Are Relevant Experiences Required for Understanding?

Sometimes I hear a conversation partner say, “I would like to discuss my relationship with my children. Do you have any children?” The implication is that having children of my own is a necessary condition for being able to adequately discuss his relationship with his children.

The argument is so common today that it can be generalized and is most aptly cast in the form of the negative: if so and so hasn’t had relevant experiences of X, then so and so isn’t capable of understanding me. That is a troubling argument to make, and in what follows I mean to show why.

We don’t expect brain surgeons to have had brain tumors in order to trust them to operate on us. In fact, we prefer the opposite. Nor do women necessarily expect male obstetricians to have relevant female experiences in order to trust them to adequately treat them.

But, it may be replied, relevant experiences don’t serve as necessary conditions in cases of how our bodies are to be treated but rather in how we, as persons, are to be understood. All right, then let’s investigate this better scoped argument.

Are we, I might begin, going to say that Mary Shelley didn’t have the capacity to write well about her male protagonist Victor Frankenstein in virtue of her not being a man? Some too have said that James Joyce, in the Penelope episode of Ulysses, captured remarkably well the first-person stream of consciousness of a woman. Is this too to be cast into doubt? And what do we make of W.E.B. Dubois’s claim that African American men may know white men better than they know themselves in virtue of what Dubois calls “double consciousness?” Indeed, might someone who has never experienced what we have somehow have attained to a perspective where he or she is more clear-eyed and impartial than we are? That strikes me as possible, indeed in some cases as plausible.

Plainly, human beings are severely limited in the range of experiences any of us have had or can have, and it seems abundantly clear that we are in great peril of foreclosing being able to understand one another should we set up experiential criteria as a barrier for entry. Once we do the latter, then no white man can possibly understand an African American man; no straight person a transgender individual; no Christian a Muslim; and so on. Effectively, such experiential criteria negate the possibility of our getting to know “the stranger,” leaving each of us “siloed” off in our own experience or in those of the relevant group. No interfaith dialogue, no inter-identity conversation is possible.

Above, I hinted at a danger and now it makes its presence felt as identity politics. If you haven’t had certain relevant experiences and if you haven’t had them because you don’t belong to a certain social group to which I belong, then you can’t possibly understand me or mine (or us).

This rather distrustful stance toward the world can be refused by making three moves. One is to point to the rather remarkable powers of the imagination. We have the capacity (one that surely needs to be cultivated) of imagining what it’s like to be an insect or, like Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, to be transformed into one, a strange and perspicacious girl like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, a woman going through a divorce, a man about to have surgery, an elderly person in chronic man or a young person with MS, and so on. Another is to question whether we should cordon off our lives by calling some experience or other special, so special that it refuses comprehensibility. A third is to say that the proof is in the pudding. That is, we need to give each other a shot at understanding one another. Rather than being worried about whether someone has or does not have children, try seeing whether the other person is capable of listening closely, imagining widely, and replying soundly.

It may be that the person who has not experienced what we have can, in virtue of his or her disposition as well as learned capacities, reveal aspects of the world to us with which we were unfamiliar and on account of which we have come to be deeply grateful.