Two Conceptions of Experience

Two Conceptions of Experience

King, Peter (University of Toronto)

Medieval Philosophy and Theology 11 (2003)


The canonical text relating experience to knowledge for the philosophers of the HighMiddle Ages was Aristotle’s Metaphysics A.1. The very first remarks in First Philosophy describe how humans, after repeated exposure to the world, come to have art and then science through experience: hominibus autem scientia et ars per experientiam evenit (981a2–3: apobainei d’ epistˆemˆe kai technˆe dia tˆes empeirias tois anthropois). Aristotle explains this process in terms of cognitive capacities and their objects: sense, memory, and imagination give rise to experience, which is directed to particulars; reason gives rise to art and science, each directed to universals, the former being the exercise of practical reason and the latter of speculative reason. So much is familiar. Mediaeval philosophers who read Aristotle’s text generally followed his lead, to the point where Robert Kilwardby, around the middle of the thirteenth century, begins his explanation of the origin of the sciences by simply giving a close paraphrase of Metaphysics A.1 (De ortu scientiarum 1.8–11). The philosophers of the High Middle Ages offered analyses of cognition whose details, meant to flesh out Aristotle’s account, were elaborated in their debates over the role of the agent intellect, the need for species in perception and in thought, the reliability of the cognitive apparatus for induction, the nature and function of memory, and so on.

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