PHIL 230H.001 – Experience and Reality

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Instructor: L.A. Paul. The course meets TR 3:30 – 4:45 p.m. in CW 105.

Experience and Reality: the philosophical issues involving transformative experience.

The modern picture of decision-making assumes that each of us is responsible for who we are and who we want to become. Ideally, we realize our life’s goals by reflecting on our dreams, hopes and aspirations about what we want out of life and how best to accomplish our objectives. In particular, when we make life-changing decisions, such as deciding what career to pursue, who to marry, and whether to have a child, we proceed thoughtfully, deliberating by consulting reasons for action. This requires us to consult our points of view, to reflect on our feelings, desires and beliefs, and to determine what sort of life we want to lead. We may sometimes be frustrated in our plans and projects, but the cool, collected thinker manages each big decision as rationally as possible, evaluating her desires, experiences, and assessments of what is to come to determine her reasons for embarking on each life project.

This course explores work that challenges the modern idea (at least in wealthy western societies) that if you are authentic and responsible and thoughtful, you should take charge of your own destiny and map out your subjective future. The usual attitude is that one should pursue a form of self-realization which involves reflecting on who you really are and what you really want in order to plan your life’s path and determine the kind of person you want to become. But new work in philosophy suggests that this notion of how best to realize one’s future may be deeply confused, for it is impossible to predict what it will be like to have many of the central, determinative experiences of our lives (like having a child, or choosing a career, or trying a drug, or getting married). If so, we cannot rationally choose to have them or avoid them based on what we think they will be like. But even though we can’t predict what it will be like to have these experiences, we have them anyway—they are just part of what it is to live one’s life.

If this is the case, then the lesson to draw is that we need to reformulate the way we approach our lives, and stop thinking of our big decisions as involving somehow knowing or predicting what it is going to be like when we choose a particular path of self-realization. Living rationally and authentically does not mean that you map out your future by thinking carefully about what it would be like if you chose one path versus another path and then choosing on that basis. Living rationally and authentically means understanding that life centrally involves making leaps of faith, both small and large, and that the value of living is to a large extent the value of experiencing your life, whatever that experience is.

The course will explore the philosophical basis for this challenge to self-realization and its consequences and will examine related work in psychology and sociology.

L.A. Paul’s webpage