Experiential Philosophy Versus Argumentative Philosophy

There is a tree in the garden outside my window. How do I know this? Well, I see it, I hear the wind rustling its branches, I have walked out into the garden and felt its limbs. Let's say I encounter a clever modern philospher who has an argument purporting to prove that there really is no tree in my garden. If, at the moment I am confronted with his argument, I am unable to say precisely why he is wrong, should I stop believing there is a tree in my garden? Of course not. I should recognize that I have encountered a sophist, who can put forward very clever arguments for an absurd position.

It may be worth my while to spend some time figuring out how to defease the sophist's case, perhaps so that those more gullible than me are not thrown into confusion as to whether the trees they perceive are really there. But experience has priority over argumentation; after all, as Lewis Carroll so brilliantly demonstrated, even the most logical of arguments cannot persuade someone who refuses to experience the rationality of the move from some set of premises to their logical conclusion.

This point has contemporary relevance to modern philosophical arguments about the existence of God. The first philosophers who posited the God of philosophical theism, the Greek mystical philosophers, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and so on, had not arrived at the conception of such a being by argument. Instead, they had disciplined their passions until they could directly perceive this divine ground of reality, which they talked about in terms of the agathon or the nous. Then, and only then, they devised arguments for its existence... but those arguments were not intended as "proofs" of that ground, but as persuasive devices, designed to convince others to undertake the periagoge, the turning around of the soul, for themselves, so that the audience of those philosophers could themselves personally experience the divine ground at which those philosophers were pointing. This is made especially clear in Plato's myth of the cave dwellers. Of course, no mere argumentation could possibly convince those fixated on the shadows appearing on the cave wall that they were missing the most essential thing, the light source casting those shadows. If they are adamant that only the shadows exist, then any argument framed in any other terms than those of the shadow world will utterly fail to move them. That is why Plato devised a myth here, rather than an argument. A myth offers the possibility of bypassing the the rigidity of notions derived only from the play of shadows, of penetrating past the illusion, and moving the listener or reader to question his assumptions, thus opening the possibility of the periagoge.

Today, philosophy is again under the hegemony of argumentation, just as it was in the sophistic time in Athens during which Socrates evoked his direct experiences in opposition to the sophists, and was martyred as a result. The mere ability to devise a tricky argument that overturns what everyone seems to understand in their gut, for instance, the absurdities advanced by Peter Singer under the cover of the name "ethics," is supposed to make us stop and consider reducing our own families to paupers in order to conform to his abstract arguments about what is ethical. But experientially, anyone with common sense knows that "charity begins at home." Of course, those who understand this should make an effort to refute Singer's arguments qua arguments, particularly in that his arguments might persuade those who have a less than firm grasp on common-sense morality. But the position taken by many contemporary analytical philosophers, which seems to be that, whatever argument most recently appears to trump all previous ones ought to move us to accept the position implied by that argument, reverses the proper roles of experience and argumentation. Of course, we may have misinterpreted our experiences, and arguments may persuade us that we should revisit them. But when a sophist tells us there really is no tree in our garden, with an argument that, for the moment, we do not see how to refute, and we have massive experiential evidence that says the argument must be wrong, the proper response is not to suspend our belief in the tree until we find the proper counter-argument, but to acknowledge that we have encountered a very clever, if sophistical, argument, and that surely, given time, we will find its flaws. In the meantime, we can continue to find shade under the tree's branches, and allow our children to climb it without fear that they will plunge to earth because they are scaling an illusion.


  1. I agree with the broad thrust of this, and it's relevant to my interests after getting partway through a TL;DR recapitulation of Hoppe on Mises.org yesterday.

    But I think the analogy of God as the tree in your yard breaks down for me in the following way: The argumentative philosopher in your yard isn't just trying to argue away what you plainly see in front of you, but what he (this is not a gender-neutral pronoun, I don't think) himself sees. He's denying his own perceptual experience, not just yours.

    I don't think that is how it works with the atheist or agnostic. I take it as read, for instance, that believing Christians experience a powerful direct understanding of the existence of God and the reality of a personal savior and their own salvation, aka "grace." The big reason, for instance, that I am not a believing Christian is that I don't experience this as the case.

    Now, I don't run around trying to argue other people out of their belief in God, because among other things that strikes me as rude. But if I did, as others do, I wouldn't be "denying the tree" in the same way that the sophist in your yard denies the tree.

    From previous analogies you've drawn on this blog - I recall one about going to see a cabin in the woods - I think your response would be that I'm not really in your yard, or I'm turned around the wrong way to see the tree (requiring periagogue?). But after a certain amount of squinting and spinning around on my part, if you still maintain I just don't know how to look, I can only shrug and say, "You may well be right. But I'm getting dizzy."

  2. Well, Jim, consider a philosopher who lives deep in the desert. I journey there and meet him, and begin to tell him about the ocean. He stops me and tells me I am deluded, anti-rational... stupid, in fact. No such thing can exist. This, I think, is exaactly analogous to people like Dawkins, Dennett, and the now being sainted Hitchens.

    You, on the other hand, seem to take the attitude, "Hmm, I'd have to see it for myself."

    That is entirely reasonable.

  3. Also, Jim: what were you doing in my yard?

  4. "You, on the other hand, seem to take the attitude, "Hmm, I'd have to see it for myself.""

    Count me in this class of agnostics as well.

    Except I'd add: "And I'd sure like to be able to see it, if it's really there; tell me where to start." (Not being sarcastic; I am genuinely interested).

    What would you recommend for people in this category?

  5. Well, Mike B., there are countless tracks written by mystics of all religions as to how they arrived where they did. (And I would definitely say that we have very strong empirical evidence that the mystics of all backgrounds arrive at a similar place.) Find a tradition you connect with and start!

  6. Stumbled upon this while researching experiential philosophy and cannot help chiming in.

    In regards to the tree: experience trumps reason, but normative experience trumps singular experience. If other people saw the tree that bolsters the case without even having to fight "reason with reason." On the other hand, if you saw a tree but no one else did -- no reason involved in their denial, they simply do not experience a tree like you do -- then one must at least give pause about their singular experience in the face of this normative experience.

    In regards to the ocean: if I tried to convince a desert dweller that there are oceans where he lives he has every right to deny my claimed "experience" and trust in his own. If I'm trying to describe oceans elsewhere under a different set of experiential conditions I'm not describing anything that relates to his own experience. He can be skeptical but not certain. He can believe but cannot know that I'm wrong, and his most rational course would be something along the lines of "well, I'll believe it when I'm in a position to see/experience it."

  7. Dr. Callahan, this is a brilliant post. I had often wondered what exactly was wrong with some arguments in the philosophy classes that I have been taking. External world skepticism, and even universal skepticism were obviously absurd, but without an argument of my own to refute them, should I then say that I must believe them? Such a move seemed irrational.

    I did not know that Lewis Carroll had something of such importance to say regarding experience and it's role in logical thinking. Of course, I have now found Foundationalism, which I (of course) now agree with.



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