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Should Experience or Thought be Our

Touchstone for the Ultimate Nature of Reality?

THOUGHT: an idea (esp. a philosophy or system of ideas) or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind

TOUCHSTONE: a standard or criterion by which something is judged or recognized

We all start from “naive realism,” i.e., the doctrine that things are what they seem. We think that grass is green, that stones are hard, and that snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow, are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.

Bertrand Russell (from An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1950)

I was nineteen at the time. I was just returning from a glorious day among the mountains. The rope had been discarded and we were smoking a quiet pipe on a little pass a few thousand feet above the valley plunged in the rich gloom of an Alpine twilight. The evening breeze served as a soft pedal to the music of a glacier stream which faded into piano when the wind rose. Sixty miles away the white bar of the Oberland snows saluted the setting sun. The golden glow of evening subdued the strong lines of the mountains, and confused the issue of separate and successive slopes. A white speck that was Chillon showed against the purple of the lake. The whole vast shadowed landscape seemed to be haunted by an all-pervading sense of something of which visible beauty was only the sacramental expression. I thought of Haeckel’s dusty nonsense and laughed aloud. And from that moment I discarded materialism forever.

Arnold Lunn

The theist, like the moralist, may believe that his experiences are cognitive experiences, but, unless he can formulate his “knowledge” in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure that he is deceiving himself. It follows that those philosophers who fill their books with assertions that they intuitively “know” this or that moral or religious “truth” are merely providing material for the psycho-analyst. For no act of intuition can be said to reveal a truth about any matter of fact unless it issues in verifiable propositions. And all such propositions are to be incorporated in the system of empirical propositions which constitutes science.

A. J. Ayer (from Language Truth and Logic, 1936)

With our moral convictions, as with our belief in logic, or in the reality of the external world, few of us arrive at our actual conclusions by a rational process. It is not that we discover what the correct rules of inference are and then apply them, and come up with our conclusions. On the contrary, in logic and morals at least we derive our notion of what the correct rules of inference are from our convictions about what is the case. This means that we can no more prove that our moral convictions are valid than we can prove that the rules of logic are valid, just as we cannot prove that there is a reality external to ourselves.

Bryan Magee (from Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997)

Oxford philosophers of all sorts seemed to take it for granted that we think in words. So it seemed to them self-evident that the most solidly based way of addressing a philosophical problem was first of all to get it clearly formulated in language and then to set about analysing the formulation. The result was that what they were addressing was never direct experience but always a linguistic formulation.

Bryan Magee (from Confessions of a Philosopher, 1997)

It seems to me a mistake to think that our experience in general can be communicated by precise and literal language and that there is a special class of experiences (say, emotions) which cannot. The truth seems to me the opposite: there is a special region of experiences which can be communicated without Poetic language, namely, its ‘common measurable features,’ but most experience cannot. To be incommunicable by Scientific language is, so far as I can judge, the normal state of experience. All our sensuous experience is in this condition, though this is somewhat veiled from us by the fact that much of it is very common and therefore everyone will understand our references to it at a hint.

C. S. Lewis

[Bertrand] Russell had always, from the beginning, had a tendency to say and do idiotic things when it came to practical matters, and always for the same basic reason: he treated practical problems as if they were theoretical problems. In fact I do not think he could tell the difference. Really, the explanation of how it came about that this man who was a genius in some ways could be so foolish in others was relatively simple. His whole genius was for solving theoretical problems, and—no doubt partly for that reason—he tended to see all problems as theoretical. When a problem really was theoretical he was masterly, but when it was not theoretical but a problem of private or public life he was a blunderer. And because he had so little practical intelligence he learnt almost nothing from the experience.

Bryan Magee

In my second marriage I tried to preserve the respect for my wife’s [sexual] liberty which I thought my creed enjoined. I found however that my capacity for forgiveness and what may be called Christian love was not equal to the demands I was making on it. Anyone else could have told me this in advance, but I was blinded by theory.

Bertrand Russell

It seems to me increasingly that what gives one the beliefs by which one lives is of the nature of experience: it is a sudden realisation, or perhaps a gradual one, of ethical values which one had formerly doubted or taken on trust; and this realisation seems to be caused, as a rule, by a situation containing the things one realises to be good or bad. But although I do not think philosophy itself will give anything of human interest, I think a philosophical training enables one to get richer experiences, and to make more use of those that one does get.

Bertrand Russell (from letter dated July 20, 1904)

Thoughts about Experience & Thought

A few observations and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth.

Alexis Carrel

It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.

Arthur Conan Doyle

A thinker must think about his theories rather than simply with them. Everybody thinks with their theories in the sense of using those theories as organizing devices for understanding the world, but most people do so at an implicit level.

Diana Kuhn

Think before you think!

Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences.

Edward R. Murrow

One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

Jane Austen

Experience comes before thought and if you can’t trust any of your experience then you can’t trust any of your thought.

Experience may not be the highest authority, but it is the first. It’s also the bedrock of authority, the thing that should support all other forms of authority.

Experience comprises illusions lost, rather than wisdom gained.

Joseph Roux

Experience takes away more than it adds; young people are nearer ideas than old men.


It is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.

George Bernard Shaw

Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age.

Henry David Thoreau

It is often said that second thoughts are best. So they are in matters of judgement, but not in matters of conscience.

John Henry Newman

Conscience is thoroughly well-bred and soon leaves off talking to those who do not wish to hear it.

Samuel Butler

Many philosophers have subordinated the authority of experience [e.g. of a core self that persists through time] to the authority of thought.

I think, therefore I am.


When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.

David Hume

Nature hates Mind. Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease.

Oscar Wilde

Sixty minutes of thinking of any kind is bound to lead to confusion and unhappiness.

James Thurber

No one is more liable to make mistakes than the man who acts only on reflection.

Marquis de Vauvenargues

It is sometimes better not to think at all than to think intensely and think wrong.

George Bernard Shaw

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced—even a proverb [e.g. Life is short] is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it.

John Keats

A man must have grown old and lived long in order to see how short life is.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Sophisticated people can hardly understand how vague experience is at bottom, and how truly that vagueness supports whatever clearness is afterwards attained.

George Santayana

The danger of thought is that it can lead away from reality as well as towards it.

Unless you’ve got some background theoretical understanding, anything is as different from anything else as you like.

Bernard Williams

It is to be observed that, without the introduction of principles, no suggested collection of facts, or supposed facts, is either coherent or inconsistent, since no two facts can either imply or contradict each other except in virtue of some extralogical principle.

Bertrand Russell

We arrive at truth through experience more often than we arrive at it through deduction.

Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.

Minna Antrim

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Mark Twain

What a man knows at fifty which he didn’t know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable.

Adlai Stevenson

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