Chapter XX: Intellectual and Practical Studies - 1. The Opposition of Experience and True Knowledge

As livelihood and leisure are opposed, so are theory and practice, intelligence and execution, knowledge and activity. The latter set of oppositions doubtless springs from the same social conditions which produce the former conflict; but certain definite problems of education connected with them make it desirable to discuss explicitly the matter of the relationship and alleged separation of knowing and doing.

The notion that knowledge is derived from a higher source than is practical activity, and possesses a higher and more spiritual worth, has a long history. The history so far as conscious statement is concerned takes us back to the conceptions of experience and of reason formulated by Plato and Aristotle. Much as these thinkers differed in many respects, they agreed in identifying experience with purely practical concerns; and hence with material interests as to its purpose and with the body as to its organ. Knowledge, on the other hand, existed for its own sake free from practical reference, and found its source and organ in a purely immaterial mind; it had to do with spiritual or ideal interests. Again, experience always involved lack, need, desire; it was never self-sufficing. Rational knowing, on the other hand, was complete and comprehensive within itself. Hence the practical life was in a condition of perpetual flux, while intellectual knowledge concerned eternal truth.

This sharp antithesis is connected with the fact that Athenian philosophy began as a criticism of custom and tradition as standards of knowledge and conduct. In a search for something to replace them, it hit upon reason as the only adequate guide of belief and activity. Since custom and tradition were identified with experience, it followed at once that reason was superior to experience. Moreover, experience, not content with its proper position of subordination, was the great foe to the acknowledgment of the authority of reason. Since custom and traditionary beliefs held men in bondage, the struggle of reason for its legitimate supremacy could be won only by showing the inherently unstable and inadequate nature of experience.

The statement of Plato that philosophers should be kings may best be understood as a statement that rational intelligence and not habit, appetite, impulse, and emotion should regulate human affairs. The former secures unity, order, and law; the latter signify multiplicity and discord, irrational fluctuations from one estate to another.

The grounds for the identification of experience with the unsatisfactory condition of things, the state of affairs represented by rule of mere custom, are not far to seek. Increasing trade and travel, colonizations, migrations and wars, had broadened the intellectual horizon. The customs and beliefs of different communities were found to diverge sharply from one another. Civil disturbance had become a custom in Athens; the fortunes of the city seemed given over to strife of factions. The increase of leisure coinciding with the broadening of the horizon had brought into ken many new facts of nature and had stimulated curiosity and speculation. The situation tended to raise the question as to the existence of anything constant and universal in the realm of nature and society. Reason was the faculty by which the universal principle and essence is apprehended; while the senses were the organs of perceiving change,—the unstable and the diverse as against the permanent and uniform. The results of the work of the senses, preserved in memory and imagination, and applied in the skill given by habit, constituted experience.

Experience at its best is thus represented in the various handicrafts—the arts of peace and war. The cobbler, the flute player, the soldier, have undergone the discipline of experience to acquire the skill they have. This means that the bodily organs, particularly the senses, have had repeated contact with things and that the result of these contacts has been preserved and consolidated till ability in foresight and in practice had been secured. Such was the essential meaning of the term "empirical." It suggested a knowledge and an ability not based upon insight into principles, but expressing the result of a large number of separate trials. It expressed the idea now conveyed by "method of trial and error," with especial emphasis upon the more or less accidental character of the trials. So far as ability of control, of management, was concerned, it amounted to rule-of-thumb procedure, to routine. If new circumstances resembled the past, it might work well enough; in the degree in which they deviated, failure was likely. Even to-day to speak of a physician as an empiricist is to imply that he lacks scientific training, and that he is proceeding simply on the basis of what he happens to have got out of the chance medley of his past practice. Just because of the lack of science or reason in 'experience' it is hard to keep it at its poor best. The empiric easily degenerates into the quack. He does not know where his knowledge begins or leaves off, and so when he gets beyond routine conditions he begins to pretend—to make claims for which there is no justification, and to trust to luck and to ability to impose upon others—to 'bluff.' Moreover, he assumes that because he has learned one thing, he knows others—as the history of Athens showed that the common craftsmen thought they could manage household affairs, education, and politics, because they had learned to do the specific things of their trades. Experience is always hovering, then, on the edge of pretense, of sham, of seeming, and appearance, in distinction from the reality upon which reason lays hold.

The philosophers soon reached certain generalizations from this state of affairs. The senses are connected with the appetites, with wants and desires. They lay hold not on the reality of things but on the relation which things have to our pleasures and pains, to the satisfaction of wants and the welfare of the body. They are important only for the life of the body, which is but a fixed substratum for a higher life. Experience thus has a definitely material character; it has to do with physical things in relation to the body. In contrast, reason, or science, lays hold of the immaterial, the ideal, the spiritual. There is something morally dangerous about experience, as such words as sensual, carnal, material, worldly, interests suggest; while pure reason and spirit connote something morally praiseworthy. Moreover, ineradicable connection with the changing, the inexplicably shifting, and with the manifold, the diverse, clings to experience. Its material is inherently variable and untrustworthy. It is anarchic, because unstable. The man who trusts to experience does not know what he depends upon, since it changes from person to person, from day to day, to say nothing of from country to country. Its connection with the 'many,' with various particulars, has the same effect, and also carries conflict in its train.

Only the single, the uniform, assures coherence and harmony. Out of experience come warrings, the conflict of opinions and acts within the individual and between individuals. From experience no standard of belief can issue, because it is the very nature of experience to instigate all kinds of contrary beliefs, as varieties of local custom proved. Its logical outcome is that anything is good and true to the particular individual which his experience leads him to believe true and good at a particular time and place.

Finally practice falls of necessity within experience. Doing proceeds from needs and aims at change. To produce or to make is to alter something; to consume is to alter. All the obnoxious characters of change and diversity thus attach themselves to doing while knowing is as permanent as its object. To know, to grasp a thing intellectually or theoretically, is to be out of the region of vicissitude, chance, and diversity. Truth has no lack; it is untouched by the perturbations of the world of sense. It deals with the eternal and the universal. And the world of experience can be brought under control, can be steadied and ordered, only through subjection to its law of reason.

It would not do, of course, to say that all these distinctions persisted in full technical definiteness. But they all of them profoundly influenced men's subsequent thinking and their ideas about education. The contempt for physical as compared with mathematical and logical science, for the senses and sense observation; the feeling that knowledge is high and worthy in the degree in which it deals with ideal symbols instead of with the concrete; the scorn of particulars except as they are deductively brought under a universal; the disregard for the body; the depreciation of arts and crafts as intellectual instrumentalities, all sought shelter and found sanction under this estimate of the respective values of experience and reason—or, what came to the same thing, of the practical and the intellectual. Medieval philosophy continued and reënforced the tradition. To know reality meant to be in relation to the supreme reality, or God, and to enjoy the eternal bliss of that relation. Contemplation of supreme reality was the ultimate end of man to which action is subordinate. Experience had to do with mundane, profane, and secular affairs, practically necessary indeed, but of little import in comparison with supernatural objects of knowledge. When we add to this motive the force derived from the literary character of the Roman education and the Greek philosophic tradition, and conjoin to them the preference for studies which obviously demarcated the aristocratic class from the lower classes, we can readily understand the tremendous power exercised by the persistent preference of the 'intellectual' over the 'practical' not simply in educational philosophies but in the higher schools.