Experience and Authenticity

In The Nation, a review of Martin Jay’s Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme.

[The] philosophical cult of experience arises from a sense that full engagement with existence has somehow been rendered problematic, whether by social, spiritual or economic arrangements or by the sheer perversity of the individual psyche. Authentic experience, from this view, seems always maddeningly just out of reach.

How could this assumption acquire such enduring force? How is it that “experience”–like its kin “reality” and “life”–could be split off from the self, rather than remaining the ground of being in which the self is embedded? How did something universal and inescapable become external to consciousness–an object of feverish speculation and hot pursuit among men and (far less often) women of ideas? Part of the answer must lie in the historical experience of the thinkers themselves–their awareness of the world outside their study windows. Martin Jay rarely glances at that world, though he can deftly dissect the shifting emphases in Kantian aesthetics or Deweyan ethics.

What we have in Jay’s Songs of Experience is a shining example of the history of ideas, an underrated genre of the historian’s art. An exceptionally learned, humane and prolific practitioner of his craft, Jay is among our most reliable guides through the key sites of twentieth-century social thought, from the labyrinths of Western Marxism to the thickets of French post-structuralism. Songs of Experience is a worthy addition to this oeuvre, though its history-of-ideas form sometimes seems ironically at odds with its content.