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Keeping It Real | The Nation

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Keeping It Real

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There is something inherently strange about a familiar scene in modern Western intellectual history, one re-enacted many times during the past two centuries. A philosopher is in his study, constructing rational arguments on behalf of authentic experience--which he nearly always defines as nonrational. Somehow, he thinks, we are being robbed of primal, unmediated contact with the palpitating forces of real life. The obstacles to vitality may lie in the desiccating powers of modern science or in the encrustations of traditional religion or, if the philosopher is hostile to narratives of progress and decline, in the human condition. Whatever its explanatory framework, this philosophical cult of experience arises from a sense that full engagement with existence has somehow been rendered problematic, whether by social, spiritual or economic arrangements or by the sheer perversity of the individual psyche. Authentic experience, from this view, seems always maddeningly just out of reach.

About the Author

Jackson Lears
Jackson Lears teaches American history at Rutgers University. He is the editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review and the...

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How could this assumption acquire such enduring force? How is it that "experience"--like its kin "reality" and "life"--could be split off from the self, rather than remaining the ground of being in which the self is embedded? How did something universal and inescapable become external to consciousness--an object of feverish speculation and hot pursuit among men and (far less often) women of ideas? Part of the answer must lie in the historical experience of the thinkers themselves--their awareness of the world outside their study windows. Martin Jay rarely glances at that world, though he can deftly dissect the shifting emphases in Kantian aesthetics or Deweyan ethics.

What we have in Jay's Songs of Experience is a shining example of the history of ideas, an underrated genre of the historian's art. An exceptionally learned, humane and prolific practitioner of his craft, Jay is among our most reliable guides through the key sites of twentieth-century social thought, from the labyrinths of Western Marxism to the thickets of French post-structuralism. Songs of Experience is a worthy addition to this oeuvre, though its history-of-ideas form sometimes seems ironically at odds with its content.

Jay's story takes place in an Olympian realm where philosophers and other intellectuals converse with one another. Though they are occasionally roused to indignation, they rarely lose their capacity for considered argument--even though, as Jay observes, the word "experience" is "a signifier that unleashes remarkable emotion" in the thinkers who explore it. Participants in this conversation range widely, from Edmund Burke and David Hume to John Dewey and Richard Rorty, among many others. All get a fair shake, as Jay patiently and carefully--but never uncritically--reconstructs their positions. Still, amid all the arguments about the nature and value of direct experience, one cannot help occasionally wanting to walk away from the polite conversation, throw open the study window and listen to the shouts and murmurs in the street. The content of the cult of experience overflows the form of the history of ideas.

This is not to endorse conventional historiographical wisdom, which dismisses the history of ideas as "disembodied." The dismissal stems from historians' own cult of experience, their assumption that ideas are not part of "real life." Jay's dramatis personae challenge that belief at every turn, and their passionate commitment to the deconstruction of mind-body dualism shines through their occasionally opaque prose. Yet there are times when the pace slows to a crawl, and one wishes that Jay's own prose were a little more straightforward. His summaries are all inherently useful, but placed end to end they create a schematic effect. The flow of experience is channeled and contained in a series of compartments. Maybe there is a more fluid alternative, or maybe the tension between form and content embodies the inescapable contradictions in the cult of experience itself--it is, after all, an intellectual assault on intellectualism.

But that is not all it is. Jay's title, from William Blake, gives the game away. The importance of authentic experience has not only been argued by philosophers; it has been sung by poets, imagined by novelists, cultivated by artists and avowed by ideologues. Jay excludes these songs of experience to focus more sharply on systematic thought. This is a perfectly sensible decision, and there are rules against reviewers taking authors to task for not writing a different book. Yet it is worth imagining what the broader cultural history of the cult of experience might look like.

The preoccupation with authentic experience was embedded in Protestant sensibility, from the prophetic pronouncements of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century to the great revivals that swept across the young United States 300 years later. Real faith required not merely an emotionally jarring conversion but a long-term transformation of the self--a self made whole, transparent and all of a piece.

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