Experience and Erlebnis

The pragmatist and writer Richard Sennett, in the conclusion to his book The Craftsman (2008), revisits Heideggerian language to write about the kinds of experience involved in crafting and shaping materials:

Philosophically, pragmatism has argued that to work well people need freedom from means-ends relationships. Underlying this philosophical conviction is a concept that, I think, unifies all of pragmatism. This isexperience, a fuzzier word in English than in German, which divides it in two, Erlebnis and Erfahrung. The first names an event or relationship that makes an emotional inner impress, the second an event, action, or relationship that turns one outward and requires skill rather than sensitivity. Pragmatist thought has insisted that these two meanings should not be divided. If you remain in the domain of Erfahrung alone, William James believed, you may be trapped by means-and-ends thinking and acting; you may succumb to the vice of instrumentalism. You need constantly the inner monitor of Erlebnis, of ‘how it feels’. (p.288)

I love the fact that Erlebnis, or life experience, involves some ‘inner impress’ i.e. is affective. Experience is also something that is lived through (Erfahrung in German implying a journey). The genealogy of this comes through Willhelm Dilthey and thence Heidegger. I also love the fact that much of what Sennet writes about craftsmanship, also in his previous book The Culture of the New Capitalism, also tries to distance craft and labour from purely instrumental thinking – another Heideggerian point we have discussed in The Question Concerning Technology and elsewhere.


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