Are thought and experience philosophically compatible?

Existentialism meets the world through experience, metaphysics meets the world through the limits of experience

The assertion on trial in this paper is the idea that metaphysics and existentialism are as incompatible as they are often considered to be. First, we shall define both metaphysics and existentialism. Purely for convenience, I borrow the two definitions entirely. Most readers will understand these two terms readily, but they set a useful foundation for the discussion.

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy exploring the fundamental questions, including the nature of concepts like being, existence, and reality. It has two branches- cosmology and ontology. Traditionally metaphysics seeks to answer, in a “suitably abstract and fully general manner” the questions:

  1. What is there?
  2. And what is it like?

Topics of metaphysical investigation include existence, objects and their properties, space and time, cause and effect, and possibility. A central branch of metaphysics is ontology, the investigation into the basic categories of being and how they relate to one another” (source here).

Existentialism is a tradition of philosophical enquiry associated mainly with certain 19th and 20th century European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject- not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. while the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity. In the view of the existentialist, the individual’s starting point is characterised by what has been called “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience” (source here).

That final sentence is a particularly important one here. It is generally true that existential philosophers feel that abstract ideas do not bare any meaningful relation to our actual experience of the world. Many writers even opted to write literature instead of writing essays because literature provides experience, and experience is the point at which we gain insight, not tabular information. Sartre-

“wrote like a novelist… In his novels, short stories, plays…he wrote about physical sensations of the world and the structures and moods of every day life. Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it means to be free” (Bakewell, S. p. 6).

Colin Wilson discusses the fact that existentialism was born separate from metaphysics, as a rejection, even. But when it reached Germany, it merged with traditional philosophy. This was something which Wilson believed was to confuse and misappropriate the meaning, pursuit, and value of existentialism.

Kierkegaard [the father of existentialism]-

“was republished in German, he was taken up by the professors, who… used his methods of analysis to construct the so called Existenzphilosophie. They removed the emphasis from the Outsider and threw it back again on to Hegelian metaphysics” (Wilson, C. p. 21).

He [Wilson] believed that existential philosophy was the pursuit of the ‘Outsider’. The Outsider is a figure who can see deeply into society. They perceive the true nature of life as a meaningless void, with the details of life (as perceived) arbitrarily strung together to create ‘meaning’ in life. The existential philosophers thought that it was a mistake to believe in these ‘meanings’ we create, because in doing so we ignore the true nature of the world.

In Sartre’s Nausea, his character has revelations about the absurdity of believing in the meaninglessness of life, whilst also having revelatory experiences about personhood. His revelations of personhood state that our life and actions make sense to us, but only to us, just as each thing in its self has meaning in and of its self only. When we relate to something, we are unreasonably bridging a gap between us and that person or thing with our own experiences. Near the end of Nausea, our protagonist has revelations in a park in which he reveals that-

“A gesture, an event in the little coloured world of men is never absurd except relatively speaking: in relation to the accompanying circumstances. A madman’s ravings, for example, are absurd in relation to the situation in which he finds himself, but not in relation to his madness… neither ignorance nor knowledge had any importance; the world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence. A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn’t exist either” (pp. 186-7).

We have now suitably seen that there is a real point at which the existential philosopher believes that experience is the key point to a useful philosophy of reality. Through experiencing the world, we ascertain the true nature of the world more greatly. Metaphysics, they accuse, is abstract, and concerns its self merely with what there is in and of its self, not what there is for us. Abstract understandings do not provide experience, they exist independently of us.

There is even a sense in which we can understand existentialism in terms of oriental Buddhism. In Zen, there is the concept of satori. Satori is a “term for the experience of awakening or enlightenment” (Bowker, J. p. 863). This enlightenment, in Zen, comes from seeing things as they are, not masked by ideology. Zen Buddhists meditate or contemplate Koans (questions with no answer) to gain satori.

“To truly appreciate the beauty of life, you have to view it without your ego. When viewing the world, we project our ideas into it. If we project our ideas into the world, we are unable to truly take in what the world has to offer, we have already decided what we understand about the things we see. Take a glass for example, what makes a glass useful isn’t what is in it, it is its ability to contain something, which makes it useful. Tea drinking in the ceremonial manner can be understood as a meditative act. Meditating on an object, in this case tea, breaks the subject/object divide, and the two things become one.” (Wolfe, L.  link here).

Now, I don’t believe that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were wrong in claiming that experience is so important. I, in fact, feel that the existential position is an essential one for our world. Realigning ourselves with our experiences of the world could only ever help us live our lives better. The more accurately we understand the world, the better we can live in the world. However, the benefit of learning the existential mindset is in adapting this position one step further- the more accurately we understand how our experiences relate us to the world, relate the world to us, and what those experiences are and are like; the better we can live in the world of experience. Understanding the world, objectively, is one thing, but understanding what it is to us, as our experience of it, is an entirely different thing.

We can never experience objective nature. When we experience the world, we always experience a certain representation of the world. Each experience is a unique representation of the world at large. Those experiences become our individual worlds, personal to us.

There is a real sense that there must be more to the world than our mere experience of it. There are limitations to what there is and what there isn’t, for example. Our experiences of the world can teach us what we experience those limits to be, but the existentialist philosopher must realise that what we experience our limits to be isn’t what our limits are. Our experience doesn’t teach us what there is or is not. It doesn’t teach us what our limits are or are not. It merely teaches us what we have experienced these things to be so far.

Colin Wilson, discusses the fact that H G Wells represented the view of the Outsider in his final work The Mind at the End of its Tether. However, Wilson denies that Wells’ position could ever be purely existential because Wells was a scientist.

“Wells was very definitely an Insider most of his life. Tirelessly he performed his duty to society, gave it good advice upon how to better itself. He was the scientific spirit incarnate… There was something so shocking in such a man’s becoming an Outsider” (Wilson, C. p. 19).

As a scientist, Wells was interested in, and oriented himself and his works, around the objective world. The scientific pursuit represents the gap between theory and experience. More to the point, it represented somebody observing the world through ideology, rather than through their experiences of the world.

But Wells wasn’t committing the crime of denying experience, just because he engaged with science and metaphysics. Neither were the German professors when they adapted Kierkegaard’s philosophy into Existenzphilosophie by compounding it with the ideas of Hegel’s metaphysics. I am firmly of the belief that experience, and philosophies of experience, have unnecessary limitations.

There is a distinction to be made between subjective experience (I.E. the experience I have of the world, unique to me), and potential subjective experience. The metaphysician concerns themselves with what there is in the world not because they are trapped in ideology, but because the exploration of ‘the fundamental questions’ allows us to better engage with our experiences.

Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland shows us the perfect reality of this. In Flatland, there is a two-dimensional object which lives in a two-dimensional world. None of the inhabitants has any idea that there COULD be such a thing as a third dimension. They think about the world as they experience it. However, our protagonist has an experience of a three-dimensional world, and a sphere within this world explains the nature of dimensions to our two-dimensional friend. This new experience transforms him. It also transforms the way he lives within his two-dimensional world. When he returns to his flat existence, his experience of extra dimensions fades. However, he is able to keep his experience meaningful because he has brought back with him a set of geometric principles which explains how extra-dimensional existence functions. This shows how metaphysics informs existence, rather than contradicting it.

The lesson of this is that our two-dimensional protagonist wasn’t torn away from an authentic experience of the world because of the ideology of a third dimension. He was, in fact, enabled to live a broader, fuller, more informed life. Sometimes we have to be told about an experience before we are able to experience it. Metaphysics primes our mind so that we can live an existential philosophy more meaningfully. When our two-dimensional protagonist returned to his two-dimensional world, he was only able to live authentically (true to genuine experience) when he related to the concept of the extra dimension, rather than relating to his ideology-free existence.

Metaphysics can also highlight our problem with relating to, or discussing, what there is or isn’t in the world. When Max Black wrote his paper The Identity of Indiscernibles, he was showing that experience is problematic because it allows us to confuse the realities of objects. It also shows that language has limits in being able to represent the true natures of objects. We may protest that trying to identify the true distinction between two objects which are exactly the same in every way is self-indulgence on the behalf of the metaphysician. However, if we cannot discern what we are uniquely having an experience of, how can we be authentic about our experiences? We can attempt the project of living the world through our experiences of the world, but if we don’t have a system which identifies what our experiences are of exactly, we aren’t going to have authentic experiences in the way an existentialist wishes to.

It presents its self as reasonable that we should take greater care to combine our metaphysical understanding of the world with our existential engagement with the world. It is acknowledged that the Parisian existentialists were enticed by phenomenology. Phenomenology sought to describe the world in terms of pure phenomena, I.E. experience removed from the theory.

“Phenomenology is useful for talking about religious or mystical experiences: we can describe them as they feel from the inside without having to prove that they represent the world accurately” (Bakewell, S. p. 42).

If the existentialist wishes to defend themselves against the use of metaphysics, this seems like a solution to the problem. However, the problem of metaphysical certainty rears its head whenever we talk about our experiences and our experiences differ. I can live authentically through my experience, sure, but when people having different experiences inhabit the same world, we reach a problem. People behave consistently with their experiences. But if we are behaving authentically, placing our behavior in the world, then the world becomes difficult to live in.

One example of this is in ethics. If we discuss our feelings regarding a specific war, one person may describe a personal phenomenology of being in favour of the war, whilst another person may describe a phenomenology of opposing it. When a decision has to be made, we have to decide on how a decision must be made. We could only conveniently do this by building a system of abstract theory through which we may engage the world with action.

The existentialist may say that we are being unfair in drawing up a case which concerns far more than the individual, so we will meet the existentialist on the subjective level. If phenomenology is the science of accurately describing our experiences, and we can live in the world most authentically when we understand our experiences best, what do we do when our feelings are in conflict with ourselves? Sartre combated this opposition by saying

“you are free, therefore choose- that is to say, invent” (Bakewell, S. p. 9).

Sartre’s rebuttal was that it makes sense to have conflicting feelings about things. However, we can still live authentically by simply making a choice, rather than being trapped by our inconsistent feelings. However, this thesis is problematic for the existentialist. The reason is that if we choose to act in spite of our feelings, we are living inauthentically because we must choose based on a system other than our feelings. ‘You are free, therefore choose’, but how to decide? We hit the circular problem that we need to bring in metaphysical questions to appropriate our actions to one feeling or the other. If I have a phobia of flying, I may choose to get on the plane anyway, and I would do this because I had engaged in ideas beyond my phenomenal experience of flying and considering the objective facts of flying such as safe statistics.

I am not saying that we should abandon existentialism, what I am saying is that a synthetic system must be crafted which can better reconcile the conflict of existentialism and metaphysics. The dichotomy between the two is merely a perceived one. It could be understood as a category mistake. Gilbert Ryle states, as an example of a category mistake, that

“a purchaser may say that he bought a left-handed glove and a right-handed glove, but not that he bought a left-handed glove, a right-handed glove and a pair of gloves” or “she came home in a flood of tears and a sedan-chair” (Ryle, G p. 23).

Experience and metaphysics COULD be less separate than we think, but because part of existence is experiential, we separate the experience and the theory, wholly unnecessarily. It could be the case that our experience is informed by our metaphysic to such a degree that the way we feel phenomenally is merely a real-world representation of the idea in action.

Works cited

Abbott, E A. (Date unknown) Flatland. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006)

Bakewell, S. (2017) At The Existentialist Cafe. London: Penguin Random House

Bowker, J. (2002). Satori. In the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions.: Oxford University Press

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind. Reprint, London: Penguin Books (1990)

Sartre, J-P. (1938) Nausea, translated by Robert Baldick. Reprint, London: Penguin Books Ltd., (2000)

Wilson, C. (1997) The Outsider. Gurnsey: Gurnsey Press Co. Ltd

Wolfe, L. (2017) “The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura”, The Wolfe Review. Available at: (accessed: 13th March 2018)

One thought on “Are thought and experience philosophically compatible?

  1. We would point out a few things relating to the above post. Kierkegaard (Danish) was a Christian whereas many later existentialists were atheists (such as Sartre). Existentialism has been used by some to justify their amoral slash immoral hedonism.

    Another way of considering zen is in overcoming the thought process. A instant of satori can be when thought is suspended or transcended such that a person has immediate, interpretation free, direct experience. The problem for Westerners is that they have, since the time of the ancient Greeks, tended to overthink things, sometimes to a grotesque extreme. Zen can be interpreted to mean the breaking down the barrier between subject and object. A zen practitioner becomes one with the experience. There is not a person chopping the wood – there is simply the chopping. Not a witness to experience, but being the experience can be achieved. The knower and the known, that dichotomy is transcended in a state of no-mind.


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