I. In Philosophy. — "Experience, in its strict sense, applies to what has occurred within a person's own knowledge. Experience, in this sense, of course relates to the past alone. Thus it is that a man knows by experience what sufferings he has undergone in some disease, or what height the tide reached at a certain time and place. More frequently the word is used to denote that judgment which is derived from experience in the primary sense, by reasoning fiom that in combination with other data. Thus a man may assert, on the ground of experience, that he was cured of a disorder by such a medicine that that medicine is generally beneficial in that disorder; that the tide may always be expected, under such circum. stances, to rise to such a height. Strictly speaking, none of these can be known by experience, but are con. clusionsfrom experience. It is in this sense only that experience can be applied to thefuture, or, which comes to the same thling, to any general fact; as, e.g. when it is said that we know by experience that water exposed to a certain temperature will freeze" (Whately, Logic, app. 1).
Locke (Essay on Human Understand. book 2, chapter 1) assigns experience as the only and universal source of human knowledge. "Whence hath the mind all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that ultimately derives itself. Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by our. selves, is that which supplies our understanding with all the materials of thinking. These are the fountains of knowledge from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring — that is, sensation and reflection." In opposition to this view, according to which all human knowledge is a posteriori, or the result of experience, it is contended that man has knowledge a priori — knowledge which experience neither does nor can give, and knowledge without which there could be no experience, inasmuch as all the generalizations of experience proceed and rest upon it. "No accumulation of experiments whatever can bring a general law home to the mind of man, because, if we rest upon experiments, our conclusion can never logically pass beyond the bounds of our premises; we can never infer more than we have proved; and all the past, which we have not seen, and the future, which we cannot see, is still left open, in which new experiences may arise to overturn the present theory. And yet the child will believe at once upon a single experiment, as having been once burned by fire. Why? Because a hand divine has implanted in him the tendency to generalize thus rapidly. Because he does it by an instinct of which he can give no account, except that he is so formed by his Maker" (Sewell, Christian Mor. chapter 24). "We may have seen one circle and investigated its properties, but why,- when our individual experience is so circumscribed, do we assume the same relations of all? Simply because the understanding has the conviction intuitively that similar objects will have similar properties; it does not acquire this idea by sensation or custom; the mind develops it by its own intrinsic force — it is a law of our faculties, ultimate and universal, from vwhich all reasoning proceeds" (Dr. Mill, Essays, page 337). — Fleming, Vocabulary of Philosophy, s.v.
II. In Religion. —
(1.) Knowledge gained by trial or practice. "A man unacquainted with those spiritual changes in the mind which are mentioned in the Scripture can form no notion of them. He may have some idea of the possibility of the changes called the new birth, sanctification, etc., but he does not understand their nature; they are foolishness to him. Nothing is more common with unregenerate persons than to ridicule as enthusiastic religious experience. But if the constitution of human nature is considered, it will be seen that man has emotions as well as intellect. His passions are original parts of his mental constitution, and must be exercised in religion. They cannot be destroyed. However beautiful religion may be as a theory, its excellency and energy can only be displayed as experienced. Hence the Bible employs the analogous terms tasting, feeling, to indicate the internal enjoyment of a Christian. He has peace through believing. He joys in God, through whom he has received the atonement. The love of God is shed abroad in his heart. He is conascious that he is a new creature" (Farrar, Bibl. Dict. s.v.). "That our experience is always ablolutely pure in time present state cannot be expected; but if it be genuine, it will not fail, through the exercise of Christian diligence, to become more and more pure. The main point, therefore, is to guard well against mistaking the illusions of the imagination for the operation of divince truth an the conscience and the heart (1Th 2:13). SEE AFFECTIONS.
(2.) The most valuable things are most apt to be counterfeited. But Christian experience may be considered as genuine,
1. When it accords with the revelation of God's mind and will, or what he has revealed in his Word. Anything contrary to this, however pleasing, cannot be sound, or produced by divine agency.
2. When its tendency is to promote humility in us: that experience by which we learn our own weakness, and to subdue pride, must be good.
3. When it teaches us to bear with others, and to do there good.
4. When it operates so as to excite us to be ardent in our devotion, and sincere in our regard to God. A powerful experience of the divine favor will lead us to acknowledge the same, and to manifest our gratitude both by constant praise and genuine piety.
(3.) Christian experience, however, may be abused. There are some good people who certainly have felt and enjoyed the power of religion, and yet have not always acted with prudence as to their experience.
1. Some boast of their experiences, or talk of them as if they were very extraordinary; whereas, were they acquainted with others, they would find it not so. That a man may make mention of his experience is no way improper, but often useful; but to hear persons always talking of themselves seems to indicate a spirit of pride, and that their experience cannot be very deep.
2. Another abuse of experience is dependence on it. We ought certainly to take encouragement from past circumstances if we can; but if we are so dependent on past experience as to preclude present exertions, or always expect to have exactly the same assistance in every state, trial, or ordinance, we shall be disappointed. God has wisely ordered it that, though he never will leave his people, yet he will suspend or bestow comfort in his own time; for this very reason, that we may rely on him, and not on the circumstance or ordinance.
3. It is an abuse of experience which introduced at improper times and before improper persons. It is true, we ought never to be ashamed of our profesion; but to be always talking to irreligious people respecting experience, which they know nothing of, is as our Savior says, casting pearls before swine." See Buck, Treatise of Experience; Gurnall, Christian Armor; Edwards, On the Affections; Doddridge, Rise and Progress; Wesley, Sermons.