• Andrew Field

Why Experience is More Important Than Concepts

I have been thinking about mental illness recently. Why?

I think in our country there is this weird tendency of both anti-intellectualism and the denial of experience, or the inability to recognize why experience is more important than concepts. What does that mean, at a practical and pragmatic level, in terms of how we live our lives?

It means that our bodies are not taken seriously, since experience happens in our bodies, and it means our minds are not taken seriously, since anti-intellectualism is a fear of thinking and the twin brother of fundamentalism.

This means that, in our country, we are told unconsciously and consciously to neither trust our bodies or our minds. This is another way of saying that there is a tendency in the US to literally try to annihilate the possibility of growing.

Sometimes this means that there is kind of denseness, a harmful vagueness, a plastic quality, a vapidity, to our thinking. We hear words, but we don't hear the unconscious messages behind them; if we do, we don't do something to fight back. We choose silence, or we hear and then still choose silence. But if we want the negative unconscious messages to stop, we need to fight against both anti-intellectualism, and therefore fundamentalism, and at the same time learn to trust experience.

What is experience? Experience is memory, and the meaning created by memory, and it is held in the person, that is a combination of body and soul. There is no strict division between body and soul, as Whitman knew, though because of our anti-intellectualism and distrust of experience, we impose enormously constricting, even suffocating limits on our ability to grow body and soul.

Experience is something that Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized, and Emerson was, with Harold Bloom, the greatest thinker our country ever produced. Bloom and Emerson were intellectuals, but they were not members of the gentility. They were frighteningly strong and powerful, and they loved life, and they drank it from the lees.

But experience does not just come from life. It also comes from art, from the worlds, characters, settings, moods, and situations created by the imagination. When you read a novel, for example, you actually learn from the characters. As Wayne Booth argued, or Martha Nussbaum, characters become our friends, especially when the world is an endless example of human folly. We read because we are lonely, and because reading nourishes and nurtures the heart, and therefore the feelings, and therefore the imagination.

When we read a good novel, we begin to learn about types, and I think types are an important concept to think about, but even more so something to experience. Another way of saying this is that life is a kind of allegory, and it is full of types, and to read the types is to be a critic, perceptive, discerning, insightful. When we learn types, we begin to adopt a satirical vein, and this is a kind of power, because we can then both see more clearly and therefore puncture with a greater degree of verve and thrust.

Experience allows us to recognize types. Meaning, for example, if we haven't experienced mental illness - in the form of depression, anxiety, or even being the subject of narcissistic emotional abuse, which is a kind of gaslighting, and therefore a crazy making tactic that can lead to mental illness and drug abuse and suicide - then we are going to have a very hard time understanding it, and then it becomes even more important to find honest and interesting and powerful representations of mental illness in the arts, which have taken the place of religion at this point in our culture and country.

We should broaden our understanding of experience, to include imaginary experience and experience in the actual physical world. Through novels, for example, we meet people, and learn about their interior world, how they feel, what they think, what they hope for or long for or dream about. This is a kind of access, a kind of consent. But critics need to give deserving people consent to read. A good critic gives someone permission to dream and think and feel in a sort of imaginary situation in which they learn how to grow as people. They open up books for them, and then encourage them to experience it. But they do not overdetermine the experience, because then that would encourage the anti-intellectual tendencies and denial of experience. Good books, like good critics, are validating. They introduce us to stories, and worlds, and people, and feelings, and situations, in which we are somehow both safe and challenged. In psychology, there is the concept of "flow," a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is kind of like Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development." It means hopefully not always living in a perfect storm, but finding oneself in situations where one can feel somewhat protected and somewhat challenged. To not have to fight every single moment of one's life, but to relax now and then, and also grow. That seems like a fair human expectation.

Emerson knew this. That's why he wrote so unbelievably convincingly about experience. If a person has not experienced mental illness, and wants to understand it, they should read about it. It is a vicarious form of existence, and it can actually help people. This is why Nussbaum, I think, was right when she taught novels to law students. Reading is a form of inculcating empathy in the best sense, but it needs to happen with our best works of literature, meaning not Happy Potter, but something more worthy, something more deserving. If one reads about mental illness with their heart and mind, then they will begin to develop a kind of image of a person, and that image will help them understand people. That's what actually happens, I think, when we read. It should give us templates, types, for understanding other people and the situations we find ourselves in every day. And if that happens, if we understand them better, then our world becomes a place where people feel seen instead of invisible, where people speak up more if they feel something is wrong, or scary, or dangerous, or unhealthy, or harmful, and where we can and should speak our minds without the constant fear of retribution from those around us who do not empathize, or who want to but need the templates in order to do so.

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