Wilhelm Dilthey (19 November 1833 to 01 October 1911)

Every so often a term from philosophy — and by “philosophy” in this context I mean the kind of philosophy that is generally not read by the wider public, and which is therefore sometimes called “technical” or “professional” — finds its way into the wild, as it were, and begins to appear in non-philosophical contexts. This happened with Thomas Kuhn’s use of “paradigm shift” and with Derrida’s use of “deconstruction.” To a lesser extent, it is also true of “phenomenology” since Husserl’s use of the term. Another philosophical term that has come into general currency is “lived experience.” (There are also variations on the theme of “lived experience,” such as “felt experience,” which I found in Barry Mazur’s 2008 paper “Mathematical Platonism and its Opposites,” in which the author refers to, “…the passionate felt experience that makes it so wonderful to think mathematics.”) Recently I saw “lived experience” used in the title of a non-philosophical book, Nubia in the New Kingdom: Lived Experience, Pharaonic Control and Indigenous Traditions, edited by N. Spencer, A. Stevens, and M. Binder. A description of the book on the publishers website says that the approach of the volume provides, “…a more nuanced understanding of what it was like to live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC.”

This, I think, is the takeaway of “lived experience” for non-philosophers — that of “what it was like to live” in some particular social or historical context. One could easily imagine, “what it was really like to live” becoming a slogan on a par with Leopold von Ranke’s, “to show what actually happened” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”). Both could be taken as historiographical principles, and indeed the two might be taken to imply each other: arguably, one can’t know what it was like to live without knowing what actually happened, and, again arguably, one can’t show what actually happened without knowing what it was like to live. Actually, I think that the two are distinguishable, but I only wanted to make the point of how closely related these ideas are.

I believe, though I cannot say for sure, that the philosophical use of “lived experience” originates in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey. If Dilthey did not originate the philosophical use of “lived experience,” he did write extensively about it earlier than most other philosophers who took up the term. (If anyone knows otherwise, please set me straight.) Since I am planning on making use of the idea of lived experience, I have been reading Dilthey recently, especially his Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (which corresponds to the German language Gesammelte Schriften, Volume 7: Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften), which has a lot of material on lived experience.

Dilthey is not an easy author to read. I have heard it said many times that Husserl is a difficult author, but I find translations of Husserl to be much easier going than translations of Dilthey. Dilthey and Husserl knew each other, read each others’ works, and they corresponded. Dilthey’s exposition of lived experience contains numerous references to Husserl’s Logical Investigations (Husserl’s systematic works on phenomenology mostly appeared after Dilthey passed away, so it was only the Logical Investigations to which Dilthey had access). Most interestingly to me, Husserl wrote a semi-polemical article, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science,” in which Husserl discussed Dilthey in the section “Historicism and Weltanschauung Philosophy.” Dilthey did not agree with the characterization of his work by Husserl. It was Husserl’s article that was the occasion of their correspondence (translated in Husserl: Shorter Works), and it is a lesson in the unity German philosophy to read this exchange of letters. In their correspondence, Dilthey and Husserl were easily able to find common ground in a language rooted in 19th century German idealist philosophy.

While the apparent ground of their common outlook was expressed in the peculiar idiom of German philosophy, both were also reacting against that tradition. Both Dilthey and Husserl were centrally concerned with the experience of time. Husserl’s manuscripts on time consciousness run to hundreds of pages (cf. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917)). Of Husserl’s efforts Dilthey wrote, “A true Plato, who first of all fixes in concept the things that become and flow, then puts beside the concept of the fixed a concept of flowing.” (cited by Quentin Lauer in The Triumph of Subjectivity from Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. V, p. cxii) Dilthey’s own exposition of time consciousness can be found in Vol. III of the selected works in English, Drafts for a Critique of Historical Reason, section 2, “Reflexive Awareness, Reality: Time” (pp. 214-218), where it is integral with his exposition of lived experience.

Of time and lived experience Dilthey wrote:

“Temporality is contained in life as its first categorical determination and the one that is fundamental for all others… Thus the lived experience of time determines the content of our lives in all directions.”

Wilhem Dilthey, Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 214-215.

I suspect that Husserl would have agreed with this, as for Husserl time consciousness was the foundation of the constituting consciousness. Dilthey also writes:

“That which forms a unity of presence in the flow of time because it has a unitary meaning is the smallest unit definable as a lived experience.” And, “A lived experience is a temporal sequence in which every state is a flux before it can become a distinct object.” And, “The course of life consists of parts, of lived experiences that are inwardly connected with each other. Each lived experience relates to a self of which it is a part.”

Op. cit., pp. 216-217

Here I have plucked out a few representative quotes by Dilthey on lived experience; this may give a flavor of his exposition, but I certainly don’t maintain that this is a fair way of coming to grips with Dilthey’s conception of lived experience. The only way to do that is by the lived experience of reading the text through and deriving from it a unitary meaning. I will not attempt to do that in the present context, as I only wanted here to give the reader an impression of Dilthey’s writing on lived experience.

Dilthey, as I noted, is not an easy author. Both Dilthey’s and Husserl’s discussions of time consciousness and lived experience are opaque at best. I keep at Dilthey despite the difficulty because I want to understand his exposition of lived experience. However, as I keep at it I cannot help but think that part of the difficulty of the discussion is the absence of a scientific understanding of consciousness. As I have mentioned many times, we simply have no idea, at the present stage of the development of our scientific knowledge, what consciousness is. Trying to give a detailed description of time consciousness and lived experience without any scientific foundation is almost crippling. I believe that the effort is worthwhile, but it is as instructive in how it fails as it is instructive in how it less often succeeds.

In this frame of mind I recalled a passage from Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic:

“Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, Pomme treated and cured a hysteric by making her take ‘baths, ten or twelve hours a day, for ten whole months.’ At the end of this treatment for the desiccation of the nervous system and the heat that sustained it, Pomme saw ‘membranous tissues like pieces of damp parchment … peel away with some slight discomfort, and these were passed daily with the urine; the right ureter also peeled away and came out whole in the same way.’ The same thing occurred with the intestines, which at another stage, ‘peeled off their internal tunics, which we saw emerge from the rectum. The oesophagus, the arterial trachea, and the tongue also peeled in due course; and the patient had rejected different pieces either by vomiting or by expectoration’.”

“…Pomme, lacking any perceptual base, speaks to us in the language of fantasy. But by what fundamental experience can we establish such an obvious difference below the level of our certainties, in that region from which they emerge? How can we be sure that an eighteenth-century doctor did not see what he saw, but that it needed several decades before the fantastic figures were dissipated to reveal, in the space they vacated, the shapes of things as they really are?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, New York: Vintage, 1975, pp. ix-x; Foucault cites Pomme, Traite des affections vaporeuses des deux sexes (4th edn., Lyons, 1769, vol. I, pp. 60-5)

Because of the theory-ladenness of perception, when the theory is absent or unclear, perception has little to go on and it is confused and unclear. We cannot describe with precision unless we can conceptualize with precision. The eventual development of an adequate science of consciousness — which may ultimately involve a revision to the nature of science itself — will issue in concepts of sufficient precision that they can be the basis of precise observations, and precise observations can further contribute to the precisification of the concepts — a virtuous circle of expanding knowledge.

I would not insist upon the theory-ladenness of perception to the point of excluding the possibility of any knowledge without an adequate theory to guide perception. In this spirit I have already acknowledged that there is some value in Dilthey’s attempt to clarify the idea of lived experience. If theory and observation are mutually implicated, and eventually can accelerate in a virtuous circle of mutual clarification, then the first, tentative ideas and observations on lived experience can be understood analogously to the stone tools used by our earliest ancestors. These stone tools are rough and rudimentary by present standards of precision machine tools, but we had to start somewhere. So too with our conceptual tools: we have to start somewhere.

Dilthey’s approach to lived experience is one such starting point, and from this point of departure we can revise, amend, and extend Dilthey’s conception until it becomes a more useful tool for us. One way to do this is by way of what has been called the knowledge argument, also known as the Mary’s room thought experiment. I have earlier discussed the knowledge argument in Colonia del Sacramento and the Knowledge Argument and Computational Omniscience.

Here is the locus classicus of the thought experiment:

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red,’ ‘blue,’ and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue.’ […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?”

Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982)

The historical parallel of the Mary’s room argument would be to ask, if Mary had exhaustively studied life in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, and then Mary was enabled to actually go back and live in colonial Kush during the later second millennium BC, would Mary learn anything by the latter method that she did not already know from the first method? If we answer that Mary learns nothing from living in Kush that she did not already know by exhaustively studying Kush, then we can assert the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened. If, on the other hand, we answer that Mary does indeed learn something from living in Kush that she did not learn by exhaustively studying Kush, then we ought to deny the equivalence of what it was like to live and what actually happened.

While this exact thought experiment cannot be performed, there is a more mundane parallel that anyone can test: exhaustively educate yourself about somewhere you have never visited, and then go to see the place for yourself. Do you learn anything when you visit that you did not know from your prior exhaustive study? In other words, does the lived experience of the place add to the knowledge you had gained without lived experience?

While Dilthey does not use the term “ineffable,” many of his formulations of lived experience point to its ineffability and our inability to capture lived experience in any conceptual framework (as is implied by his criticism of Husserl, quoted above). If what one learns from what it was like to live is ineffable, then we could assert that, even when our conceptual framework was as adequate as we can make it, it is still inadequate and leaves out something of what what it was like to live, i.e., it leaves out the component of lived experience.

But, as I said, Dilthey himself does not use the term “ineffable” in this context, and he may have avoided it for the best scientific reasons. Our inability to formulate the distinctiveness of lived experience in contradistinction to that which can be learned apart from lived experience may be simply due to the inadequacy of our conceptual framework. When we have improved our conceptual framework, we may possess the concepts necessary to render that which now appears ineffable as something that can be accounted for in our conceptual framework. We must admit in all honesty, however, that we aren’t there yet in relation to lived experience. This is not a reason to avoid the concept of lived experience, but, on the contrary, it is a reason to work all the more diligently at clarifying the concept of lived experience. Employing simple distinctions like that between what it was like to live and what actually happened is one way to test the boundaries of the concept and so to better understand its relationships to other related concepts.

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Pierre Pomme (1735 to 1812)

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The Swarming Attack

7 April 2010


A sufficient number of tanks massed in attack can transform the efficacy of mobile fire into a swarm.

Yesterday when I wrote about the Iranian acquisition of the high-performance speedboat Bradstone Challenger (in Speedboat Diplomacy) I also had occasion to review a post from last August, The Power of Mobile Fire, and in retrospect I now see, despite my satisfaction with the argument in the latter piece, its inadequacies. But even as I wrote it I knew that I would need to revisit the topic, for I merely mentioned the contribution of mobile fire to swarming attacks, but did not develop it there because I had only begun to think of it at that point.

The Apache helicopter gunship is one of the preeminent weapons of mobile fire of our time.

In yesterday’s piece I quoted the Financial Times article to the effect that armed patrol boats based upon the design of the Bradstone Challenger, might be used for, “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats.” This led me to reflect on what I had previously implied about swarming attacks and mobile fire.

The Lockheed AC-130 gunship is a fixed wing platform for mobile fire.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I wrote:

The most advanced weapons systems of our time are those of mobile fire: the helicopter gunship and the aircraft carrier. Precisely because these are the most advanced weapons systems of our time, technological marvels of unrivaled sophistication, they are subject to severe constraints …one of the distinctive features of effective mobile fire has been its mass deployment. This hasn’t been discussed in the above simply because I am not sure of how to formulate it, but mobile fire is like a swarm that engulfs an enemy…

It would be worthwhile to think a little more clearly and more systematically about mobile fire. It would not be difficult to calculate, for various weapons systems, what we might call a mobility quotient, which would take into account the weight (and therefore the inertia), top speed, acceleration and deceleration, time to execute a 180 degree turn (inversely proportional), number of crew required to operate (inversely proportional), and the number of dimensions in which the weapons system in question can operate. This wouldn’t take much research, but at the present moment it takes more time that I am going to invest today. But we can calculate a very rough mobility quotient for some obvious weapons systems by taking top speed multiplied by the number of dimensions in which a weapons system operates. This is limited and imperfect, but it will make a point.




in knots


of operation



M1 Abrams tank 36.50 2 73
Apache helicopter 148.00 3 444
Nimitz class carrier 30.00 2 60
armored Humvee 56.48 2 113
AC-130 gunship 260.00 3 780

Even a rough calculation of the mobility quotient of a weapons system reveals the differences that should be obvious even without any explicit analysis: an Apache helicopter gunship is far more mobile than a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The above rough method has obvious problems: the Apache can reverse its facing far more quickly than the AC-130, but the AC-130 has a higher top speed. That is why I said in the above the a more thorough calculation would take in additional factors like the ability to turn and acceleration. Also, a warship or a tank can bring its gun turrets to bear on a target without having to turn to face the target. But I’m sure you get the idea.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I identified aircraft carriers as mobile fire, and certainly to an extent carriers and warships are mobile on the seas, but there is a more important sense in which an aircraft carrier is a platform for mobile fire. True mobility on the water would be something like the craft that the US Bureau of Industry and Security warned that the Iranians would make by adapting the design of the Bradstone Challenger: armed with “torpedoes, rocket launchers and anti-ship missiles” with the aim of “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats”. By the above rough calculation, the Bradstone Challenger has a mobility quotient of 130, better than twice that of the carrier. We know that a small patrol boat would be crewed by just a few men, reducing response time to commands, and that it would turn far quicker than any carrier or warship. Thus a more sophisticated mobility quotient calculation would only show a greater disparity between the large ships and the small boats.

The next step is to go from mobile fire to a swarm of mobile fire, and this could also be rendered in a rough calculation such that mobility quotient multiplied by mass (in the sense used in military doctrine, not inertial mass) equals a swarm. That is to say, the mobile fire unit multiplied by a mass deployment equals a swarm of mobile fire. This is where a platform for mobile fire becomes important: an aircraft carrier is sufficiently large to carry sufficient numbers of mobile fire units to induce a mobile fire swarm. On land, an airbase would be a platform for mobile fire. Or, for ground-based swarm attacks, a staging point, perhaps a military base with infrastructure such as fueling and repair, would be a platform for mobile fire swarm attacks.

In Speedboat Diplomacy I quoted the Financial Times quoting Craig Hooper to the effect that, “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.” This seems to call into question the possibility of the efficacy of a swarming attack by patrol boats. I consulted Craig Hooper’s website, Next Navy: Future Maritime Security, where he makes the point again, writing, “Once a fast boat swarm is identified as “hostile,” those small boats tend to have relatively short, exciting lives.” Hooper, however, ultimately leaves the question open: “The trick, of course, is avoiding any losses as a ‘swarm’ transforms from ‘traffic’ to a swarming ‘attacker’ …And that might be a tad difficult. Or… maybe not.”

The “maybe not” deserves our attention. Helicopters have the advantage of operating in three dimensions and of speed, but a patrol boat is potentially less sensitive to the direction it is facing, if it has a deck-mounted heavy machine gun with a 360 degree range of motion. Are there patrol boats that have been armed equivalently to the AH-64 Apache? I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. It would also be interesting to run a war game with patrol boats armed as heavily as an Apache, and with boats and helicopters present in equal numbers. Lessons might be learned that could teach the boats a few things about anti-helicopter tactics. Certainly, somewhere in the world, someone is conducting such exercises, in so far as it is within their capability, and learning the lessons. Presumably this would be those most heavily invested in the idea of swarming patrol boat attacks.

It is interesting that this discussion of swarm attacks should emerge at the same time as the BBC has reported swarming tactics by Somalian pirates. In Navies struggle with ‘swarming’ pirates, Rear Adm. Peter Hudson is quoted as saying, “What we’ve seen in the last month in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the Somali basin, is almost swarm tactics by some of the pirates who try to flood the area with action groups.” While the small pirate boats are mostly taking on unarmed and defenseless commercial shipping, it is also to be noted that the pirate’s boats are far from being anything like the Bradstone Challenger. If the pirates had to take on armed vessels they probably wouldn’t have a chance, but if the pirates, with their experience of small boat mobility and boarding on the high seas, were given a squadron of Bladerunner 51s and more sophisticated weaponry, they might well prove an adversary to a naval ship. Experience is key. It has been reported that the remarkable marksmanship exhibited by the Taliban with weapons such as shoulder-launched missiles is a result of the protracted civil war in Afghanistan and the resultant extensive experience accrued thereby.

In a swarm attack one can expect that there is a “tipping point.” This is what a philosopher would call a “sorites paradox” also known as the paradox of the heap: if you progressively add more and more grains of sand together, at some point they stop being a few grains of sand and become a heap. There is no definitive answer to when this transition occurs. That is why it is a paradox. For the same reason, there will be no definitive answer for inducing a military swarm attack: reaching the tipping point from massed deployment to the “lived experience” of a swarm (to borrow a phrase of phenomenology) will always depend upon variable factors like weather, terrain, morale, and cultural factors.

In a swarm attack, the forces attacked are ideally not merely demoralized and panicked, they are overpowered, overwhelmed, and utterly bewildered. In other words, the point of a swarm attack is to induce the enemy to experience the sublime. This may sound a little odd, so I will try to explain.

While in ordinary language “sublime” is used almost interchangeably with “beautiful,” in the technical jargon of aesthetics it means a distinctive aesthetic experience different from the beautiful. I have written about the sublime several times in this forum, for example, in Algorithms of Ecstasy, The Intellectual Sublime, and Salto Mortale. In the latter piece I elaborated on the Kantian conception of the sublime. Kant, primarily remembered as an abstruse metaphysician, devoted the third of his three critiques to the sublime. He makes a fundamental distinction between the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime. While almost all of his examples of the dynamic sublime are instances of natural beauty that overwhelm us, the idea of the dynamical sublime could be equally well applied to war, or perhaps better applied to war.

Immanuel Kant wrote extensively on the sublime.

Even Kant, in his genteel eighteenth century way, can glimpse the sublimity of war, although for Kant war was the sort of relatively well-behaved exercise between small professional armies to be found in the Europe of his day:

“Even war has something of the sublime about it if it is carried on in an orderly way and with respect for the sanctity of citizen’s rights. At the same time it makes the way of thinking of a people that carries it on in this way all the more sublime in proportion to the number of dangers in the face of which it courageously stood its ground. A prolonged peace, on the other hand, tends to make prevalent a merely commercial spirit, and along with it base selfishness, cowardice, and softness, and to debase the way of thinking of that people.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Sec. 28

To say that war is sublime is not to say that it is good, or that it is inevitable, or that it is anything else flattering or unflattering. The point is that war, and especially the experience of battle, can overwhelm a man, or a group of men, and leave them disoriented and bewildered. One can imagine (I must attempt to imagine for I have never been a soldier and never been in battle), that if one is on the side that is winning, confidence grows and one feels an increasing sense of power and control over the situation. On the losing side, the opposite happens: confidence collapses and one feels a dwindling sense of power and control over the situation. Past a certain tipping point, this lack of control passes over into an experience of the sublime when one is utterly at the mercy of circumstances.

I am not suggesting that there is anything essentially new about swarming tactics. On the contrary, in The Power of Mobile Fire I recounted the history of swarming mobile fire in the form of Hittite chariot archers and Mongol mounted bowmen. Moreover, since the emergence of Blitzkrieg, almost all battlefield tactics are implicitly aimed at swarming around and over enemy positions, leaving strong points to be “mopped up” later. What I am suggesting here is that a swarming attack by mobile fire is an effective way to think about such battlefield tactics, and that we can further conceptualize the situation in terms of inducing an experience of the sublime among the enemy. Since the sublime will be culturally relative to a certain degree, military doctrine might profit from studying the culture of the enemy in order to better understand how an experience of the sublime can be induced through military action.

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