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The interplay of experience

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

(Author's cut from An Introduction to Friendliness, §1 Reflections)

It is impossible to have experience without being somehow involved with it. The most dispassionate act of observing is also somehow shaping and altering that very experience that it is observing, just in virtue of being part of it. The basic attempt at sustaining attention on a simple object like one’s bodily posture immediately reveals that neither the object nor the point of view is static or unproblematically given. As attention moves away from the bodily posture, the body is forgotten, it slips out of experience. As one plays with one’s way of paying attention, the experience of the object is also changed, it becomes more or less stable, more or less clear and sharp. There is no pure and passive observation of experience, as if someone over here could look (or not) at something over there. There can be only an interplay within experience, some bits of which are about some other bits.

The interplay of experience is the very nature of experience. There cannot be any experience that is not such an interplay. Dismissing the interplay would yield an observer that could be entirely cut off from experience (hence an observer that does not observe anything) or an experience that could be entirely independent from observation (hence an experience experienced by nobody at all). Both options are dead ends. And yet, one might claim that if experience is always an interplay, then there cannot be any objective and universal way of understanding the nature of experience for what it really is. This claim can be true or false, depending on how one understands it.

It is true that experience cannot be conceived in a universal and objective way, independent from any observer. More importantly, such a conception would be pointless, since in order to acquire its absolute objectivity and universality, it should be entirely disconnected from the point of view of any particular experiencer, and hence be entirely irrelevant (if not unintelligible) for them. The fact that sometimes sciences might be presented as providing this objective and universal account of experience does not entail that they actually do that, but simply that they produce meaningful results despite their activity might be misunderstood on this fundamental point. Sciences (and any other form of knowledge) can be relevant because they are not absolutely objective and universal, but they rather carefully fit the needs and concerns of specific knowers. Sciences are but instances of the interplay of experience, not counter examples against it; if they truly were, they would be irrelevant at best, wrong at worse.

Nonetheless, it is false that the interplay rules out any possibility of knowing how experience works. If experience is shaped by the interplay, then any experience is an occasion for exploring how the interplay works and making its structure more apparent and better known from a reflexive point of view. The key is to shift the focus of investigation from experience conceived as an object in itself, more or less independent from any observer, to the interplay of experience within which the distinction between object and observer can be traced. Observation of the interplay reveals that the interplay does not work randomly but it is shaped by certain forces or elements, which might be roughly indicated for now as emotional forces or conative attitudes: wanting, not wanting, seeking, striving. These are integrated ways of interacting within the playfield of experience on the basis of concerns, meanings, values, goals. If one leaves behind the pointless project of studying experience as an allegedly independent object, one can surely study the interplay from within experience, since any experience is this interplay and reveals how that works. The simple exercise of sustaining attention of one’s bodily posture is an instance of how this study can begin. Beginning the study of the interplay of experience requires reflecting precisely on the key features of attention since attention is the basic force from which contents arise, are shaped, or are dropped.

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