resistance to x, the idea that “ideas aren’t experiences” is especially likely to fall away in consciousness, burying hope and the likelihood that x will be done. And yet before we face resistance to x, the knowing we should do x is likely to make us feel like we will do x when we need to do it, making us unprepared. Before we are faced with an experience of resistance to x, we have no reason to think we won’t do x, only an idea that doing x will cause us to face resistance, which will “feel” equal with the idea of doing x. And so we’re likely caught off guard; and so the repetitions of the mistakes of history are “practically inevitable.”
We can encounter a person who is married, but we cannot ever experience ourselves married before we are, and hence only have an “idea of” what it’s like to be married. Thanks to this idea, we can both be more prepared and less prepared for actual marriage: the question is how we use this idea and if we use it in the humble manner described in this paper. We must all learn to engage in epistemic humility, or otherwise there is even less chance we will avoid the mistakes that are consequence of failing to remember that ideas aren’t experiences — mistakes that already seem likely to be made over and over again.
Ideas aren’t experiences: the obvious is why we are able to function, and why we fail to function well.¹³ Is there any hope?14 Perhaps, but perhaps not if we continue to have new ideas.
¹Perhaps this hints at why “wisdom” is usually associated with “age” and/or “experience”: though “old” and “wise” aren’t similes (as discussed in “On Wisdom” by O.G. Rose), those who are older are more likely to have experienced instances in which “ideas aren’t experiences.” Perhaps it could be said that the unwise are those who know — more than have experienced — “ideas aren’t experiences,” while “the wise” are those who have also experienced “ideas aren’t experiences.”
²Not to associate artists with druggies, but those who have taken LSD know this all too well, which I believe can be a major disadvantage: the cost of having “too good” of experiences can cause an increase in the pain of acknowledging the gap between the idea and the experience, also increasing the likelihood of giving into despair and giving up on any attempt to capture the experience (becoming like a Gnostic). A vivid imagination could be both an artist’s power source and stumbling block. That said, to not have experiences is to not be human and lack anything to artistically capture.
³Accepting “ideas aren’t experiences” is important for artists, for otherwise they may compare the success of their projects by the degree to which they “are” their experiences — to the degree they recreate what the artists experienced for whoever experiences the art. It is impossible for an artist to perfectly recreate whatever feeling, vision, etc. that inspired the artist, but since ideas aren’t experiences, that’s not the point of what the artist is trying to do: from that inspiration, the artist is trying to create an entirely new experience which shouldn’t be compared with what originally inspired the creation. If the artist does so compare, the artist is likely to fall into despair.
However, if the artist does compare his or her work with the original experience, the artist should avoid judging if he or she recreated the original experience, and rather examine if he or she managed to create a similar experience and emotion through something entirely new (that was inspired by the original experience). This may seem like a slight and even irrelevant adjustment, but I think it can make all the difference in keeping an artist from hopelessness.
⁴Again, vivid imaginations could be obstacles to overcome just as much as they could be sources of creative genius. Perhaps those scientific and/or artistic geniuses whose minds were too powerful are like a person who is stuck using a map by which to live life that is far too similar to the mapped territory. Not only would the map prove difficult to use, it could crush them.
⁵People who “overly explain” — who seem to suffer an OCD of explaining and re-explaining what they said and meant — are likely those who have suffered emotionally in the past for “not saying enough,” and yet now find themselves “saying too much,” causing confusion. When those people suffer backlash for “talking insecurely and confusingly,” they may feel paralyzed and unsure what to do — stuck, existentially anxious — caught between “over correctness” and “vague correctness” (as we all are), like perhaps many academics, politicians, and so on feel, scared to open their mouths or write, knowing that no matter what they do, they must either make the mistake of being “un-correct” or useless (to someone) (as those who have never been in their position couldn’t understand). “No exit.”
⁶Accepting this unavoidable failure I think is necessary for good writing, for otherwise caught between not wanting to be “un-correct” and not wanting to be “useless” — between being “right” and being “good” — the writer churns out prose clumsily swinging between the two poles rather than staying in the middle (though what constitutes that middle isn’t easy to say). And on this train of thought, perhaps literature is an attempt to create an experience out of the ideas of philosophy, to make an idea something felt and thus something more likely to change people. For those who think in images versus words, literature is perhaps the only way those people can ever absorb the insights of philosophy, as philosophy might be the only way those who think in words ever grasp the insights of literature.
⁷The fact that there is a necessary divide between ideas and experiences also hints at why interpretation is inescapable as something we are “always already” in the act of, as stressed by the works of many deconstructionists like Derrida. Since ideas aren’t experiences, the moment I think about “experience x,” I translate “experience x” into “idea (about experience) x,” and hence interpret it (combing it with my “self,” functions of my brains, etc.). If I pick up a fork and think about using it, I have translated an experience into an idea, and hence interpreted it. That said, keep in mind that though all interpretations are wrong — like ideas and models — some are useful (and more “right” than others).
⁸The unavoidable gap between idea and experience is also a reason why sociological concerns about identity (say when it comes to ascribing to a worldview) are not unfounded (though perhaps prone to make ad hominem fallacies): knowing what constitutes poverty is nothing like experiencing poverty, though the idea provides us with a sense of familiarity that can contribute to a lack of empathy and understanding that could help us overcome poverty.
⁹To use Heideggerian terms, what is needed is thinking that “fights against itself” and its tendency to translate Being into being(s) and simultaneously forget that it has carried out that translation.
¹⁰As discussed in “A is A” by O.G. Rose, we are caught between “things being themselves” that we are “toward” as if those “things aren’t themselves,” constantly having to fight to remember that being(s) is/are-n’t Being, caught in Being/being.
¹¹Personality type may influence how easy it is for a person to make mistakes because of forgetting the divide between idea and experience, as personality type may influence how a person defines and understands “realism.”
¹²Because ideas aren’t experiences, history tends to repeat, but at least there tends to be moral and intellectual evolution that “closes the fences” of what is likely to be repeated. Yes, mass discrimination and slavery are still possible today (and still happen via the sex trade), but the idea of mass slavery today is much more unimaginable than it was in the past (at least without being covered up and kept secret). Yes, history does tend to repeat (due to “the conflict of mind,” the fact we don’t learn to “feel” from history, etc.), but what horrors we can still imagine committing changes. Imagination seems more progressive than history.
¹³The older we are, the more likely we are to realize “ideas aren’t experiences,” having experienced such to be the case so often, and perhaps this hints at why history can become increasingly important to us with age: history is a record of experiences (though we require the right intellectual and hermeneutical framework by which to grasp it).
Also, after so many years, we finally start to actually take to heart that ideas aren’t experiences: what we’ve always known finally becomes what we know. Nothing happens like we think, but we forget this when we think about it: structured into thought itself is an amnesia about the limits of thinking, for we can only think about these limits. As we age, we think less and “get” more.
¹⁴We all learn from experience more than from ideas, but what we learn from our experiences is contingent upon how we interpret them, and our methods of interpretation are a result of our abstract ideas. What we learn most from is that which we must understand through lenses we struggle to understand.