Reflecting on Experience

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Experience alone does not teach. Our lives are comprised of a constant succession of experiences, some dull, some profound and most somewhere in between. If ridden through without reflection, these occurrences might leave a subconscious imprint, but they do not necessarily make us wiser or more informed. In the 1970s, educational theorists David Kolb and Ron Fry proposed a model outlining the stages by which experience becomes learning. Referred to as Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning (or the Kolb cycle), it is a repeatable spiral consisting of four elements: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The experience itself—whether it is a day at the office or a stroll through the park—is only the beginning. Personal growth occurs through examination, abstraction and future application.

For most people some of the time (and some people most of the time), this is a natural process. There is a sense in which we are all born philosophers, or homo philosophicus. On occasion, we find ourselves asking deep questions, contemplating our purpose and pondering the things we have observed. Aristotle addressed this inclination in the opening line of Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” Yet knowing from experience is not as simple as experiencing an experience. It requires a few additional steps, not to mention a motivating sense of curiosity.

Of course, some things in life are riper for exploration than others. For instance, we might readily progress through the Kolb cycle when the concrete experience is mowing a lawn, but are less inclined to do so when the activity is listening to music. This is partly because of the relative abstractness of the musical experience. Being moved by a piece or selecting a track for a playlist are processes more impulsive than cognitive, and thus hard to penetrate with intellectual methods. It is also the case that musical affinities are a matter of taste: a sensitive part of the human makeup, and one particularly resistant to critique.

When it comes to music, most of us adhere to the unreflective phrase, “I know what I like and I like what I know.” This principle of subjective preference helps to protect our musical opinions. We need not justify (or even understand) our like or dislike for a particular selection. We simply know our position. This has its advantages, as musical penchants do not usually hold up well under analysis. Critical evaluation and experimentation have little regard for those individualistic factors that shape our musical beliefs: exposure, upbringing, peer influence, cultural biases, inherited assumptions, generational trends, etc. None of this leads to an objective conclusion. The further and more honestly we pursue the steps of observation, conceptualization and experimentation, the shakier our convictions become.

In the end, there may be no scientific or otherwise satisfactory rationale for musical taste. However, the philosopher in us should not view this as an impediment, but as an invitation. The questions that arise from musical self-inventory are themselves invaluable teachers. Bertrand Russell made this point in The Problems of Philosophy. His eloquent words are applicable to all areas of thought—whether musical or existential: “Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation . . .”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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