Transformative Experiences

15 November 2014


This week,  our topic has to do with so-called transformative experiences.  Some events in a person’s life are so powerful, so life-altering, that there’s a sense in which he or she may not be the same person before and after the event.   Now I’m not talking about winning a mega-lottery, for example.  Doing that would, of course, change my life.  I could buy more stuff.  Maybe I would work less. Certainly, I would travel more. Those kinds of changes aren’t really what we have in mind, though. Those are just changes in the external circumstances of my life.

Think more about  basic values  – the sort of things that help to make you, you.  I’d like to think that money  -- even a great deal of money -- wouldn't change  my basic values in any way.   I admit that  there are people who can’t seem to handle sudden wealth.  It turns them into completely different people – people their former selves wouldn’t recognize or approve of.  For people like that winning a big lottery would be transformative –  too often in a negative way. But there are plenty of positive transformations too  -- like having your first child or starting out in your chosen profession.  

More generally, a transformative experience is one that somehow alters what matters to you.  Those are really important experiences.  Growing up, for example, typically involves a whole host of them.

But there’s even more to transformative experience than this.  Begin by thinking of what it’s like to give birth to that first child.  Now for me that's something I’m pretty sure, I’m never going to know.  As a man, I can’t possibly know what it’s like to give birth, because I'm never going to have the relevant experience.  But even a woman can’t know what it’s like to bear a child until she takes the plunge and  actually bears one herself.   In the absence of the experience of bearing a child,  a women is completely ignorant of what bearing a child would be like.

Now I suspect some will want to disagree. After all, they will say,  people are capable of learning lots of things from other people, without directly experiencing them for themselves.  You want to know what it’s like to give birth? Talk to women who have been there and done that.  Read some good books.  Go to parenting classes.  Watch videos of babies being born.  

I grant that those are all good ways of gaining information.   But it will only get you so far.  It’s no substitute for your own first hand experience. It’ll tell you something about what it was like for THEM to have the experience.  But it won’t tell you what it would be like for YOU to do so.

But what if I know that I’m similar to them in relevant ways?  In that case, won’t knowing what it’s like for them tell me a lot about what it would be like for me? The answer, I think, is that it will not.  That’s because I can’t really know that I am similar to them in the respect that really matters – call it experientially similar, if you will – until I actually have the experience and then somehow compare what it’s like for them to what it’s like for me.  In other words, only experience alone can teach me what it’s like to be me -- what kind of experiencer, if you will, that I happen to be.  Am I one of those types who would experience parenthood, say, as a great joy or one of those types who would experience it as a great burden.   I might have a guess about which type I am.  But I can’t really KNOW which type I am, until I have an experience and see what it reveals about me qua experiencer.  This means that there is a sense in which certain experiences transform us epistemically.   They alter how we see both the world and ourselves in relation to the world, they open up new imaginative possibilities, that we could not have anticipated before the actual experience.  I might have been able to imagine having a child before having one, but I could not really imagine it qua kind of experiencer that only experience can reveal me to be.

If this is right, then when a  person decides to undergo a potentially transformative experience, they are taking a complete shot in the dark.   In fact, she is taking something like a double shot in the dark.   First, she has no idea what experiences she will have or what those experiences will be like,  if she chooses to have them.  Second, she has no idea how her values will change in light of those experiences.   

But this raises the question of how anyone could ever decide – rationally decide – to undergo one of these doubly transformative experiences. When we make decisions rationally, we decide partly on the basis of what we believe will happen, once we make the decision, and partly on the basis of how we value the expected outcomes. But in the case of these doubly transformative experiences, we have no idea either what sort of outcome to expect, nor how we will value that antecedently unknowable outcome once it happens. 

And that is why experiences that transform us are worth philosophizing about.   People DO in fact choose to undergo transformative experiences. They enlist in the army, have children, choose a profession, change their nationality.  We’d like to think that their choices are rational – or not insane – at least sometimes. But it’s unclear how such choices can, in fact, be rational.  I don’t mean to imply that such decisions are a mere matter of whimsy.     I’m just saying that it’s really puzzling not only how we, in fact, go about making them, but also how we should go about making them.   Frankly, I’m stumped.  I don’t have a clue how we are going to solve this puzzle.  So why not give us a hand and see what we can come up together?

Comments (13)

Starchild's picture


Tuesday, August 8, 2017 -- 5:45 PM

One of you said during the

One of you said during the show today something to the effect that you don't worry about eating meat because other species eat each other. While true, I feel that rationalization falls short in a couple ways.

First, other meat-eating species presumably are not aware of the suffering they cause in the way that perceptive/aware human beings are. Doesn't greater responsibility come with greater awareness, in the same way that we would hold an adult responsible for pushing someone out a window to their death, but we would not hold an infant responsible for doing the same?

Second, I think we should aspire to someday create a reality in which species can co-exist without causing each other to suffer. Plants are able to get their nutrients from the sun. Developing some kind of morally equivalent means for other animals to derive sustenance without causing suffering (help them evolve beyond it?) seems like an important long-term goal, even if we are not close to being able to implement it at present. In the meantime, human scientists are working on lab-created meat that is meat but did not come from any living animal. Hopefully in the future this will replace factory farming, fishing, and so on, for those who still find the taste of meat and dairy products enjoyable and are not already vegans.

P.S. – Having to create an account in order to post here is hassle enough. I already had to waste time with a "Captcha" thing in order to do that; having to do another "Captcha" in order to post – and then another, when the first one apparently "expired" while I was typing my comment – seems more than excessive. Makes me not want to bother participating here at all. A better approach to combating spam in my view is empowering community members flag and remove it.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, August 10, 2017 -- 11:51 AM

There are, as you have

There are, as you have suggested, many sorts of transformative experience. Seven years in another country was transformative for me. And not in every way GOOD transformative. (Apparently spell-check does not like transformative---it lit it up every time.) Well, anyway, my notion of transformative is more along the lines of what Michael Murphy wrote in Future of the Body, some years ago. His anecdotal accounts of the accomplishments of "ordinary humans" were fascinating, to say the least. He and George Leonard taught me much. And, I am pretty sure most of their lessons are valid today. We are WHAT we eat, certainly, but maybe more importantly, we are also HOW MUCH. The current emphasis on large people and the acceptance of what was once considered obesity astounds me. But, then again, meaning changes with trendy regularity. I am thin and have, except for my forties, always been. I felt physically dreadful then, and upon retiring from an equally dreadful career, I dropped thirty-five pounds! Now that (for me) was a transformation.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Augustine or Pelagius?

Augustine or Pelagius?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, November 20, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

To the point of departure it

To the point of departure it is the departure that is the point. Any extension just attenuates the moment of it. Loss is an unendurable burden of responsibility, because its worth is not its own. The language of duration, permanence, conviction, stretches out the process of voiding that burden and that responsibility. It would make the worth of time its own. And so the meaning and structure of all the languages of the world are the "Conquest of Abundance", the abundance the worth of time is between that burden of loss and that responsibility of its worth being recognized. That abundance is the plenum time is in the moment of sudden and suddenly complete change, even if only in the least term. In this sense it is the least term of time that is all the differing it is. What would count it up into extensions is the void Feyerabend warned us of.

Diana Senechal's picture

Diana Senechal

Thursday, November 20, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I suspect that we're drawn

I suspect that we're drawn toward transformative experiences through an inkling of some kind. We have not only rational intentions but inarticulate yearnings and associations. Something may remind us dimly of something we have long wanted. Or there may be something about it that draws us in--and while we could explain part of this, we could never explain the whole.
Or, to invoke Martin Buber, we long for the I-You encounter, for something greater than our daily transactions, but have no way of finding it through effort and intent alone. But we may wend our way to it and open ourselves to it.
I am not sure that an experience has to be momentous in any external way in order to be transformative; it may be an everyday (or ordinary) occurrence on the surface, but for some reason we may receive it in a way that removes it from the everyday. It has something to do with seeing and being seen.
Yesterday, in conjunction with a discussion of Buber's I and Thou, my students read Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," which seems pertinent here.

lapaul's picture


Thursday, November 20, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I think we are drawn to such

I think we are drawn to such experiences. But what if they aren't anything like what we expect them to be? How can we rationally choose to have them? Do you think the inkling gives us insight into their true character?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, November 21, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

~~...."for here there is no

~~...."for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life."

The augenblick is a more common event than we dare recognize because it is constitutive in a way that militates against our conviction that time is duration rather than moment. What differs with the continuity of its antecedence to its consequence is anomalous to either. But such rationality is fatally incomplete, and so such anomaly may be a more completing term of time than the hermetic epoch defined by its nominal progression. But if reason is so fatally incomplete that its end is most rigorously perfected as the lost conviction than as its retrenchment. It is not a weakness or lapse that we suddenly recognize the differing of our predispositions and expectations. But if that differing is indeed anomalous to the facile term of our conviction that time is continuity rather than change, enduring rather than passing away, preserving our convictions rather being lost to them, it may enable a response of more expansive understanding in others. If the final term of rational rigor is contrariety, not quite what its antecedence requires of its consequence or its consequence of its antecedence, rather than a hermetic exclusion of that 'middle term' time as change (contradiction) is, human character as the most rigorous term of that change (the least term of time is person), then that differing supplies all the lexical life reason needs for its pretense to completion. The completing term of time is not excluded contradiction, but inclusive contrariety. Buber is not pertinent because his whole thrust is bringing self and other into alignment rather than into recognition of the value of divergence.

Understanding time as differing and contrariety to what extends before and after it (if time were extension) is a difficult enough problem without the massive commitment of the literature to expunging it. Every term in developing that understanding stands as despairing adversary to an overwhelming predisposition of our literary and intellectual institutions. It requires and epic effort, not an aphoristic one. You know, 'philosophy' in itself is a bad enough impediment to serious investigation of ideas, balkanizing the effort to resist its straitjacketing terms, but the internet is a veritable fragmentation bomb aimed straight at the human mind.

Diana Senechal's picture

Diana Senechal

Friday, November 21, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Regarding Rilke's sonnet,

Regarding Rilke's sonnet, "You must change your life" has an ambiguity that pertains directly to the question here.
It could be taken as a statement of necessity--"like it or not, you will change your life"--in which case the transformation is underway, or even complete, insofar as the insight has encompassed it.
Or it could be taken as a statement of responsibility--"you haven't changed your life yet, but anything short of that would be a compromise"--in which case the transformation may be an aspiration or even an impossibility.
But in the second case, there may still be a transformation in the imagination.
As for Buber, I don't think it's quite correct that "his whole thrust is bringing self and other into alignment." He states emphatically that neither the self nor the other stop being anything other than what they are. He also recognizes that we must lead most of our lives in divergence. The You is not "aligned" with us but rather released of the limits we have given it. The encounter is fleeting--it can't be anything but fleeting, according to Buber--but it informs the rest of our lives. (I am relying primarily on I and Thou here--but I could bring up many supporting quotes.)
As for the understanding of time, the idea of seeing it as moment rather than duration seems in keeping with Buber. The You-encounter lacks substance and duration; there lies its truth. Yet we need duration and substance in order to survive. If you clock in at work for just a moment, you won't get paid; you must log the duration of your work day.

Diana Senechal's picture

Diana Senechal

Friday, November 21, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

We must be drawn to certain

We must be drawn to certain unknowns--or, more precisely, we are drawn to certain combinations of the known, apprehended, and unknown.
A situation intrigues us because of what we already know about it, what we sense or wonder about it, and what we do not know at all. That last part is as important as the rest, yet we don't seek out unknowns randomly. They have a shape.
Similarly, our internal unknowns have a shape. I doubt  that we are conscious of these shapes, but maybe a match occurs, now and then, between the internal and external ones, or else we think it might.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

My copy of I and Thou was

My copy of I and Thou was lost in a fire thirty-five years ago, and my book budget has not extended to replacing it yet. What you say does not surprise me, but shows how hard it is to explain the act of differing time is through us in the static terms so entrenched in 'philosophy'. Difference is to be expected where one's relation to others is meant to be a small-scale version of the big ONE, as it were. If our differences are seen as a mode of that relation, to 'god' or to 'the law of the good', we can find the completed version of that relation adumbrated in the lesser relation we have with each other. But this voids the most intimating meaning of what time we share, it hardly celebrates or even hints at it.

Time as extension voids its moment. The differing moment is is departure which being timed or measured as extension or duration voids of its meaning and of its worth. Time-clocks are instruments of cruelty, not measures of worth. Departure is anomalous to what such instruments do measure. The worth of departure is no relation, certainly not an I-thou any more than an I-it. Its worth is only present as a responsibility of the undeparted that it be recognized. If that responsibility is as unendurable as that departure it too is loss, a kind of departure. The issue is then a dialectic of loss and responsibility. The characterology of the changing mind entails that change as the extremest term of rigor in its conviction that constancy of character and of conviction is what rigor is. If the moment of our meeting is enabled through that lost conviction, most rigorously attained, the antecedent convictions we bring to that moment are differences, yes, but the differing we share in a most intimate sense, though the differed and the difference (or differance?) is completely other to each one. No god or sacred law (nor bloodless logic) can bring such moment about, and though the vicissitudes of life may militate against our enabling it, all the meaning and worth we share nevertheless comes of it.

Brit Shalom!

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

This is a fascinating idea,

This is a fascinating idea, and as Ken conveyed at the end of this post, really seems to throw a wrench into how we go about things! This is a particularly interesting view for me personally, because as a philosophy student, I like to think that all of my decisions are (and can be) made rationally.
Some of Diana?s comments touch on this idea?but I wonder how our micro-decisions fit into this view. Contrast, for example, my choice as to which side to pass a bollard on with my choice to attend my present university over some other one. The former I can make rationally, perhaps by considering how much space is on the left side of the bollard versus on the right, if there are any puddles, rocks, or peoples that I need to be aware of, and the like; the latter seems to fall into the case of a transformative experience, namely going to one college over another?or at all.
It seems like the only reason I think that my choice, both to attend college and of which one to attend, is transformative is that I have heard that this is the case for most people in a similar situation; that, or I reason out that I will be meeting many new people, in a new city, etc., and that this might change me. Now consider the other situation: what if when I choose to bike to the left of the bollard I end up catching my tire on a root, crashing my bike, and running into a pedestrian who, as a result of the whole encounter, will one day end up marrying me. Isn?t this micro-decision just as transformative? Yet we don?t think of it as such, perhaps because we assume that stories like the above don?t really happen (often). Is our choice in the case of the bollard still rational? Are our choices rational only in degrees? How do we even assess what might be a transformative experience?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, December 3, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Bollard? You're either a

Bollard? You're either a sailor or a Brit. What if the extremity of conviction in a continuity of reason is a complete revision of all terms prior current and future? And there is no way around it? That is, there is no binary reduction possible? Is reason worth it? Is reason worthy of it? Do we choose to change our mind?

Or's picture


Sunday, December 7, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

A transformative experience

A transformative experience could be just about anything that takes a person to another place different from where he or she was before. To me any experience could be characterized as transformative if what we are talking about is a one way road with no option to return to a previous state. But then all experiences should be considered transformative - even something like giving birth for a second time, which is not usually characterized as transformative, would need to be considered as such because of how different it could be from the first time around and because of how much it could take you to a different place/state of mind. It could also be that not always we 100% choose to undergo these transformative jumps and that actually we get a little push from the outside, like the role the hormones play to alter women?s bodies to prepare for child bearing and child birth, so in this sense I am not sure it is always a self conscious decision to rationally decide to undergo a transformative experience.