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The Importance of Experience: Dewey and Merleau-Ponty

Experience plays a vital role in the philosophies of both Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey. While both of them place a great deal of importance on the human experience being key to how we understand our universe, they differ on how they call experience into play within their texts. Dewey employs experience as the one and only method for understanding nature while Merleau-Ponty posits experience in between subjective and objective world views in order to come to a deeper understanding he calls existential phenomenology.

Dewey explicitly poses his opinions regarding experience within the opening pages of his book Experience and Nature. He says, as I highlight in my thesis, “- wherein experience presents itself as the method, and the only method, for getting at nature, penetrating its secrets…” (2a). Dewey argues that experience is nature because any experience one has is not only an experience of nature, but one in nature as well. Thus the relationship between experience and nature is essential and unavoidable. He says, “The very existence of science is evidence that experience is such an occurrence that it penetrates into nature and expands without limit through it” (1). Dewey is very clear that it is only through experience that we will be able to access a deeper understanding of nature. Out of this relationship Dewey grows his denotative method. This method, according to Dewey, is the only one that does justice to things of ordinary experience. He says, “ Now empirical method is the only method which can do justice to this inclusive integrity of ‘experience’” (9). In short, Dewey makes it exceedingly clear that experience is a method that must be used in order to dissect and deepen human understanding of the natural world.

Merleau-Ponty also places high value on experience in his writings. His emphasis on the importance of experience takes a different tone than Dewey’s. Rather than employing experience as an all-important method, he posits it as a link between two flawed ways of understanding. To Merleau-Ponty, experience serves as a bridge between the two flawed traditions of thinking and further acts as a pathway to a deeper understanding: existential phenomenology or Being-in-the-world. Often times he examines experience in terms of the human perception of objects around them. In discussing the how we are to escape from the subjectivity and objectivity dilemma, Merleau-Ponty brings experience to the forefront of his thoughts. He says, “ Between my sensation and myself there stands always the thickness of some primal acquisition which prevents my experience from being clear of itself” (131). Merleau-Ponty (MP) recognizes that the unclear experience poses a problem in reaching deeper understanding. His differences from Dewey’s philosophy are also apparent though, making it clear that an unclear experience is not of the same worth to MP as it is to Dewey. MP says, “ We are not trying to derive the for itself from the in itself, nor are we returning to some form of empiricism…for us the perceptual synthesis is temporal synthesis, and subjectivity, at the level of perception, is nothing but temporality” (133). This statement makes the difference between the views of MP and Dewey on experience abundantly clear. MP says, “It is true that I find, through time, later experiences interlocking with earlier ones and carrying them further…” (134). Experience is important to MP, but in terms of temporality and not in terms of method.

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