Lived Experience vs. Experience

“I am not celebrating a policy that has harmed millions of people or a campaign that erases the lived experiences of my family.”
“Bachelor Girls perfectly encapsulates the lived experience of the life in a city for women.”
“We can learn so much about people’s lives and trends in history by concentrating on the actual personal experiences as they were lived. To me, each person is the authority on his or her own experience.”

Without the word “lived,” each of theses sentences, which I’ve pulled from recently published news articles, would certainly still be intelligible. (Indeed, in the last one, not only “as they were lived” but also “actual” and “personal” appear redundant). And yet there must be something behind the writers’ choice to add the word “lived.” Google ngrams shows us that the phrase’s use has been on the rise for quite some time. What is being added by that word? What is the distinction between “experience” and “lived experience” and why has it emerged?

It seems particularly important to try to understand this distinction because today the term “lived experience” is one of those that immediately marks one who uses it as likely to hold a certain cluster of beliefs. It’s the case that the term “lived experience” comes up most often in discussions about social justice involving marginalized individuals and groups. Indeed, the first google result on difference between “experience” and “lived experience” comes from Geek Feminism Wiki: “The term lived experience is used to describe the first-hand accounts and impressions of living as a member of a minority or oppressed group.”

Anytime there’s language employed almost exclusively by adherents to a certain set of ideas, there’s a two-fold danger. The first is that those who are inclined to object to the perspective will not understand what is being gotten at by the terminology (i.e. they’ll assume redundancy and just replace “lived experience” with “experience” in their minds) or worse not take it seriously (i.e. scoff “as if there’s a kind of experience that isn’t lived!”). On the other hand, there’s the risk of those who use it to take it so much for granted that they don’t scrutinize what claims its rhetorical force is masking (e.g. a few recent titles I quickly scanned through on google books about “lived experience” never define what is meant by the term).

So in this post I want to try to give a brief history of the word. A disclaimer is that this (and everything I write here) should be taken as a first draft and nothing should be taken on authority as it comes from just googling for a couple of hours. The main service, though, that I hope to accomplish is to convince you that there is a very simple reason why people use the term “lived experience” and thus that it shouldn’t be dismissed offhand as “just one of those in-words SJWs say.” A secondary aim is that learning a bit about the various ways the word “lived experience” has been viewed over time might suggest some ways of thinking about how it should be viewed today. This is important because the way we think and talk about “lived experience” today raises many difficult questions about the status of knowledge, representation, and agency in what we hope is the creation of a more just society.

Where does the “Lived Experience”/”Experience” Distinction Come From?

This post’s main question, it turns out, seems to have a very easy answer. The reason there’s a distinction between “lived experience” and “experience” is to differentiate the English translations of two different German words that both mean “experience.” Those words are Erlebnis and Erfahrung. Of course, the obvious question then becomes: why are there two different words for experience in German? The latter, Erfahrung, is the traditional German word for experience and it was what the original German translators of Latin way back when used for the Latin experientia (from which we English speakers also get our traditional word for “experience”). The Latin word has a connotation of action or attempt — it’s the same root of “experiment” — so you should think of the German Erfahrung as something active. Erfahrung is related to the English word “fare” as in “how fare you,” warfare, welfare, and so forth. It is also carries a connotation of knowledge — “experience” in the way you’d say, say, “she has a lot of experience juggling bowling pins.”

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While Erfahrung is old in German, as you can see our friend Erlebnis is a much more recent innovation. But before we get to its origins, look at it a bit more closely. You’ll notice in it the root “leben,” which means “life”. Hence: “lived experience!” This noun comes from the verb erleben, which means “to live through,” “to survive.” Notice the passive connotation, as well as the fact that there’s no implied knowledge claim in the term. You can live through “the war” without really knowing what happened in it. The verb erleben has existed for quite some time, but its noun form Erlebnis, appeared relatively recently, and it seems it made its first appearance in a letter by the famous German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who lived from 1770–1831. So to summarize:

— Erfahrung: “to fare”, active, something you do it and gain knowledge from, like in an experiment, “She’s quite experienced”

— Erlebnis: “to be alive when something happens” as in “what a time to be alive!”, passive, experience as something sticks out at you but isn’t necessarily processed (“That was quite the experience!”)

These words will take on new meanings over time, but that’s a good place to start from before we can understand these changes. It turns out that this distinction between Erlebnis and Erfahrung was one that preoccupied many of the important German thinkers beginning with the late Romantics and extending through the rise of hermeneutics and phenomenology. For example, Wilhelm Dilthey, pioneer of hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation), argued in his 1883 Introduction to the Human Sciences that it was the difference between Erfahrung and Erlebnis that distinguished what he called the natural sciences from the human ones.

Why might have the need to employ Erlebnis alongside Erfahrung have arisen when it did? A provisional answer is suggested by Walter Benjamin in his 1939 essay “Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” Benjamin argues that the rise of modern life has brought with it a constant series of shock experiences (Chockerlebnisse) to the individual (e.g. walking through faceless crowds, driving quickly through landscapes, the dizzying images motion pictures, etc…) that prevent individuals from being able to transform the individual moments of their day into a whole — that is, to convert experiences into experience, Erlebnis into Erfahrung. What was once an easy flow between individual experience and communal memory now breaks down, and our attention being drawn to the breakdown forces us to put a name to part of the process so we can think through the problem. This breakdown, says Benjamin, leads to “a new kind of barbarism” in which individuals don’t live lives of unity but instead a series of heterogeneous experiences. They cannot lead lives but can merely live. And yet this barbarism also carries with it the potential to lead us toward a brighter future because we are now free to recombine our lived experiences into a more just experience.

I won’t bore you or myself with a sketched-out picture of every thinker for whom this Erlebnis/Erfahrung distinction was important. (Check out especially Husserl and Gadamer on your own time if you’re interested). I think the important link in the chain between pretty abstract German philosophizing and our current moment was when phenomenology reached France via Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and more importantly, when it was reworked by Simone de Beauvoir. She titled Volume II of her highly influential feminist manifesto The Second Sex “L’Experience Vecue,” which is the French translation of Erlebnis. That title of the volume was originally made into English as “Woman’s Life Today,” but once its debt to phenomenological language was better appreciated, it was re-rendered as “Lived Experience.”

The Second Sex became a seminal book of second-wave feminism in the United States in the 1960s as its argument took hold that in order to answer the question “what is a woman?” one had to do far more than look at biological characteristics and call it a day, for these far underdetermine the differences in the lived experiences of women. One had to instead to see how one’s experience of life and one’s own body are preconceptually constrained and morphed by patriarchal social structures. Her work became a locus point for calls to undertake the effort that became known as “consciousness-raising.” As the 1969 feminist Redstocking Manifesto put it: “We regard our personal experiences and feelings about experience as the basis for an analysis of our common situation … Our chief task at present is to develop female class consciousness through sharing experience and publicly exposing the sexist foundation of all our situations.”

It seems it was Beauvoir’s influence more than any other for spreading the term “lived experience” not only into discussions of gender and sexuality but then eventually also to race, medicine, disability, and more in the U.S.. Many of these realms in which it’s used now could hardly be anticipated by the early theorists of “lived experience,” but that’s not to suggest in advanced that any stage in the concept’s development is more correct than others, and to think about how it’s changed is not to admonish those who use it today for using it incorrectly or naively. Furthermore, each generation brings new connotations to a word or idea. For example, the current use of “lived experience” no doubt has gained some of its rhetorical power from today’s heighten emphasis on the values of “lives” spurred by BLM. To excavate the history of the term is simply to show it’s something that people have been thinking about for a while and so if we are having questions about what it means we might do well to look to the past for answers to the questions.

What are a few of those questions? Let’s turn back those examples from the news and see what questions they raise:

1) “I am not celebrating a policy that has harmed millions of people or a campaign that erases the lived experiences of my family.”

What is the relationship between the two types of standards this author is making to justify their reasoning (harm to millions of others vs. harm to my family’s lived experience)? Can they only speak for the millions because they can speak for their own family? Relatedly, did The Second Sex, for example, necessarily have to be written by a woman or was that a contingent factor?

2) “Bachelor Girls perfectly encapsulates the lived experience of the life in a city for women.”

Is it possible to capture lived experience in art? Or even language? If it can be, does that not threaten how “lived” it is?

3) “We can learn so much about people’s lives and trends in history by concentrating on the actual personal experiences as they were lived. To me, each person is the authority on his or her own experience.”

Can you learn from others’ lived experience? Can you learn about trends in history from others’ lived experiences? If so, doesn’t that mean that they aren’t really the authority on their own personal experience because they can be subject to historical trends they may not be aware of? Could we not consider the idea that everyone is the own authority on their experience itself an ideology? Can you have the historical experience of being a member of a group? Is that just trying to universalize your lived experience and thus may be silencing that of others?

These sorts of questions are easy to raise, less easy to answer, but when we use “lived experience” in conversation we’re often doing so in ways which imply various answers to them. Again, the point of understanding that the concept has a history is to be reminded that these questions have been discussed carefully for a long time, and certainly not uncritically. So, if you find yourself in a debate and these sorts of questions come up, I hope you might consider looking back at some of those previous thinkers and debates to see if that helps you approach the problem freshly and more fruitful.

The main takeaway, though, is to simply realize that people are not by default misguided or being redundant for invoking the phrase “lived experience.”

Anyway, hope this is useful,

Jacob