Tagged: experience


If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves! I would truly trust the one who did; for the others pilot us like a man who remains seated at his table, painting seas, reefs and harbours and, in absolute safety, pushing a model boat over them. – Montaigne 1595 (2003: 1225)

Michel de Montaigne’s (b. 28 February 1533) Essays (1595), a set of personal meditations notable for their earthiness, concern with common matters, and aphoristic style, stand in stark contrast to the formalism, and logical reasoning, of the Schoolmen that had been perfected over the course of three centuries. This contrast is no more apparent than in the concluding book of the Essays, in which Montaigne writes at length about experience as leading closer to the truth of things than scholastic reasoning alone. “Of Experience” opens with the declaration that “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge. We assay all the means that can lead us to it, when reason fails us we make use of experience.” Although, in comparison to logical rigor of scholasticism, experience is “a weaker and less dignified means,” the search for truth is “so great a matter that we must not disdain any method that leads to it” (Montaigne 2003: 1207). Experience is recommended as a means to knowledge because reason can fail and because, according to Montaigne, truth can be made accessible by several methods. Therefore, experience – which lacks dignity in comparison to scholastic reason – has a legitimate contribution to make to human knowledge. One indication of the failure of reason cited by Montaigne is the burgeoning number of commentaries on topics ranging from law and ancient philosophy to matters of divinity.

We have doubts on reading Ulpian: our doubts are increased by Bartolo and Baldus. The traces of that countless diversity of opinion should have been obliterated, not used as ornaments or stuffed into the heads of posterity. All I can say is that you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up. Aristotle wrote to be understood: if he could not manage it, still will a less able man (or a third party) manage to better than Aristotle. By steeping our material we macerate it and stretch it. […] Can anyone deny that glosses increase doubts and ignorance, when there can be found no book which men toil over in either divinity or the humanities whose difficulties have been exhausted by exegesis? The hundredth commentator dispatches it to his successor prickling with more difficulties than the first commentator of all had ever found in it. Do we ever agree among ourselves that ‘this book already has enough glosses: from now on there is no more to be said on it?’ That can be best seen from legal quibbling. We give force of law to an infinite number of legal authorities, an infinite number of decisions and just as many interpretations. Yet do we ever find an end to our need to interpret? (Montaigne 2003: 1210)

This embarrassment of riches of multiple and diverse interpretations and opinions on a multitude of topics fails to achieve what is sought after – certainty in knowledge – and, consequently, debilitates knowledge rather than enhancing it. Montaigne refers to a question posed by Socrates to Meno, “what is virtue?,” to illustrate this point. “‘There is,’ said Meno, ‘the virtue of a man, a woman, a statesman, a private citizen, a boy and an old man.’ That’s a good start,’ said Socrates. ‘We were looking for a single virtue and here is a swarm of them.’” (Montaigne 2003: 1213). If opinions are necessarily diverse, and if interpretation and commentary macerates the material to be understood, then the possibility of generalizable knowledge is put into question.

The inability of philosophical reasoning to arrive at certain statements of truth lies at the basis of Montaigne’s skepticism and his resulting turn to, and rehabilitation of, the idea of experience as a guide to living and acting within the world, as an additional method for the apprehension of truth. To be sure, Montaigne’s examples are drawn primarily from the areas of justice and morality, rather than the study of the empirical world. One could argue that judgments of right and wrong behavior and action are necessarily indeterminate,[1] whereas statements of fact about what is the case are not.[2] Nonetheless, Montaigne only lends credence to knowledge found in his own experience, and not to the lessons offered by the experiences of others: “there is enough, I find, in my own experience to make me wise.” Thus, he asserts

I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics. […] I, unconcerned and ignorant within this universe, allow myself to be governed by this world’s general law, which I shall know sufficiently when I feel it. […] Scientific investigations and inquiries serve merely to feed our curiosity. They have nothing to do with knowledge so sublime: the philosophers are very right to refer us to the laws of Nature, but they pervert them and present Nature’s face too sophistically, painted in colours which are far too exalted, from which arise so many diverse portraits of so uniform a subject. As Nature has furnished us with feet to walk with, so has she furnished us with wisdom to guide us in our lives. (Montaigne 2003: 1217, 1218)

Montaigne refers to a “Platonic paradox” to illustrate the inadequacy of philosophical reasoning: “those who know do not have to inquire since they know already: neither do those who do not know, since to find out you need to know what you are inquiring into” (Montaigne 2003: 1220).[3] Those who know have no need of philosophical reasoning for they already have knowledge; Those who don’t know have no use for philosophical reasoning, since they would already have to know that about which they would deploy such reasoning. The discussion in “Of Experience” of Montaigne’s bodily constitution, his physical debilities (in particular, kidney stones), his preferences with respect to food, wine, sleep, and the quality of his mattress, is an exemplary model of self-reflection that dispenses with, and shows the limits of, philosophical reasoning (i.e. scholasticism) in favor of the experiential and the bodily knowledge of human life.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays [1595]. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

[1] “Now laws remain respected not because they are just but because they are laws. That is the mystical basis of their authority. They have no other. It serves them well, too. Laws are often made by fools, and even more often by men who fail in equity because they hate equality: but always by men, vain authorities who can resolve nothing” (Montaigne 2003: 1216).

[2] “1 The world is all that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things. 1.2 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts. 1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5).

[3] The superiority of self-knowledge derived from experience extends into the scientific field. According to Montaigne, experience is the “proper dung-heap” of medicine. “Tiberius said that anyone who had lived for twenty years ought to be able to tell himself which things are harmful to his health and which are beneficial and to know how to proceed without medicine” (Montaigne 2003: 1225).