The common element: general
The common element: general
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the special, philosophical notion of an experience. It was referred to as involving a form of the following general idea: that a visual experience is ‘inner’ independently of the extent to which it is given meaning by the subject's experience of life. There is truth in this general idea, if only because one's individuality is not a function of experience alone. The relevant philosophical notion, however, is a form of the general idea that the experience had by each of two people would still be ‘inner’; however, many tests or observations, of a kind which might have revealed a difference in the giving of meaning, failed to do so; and not at all because the next test or observation might have revealed such a difference.
WE now come to the special, philosophical notion of an experience, which it is the main purpose of this essay to reconsider, though not to rehabilitate. It was referred to, in the opening paragraphs of the book, as involving a form of the following general idea: that a visual experience is ‘inner’ independently of the extent to which it is given meaning by the subject’s experience of life. There is truth in this general idea, if only because one’s individuality is not a function of experience alone. Inherited as well as acquired differences, together with the essential interminability of an account of the meaning which a given object or change that affected his eye had for a given human being, make the supposition that two people have given exactly the same total meaning to such a stimulus always unverifiable, and often easily falsified.
The relevant philosophical notion, however, is a form of the (p.61) general idea that the experience had by each of two people would still be ‘inner’, however many tests or observations, of a kind that might have revealed a difference in the giving of meaning, failed to do so; and not at all because the next test or observation might have revealed such a difference. We can say that there is truth in this general idea, too. Take for instance the (a-2-) experience, (of) visually perceiving a flash of light. (Light, that which affects photographic plates and causes photosynthesis, a photic flash.) Visually perceiving a flash of light is ‘inner’, quite apart from any differences in the giving of meaning that might be detected, in at least two senses: something literally inner, an electrical or electrochemical process occurring in the central nervous system, is a sine qua non for its occurrence; and others depend upon the sentient subject’s behaviour, or his reports of one sort or another, in order to be as sure as they can be that it has occurred. There is, by the way, no special kind of report that we need. A perception-claim will do though we do not need it; so will a mistaken illusion-report in the right circumstances, and so will a perception-illusion disjunction.
However, the relevant philosophical notion is not the notion of a kind of perception, in the objective sense in which we are using the word. So it is not, in this present context, the notion of perceiving a flash of light, nor is it the notion of perceiving some optical object that looks like a flash of light—if there is such an optical object. This last point ought perhaps to be stressed. In the main-line notion of an inner experience which we are selecting for scrutiny, there is a gap between one’s report of such an experience and any proposition as to how some external object, event, or process looks; a gap exactly as wide as the gap between such an experience-report and any sort of proposition about the ‘external world’. Connectedly, by the way, the perception-proposition in a perception-illusion disjunction can very well be a proposition about how something looks; one kind of perception-illusion disjunction is exemplified by: ‘Either I visually perceive an optical object which looks (a great deal, a little, hardly at all) like a two-dimensional coloured shape, or I am having the illusion of doing so.’
The relevant philosophical notion is also not the notion of a kind of illusion. So it is not, in this present context, the notion (p.62) of getting the illusion—under which heading I include the total hallucination, see Sections 7 and 14—of a flash of light. An experience of the relevant sort is supposed to occur both when you perceive a flash of light and when you have the illusion of seeing one.
We can almost, but not quite, add that the kind of experience which is supposed to occur then is supposed not to occur on any other kind of occasion. Not quite, because in one sub-conception which could be further subdivided, that kind of experience might occur without there being either the perception or the illusion. Still, the experience is most naturally assumed to occur only when, as we say or used to say, one’s visual sense is giving testimony of a flash of light. So it is roughly though not exactly correct to say that—as applied to our case—the relevant notion is of a kind of experience common and peculiar to the perception and the illusion of a flash of light. (Obviously, the relevant kind of experience is supposed to be divisible into indefinitely many kinds.)
The notion is not the only one which can be expressed by the phrase ‘the common element in the perception and the illusion of a flash of light’. It is, perhaps, the most general notion which this phrase can express and which is not merely truistic. Someone who thinks in the relevant way, and who says that the common element in perceiving and having the illusion of a flash of light would be an example of the sort of experience he has in mind, does not mean to be saying merely that perceiving a flash of light is an event which belongs to some wider class to which the illusion also belongs, so that the common element is ‘the occurrence of an event ofthat class’. On the other hand he may not—though equally he may—want to say that there would be a difference between someone’s perceiving a flash of light on a given occasion and the relevant particular experience, or that there would be a difference between someone’s having the illusion on a given occasion and the relevant particular experience.
It is because he may not want to say that there is or would be a difference, that I had to speak carefully, and say that the notion of having the experience is neither the notion of perceiving something nor the notion of having a certain illusion; instead of saying that the posited experience is neither (p.63) a perception nor an illusion. Positing the experience is not the same as positing a perception or positing an illusion; it is other than those posits, and other than the posit that ‘one or other of those things has occurred’, but not, necessarily, the posit of something other than those things.
If the philosopher who advances the notion thinks that ‘there is a difference’, then he may or may not think that the common element is common to the two ‘acts’, the perceiving and the being illuded. He may think it precedes the acts.
After these general remarks about the relevant controversial conception I will try to get to closer grips with it by articulating the question as to whether there is indeed an ‘experience’, in the relevant sense or non-sense, in the hypothetical case which was constructed in Section 7. But first the question will be, whether there is such a thing as a report of such an experience.