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The Turn to Experience in Contemporary Theology

David S. Koonce, L.C., S.T.D.

Required course in dogmatic theology, Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum
Academic Year 2013-2014, second semester

The Fragmentation of Experience:
From Antiquity to the Modernist Crisis

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1. The notion of experience in Ancient Greek culture and philosophy.

There is scarcely a term in philosophy or theology that does not feel the influence of
Ancient Greece, and the word experience is no exception. For the ancient Greeks, the
notion of experience was defined by a cluster of terms, both nouns and verbs, built upon the
root -, such as the verbs and , as well as the nouns ,
, and especially .
Among poets and writers, from Aeschylus onward, the noun is used to mean a
trial, experiment, attempt. The phrase , equivalent to attempt
something, or to make trial of a thing or a person, is a common one in secular authors, such
as Xenophon, Plato, Josephus, Aelian, and Polybius. The corresponding verb was
common in Greek writings from Homer onward, in the sense of to try, to make a trial, to
attempt, to assay. In post-Homeric usage, often appears with the accusative of a
person, with the meaning of to test, to make trial of someone, to put someone to the proof, in
order to know someones mind, sentiments, and temper.

Among the philosophers, the language of experience began to revolve around various
notions associated with the [henceforth transliterated as empeira]. In the dialogues
of Plato, the word empeira is used disapprovingly to designate practices which he denies to
be skills or crafts because they lack a theory; hence, in the Gorgias (463b), Socrates attacks
rhetoric as practice based on experience, rather than a skill (ouk estin techn all'empeira kai

One of the most complete yet concise surveys of lexigraphical usage of both secular and Biblical
authors, which was of indispensable value in researching this section is the old but still reliable
volume of J.H. THAYER, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Harvard University,
Cambridge 1889
See, for instance, cf. PLUTARCH, Brutus, 10 in cf. B. PERRIN, Plutarch's Lives, VI., Loeb
Classical Library 98, Macmillan, New York 1914-1926.
Lecture 2. The notion of experience: From the Ancient Greeks to Augustine


trib), while in the Laws, (857c), it is used of those physicians who practice medicine relying
on experience instead of a rational basis (iatros ton tais empeiras aneu logou ten iatriken
Despite Platos scorn, in the field of medicine some physicians readily
accepted the name empeirikoi in opposition to the dogmatic and methodical schools of
medicine; hence Sextus Empiricus was a skeptic in philosophy and an empiricist in

Aristotles use of empeira does not correspond exactly with modern senses of the term
experience. In Aristotles thought, it is possible to distinguish the process by which
empeira is formed and the product which results. Aristotle locates the formation of empeira
in the imagination (phantasa), which lies between sensations and perceptions, on the one
hand, and intellectual thought, on the other. Experience is one step removed from perception,
for just as many sensations make up a perception, many perceptions constitute empeira.
Experience, therefore, is a product of time, resulting from many perceptions, yet it is more
than simply the sum of repetitions; it implies the acquisition of a new mental habit that comes
about from a privileged and frequent association with some special order of facts.

It is 'through' experience, according to Aristotle, that humans acquire art (techne) and
science (episteme). Accumulating experience is largely a matter of holding in habit
what one has done and holding in recall what one has observed and heard others report.
What constitutes science, on the other hand, is a grasp of the systematic structure
(katholou, according to the whole) which it is possible to discern in experience, the
structure which makes it possible to explain why things are the way they are.

Concerning the product that is formed, Kenneth L. Schmitz identifies three clusters of
meaning of the word empeira in Aristotle: the sapiential, the evidential, and the probative.

The first cluster of meanings, the sapiential, has an intimate connection with the process
of forming empeira, in which a kind of thinking is already distilled which is first of all
practical, tending towards the practice of some skill or a directive for action. For Aristotle, as
for Plato, empeira is characterized by the absence of a reasoned grasp of the principles and
causes of why a thing is one way and not another. For this reason, Aristotle says that those
who are experienced (mpeiroi) know only the simple fact (t ot) but not the reason for it.

Nevertheless, Aristotle attributes to persons of experience a sureness of judging and acting in
the practical order by virtue of some skill or practical wisdom.
Hence, in ethics, one should
attend to the unproved sayings and beliefs of the experienced and the wise, for through their

cf. J.O. URMSON, The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary, Duckworth, London 1990, 52.For a
further discussion of Platos treatment of empeiria in the Gorgias, see: C. JANAWAY, Arts and Crafts
in Plato and Collingwood, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 50/1 (Winter, 1992), 47-48.
cf. J.O. URMSON, The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary, 52.
cf. K.L. SCHMITZ, St. Thomas and the Appeal to Experience, CTSA Proceedings 47 (1992), 2-
3. Although the focus of Schmitzs paper is experience in St. Thomas, as the title suggests, he
nevertheless offers valuable insights into Aristotles use of empeira. As Schmitz himself states,
When treating philosophical terms in Thomas, it is well to begin by checking in Ibid., 2.
J.E. TILES, Experiment as Intervention, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44/3
(Sep., 1993), 464, cf. ARISTOTLE, Metaphysics, 981b 6.
cf. K.L. SCHMITZ, St. Thomas and the Appeal to Experience, 4.
cf. ARISTOTLE, Metaphysics, 981a.
cf. K.L. SCHMITZ, St. Thomas and the Appeal to Experience, 3.
Lecture 2. The notion of experience: From the Ancient Greeks to Augustine


experience, they have an eye and see correctly.
Furthermore, Aristotle leaves no doubt that
in practical affairs experience without reasoned grounds is superior to the bare thought of
rational principles empty of the experience required to apply them appropriately.
is thus a kind of know how, and for that reason Aristotle does not hesitate to associate it
with wisdom (sopha) and prudence (phronsis).
The sapiential sense of empeira covers a
range of activities, including technical expertise, political shrewdness, ethical discernment,
and the general wisdom acquired from the lessons of life.

Whereas Plato scorns empeira for lacking a grasp of the reason why things are so,
Aristotle sees in this very same imperfection a guarantee of the integrity of empeira as a
source of evidence. Precisely because empeira is a stage in the process leading towards
conceptualization and properly intellectual activity, it is the starting point for more general
understanding, furnishing the evidence from which intelligence draws its concepts and frames
its judgments. Unlike the moderns, Aristotle does not contrast experience with thought; for
him, thought is the completed experience of objects, but since experience does not grasp its
own unity, remaining within the confines of production, practice, and science, experience
remains simply a source, or material element for a fixed body of knowledge that surpasses
This, then is the foundation for the evidential sense of empeira.
The third sense of empeira in Aristotle is the probative sense, and it is derived from
association of empeira with the verb peiro, meaning to pierce through.
To experience in
this sense, then, is to make proof or trial of someone or something by a probe that

Thus, to summarize, in Ancient Greek culture and philosophy, the notion of experience
was primarily associated with knowledge acquired by trial and testing. Plato held such
knowledge in low esteem, even in practical affairs, because it merely obtained results without
attaining the reason for achieving such results. Aristotle held a more favorable view of
experience as an initial stage in the process of knowledge. In all cases, experience is a chiefly
cognitive category, usually pertaining to practical affairs, or to practical wisdom concerning
persons or things acquired through trial and testing. Thus peira and empeira are antecedents
of the modern notion of the objective experiment, rather than the subjective experience. Thus,
the semantic usage of these two Greek words is narrower than the modern notion of
experience; consequently, for a more complete vision of ancient notions of what is now
referred to as experience, further research should be done on other semantic fields.
2. The witness of experience in Sacred Scripture
The witness of experience in Sacred Scripture can be seen from two points of view, one
semantic and the other conceptual. Both can prove fruitful; furthermore, precisely because of

cf. J.O. URMSON, The Greek Philosophical Vocabulary, 52. cf. ARISTOTLE, Nicomachean
Ethics, 1143b 11.
K.L. SCHMITZ, St. Thomas and the Appeal to Experience, 3-4.
cf. Ibid., 3.
cf. K.L. SCHMITZ, St. Thomas and the Appeal to Experience, 3.
cf. K. LEHMANN, Experience, 307.
cf. K.L. SCHMITZ, St. Thomas and the Appeal to Experience, 4.
Ibid., 4.
Lecture 2. The notion of experience: From the Ancient Greeks to Augustine


the limited meanings of and related words, the semantics of experience should be
supplemented by a conceptual or thematic study.
As in secular Greek usage, the noun is used to mean a trial, experiment, attempt,
though the derivative verb form is found far more frequently in the Bible, meaning
to try whether a thing can be done, to attempt, or to endeavor, as when Saul attempted to join
the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26). More commonly is used as to try, to make
trial of, to test someone, usually for the purpose of ascertaining his quality, or what he thinks,
or how he will behave. Such testing can be done for good intentions, as Jesus tests Philip in
John 6:6, though more frequently it is done for malicious intentions (cf Mt 16:1; 19:3;
22:18,35; Mk 8:11; 10:2; 12:15; Lk 11:16; 20:23; Jn 8:6). Sometimes, the testing of
someones faith, virtue or character comes by way of the enticement to sin; thus, in some
contexts is the equivalent of to solicit to sin, to tempt, such as in the temptations of
Jesus in the desert (Mt 4:1,3; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2) as well as in other passages (cf Jas 1:13; Gal
6:1; Rv 2:10; 1 Cor 7:5; 1 Thes 3:5); for this reason, the devil is often referred to as
, the tempter (Mt 4:3; 1 Thes 3:5).
Picking up on an Old Testament theme, such as the testing of Abraham (Gn 22:1), of the
people of Israel (Ex 20:20, Dt 8:2, Wis 11:10; Jdt 8:25), and of the just (Wis 3:5),
is used in the New Testament of God permitting trials to befall someone in order to prove the
steadfastness of his faith or of his character; thus, the author of Hebrews recognizes that
because Jesus was himself tested, he is able to help those who are being tested (cf. Heb 2:18)
and is able to sympathize with human weakness (cf. Heb 4:15); likewise, Paul exhorts the
Corinthians to bear with trials, for God will not allow them to be tested beyond their strength
(cf 1 Cor 10:13), and in Revelation, Jesus promises the angel of the church of Philadelphia to
keep him safe in the coming time of trial (cf. Rv 3:10).
Men, on the other hand, put God to the test ( ) when they exhibit
distrust, when by wicked or impious behavior they test Gods patience and justice, or when
they challenge him to give proof of his perfections, as the people of Israel in the desert (cf. Ex
17:2,7; Nm 14:22; Ps 78(77):41, 56; Ps 105(106):14, etc). In the New Testament, the
stubbornness of Israel is seen as an example of behavior to be avoided (cf. Heb 3:9; 1 Cor
10:9); Peter reproaches Sapphira for testing the Spirit of the Lord (cf. Acts 5:9), and he
accuses the Judaizers of putting God to the test by requiring the Gentile converts to observe
the Law (cf. Acts 15:10).
Corresponding to the verb is the substantive , rendered by the
Vulgate as tentatio, and which can mean an experiment, attempt, trial, proving. The range of
meanings is similar to that of , and referring especially to the trial of mans fidelity,
integrity, virtue, constancy, , as in 1 Pt 4:12, or in the sense of a temptation as an enticement
to sin, arising from either external circumstances (as in Lk 8:13, 1 Cor 10:13, and Jas 1:12),
from internal impulses (cf. 1 Tm 6:9), of from the promptings of the devil (cf. Lk 4:13). It too
can refer to a trial sent or allowed by God for the purpose of proving ones faith, character or
holiness, as well as to a trial of God by men, amounting to a rebellion against God. The noun
empeira, experience, does not appear in either the Septuagint or the Greek New Testament.
Lecture 2. The notion of experience: From the Ancient Greeks to Augustine


In the theological vision of the Bible, the semantic field represented by and its
derivatives has a positive connotation only when the subject of the verb is God, who puts
man to the test, but is predominantly negative when man tries to put God to the test, to make
God an object of experimentation.
In a striking parallel to Platos critique of empeira as
lacking reason, logos, the biblical authors share a common reproach of peira and its
derivatives as a rebellious human attitude against faith. Emblematic of the contrast between
faith and rebellious human efforts is the passage of Hebrews 11:29: By faith they crossed
the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted it () they were
Does this mean that the Bible takes a negative approach to experience, and therefore,
that the theme of experience and theology is a non-starter? The answer is negative, for the
current notion of experience is broader than that of mere experimentation. Experience, in the
sense of an immediate contact with reality, includes a range of psychosomatic functions that
find ample resonance in the Bible: tasting, smelling, touching, seeing and hearing,
remembering, as well as the full range of human emotions, desires, and actions. All of these
bear upon the theme of experience.

Sacred Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, not only witnesses to lived
experience, but appeals to the authority of such experiences. Without pretending to offer an
exhaustive treatment of the theme in the manner of a biblical theology, a few illustrations will
suffice to indicate the presence and importance of the theme. In the book of Deuteronomy,
Moses addresses men and women who have experienced Gods works, or are the sons and
daughters of those who experienced his works, and he appeals to them to remain faithful to
the covenant. Numerous psalms, such as Psalm 73, witness to insights from experience. The
prophets, too, read the present experience of the people according to the patterns of past
experience understood with the light of faith. All of these experiences lead Israel to profess
its faith in God, whose qualities are known from their experiences of him (see, for instance,
Psalm 145).
In the New Testament, Jesus appeals to experience, calling attention to the works he
performs as signs whose meaning should be understood as revealing his mystery. Paul, too,
appeals to experience, reminding the Galatians of the shape of their experience when they
received the Spirit (cf. Gal 3:2), while to the Philippians he witnesses to his own experience
of the transforming power of Christs resurrection (cf. Phil 3:7-12). The author of the Letter
to the Hebrews encourages his audience to recall their first experience and renew their fervor
(cf. Heb 10:32-39).

3. The influence of Augustine
A synthetic historical reconstruction like this one must necessarily rely not only upon the
analysis of specialists, but also upon other, more extensive works of synthesis. If such prior

cf. K. HART, The Experience of the Kingdom of God, in K. HART - B. WALL (eds.), The
Experience of God: A Postmodern Response, Fordham University Press, New York 2005, 76.
L.T. JOHNSON, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New
Testament Studies, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1998, 4-5.
For a similar treatment of the witness to experience in Sacred Scripture, see W.A. VAN ROO,
Basics of a Roman Catholic Theology, 227-228.
Lecture 2. The notion of experience: From the Ancient Greeks to Augustine


work is lacking, only extensive analytical research can supply it. Thus it is that the theme of
experience in the theology of the early Church Fathers is either not yet fully explored or
awaits an initial synthesis. In either case, there is a gap that must be recognized but cannot
now be supplied. So it is that, following Geybels, the course of this inquiry must turn to the
start of the Middle Ages, and the first great theologian to be examined is Augustine.
Augustine, like a colossus, straddles the divide between Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Furthermore, he is the foremost representative of an extensive tradition in Latin Christianity
emphasizing the intellectual component of religious experience. For Augustine, the concept
of religious experience is connected with the search for the good and the beautiful, but it is
especially connected to the search for the truth, which is ultimately revealed in Christ. His
life and his work are driven by a restless search for truth. In the late Roman context of
Augustine, though, the search for truth was more than an academic enterprise; it involved a
way of life, and the conviction that the truth, once found, had practical, existential

It is difficult to extract from Augustines work a clear, explicit and thematic treatment of
religious experience. Rather, his notion of religious experience remains implicit, subtly
present just beneath the surface of his mystagogical catecheses and especially of his
Confessions. What, then, can be said about Augustines interpretation of religious
experience? As Augustine matures in his faith, a pattern emerges in which the human
experiences of dependency, mortality and sin become the occasion for a religious experience,
interpreted within the framework of orthodox Christianity: Scripture and the authorities of
Tradition clarify the meaning of common human experience. As a kind of corollary to this
basic premise, for Augustine, religious experience is a means for acquiring knowledge of
God, but it does not in itself contain knowledge of God; it is a way, not a destination.

The way of religious experience also implies a journey of self-knowledge in which the
privileged vehicle for self-transcendence consists in reflective reading.
Augustine took a journey of self-discovery, but in contrast to other ancient authors it
was one in which the figure of the philosopher was complemented by that of the
reflective reader. In the Confessions this contemplative figure engages in the reading of
books and the rereading of a life narrative by means of memory. The lessons of
philosophy are learned through reading; they are then applied to the reform of, as some
would prefer, the rewriting, of a personal life.

Augustine marks a turning point in culture from oral debate to reflective reading.
According to Brian Stock, Augustine lays the theoretical foundation for a reading culture, in

cf. H. GEYBELS, Cognitio Dei Experimentalis, 437-438. For a collection of essays and articles
representing a cross-section of research on culture, society and religion at the time of St. Augustine,
see: cf. P. BROWN (ed.), Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine, Faber and Faber, London
cf. H. GEYBELS, Cognitio Dei Experimentalis, 437-438.
B. STOCK, After Augustine: The Meditative Reader and the Text, University of Pennsylvania
Press, Philadelphia 2001, 3.
Lecture 2. The notion of experience: From the Ancient Greeks to Augustine


which every act of reading can occasion a critical step in the mental itinerary from the outside
world to the inside world, and then upward towards God.

Precisely because Augustine is driven by the search for truth, and in doing so pays great
attention to the cognitive processes, his notion of religious experience is predominantly
intellectual rather than emotional, and is therefore closely tied to his theory of knowledge.

In particular, Augustine accounts for knowing by positing a theory of divine illumination, in
which man is in direct relationship with God.
The climax of religious experience is to
discover the analogy between the Trinity and the human mind, which Augustine conceives to
be in accordance with the Trinity.
In this way, Augustines approach to experience is
markedly different both from that of Aristotle and from modern tendencies to identify
experience, and particularly religious experience, with the sentiments. Augustine thus
bequeaths a legacy for later generations that will be developed in its own way by the
monastic meditation of Sacred Scripture, the heart and soul of monastic theology.

cf. B. STOCK, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of
Interpretation, The Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA 1996, 1.
For more on the Augustines theory of knowledge, see: J. MORN, La teora del conocimiento en
San Agustn: enchiridion sistemtico de su doctrina, Archivo Agustiniano, Valladolid 1961. E.
BOOTH, Saint Augustine and the Western Tradition of Self-Knowing, The Saint Augustine Lecture
1986, Villanova University Press, Villanova 1989. cf. R. NASH, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine's
Theory of Knowledge, The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, KY 1969.
For a full treatment of Augustines theory of illumination, and especially of Augustines notion
of the inner man, see B. BUBACZ, St. Augustine's Theory of Knowledge: A Contemporary Analysis,
Texts and Studies in Religion 11, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York 1981.
cf. H. GEYBELS, Cognitio Dei Experimentalis, 438-439.