Matthew Stevens Research

The Concept of ‘Experience’ in Pragmatism

Tue, August 25, 2015 in

A theory of learning for the future advocates the teaching of a preparedness to respond in a creative way to difference and otherness. John Dewey’s pragmatism holds the key to such a learning theory and reflects his view of the continuous meeting of individuals and environments as experimental and playful. (Elkjaer, 2009. p. 74)

My intended approach to both this research (as inquiry) and to agile learning within creative technologies domains (as experiential and experimental) is underpinned by the philosophical position of ‘pragmatism.’ Pragmatism originally emerged from the thinking of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914) and William James (1842 – 1910), but was further developed and more fully articulated, especially in relation to learning and education, by John Dewey (1859 -1952). Although pragmatism encompasses a variety of different branches they are all underpinned by a shared non-dualist view of reality and a non-representational view of knowledge, rather than the Cartesian mind-world dualism of traditional western philosophy which views knowledge as a representation (or mirror) of an objective reality. Influenced by biological evolution, a core concept in Dewey’s pragmatism is that of ‘experience’ as the interaction or ‘transaction’ between an organism and its environment (both material and social), rather than something that exists solely within the conscious mind of the subject. Knowledge, or ‘knowing’, emerges from this transactional experience through inquiry into uncertain or problematic situations in order to resolve them. As such, knowledge is not fixed but is dynamic and fallible, always open to be improvement, discarding or re-interpretation. For pragmatists, the meaning and value of knowledge is determined by its practical value as a tool to achieve a particular outcome. (Biesta & Burbules, 2003).

Experience as a ‘transaction’

According to Biesta & Burbules (2003), “‘experience’ is the most important concept in Dewey’s philosophy” (p. 28), and has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted. Dewey’s notion of experience refers to the transaction between the organism and its social and material environment (or situation) and draws its influence from the adaptation of the organism to its environment in Darwinian evolutionary theory (Mittenen, 2000). The important thing to note is that transactions work both ways. The organism not only acts on its environment but the resulting changes in the environment, in return, act on the organism. It is this connection between the continuous acting (or doing), effecting change in the environment, and reacting to the change that forms the basis of Dewey’s concept of experience. This contrasts with how experience is understood in the dualistic philosophic tradition where experience is viewed as being in consciousness and separated from the external world (Biesta & Burbules, 2003).
Human Experience

Dewey acknowledges that different types of organisms will have different types of experiences. For example, the experience of human beings is very different from the experience of other animals, which is quite different from the experience of plants. In particular, human experience differs from other organisms because it is always mediated by culture, which includes language (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). In the human context, Elkjaer (2009) describes Dewey’s notion of experience as being primarily concerned “with human beings’ lives and living” (p.74) and defines the human experience as interaction between ‘subject’ and ‘worlds’, where ‘subject’ refers to the socialized individual and ‘world’ to their interpreted world. “Experience concerns living, the continuous response to and feedback between subject and worlds” (p. 78).

Reflection as Experience

Dewy makes a distinction between primary and secondary experiences. Primary experience involves the transaction with the material and social world, while secondary experience is a reflective experience whereby the things of the material and social environment become objects of reflective thought and knowledge (Mittenen, 2000). The important thing here is that thinking (reflection) is not regarded as being separate from experience but rather part of experience. The continuous action of living is an inseparable whole involving both primary and secondary experience, where primary experience moves into reflective experience as a result of encountering a disturbance in the flow of action. “[Experience] denotes the relation between subject and worlds as well as between action and thinking, between human existence and becoming knowledgeable about selves and worlds of which they are part” (Elkjaer, 2009, P.78).

Modes of Experience

According to Biesta & Burbules (2003), Dewey’s concept of experience covers all possible modes (or dimensions) of the way humans exist “in the world” (p. 29). These different modes of experience include the knowing mode, the practical mode, the emotional mode, the aesthetic mode and the religious mode, although it is the cognitive or knowing mode that Dewey concerns himself with primarily and is of the most relevance to education, learning and this research. Biesta & Burbules (2003) point out, however, that Dewey’s ‘modes of experience’ raise questions about how experience moves from one mode to another and what the relationship is between modes. For example, how does experience move from the practical mode to the cognitive mode and what is the relationship between them?

Comparison with other Notions of Experience

Elkjaer (2009) suggests that one particular problem with using the term ‘experience’ is that it has different meanings within educational research and this leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. She cites David Kolb’s ‘Model of Experiential Learning’ (Kolb, 1984) as an example. According to both Elkjaer (2009) and Miettinen (2000) Kolb misunderstood Dewey’s notion of experience when he claimed his model of experiential learning was based on Dewey’s ‘experience’. Miettinen (2000) claims that Kolb views experience as a psychological state existing in the mind of individuals, rather than the interaction between humans and the environment, and concludes that Kolb’s ‘experiential learning’ is an inadequate interpretation of Dewey’s concept of experience and reflective thought which, in contrast, is concerned with “experimental thought and activity” (p. 70). Given the major influence that Kolb’s experiential learning model has had on contemporary education research, especially on adult learning approaches, Miettinen (2000) argues that Kolb’s belief in the individual’s experience and capabilities neglects the cultural and social conditions of learning in real life.

Dewey’s concepts of experience and knowledge can also be compared with phenomenological understandings. According to Baert (2009), although Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology is an individualist approach involving the ‘transcendental ego’, which he believes is in many ways opposed to his own neo-pragmatist philosophy, the existential phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, however, are close to pragmatism. Both existentialism and pragmatism are non-dualist and non-representational in respect to reality and knowledge, which is regarded as being embedded in the practical engagement with the world (‘being in the world’). Baert (2009) also draws a comparison with Wittgenstein’s views about how meaning is embedded in “forms of life” which is something that is shared with pragmatism and existentialism.

‘Experience’ as ‘Practice’

According to Elkjaer (2009), Dewey was aware that his concept of experience had been widely misunderstood and that he suggested the term ‘culture’ as an alternative. She also questions whether Dewey’s concept of experience can adequately address power and inequality and proposes the term ‘practice’ as a contemporary alternative as it can possibly include power while still connoting a transaction between subjects and worlds.

The notion of ‘practice’ used in this way is particularly relevant to this research in relation to both my own teaching practice as well as learning within creative technology domains as ‘becoming a practitioner’. Practice, in relation to learning, knowing and ‘being in the world’, is a central theme of this research and is something that I will write about in a separate


Baert, P. (2011). Neo-Pragmatism and Phenomenology: A Proposal. European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, 3(2), 24-40.

Biesta, G. J. J. & Burbules, N. C. (2003). Pragmatism and educational research. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Elkjaer, B. (2009). Pragmatism: A learning theory for the future. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorist… in their own words (pp. 74 – 89). New York, NY: Routledge.

Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72.

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