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Symposia. Experience, Interpretation and Meaning: A Dialogue between Hermeneutics and Pragmatism

Meaning and Experience

For a Pragmatic Hermeneutics
Johann Michel
Translated by Nicolas Carter


Rather than opposing hermeneutics and pragmatism, this contribution, without denying their differences, aims to lay the foundations of a pragmatist hermeneutics by taking the relationship between meaning and experience as a common thread. The challenge is to analyze this relationship from three distinct angles: immediate experience (and spontaneous understanding), acquired experience (and pre-understanding) and creative experience (and interpretation). From each of these perspectives, the aim is to grant a meaningful place to non-verbal – and specifically bodily – experience, which calls for a somahermeneutics.

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1It could be said, as an initial approximation, that the focus on experience is to pragmatism what the focus on meaning is to hermeneutics. Whether the role of induction and abduction in the logic of signs (Peirce), the role of experimental inquiry in scientific research (James) or that of “art as experience” (Dewey), or indeed the function of immediate experience in ordinary knowledge (Mead), experience, in all its dimensions, clearly bears the signature of pragmatism. And be it in the attention paid to interpreting the signs of the living world among the Ancients (Hippocrates, Galen), or in the focus on understanding discourse among the Moderns (Ast, Meier, Schleiermacher), or again among the Contemporaries (Heidegger, Gadamer) in the centrality of language to any understanding of the world or of being, the question of meaning is clearly a hallmark of hermeneutics, across its many variants.

2Should we infer, then, that pragmatism is deaf to the question of meaning? By no means; our initial approximation is no more than an approximation, after all. That would be to overlook the semiotics of Peirce, the centrality of symbolism in Mead, the theory of interpretation in Royce, to say nothing of the cardinal function of language in the neo-pragmatism of Rorty, admittedly characterized by the singular way in which he draws on hermeneutics (particularly Gadamer).

3So are we, conversely, to deduce from this initial approximation that hermeneutics knows nothing of experience? That is not the case either. That would be to ignore the richness of experience in Dilthey’s concept of life, and even more so among his heirs, contemporaries and disciples such as Lipps, König, and especially Misch. But, among the contemporaries, it is really in Gadamer that experience performs the most salient function.

4The opposition between meaning and experience is therefore not a satisfactory entry point for a comparison between hermeneutics and pragmatism. The most we can say, with any confidence, is that one is more prominent than the other in this or that tradition, especially in certain authors from each philosophical current. The real problem lies instead in the question of whether all experience is by nature linguistically mediated and discursive: is the meaning of experience grounded in language, as Gadamer claims? It has to be said that the different answers elicited by this problem transcend the schism – if that is what it is – between hermeneutics and pragmatism, affecting both of the philosophical traditions. On the one hand, hermeneuts like Misch and pragmatists like James, Dewey or Shusterman have no hesitation in recognizing the value of non-verbal or pre-linguistic experience in ordinary understanding, in practical life, or indeed in the field of esthetics, rejecting Schleiermacher’s precept that “language is the only presupposition in hermeneutics.” On the other hand, hermeneuts like Gadamer and even, up to a point, Ricœur, as well as pragmatists like Rorty, have tended to reduce all experience to linguistically mediated experience.

  • 1 This distinction is reflected in different ways in other languages (for example in French – avoir d (...)

5Without denying the centrality of language and discourse in experience, this paper takes a clear position in favor of recognizing the value of pre-linguistic – and especially bodily – experience, without treating is as the sacred domain of the ineffable. Recognizing experience as pre-verbal or non-verbal does not signify that it is necessarily devoid of meaning and irreducible to any form of understanding. There can be meaning in experience without it being expressed in discursive form. This is precisely why a pragmatic hermeneutics of non-verbal experience is possible, and even necessary. The question of meaning and understanding is framed differently depending on whether one is looking at experience simply as the interaction of an organism with its environment (immediate experience), or as something that is acquired over time (“having experience”), or again as something that happens to, or is sought out by, the subject (“having AN experience” or “living an experience”).1

1. Immediate Experience and Spontaneous Understanding

6There clearly is such a thing as non-linguistically mediated experience. It is inherent to the very functioning of a living being in as far as it interacts with a given environment. This is one of the lessons we take from the pragmatism of Dewey and Mead, revealing the primordial layer of experience embedded at the core of the living entity, in which humans are not a special case: “Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living.” (Dewey 1980: 35). Whenever a living organism responds to the stimuli in its environment, perceives its surroundings, explores them and seeks to modify them in order to satisfy its own needs and primordial impulses, there is experience. The living being’s experience is articulated between two distinct poles: that of receptivity – which is not necessarily the same thing as passivity, when it is affected by stimuli from the outside world (or indeed from the “inner” world in the case of self-affection) – and that of activity, when it can act upon and modify its Umwelt.

7If experience is a near-permanent necessity for living things, i.e., their way of being in the world, it is because they are regularly subject to incidents, imbalances, disruptions and disorders that demand appropriate responses in order, time after time, to recover equilibrium and harmony with themselves and their environment. The harmony between an organism and its environment is never more than temporary:

Contrast of lack and fullness, of struggle and achievement, of adjustment after consummated irregularity, form the drama in which action, feeling, and meaning are one. The outcome is balance and counterbalance. These are not static nor mechanical. They express power that is intense because measured through overcoming resistance. Environing objects avail and countervail. (Ibid.: 16)

  • 2 Also translated widely as “life-expressions.”

8This is a long way from the hermeneutic experience (so dear to Gadamer) characterized by its openness to oral – and above all written – tradition, but there is no good reason to neglect a mode of experience that takes place at the scale of life itself. And does it really lie outside any hermeneutic perspective? Far from it, if we only extend our focus beyond the discursive, the linguistic (and a fortiori the textual) and return to the source of the hermeneutics of nature and the living world, that of the Ancients, albeit revisited by the Contemporaries: Dilthey, Misch or Gens. This hermeneutics of nature resonates strongly with the pragmatism of vital experience in James, Dewey or Mead. In the above quotation, Dewey speaks explicitly of “meaning” (which merges with action and feeling) in describing this mode of experience. Dewey’s terminology, like Mead’s, reflects the dual heritage of Darwinism and behaviorism in the way it characterizes the experience of the living world, including humans as living beings (Mead’s “biological individuals”), but it is not difficult to see in it a more semiotic perspective, this time coming from Peirce: stimuli are signs. In other words, the living being’s experience, as a continuous interaction with its environment, can be thought of as a semiosis, i.e. as a process of exchanging signs, the production and reception of signs between an organism and an environment which is, as von Uexküll has shown, a “bearer of meaning.” Whatever signs there may be in this case, they are not linguistic signs. And yet the living being can experience them. More precisely, the signs or “manifestations” of life (Lebensaüßerungen),2 to borrow a term from Dilthey, constitute the core of a mode of experience: and there is no good reason for hermeneutics to ignore them simply because they are not mediated by language and discourse.

9If signs are exchanged in vital experience, what mode of understanding might be the right medium for grasping their meaning? In as far as this is a form of “immediate experience,” to borrow a term found in James, as well as in Mead and Dewey, there is no reflection involved in this mode of understanding. And so it would be an exaggeration to speak of “interpretation” if we define that as being a mediated, suspensive and reflective form of understanding (Michel 2019). In other words, vital experience, immediate though it is, elicits only spontaneous – and, strictly speaking, non-reflective – understanding. It is in this sense that James speaks of “pure experience” as the “immediate flow of life” (James 1912: 77).

10Among the contemporary hermeneuts, it is no doubt Georg Misch (Misch 1994) who went furthest in probing the mode of understanding at work in immediate experience, using an initial framework that owes much to the life philosophy of Dilthey. Misch starts out from Dilthey’s distinction between “elementary understanding” and “higher understanding” (Dilthey 2002), but he does so in order to give a different significance to the former. In Dilthey, elementary understanding refers to an understanding of the “outer manifestations of life” that emerge from practical existence. This mode of understanding operates through an analogical type of reasoning (comparing one’s own life-expressions with those of others). Dilthey offers some examples to illustrate elementary understanding: a series of letters combined into words which form a sentence, the elementary acts of which continuous activities are composed (lifting an object, dropping a hammer, sawing wood, etc.). Elementary understanding is a lower form of understanding, even if it serves as a basis for higher understanding; it is inferior because it apprehends manifestations of life in piecemeal fashion: “In this elementary understanding we do not go back to the whole context of life which forms the permanent subject of life-expressions.” (Ibid.: 226). Only higher understanding – which for Dilthey, of course, must serve as a foundation for the human sciences – can apprehend the manifestations of life in all their unity and permanence by establishing regularities (through causal reasoning) and all kinds of inferences (for example inferring which class or historical era someone belongs to from their clothing).

  • 3 Here I follow closely the excellent commentary by Simon Calenge 2020.

11With Misch, elementary understanding is placed in a conceptual framework that is more phenomenological (perhaps even ethological) than epistemological. This framework seems more in phase with the pragmatism of Dewey, Mead and James insofar as it takes seriously a mode of understanding that is not only pre-verbal (i.e. at a stage prior to linguistic expression) but non-verbal (irreducible to any form of linguistic expression): “Everywhere here there is an understanding – an understanding of an elementary kind; it occurs as a matter of course when faced with certain human or animal manifestations of life (more precisely, organic bodily movements) that fall within the domain of sensory perception.” (Misch 1994: 144).3 With Misch, elementary understanding is basically an understanding of bodily attitudes (gestures, intonations, mimicry, moods…) that do not involve any form of reasoning (even by analogy): it is immediate, non-reflective and non-discursive. Just as meaning and feeling are one (Dewey), so the expression of a bodily attitude is at one with its meaning. It is neither by inference nor by analogy (with what I myself might feel) that I read the tears on the face of the other as an expression of sadness. My understanding of the meaning of this expression of sadness is captured spontaneously, with no roundabout reflection, no interpretive process of decryption, and no verbalization.

  • 4 In his commentary on Misch, Simon Calenge rightly compares this process, this chasing after signs, (...)

12The immediate character of lived experience in bodily understanding is concomitant with a temporality that takes the form of a continuous flow of undifferentiated present. There is a striking similarity between the way Misch thematizes immediate experience as a kind of headlong rush from sign to sign, without restraint, without repose, without objectification,4 and the way Mead analyzes the immediate response of the biological individual to the perceived world, when unimpeded and uninterrupted:

The flow of experience is not differentiated into a past and future over against an immediate now until reflection affects certain parts of the experience with these characters, with the perfection of adjustment on the one hand, and with the shifting control on the other. The biologic individual lives in an undifferentiated now. (Mead 1972: 351)

13The semiosis at work in the spontaneous understanding of immediate experience is entirely wrapped up in the logic of the senses. The spontaneous experience of bodily understanding is marked by a homology between the logic of sensation and the logic of meaning. Bodily expressions are understood spontaneously only through the mediation of the sensory, affective and emotional system. If the senses are inhibited, or if one of them is lost, the intensity of immediate experience is diminished, and with it the possibility of a spontaneous understanding of life-expressions. This is true of bodily attitudes and also of linguistic expressions, whether spoken or written (and perceived through the visual, auditory, tactile etc. apparatus). There is no immediate experience without sensory and affective mediation. Nobody put it better than James when he insisted, in his Principles of Psychology (James 1983: 287), on the importance of the function of the sensory organs not only for the immediate bodily apprehension of the world, but also for our modes of thought and perception, to the extent that the mental is literally embodied in the physical. The same is true of attention: focusing one’s attention on something is part of a bodily disposition (contraction of the muscles in the jaw, chest, back, etc.).

14The hermeneutics of Misch and the pragmatism of James and Dewey share a common presupposition in that they ground the meaning of the signs of immediate experience on the substrate of the senses, which includes a whole palette of expressions:

“Sense” covers a wide range of contents: the sensory, the sensational, the sensitive, the sensible, and the sentimental, along with the sensuous. It includes almost everything from bare physical and emotional shock to sense itself – that is, the meaning of things present in immediate experience. Each term refers to some real phase and aspect of the life of an organic creature as life occurs through sense organs. But sense, as meaning so directly embodied in experience as to be its own illuminated meaning, is the only signification that expresses the function of sense organs when they are carried to full realization. (Dewey 1980: 22)

15There is of course a paradox, perhaps even a contradiction, in the way of describing immediate experience as Misch and Dewey do; something that a hermeneut like Gadamer or a neo-pragmatist like Rorty would be sure to pick up on, in order to challenge its validity. The paradox is that they speak about it: they represent it in the form of discourse – and reflective discourse at that – although immediate experience is supposed to belong to the realm of non-discursive and non-reflective understanding. The paradox must be acknowledged, but without sliding into contradiction, to the extent that immediate sensory experience can only be understood in so far as it is lived in the situation. “Discourse” about experience can only ever be secondary, even if it presupposes that “embodied meaning” can be translated, however partially and imperfectly, into discursive meaning. Witness the difficulty we sometimes experience in putting affective or emotional states into words, to say nothing of all the infra-signs (such as aromas) that affect our senses and modify our moods without ever impinging on our attentive consciousness.

16Immediate experience not only has value for itself, it provides a grounding for all other forms of experience. But not to the extent of making it – as the empiricist philosophers, seeking to construct an epistemology, would like – the cornerstone of all our knowledge. Rather, immediate experience, in the sense of a meaningful embodied interaction between an organism and an environment, is the substrate without which no other experience could occur. Which presupposes, conversely, that immediate experience cannot account for the full range of experience, except for certain categories of being that live only in the immediacy of their relationship to the environment.

2. Acquired Experience and the Preunderstanding of Meaning

17A lasting form of experience, an acquired experience, can happen only if there is a break in the ceaseless flow of the undifferentiated now, the headlong rush from sign to sign. Such interruptions in experience occur when an organism’s responses are no longer adapted to their environment, when there is a certain “inhibition of action” (Mead) or of the impulses, when organisms are faced with obstacles, barriers and disruptions, and are forced to adjust their behavior (Dewey). Mead uses an illustration taken from animal life: that of a dog that approaches a stranger offering meat (primary impulse) only to dart away again (secondary and opposing impulse) on sensing danger. While there may be an instinctive element in this behavior (Mead refuses to ascribe a capacity for reflection to the animal condition, reserving it for human social individuals), there is no reason to doubt its experiential dimension, at least for mammals. Where does the difference lie between a young puppy and a dog of a certain age faced with the same situation? Without having first perceived something that might be seen as a kind of threat, the puppy will obey its primary impulse alone (coming forward to take the food). The older dog, by contrast, even if it may still continue to move towards the food, will have a moment of hesitation, of restraint, even of drawing back, in as far as the something it perceives reminds it of a potential (or perhaps very real) danger. What is the cause of this opposing impulse (hesitation, drawing back, etc.)? Experience; no more, no less. But no longer in the sense of immediate experience. This is acquired experience, albeit acquired through conditioning. In other words, acquired experience takes over from immediate experience when the latter is obstructed, disrupted, or interrupted. Acquired experience consequently presupposes a different relationship to temporality. Instead of the ceaseless flow, the undifferentiated now that characterizes immediate experience, it is a present enriched with a past, and perhaps even, through anticipation, with a future. Correlatively, it presupposes a capacity for discernment, for memory – implicit (procedural) or explicit (remembering) – and even (in the case of anticipation) for imagination. Acquired experience takes the form not only of remembrances (conscious representations of past events or situations), but also of acquired dispositions (habitus).

  • 5 With a normative agenda, Gadamer situates this mode of experience within the wider context of wisdo (...)

18Acquired experience typically corresponds to the usual meaning of “having experience,” as an accumulation, a sedimentation of knowledge, understanding, observation and know-how constituting a stable fund that can be drawn upon in order to perceive, act and move more effectively in present situations. Acquired experience is the past teaching and shedding light on the present.5 It always assumes, in one way or another, that similar situations are reproducible, and that they can be compared, implicitly or explicitly, in order to avoid repeating past mistakes. There is no acquired experience without first having lived through some form of negativity. Gadamer joins Mead and Dewey on this point: “experience in this sense inevitably involves many disappointments of one’s expectations and only thus is experience acquired.” (Gadamer 2004: 350). It is in this sense that we speak of someone as being experienced: because they have confronted difficult situations and suffered disappointments many times, in similar (not necessarily identical) circumstances, and because they have come up with appropriate responses, they have built up a lasting resource that enables them to relate to their environment more harmoniously (as Dewey might have put it). Claude Romano makes the same point in a slightly different way: “Experience is first of all knowledge, which grows over time; one who ‘has’ experience is one who understands such and such a situation. One who is experienced is one who has lived.” (Romano 2009: 144).

19To which mode of understanding does acquired experience typically correspond? To the preunderstanding of meaning. Acquired experience is, literally, that which has already been understood and is likely to be re-understood in similar situations. Acquired experience is a reservoir of meaning, available in the form of preunderstandings. Having a reservoir of available meaning is not the same thing as being fully in control, or even conscious, of it. Acquired experience oscillates between the twin poles of passivity (when preunderstanding guides us without our knowing) and activity (when preunderstanding is reflective and conscious). It would be a mistake to think that all preunderstanding stems from an experience that involves reflection. The experienced driver is not only one who is able to recall past situations consciously and reflectively in order to deal with similar situations on the road. Her acquired experience acts within her largely without her realizing, for a whole series of sequential actions that are de facto embodied, and which easily distinguish her from a “young driver.”

20Prejudices, in Gadamer’s sense of the word, are undeniably part (but only one part) of acquired preunderstanding, if we leave aside for a moment his theory of knowledge (prejudices as conditions of possibility of historical science). Humans may have no monopoly on immediate experience, nor even on acquired experience (which is found among the higher animals), but they do have a monopoly on acquired experience in the form of historical experience. And it is historical experience that is Gadamer’s chosen channel for exploring the hermeneutic experience, which is expressed through language: “[…] language is at the same time a positive condition of, and guide [Leitung] to, experience itself.” (Gadamer 2004: 344). We might rephrase that to say that language is the condition for a particular category of acquired experience, not for all experience. Which experience, then? The advantage of Gadamer’s concept of experience is the way he situates it beyond the sphere of the personal, so as to embed it in its historical and cultural dimension. The reservoir of meaning on which acquired experience reposes benefits from a legacy of preunderstandings that have sedimented down in the form of traditions. Contained in what we understand today is everything that our predecessors understood before us and passed on to us, sometimes as prejudices in the negative sense (as errors of judgment), sometimes in the positive sense (as conditions of current understanding). Like all acquired experience, this common historical fund of preunderstanding gravitates between the twin poles of passivity (that which we inherit by chance, starting with a language) and activity (that which we can reflect upon and consciously make our own). The pole of activity is, for Gadamer, the “highest type of hermeneutical experience: the openness to tradition characteristic of historically effected consciousness” (ibid.: 355). This openness is manifested not in the simple acknowledgement of the otherness of the past (acknowledging that others, before us, also understood things), but in the acknowledgement, and awareness, that our predecessors still have something to say to us, that what has been pre-understood can be understood again, including in new and different ways. When this condition is met, tradition becomes “open experience.”

21Why is language accorded this primacy in the mediation of experience? Because for Gadamer the model of openness to tradition is the dialogical relationship (“it expresses itself like a Thou”), and because he prioritizes discursive forms of experience: “What has come down to us by way of verbal tradition is not left over but given to us, told us – whether through direct retelling, in which myth, legend, and custom have their life, or through written tradition, whose signs are, as it were, immediately clear to every reader who can read them.” (Ibid.: 391). Gadamer is careful to distinguish between verbal transmission and written transmission, but it is clearly the latter that takes precedence in his account of hermeneutic experience. In other words, tradition achieves its full hermeneutic potential when it is expressed in writing, as a written work. The reason being that the interpretation of the written word is detached from its initial conditions of production, and so can take on a life of its own for future generations of interpreters.

22The importance of the discursive forms of acquired experience is incontestable, and makes the mode of transmission of human experience quite singular. Gadamer’s analyses are valuable here, if we overlook his epistemological ambition (basing historical science on the consciousness of the effects of history). The real question, however, is whether all acquired experience can only be expressed, and can only become meaningful, in a linguistic, verbal or discursive form. The answer, my answer, is negative; and this is clearly where I would put limits on the hermeneutics of Gadamer or the neo-pragmatism of Rorty. Tradition, as envisaged by Gadamer, is only one mode of experience and cannot constitute all of its components.

23It is to the credit of the founding pragmatists, James and Dewey in particular, that they took seriously another mode of acquired experience that is housed directly in the body. We have already noted the importance of the body in immediate experience, but the experience that comes through the mediation of the body cannot be reduced to the instantaneous information received by our sensory organs. The body is also the seat of acquired experiences, which are in turn liable to modify immediate experience. It is undoubtedly William James, a physiologist by training, who went furthest (sometimes too far) in recognizing bodily experience as a set of acquired and lasting dispositions.

24What is the body in terms of acquired experience? A conjunction, a sedimentation, an articulation of habits. James, influenced by the work of Ravaisson, accords a central place to bodily habits in his Principles of Psychology. Some habits are purely individual, enabling us to recognize a person by their way of walking, their gait, their gestures, intonations and postures which set them apart from everyone else, but what makes James’ psychology of habits interesting is that he at the same time embeds them in a historical, social and cultural framework. The lesson was not lost on Bourdieu when he focused his concept of habitus specifically on acquired socio-bodily dispositions. Bodily habits (including the bad ones) develop in different ways, depending on our social experiences of life, our exposure to hard physical labor, or the illnesses we have endured. A social body is not only a metaphor, it is also a physical body molded and mediated by social structures of incorporation, and not only in the disciplinary sense made familiar by Foucault. More broadly still, bodily habits are shaped by a whole historical and cultural heritage. Remember the “techniques of the body” theorized by Marcel Mauss: greeting, swimming, walking, sleeping, giving birth… far from being “natural,” they vary profoundly from one society to another (the Masai, he notes, can sleep on their feet). These are all traditions, but in a very wide sense that goes beyond discursive transmission, that of a collective acquired experience of bodily dispositions that is passed on from generation to generation.

25Most of the time, bodily habits act on the subject without being noticed: unconsciously, unreflectively, without coming to their attention. To this extent, they are a form of preunderstanding. Perhaps, when they were originally contracted, they required some degree of conscious effort, reflection or attention from the subject (think of a toddler’s first steps, or of learning a new sport). But, at that stage of learning, they were not yet habits, but proto-habits, habits in the process of acquisition. A bodily attitude becomes a habit only when it is no longer thought of as such at the moment it takes place. Somatic habits are to acquired bodily experience what prejudices (in Gadamer’s sense) are to acquired discursive experience. The latter is a linguistically-mediated preunderstanding, the former a bodily-mediated preunderstanding.

26There is not necessarily anything harmful about the fact that our bodily habits operate non-reflectively. Quite the contrary. Just imagine if, whenever we needed to act, we had to think about our posture, or the position of our hands and feet. Action would forever be inhibited, delayed, frustrated. That is why James advocates that we should abandon ourselves as far as possible to our bodily automatisms. The absence of somatic reflection frees up energy and mindspace for actions that require greater effort and intelligence, allowing us to focus on the “end” of the action to be accomplished, without having to incessantly ponder the bodily “means” for getting there. James gives a number of illustrations: “We walk a beam the better the less we think of the position of our feet upon it. We pitch or catch, we shoot or chop the better the less tactile and muscular (the less resident), and the more exclusively optical (the more remote), our consciousness is.” (James 1983 : 1128).

27Some bodily habits, however, are indeed harmful, and end up causing suffering to the subject or disrupting the “motor pattern” or flow of action. Either because certain habits (such as crossing one’s legs, or shrugging one’s shoulders, which restricts the chest cage), though acquired long ago, have always been harmful but continue to be ingrained, or because certain habits that were once efficient have become deficient following a general change in the body or the environment. Not all acquired bodily experience is necessarily “good” (not in and of itself, but in terms of people, situations and contexts, i.e. pragmatically, with regard to its effects on action), just as not all acquired discursive experience (such as unfounded prejudices) is necessarily justified. The beneficial effect of the lack of reflection in bodily habits, when they are efficient, is reversed for deficient habits: changing “bad” habits is made that much more difficult by the very fact that they are, most of the time, exercised without reflection, especially if they were contracted many years earlier.

  • 6 Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955): Australian actor, educator and therapist. After losing hi (...)

28We can thank Dewey, more than James, for raising the question of the consciousness of bodily experience with a view to its transformation and improvement. It is partly under the influence of Alexander6 that Dewey sought to rethink the bodily conditions of voluntary action, that which impedes it, as well as that which could facilitate it. Unlike James, Dewey did not believe in a free will for which the body is merely a servile instrument. The stubborn body refuses to submit to the will. Purely “mental” willpower is insufficient to take action towards a given aim. Deficient bodily habits can get in the way. Alexander, for example, though not lacking in willpower, kept losing his voice when he was on stage, until he realized that the problem stemmed from his habit of adopting a declamatory stance, which was impeding his breathing. On a more fundamental level, Alexander discovered what was to become the core of the “Alexander technique”: the existence of a certain unity between the head, neck and back that allows for better coordination of the human body, seen as a single physical and psychic entity.

29Alexander’s research and practice exercised a twofold influence on Dewey, both correlative and decisive. On the one hand, they comforted him in his goal of breaking away from the disastrous dualism of mind vs. body, supplying experimental evidence to support his position. On the other, they enabled him to develop a philosophy of bodily experience aimed at perfecting its harmony, or in other words, at replacing bad bodily habits with better ones. The associated method centers on attention and somatic control: “consciousness of one’s own body,” or what Richard Shusterman, whose neo-pragmatism springs directly from Dewey, calls “somaesthetics,” and describes as “a method to discern, localize, and inhibit the unwanted habits, to discover the requisite bodily postures or movements (the indispensable ‘means whereby’ for best producing the desired action or attitude), and finally to monitor and master their performance through ‘conscious control’ until ultimately a better (i.e., more effective and controllable) habit could be established to achieve the willed end of action” (Shusterman 2008: 192).

30Shusterman it was who sought to rehabilitate the concept of bodily experience, building on the legacy of Dewey and of Alexander, in opposition to the hermeneutic neo-pragmatism of Rorty and, more generally, to a certain tendency in contemporary hermeneutics, coming from Gadamer, to turn every experience into a discursive, linguistically-mediated experience. He nonetheless shares with Rorty (the master who first initiated him into pragmatism), and in opposition to Dewey, a suspicion of any radical pre-linguistic empiricism that might serve as an epistemological basis for a theory of knowledge. But Shusterman invokes Dewey to argue against Rorty when it comes to directing bodily experience towards practical and esthetic life:

Wanting to celebrate the importance of this nondiscursive experience, Dewey did so in the way philosophers have habitually emphasized factors they thought primary and essential – by erecting it as a theoretical foundation. This was a bad confusion of what was (or should have been) his true aim – to establish and improve the quality of immediate experience as a practical end and useful tool. Dewey wanted philosophers to see that nondiscursive experience could be used to improve knowledge as well as the felt quality of living. (Shusterman 1994: 136)

31It is this last possibility in particular that Shusterman himself seeks to explore, both in the field of practical daily life and in the field of art, and he does so both as a theoretician (of somaesthetics) and at the same time as a practitioner, in the tradition of Alexander, and also experimenting with the Feldenkrais method, Zen, meditation and relaxation, with the aim of making embodied experience more balanced. This project is not about “bringing into consciousness” all of our bodily habits, an exercise as pointless as it would be pernicious, and liable, as James showed, to inhibit the flow of action. Non-reflective somatic habits, when they are efficient, do not need to be brought into consciousness, let alone transformed. It is when our bodily dispositions prove deficient that somatic-reflective practice becomes necessary, in order to transform them by enhancing our somatic consciousness.

32I said earlier that unreflective bodily habits are to acquired bodily experience what prejudices are to acquired discursive experience. It might now be said that reflective bodily habits, brought into consciousness, are to acquired bodily experience what reflective openness to tradition is to acquired discursive experience. Openness to tradition, as Gadamer reminds us, is the consciousness of the action or effect of history in as far as it is still able to speak to us. For Gadamer this is, as we saw, the highest mode of hermeneutic experience.

33But why should it be the highest mode? For this, we need to return to the schematic opposition between pragmatism – attentive to bodily experience – and hermeneutics, totally focused, by contrast, on discursive experience. Even Richard Shusterman does not entirely escape this schematic opposition: his pragmatist defense of somaesthetics is at the same time leveled at the discursive hypertrophy of hermeneutics (and more generally at the linguistic turn in contemporary philosophy), going so far as to include the neo-pragmatism of Rorty, which is shot through with Gadamer’s hermeneutics. It is undeniable that modern hermeneutics, since Schleiermacher, has been largely dominated by the primacy of discourse, and that contemporary hermeneutics from Gadamer to Ricœur privileges textual and linguistically-mediated experience (even to the point of encompassing the whole of hermeneutic experience), but it is not the case, however, that this presupposition is shared by all hermeneutic traditions. As indeed we saw with Misch, and his re-reading of Dilthey. A still more recent example can be found in the work of Jean-Claude Gens (2008), seeking to revisit the hermeneutics of the Ancients, who were more attentive to the signs of the body, including its long-term dispositions, than the Moderns. Dewey and Shusterman’s advocacy for “body consciousness” is not so far removed from certain medical and therapeutic practices of Hippocrates or Galen: the patient diagnosis (and prognosis) must take into account not only the patient’s current and temporary signs (the symptoms) but also his antecedents, his embodied history, ultimately, in other words, his acquired bodily experience.

34What point am I trying to make here? Not only that the opposition between pragmatism and hermeneutics is not as schematic as one might think, if one takes the trouble to recognize the plurality of their respective traditions, but also, more fundamentally, that there is – whatever Gadamer might say – a somatic, bodily, non-discursive hermeneutic experience which is every bit as valid as the discursive and linguistically-mediated kind. In other words, pragmatism does not have a monopoly on somatic experience, any more than hermeneutics has a monopoly on discursive experience. Why might somatic experience be a legitimate focus for hermeneutics? Because the body reveals itself in signs (which are not only symptoms). Poor bodily habits that induce deficiencies are signs, signs that are usually pre-understood and pre-reflective. Somaesthetics is also a form of somasemiotics. When these bodily signs are brought to consciousness, preunderstanding yields to reflective, albeit discursive, understanding. Somaesthetics calls for a somahermeneutics.

  • 7 The principle of translation, though inevitably unfaithful, from one language to another also appli (...)

35We can be still more ambitious in breaking down the opposition between pragmatism and hermeneutics. There is a meaningful opposition between the somatic and the discursive, even if the former can, at least partially, be translated into the latter (as when we seek to express bodily signs in words),7 but the same cannot be said of the opposition between the somatic and the linguistic (in the general sense of the term). Bodily expressions are manifested as signs that can resemble a form of (non-discursive) language with an internal consistency in which the signs are correlated to each other. Take the example of the signs and symptoms of an illness, which are expressed in a correlated fashion and are analyzed by a medical semiotics or hermeneutics. One could say there is a “body-language” of flu, its correlated signs being fever, a cough, aches and pains, and so on. Much the same can be said of the “body arts,” as well as sports activities, choreography, martial arts, and therapeutic arts (yoga, Zen, etc.) each of which has its own particular language, linguistic or otherwise, a language that presupposes learning, practice, and understanding. Learning a body art means acquiring the ability to master its language (gestures, postures, movement sequences, etc.) at all times. Think of the body “grammar” of Tai Chi, with its specific postural expressions (knees bent, shoulders down, back straight, hips loose, head slightly drawn up towards the sky, feet rooted on the ground…) each of which is one part of an overall code, whose movement sequences are ascribed meanings, associated with animals (the snake, the bird), plants (the tree), or energies (the yin and the yang). The gradual mastery of this language by the practitioner is a bodily experience that is acquired, embodied, and at the same time pre-understood. It is a type of experience that can be described as hermeneutic, as well as somatic, despite being mediated through language, and which goes well beyond the purely discursive sphere. The term “somahermeneutic experience” is all the more apt in that Tai Chi, like other body arts, is the product of a long tradition founded centuries ago by Chinese masters. Acquired somatic experience is therefore not only embodied in the individual; if it is, consequently, a tradition, that is because it is a historically and culturally grounded somahermeneutic experience that is transmitted, reappropriated and transformed from one generation to the next. The “permanently fixed expressions” that provide the grounding for hermeneutic experience are also manifest in corporeal expressions, when the texture of the body becomes tradition.

3. Creative Experience and Interpretation

36A third mode of experience remains to be explored. It differs from immediate experience (when we interact continuously with an environment) in that it presupposes a break in intelligibility, a disruption in understanding, a gap in the undifferentiated now. It also differs from acquired experience in that it is not reproducible, repeatable, or cumulative. It is thought of not in terms of experiencing things, nor of having experience, but of “having an experience” or living, or undergoing (in a transformative sense) an experience. It might be called creative experience. In many ways, new, creative experience involves a questioning, a challenging, a suspension of acquired experience. A subject that lived only through and for experience already accumulated could never strictly live an experience.

37Fortuitously but not accidentally, the French equivalent, “faire une expérience” also has the meaning “to do an experiment.” Scientific experimentation relies both on acquired experience (repeatable and reproducible) and on creative experience (singular and unique). The latter intervenes when the scientist is confronted with a strange, unknown, unpredictable phenomenon, posits hypotheses to account for it, and seeks to test them by experimental means. Abduction, theorized by Peirce, typifies a creative type of experiential reasoning in as far as, when faced with a phenomenon that defies standard explanations (the emergence of a new phenomenon, or an unexpected observation of an otherwise known phenomenon) one can only establish probable causes. There is therefore an element of riskiness, in the Popperian sense, in the “testing” of hypotheses that are uncertain and open to falsification. However, scientific experimentation also draws on cumulative and repeatable experience when it comes to reproducing the same experimental protocol over a certain number of cases. The more a phenomenon can be reproduced under comparable conditions, the more certain our knowledge about it. But at the same time, confirming a phenomenon that is already known simply by reiterating it diminishes the element of creativity in scientific research.

38Creative experience plays an important role in the scientific method, but its scope extends much further. The combined value of pragmatism and hermeneutics is that they broaden creative experience to other fields such as art, esthetics or daily life. Science has no monopoly on the experimental, let alone the experiential. Dewey, Heidegger, Gadamer and Romano, among others, have all sought, through this broadening, to preserve a mode of experience that is unrepeatable, singular, unique, and irreducible to acquired and reproducible experience.

39This newness and uniqueness of creative experience find an echo in what Dewey calls “having an experience,” which is clearly distinct from ordinary immediate experience. If experiences can be “had” in the sudden emergence of something that happens to us in the here and now, this is the very opposite of the continuous flow of the undifferentiated now of immediate experience. It is a now captured in the bursting-forth of an event that marks a discontinuity in lived experience, destined at the same time to become a lasting memory, “those things of which we say in recalling them, ‘that was an experience’” (Dewey 1980: 36).

40For Dewey, the uniqueness of a creative experience, never previously encountered, goes hand in hand with its fulfillment. A memorable meal, that bears no comparison to any other, to pick up on one of his examples, can only become an authentic experience if it has been properly consummated. Dewey compares such experiences with a storyline or plot, each with its own beginning, development, events and end. This is why the unique, singular, creative experience calls for a narrative, especially when, before arriving at its dénouement, it has gone through trials and ordeals, encountering helpers and opponents along the way. From all that goes to make up “having an experience,” there is something that emerges, something like a particular tonality that gives it its unity (and ensures the unity of the plot): “An experience has a unity that gives it its name: that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of the variation of its constituent parts.” (Ibid.: 37).

41“Having an experience” does not imply that the subject living the experience necessarily has the ability to create or control it. This is true even for our French scientist about to faire une expérience: even if she controls certain elements of the protocol that she is implementing, the experiment can be creative only if something unusual, something surprising, has occurred to make her question her earlier certainties and paradigms of reasoning. This is a common trait that we find in every form of experience (immediate, acquired, or creative) in as much as it has a dimension, if not of passivity, at least of receptiveness. In creative experience, however, this is radicalized, as what ensues does not neatly link up with what went before.

42There is no “having” or “living” an experience without a form of disruption that automatically mobilizes the entire affective and emotional sphere. To experience is, inevitably, to be affected. It is there in the etymology of the word, from the Latin “experiri,” to put to the test. Dewey accords a central function to this affective and emotional dimension: “There is […] an element of undergoing, of suffering in its largest sense, in every experience.” (Ibid.: 41). Here, Dewey the pragmatist joins Heidegger the hermeneut:

To undergo an experience [eine Erfahrung machen] with something – be it a thing, a person, or a god – means that this something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us. When we talk of undergoing an experience, we mean specifically that the experience is not of our own making; to undergo here means that we endure it, suffer it, receive it as it strikes us and submit to it. (Heidegger 1982: 57)

43Heidegger’s words, in the context of a lecture, on the particular experience of speech when it is addressed to us, may seem somewhat confusing in that they assume an intention, even a desire, to submit (uns ihm fügen) to that which “befalls us.” That is undeniably a possibility when, for example, we are seeking to provoke an experience. But it is not the case when, conversely, we are seized or affected by something, without any prior wish: “it happened to us,” “it came out of the blue.” It is true of experiential emotional states such as disquiet, surprise, astonishment, stupefaction, shock, but also of marvel, amazement, rapture… There is therefore not necessarily anything negative about having an experience, even if Heidegger’s choice of experiential verbs like erleiden (endure, suffer) might lead one to think so. In this respect, I differ from Claude Romano, writing in the Heideggerian tradition, when he associates experience with risk, danger, undergoing an ordeal (Romano 2009: 145). The first taste of fatherhood, at least when it goes well, is a unique, singular experience, at the same time accompanied emotionally by intense joy, without a sense of endangerment. Dewey, in the illustrations he gives, makes a point of stressing authentic experiences from which we derive pleasure. The main difference, and it is a significant one, between the American pragmatist and the German hermeneut lies in the ontological and existential dimension that the latter gives to having, living or (in the Heideggerian literature) undergoing an experience. Heidegger, absorbed in the quest for the meaning of being, of finitude, of what lies behind language, or Romano, preoccupied with the unfathomable and inaugural event of our birth, would be unlikely to list Dewey’s “memorable meal” among their authentic experiences. More’s the pity. Existential hermeneutics cannot account for experiences that are less unique, singular, and creative than “anticipatory resoluteness.” A pragmatist hermeneutics of ordinary life, by contrast, can do them justice.

44Claude Romano is right, however, to show that “undergoing an experience” is indissociable from self-transformation, “so that, having suffered and endured it, I will never again be the same” (ibid.: 149). Authentic experience is therefore an event in the strongest sense that Romano ascribes to it, marking a before and an after in lived history. There are, however, degrees in the way the experiential event transforms us, and it takes many different expressions. Romano’s evential hermeneutics tends to present this in a radical form. The experience of bereavement or of incurable disease affects and transforms us at a depth that Dewey’s memorable meal cannot reach. But there is no reason to reject it: that meal we tasted, incomparable to any other, undoubtedly transformed us in the way we appreciate food, and the people we share it with, without affecting the deeper meaning of our existence as the experience of mourning or motherhood might do.

45What mode of understanding, what relationship to meaning is implied by creative experience? Firstly, the ordeal of the non-comprehensible, the incomprehensible, the difficulty in comprehending the meaning of what happens, of what happens to us, measurable not only by the yardstick of the “nonground of birth […] as a bottomless source of incomprehensibility” (ibid.: 155), which is an extreme but not necessarily foundational form (any more than is the prospect of the meaning of my own death). A pragmatist hermeneutics of the ordeals of non-understanding requires no assistance from an evential hermeneutics that analyzes all forms of incomprehensibility back to some basic ontological unit (birth or death) from which, supposedly, they are all ultimately derived. It is hard to see, for example, why the difficulty we face in grasping the meaning of a text should invariably point us back towards the impenetrable mystery of our own birth, which may well be a “bottomless source” of incomprehensibility, but is not necessarily the original fount of all incomprehension.

46It is certain, however, that there is no having or living an experience without an ordeal of incomprehensibility: all unique, singular creative experience presupposes – precisely because it is comparable to no other – a breakdown of intelligibility in the pre-existing order of meaning. This is what distinguishes it from immediate experience, which calls only for spontaneous understanding in a world of meaning that is taken as self-evident. In the continuous flow of immediate experience, the understanding of meaning is not subject to problematicity. This is equally true of acquired experience, at least for the share of unreflective habits and routinization that it involves. The same cannot be said when we live an experience, faced as we are with the hardships of the problematicity of meaning (strangeness, confusion, obscurity, ambiguity, absurdity, etc.). In other words, there is no creative experience without a suspension of meaning and of our beliefs, which can be assimilated to a hermeneutic epoché. The ordeal – or at least challenge – of the non-comprehensible, which, let us remember, is not necessarily negative (the sense of marvel at an unusual performance assumes a suspension of meaning), may be left hanging, for lack of effort, willpower, or resources. But, under such conditions, the experience would remain abortive, unfinished, without being authentically creative of meaning.

47What is missing? Interpretation, in the strong sense of the word. Unlike spontaneous understanding (the stuff of immediate experience), interpretation is a suspensive, mediated and reflective form of understanding. Interpretation is an inquiry into meaning, and requires work on the signification of something, an effort to better understand it. Where the suspension of meaning represents interpretation’s pole of receptivity, the reconstruction of meaning is its pole of activity. Success in this endeavor is never guaranteed, the process can be interminable, but interpretation can be productive or creative only if it sets out on the quest for, and conquest of, meaning.

48Interpretation can only be brought into play tangibly through a set of interpretive devices I call the interpetatio (Michel 2019): explicitation, contextualization, unveiling, translation, clarification, categorization, and other such techniques. Without the toolbox of creative experience that is the interpretatio, it is scarcely possible to overcome the challenges of problematicity and to begin the process of reconstructing meaning. It is thanks to the interpretatio that semantic innovation, the production of new meanings, is possible: experience can be characterized as unique, singular, and creative only once it has been interpreted as such, i.e. made explicit, unveiled, clarified.

49It is incontestably the hermeneutic tradition that has done most to draw attention to the importance of the interpretive techniques. But its principal focus was, originally, on scholarly techniques of interpretation applied to the discursive field and to linguistically-mediated hermeneutic experience, such as Schleiermacher's grammatical and psychological interpretation of acts of speech. Heidegger’s hermeneutic shift may have dragged hermeneutics away from the science of texts – even to the extent of making explicitation a way of being for the beings that we are (Dasein) – but at the price of creating a radical ontologization that makes it impossible to account for ordinary modes of interpretation (not reducible to the meaning of being) except by pigeonholing them as inauthentic. By contrast, the whole point of grafting pragmatism onto hermeneutics (in a very different sense from that demonstrated by Rorty) is to do justice to ordinary experiences of interpretation. Just such a project can be found in the work of the pragmatist philosopher who was second only to Peirce in the value he ascribed to the processes of interpretation, not only in scientific endeavor, but also in day-to-day experience, namely Josiah Royce. So much so that he defined humankind – before Taylor made it the core of his hermeneutics – as “an animal that interprets“ (Royce 1918: 172). Admittedly, Royce proposes a very (overly) broad conception of interpretation, encompassing all forms of understanding and all relationships to meaning, without distinguishing between immediate understanding and interpretive understanding. But the great contribution of his pragmatist theory of interpretation, apart from the fact it looks beyond scientific activity, and discourse-centered research in particular, holds in its intersubjective and social structure: somebody interprets somebody (or something) for somebody else, in what Royce calls a “community of interpretation.”

50The third benefit that we can take from pragmatism (and particularly from Dewey and Shusterman) in order to transform hermeneutics for the better resides, as we saw, in the essential character of the somatic experience. Just as acquired experience has its embodied tradition, so creative experience demands a somahermeneutics. Living an experience can never be entirely reduced to discursive experience. Interpretation, as mediated and reflective understanding, intervenes when the spatiality of the body itself (Leib) ceases to be self-evident (due to physical disruption, illness or accident), when that spatiality is affected by a problematicity of meaning and requires significant motor reorganization, or when our bodily habits become dysfunctional. This is also true when we learn new sporting, therapeutic, erotic, or other body techniques, and our hesitant, tentative body movements and gestures call for an effort of reflection to recapture the meaning of the body. It is true, finally, when the bodily expressions of others appear strange, alien, confused or ambiguous to us. The bodily understanding of the other (which Misch, after Dilthey, calls elementary) loses its immediacy and calls for reflective feedback on our own bodily expressions. At that point, spontaneous understanding becomes bodily interpretation.

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Calenge Simon, (2020), Les Logiques herméneutiques, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion.

Dewey John, (1980), Art as Experience, New York, Perigree.

Dilthey Wilhelm, (2002), The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, trans. Rudolf A. Makkreel and John Scanlon, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Gadamer Hans-Georg, (2004), Truth and Method, London, Continuum.

Gens Jean-Claude, (2008), Éléments pour une herméneutique de la nature, Paris, Cerf.

Heidegger Martin, (1982), On the Way to Language, San Francisco, Harper & Row.

James William, (1912), Essays in Radical Empiricism, New York, Longmans, Green and Co.

James William, (1983), The Principles of Psychology, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Mead George Herbert, (1972), Mind, Self and Society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Michel Johann, (2019), Homo interpretans, Towards a Transformation of Hermeneutics, trans. David Pellauer, pref. Hans Joas, London/New York, Rowman.

Misch Georg, (1994), Der Aufbau der Logik auf dem Boden der Philosophie des Lebens, München, Karl Alber Verlag.

Romano Claude, (2009), Event and World, New York, Fordham University Press.

Royce Josiah, (1918), The Problem of Christianity, New York, The Macmillan Company.

Shusterman Richard, (1994), “Dewey on Experience: Foundation or Reconstruction?,” The Philosophical Forum, XXVI (2), 127-48.

Shusterman Richard, (2008), Body Consciousness: A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

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1 This distinction is reflected in different ways in other languages (for example in French – avoir de l’expérience and faire une expérience – or in German, in the contrast between Erfahrung haben and Erfahrung machen) and is addressed as a specific philosophical question in Gadamer: “Language shows this when we use the word ‘experience’ in two different senses: the experiences that conform to our expectation and confirm it and the new experiences that occur to us.” (Gadamer 2004: 347). Claude Romano picks up on the same distinction in his chapter on experience (Romano 2009: 143).

2 Also translated widely as “life-expressions.”

3 Here I follow closely the excellent commentary by Simon Calenge 2020.

4 In his commentary on Misch, Simon Calenge rightly compares this process, this chasing after signs, with the way one might read words in a dictionary that always point to other words, and so on, in a semiosis without end: “this race from sign to sign sees meaning reduced to the movement by which I am constantly redirected from one sign to another.” (Calenge 2020: 145).

5 With a normative agenda, Gadamer situates this mode of experience within the wider context of wisdom, which he associates with the Ancients (especially Eschylus): true experience, from past trials, teaches us the limitations of humankind when faced with the temptation of hubris. All authentic experience serves to make Man conscious of his finitude.

6 Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955): Australian actor, educator and therapist. After losing his voice on stage, Alexander invented the technique that now bears his name, teaching people to reappropriate their own body in order to make their gestures and postures more harmonious.

7 The principle of translation, though inevitably unfaithful, from one language to another also applies to understanding the encoding of one category of signs into another, as when we try to express physical pain in words. The distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive, or the somatic, does not therefore mean that it is impossible to cross boundaries of meaning.

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Electronic reference

Johann Michel, Meaning and ExperienceEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-1 | 2022, Online since 13 May 2022, connection on 23 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Johann Michel

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and University of Poitiers

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