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In French, the word ‘expérience’ expresses both the English meaning of the term in the widest sense, but also has the more narrow meaning of ‘experiment’, as in a scientific experiment. The concept has long been central to empiricism and phenomenology, two modes of philosophy that served as sites of critical engagement in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

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One way to consider the distinction between rationalism and empiricism, the two dominant forms of modern philosophy through to Kant’s critical turn, is to examine the role that experience plays in each framework. For the rationalist, whether Cartesian, Spinozist, or Leibnizian, the data of lived experience are to be held in abeyance in favour of an examination of the conceptual elements of thought itself. In other words, the immediacy of the lived - what Spinoza called the domain of vaga experientia - is precisely what must be doubted and ultimately transcended in the development of rational thought. By contrast, for empiricists like Locke and Hume, there are no ‘innate ideas’ in the mind to be discovered whose position would be, as it were, anterior or exceptional to experience, which remains the exclusive ground of knowledge. With Kant, the empiricist/rationalist dichotomy over the nature of experience is superseded in a new emphasis on the ‘conditions of possibility’ of experience itself. Rather than ask simply ‘what is an object?’, Kant asks ‘how is an experience of an “object” possible?’ In the first half of the twentieth century, the category of experience emerges as a central category for phenomenology, arguably the dominant mode of philosophical thought in continental Europe. As Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi explain,

On the phenomenological view, a minimal form of self-consciousness is a constant structural feature of conscious experience. Experience happens for the experiencing subject in an immediate way and as part of this immediacy, it is implicitly marked as my experience. For the phenomenologists, this immediate and first-personal givenness of experiential phenomena must be accounted for in terms of a pre-reflective self-consciousness. In the most basic sense of the term, self-consciousness is not something that comes about the moment one attentively inspects or reflectively introspects one’s experiences, or in the instant of self-recognition of one’s image in the mirror, or in the proper use of the first-person pronoun, or in the construction of a self-narrative. Rather, these different kinds of self-consciousness are to be distinguished from the pre-reflective self-consciousness which is present whenever I am living through or undergoing an experience, i.e., whenever I am consciously perceiving the world, whenever I am thinking an occurrent thought, whenever I am feeling sad or happy, thirsty or in pain, and so forth.1

For phenomenology, then, experience is absolutely primary, but unlike the case with empiricism, the elements of experience are not to be taken at face value. Rather, the philosophical task is to investigate something like the experience of experience itself. Various concepts for this experiential structure or ground will be developed throughout the twentieth century - from Heideggerian ek-stasis to the auto-affective Life proffered by Michel Henry - yet in all instances, the integrity of conceptual thought is bracketed in favour of an investigation of what makes concepts possible in the first place.

The phenomenological emphasis on experience had an impact on French epistemology, above all in the works of Gaston Bachelard and Jean Cavaillès (and later Jean-Toussaint Desanti). But whereas many French and German thinkers engaged the phenomenological tradition in an effort to sap rational thought of its capacity to supervene on a more primordial experience, Bachelard and Cavaillès made use of the methods of phenomenology only insofar as they allowed for a fuller appreciation of the unique qualities of a rational thought that, precisely, departs from experience (rather than being reducible to it).

The resonance of the term expérience in French - with its connotations both of experience and experiment - accounts for the specificities of the engagement with phenomenology in French philosophy of science. Indebted to this tradition, the Cahiers pour l’Analyse sought to develop an account of subjectivity that was hostile both to the reduction of subjectivity to ‘lived experience’ in the phenomenological enterprise and the ideological affirmation of the immediate data of lived experience dominant in empiricist social sciences and their philosophical correlate, logical positivism. Where both empiricism and phenomenology affirm the unity of experience (whether it be in the immediacy of the sensual world, or the pre-reflective unity of self-consciousness), the project of the Cahiers accepts the fundamental Lacanian injunction that the subject is irrevocably split. To put it in Lacan’s and Althusser’s terms, the task of analysis or philosophy is to take leave of the experience found in the synthetic unity of the imaginary (the domain of Althusser’s ‘ideology’) in order to explore the differential relation between the symbolic and the real.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

The key article concerned with the problematic of experience, its aporias as a concept and its implications for philosophy, is Alain Grosrichard’s ‘Une Expérience psychologique au dix-huitième siècle’ (CpA 2.3). Here Grosrichard undertakes an investigation of the history of ‘Molyneux’s Problem’ as a means to introduce the proposal of Jean-Bernard Mérian to resolve it (CpA 2.4). ‘Molyneux’s Problem’ was a thought-experiment that asked whether or not a person blind from birth would be able to correlate the experience of touch, in this case that of a cube and square, to the two objects seen in the event that the blind person were miraculously bestowed with sight. This problem entered the philosophical canon in Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding (1694). Grosrichard’s main concern is the way the category of ’experience’ itself evolves in empiricist philosophy in a quest to serve as a veridical ground, and how this evolution links the Enlightenment to the twentieth-century discipline of experimental psychology. And yet, what Grosrichard shows, chiefly with reference to the efforts of the Enlightenment materialists Condillac and Diderot is that the history of this ‘experiment’ ultimately serves as the primary evidence that experience itself can never extinguish the essential aporia or ‘blind spot’ that makes experience possible in the first place. What is manifested in this quest is above all the desire of the philosopher to secure the truth content of his experience on a ground that remains constitutively elusive, and the consequent loss that is suffered (or felt) when the experimental sciences take over the tasks that philosophy had traditionally arrogated for itself.

In his assessment of Fichte’s theory of natural right in Volume 6, Jacques Bouveresse argues that the radicalization of Kant’s practical reason found in Fichte’s example results in ‘the ruin of the prerogative of experience as a practical matter’ (CpA 6.7:109). The result is an emphasis on the primacy of the concept that, in Bouveresse’s view, has nefarious consequences for a theory or practice of politics grounded in Fichte’s example.

Michel Foucault, in his ‘Réponse au Cercle d’Épistémologie’, warns against what he calls the ‘formalising illusion’ [illusion formalisatrice2], which imagines that ‘concepts and valid propositions are nothing more than the formalisation of a raw experience [mise en forme d’une expérience sauvage; …] The formalising illusion elides knowledge (the theoretical network and the enunciate redistribution) as the place and law of the formation of concepts and propositions’ (CpA 9.2:38; trans. 330).

There is an illusion that consists of the supposition that science is grounded in the plenitude of a concrete and lived experience; that geometry elaborates a perceived space, that biology gives form to the intimate experience of life, or that political economy translates the processes of industrialisation at the level of theoretical discourse; therefore, that the referent itself contains the law of the scientific object. But it is equally illusory to imagine that science is established by an act of rupture and decision, that it frees itself at one stroke from the qualitative field and from all the murmuring of the imaginary by the violence (serene or polemical) of a reason that founds itself by its own assertions - that is, that the scientific object brings itself into existence of itself in its own identity (CpA 9.2:38; trans. 331).

But even as, in this instance, Foucault sides with the editors of the Cahiers in his disparagement of the category of experience, he also cautions against the notion that the scientific object might be extracted from its domain and regarded in its self-identity, a position to be critically juxtaposed with that developed by Alain Badiou in his article ‘Marque et manque/à propos du zéro’ in the next issue (CpA 10.8).

The ‘Chemistry Dossier’, included in Volume 9, the same issue with Foucault’s exchange with the Cercle d’Épistémologie, includes several key texts from the history of this science. In his ‘Discourse préliminaire au Traité élémentaire de chimie’, Antoine Lavoisier likens the experimental practices of chemists working with various compounds to a child who learns abstraction through experience, e.g., the child encounters the first tree it learns is a tree as the only tree, until it learns, through experience, that the same concept applies to numerous entities (CpA 9.12:174). Though the texts of this dossier address the experimental history of a science, the emphasis remains on the primacy of the rational concept, and its anticipatory and conditional role for experiential data (cf. Mendeleev and Bachelard’s accompanying text; (CpA 9.14; CpA 9.15)).

Select bibliography

  • Bachelard, Gaston. La Philosophie du non: Essai d’une philosophie du nouvel esprit scientifique. Paris: Corti, 1940. The Philosophy of No: A Philosophy of the New Scientific Mind , trans. G.C. Waterston. New York: Orion, 1968.
  • Descartes, René. Oeuvres de Descartes, eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. Paris: J. Vrin, 1904. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, eds. and trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Foucault, Michel. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1982.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘On the Archaeology of the Sciences’. In Foucault, Essential Works II: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. New York: New Press, 1998. 297-333.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (1927), trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper Row, 1962.
  • Henry, Michel. L’Essence de la manifestation. Paris: PUF, 1963.
  • Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations (1931), trans. Dorian Cairns. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977.
  • Jay, Martin. Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1694), ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.


1. Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, ‘Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

2. Robert Hurley renders this phrase as ‘formalist illusion’ in his translation of Foucault’s essay (Foucault, ‘On the Archaeology of the Sciences’, Essential Works II, 330).