Siddhartha and the Quest for Subjective Experience

Recently I have found myself embroiled in the concept of subjective experience and its importance in generating true understanding about particular concepts. The human experience is a particularly challenging idea to convey to another person; it is often challenging to the point of being impossible, a limit which we can asymptotically approach but have no clear way to reach it lest we personally participate in the experience. The difficulty of conveying subjective experience to another individual is what made the concept of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha so interesting to me prior to reading the little novella. It seemed that Hesse was going to attempt to describe, using nothing but language and literary techniques, the personal experiences of a person achieving Nirvana. The challenge of such an undertaking was even more ambitious when considering that Hesse had never personally experienced such an event within his own life. So it is that I approached Siddhartha rather tentatively, constantly considering whether Hesse had achieved his goal of conveying the journey of experience leading to Enlightenment. Completion of the novella unfortunately only served to reinforce the idea that subjective experience cannot truly be conveyed through literature, or even likely art in general, but I discovered that Hesse was clearly cognisant of this concept whilst describing the journey of Siddhartha.

Subjective experience is often described through the concept of qualia; that is, the characteristic of what something seems to an individual. Qualia are described by Daniel Dennett as having four properties: they are ineffable experiences; they are intrinsic or fundamental so cannot be directly related to other experiences; they are private and so cannot be compared interpersonally; and they are immediately apprehensible in consciousness (1993). Michel de Montaigne covers this concept in his essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond where he discusses the limitations of philosophy.

“We want to find out by reason whether fire is hot, whether snow is white, whether anything within our knowledge is hard or soft. There are ancient stories of the replies made to the man who doubted whether heat exists – they told him to jump into the fire – or to the one who doubted whether ice is cold – they told him to slip some into his bosom: but a reply like that is quite unworthy of the professed aims of philosophy” (1993).

Michel de Montaigne asserts that there are properties possessed by things that we observe which cannot be argued into existence through reason. That is, hot and cold have qualia which cannot be conveyed through words and argument to another person: you have to be burned or feel the bite of ice through a first-hand subjective experience to understand it. Although definitions of qualia remain fairly consistent across philosophy, there remains a fair amount of contention concerning whether such a quality of mental states truly exists.

One of the most famous arguments for the existence of qualia is provided by the knowledge argument. Conceived by Frank Jackson in his article Epiphenomenal Qualia, the knowledge argument claims that no matter how much physical knowledge an individual initially has concerning a particular mental state, they will still learn something new upon first experiencing it. His most famous thought experiment involves the quale of colour (1982):

“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 specialises 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 wave-length combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. (It can hardly be denied that it is in principle possible to obtain all this physical information from black and white television, otherwise the Open University would of necessity need to use colour television.)
   What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.”

Jackson contends that new knowledge is gained from the subjective experience that could not be acquired through any other physical means. Such knowledge is provided by seeing colour, an experience of a quality which appears to be separate from the physical; it is ineffable, intrinsic, private, and immediately understood. There remain a number of critics who contest the conclusion that new knowledge would be gained by Mary in the experiment, though, and who challenge the assertion of the existence of qualia.

Our friend who defined qualia for us, Daniel Dennett, also happens to be one of the most prominent figures arguing against the concept’s existence. He details a number of thought experiments and arguments within his books Consciousness Explained and Quining Qualia, but, to follow our knowledge argument train of thought, I’m only going to briefly mention his rebuttal of Jackson’s colour scientist conclusions. Dennett contends that Mary would not learn anything new upon seeing colour if she truly had a working knowledge of all physical information about the colour. Since her near-omniscient knowledge-bank would allow her to understand the neurological conditions under which a person experiences the “quale” of red, Dennett suggests she would be able to deduce her own response to the colour. He uses an analogy in which Mary is replaced by a robot which has learned all of the physical information about the colour red; the robot would be capable of using the information to run a simulation of seeing the colour red, allowing it to understand the supposed “quale” without ever actually being exposed to the colour. It may then be feasible to completely describe something such as the mental state of seeing a colour, even if it takes millions or billions of words to achieve (1991). So, is it truly impossible to communicate the experience of seeing the colour red to somebody who has never personally experienced the mental state of seeing red, or is the effability of the mental state just exceptionally complicated? Perhaps the answer to such a question has limited usefulness either way.

When it comes to literature, the existence of qualia actually seems entirely irrelevant. Assuming that Dennett’s argument rings true, then we must still consider something such as the appearance of colour to be near-qualia: it is effectively qualia if the description of the quality could take billions of words to achieve. Literature is capable of communicating human experience through poetry and complex allusion to common human experiences. Simple techniques such as the simile and the metaphor are utilised to draw parallels between common experiences and the mental states attempting to be conveyed through the written work. More complicated techniques can be utilised by manipulating language through poetry to elicit desired experiences in the reader through their emotional responses to words and phrases. Allusions can be used to draw connections with the feelings conveyed in other art, literature or otherwise, to further enhance the connection between the reader and the desired mental state. But all of these techniques still rely upon one thing: the reader must already understand the mental state being described if they are to experience it when comprehending the words on the page. There has never been a piece of literature to date which has made somebody feel a unique emotion for the first time in their life, visualise a brand new colour, or smell something unlike anything they have smelt before. Whether these experiences have qualities that emerge from qualia, or simply contain elements that are characterised better as near-qualia, it is clear that human experience cannot be described to its fullest extent through the limited words provided in a piece of literature. So, if something as simple as a new colour has never been captured within writing, then how can an experience as complicated and not well defined as Enlightenment possibly hope to be conveyed in a short novella such as Siddhartha?

The fact is that the experience of Enlightenment is not conveyed entirely within the novella. But that appears to be Hesse’s point; language is limited in that it cannot effectively convey unique subjective experience, so it is important to seek out experiences for yourself if you desire to truly understand anything about the human condition. Hesse seeks to show the reader the effects of this contention through the lives of two distinct characters, Siddhartha and Govinda, both sharing the same ultimate goal, to achieve Enlightenment, but approaching the problem in distinct ways. The method selected by Govinda relies upon absorbing information from teachers, gaining second hand experiences from studying traditions and the teachings of those further down the path of Enlightenment than himself. Siddhartha contends that such knowledge cannot be gained from studying the teachings of another individual and most be sought by one’s self – the path must be forged anew. The clear distinction between these two characters becomes strikingly clear once they part ways after meeting the Buddha, with Govinda choosing to stay and join the Buddha’s followers whilst Siddhartha leaves to seek the answers to his questions by himself. Whilst Govinda’s understanding about the human condition stagnates, the experiences obtained by Siddhartha shape him into an entirely new person. He becomes someone who understands love after his time spent with Kamala the courtesan, he discovers the temptations and harm caused by materialism through his experiences gambling and operating as a merchant, and he finally learns to understand the grand illusion of time itself.  

The idea that the human condition must be experienced, not taught, is challenged and reinforced when Siddhartha is reunited with the son he conceived with Kamala. Arrogance, disobedience, and frustration are all directed by the boy towards his father, who desperately tries to teach the child proper virtue and behaviour. Eventually, the young boy runs away and Siddhartha is encouraged by his wise companion, Vasudeva, into letting his son forge his own path; the father must allow his son to experience life for himself and develop understanding and virtue from a wealth of personal experience. Parental figures are the first teachers that a person will ever have and, out of love, they are often desperately protective of their children. No parent wants their child to experience suffering. If someone truly understands the near-qualia of suffering, they know all of the unpleasantness associated with it and would never wish for somebody they loved dearly to be subjected to such an experience. But even the near-qualia of suffering can serve to make all of somebody’s positive experiences so much more valuable as it provides a point of references relative to these other feelings. There comes a point where a parent has to step back and allow their children to gain their own understanding of these near-qualia; a point where they stop trying teach the unteachable and instead act as a support network for the student who seeks to forge their own path.

In the same way that ultimate teachers such as the Buddha and parental figures are inherently limited in the knowledge that they can provide, literature itself is imposed with this limitation. It is not Hesse’s goal to teach the reader about Enlightenment itself because he does not even possess the knowledge of the associated near-qualia. Rather, for all intents and purposes, Enlightenment appears representative of the ultimate subjective experience: a symbolic way to succinctly connect all human experience. The limitation placed on language and literature when it comes to sharing subjective experience should not be considered to render the art useless, though. Literature is valuable for presenting unique perspectives on the world, for learning about the wealth of possible experiences that can be obtained in life, and for relating those ideas to the experiences common to all human beings. But, if you read Siddhartha with the expectation of even tasting the near-qualia of Nirvana, you will leave the novella sorely disappointed. I leave this book with a burning desire to seek more subjective experience, to discover many of the near-qualia of life through actually living it. That is the power of literature: to open your eyes to new possibilities of experience which you can then pursue in your own world. There remains another aspect of these considerations of subjective experience that has touched me personally too.

Subjective experience is surely important for enriching an individual’s own life with unique understanding of the world, but I would also contend that it is an imperative part of developing empathy. If the near-qualia of suffering cannot be taught, then how can someone who has never suffered possibly empathise with somebody who is living through torment? Challenges with expressing empathy are especially prevalent when it comes to mental states that cannot be experienced by all individuals, particularly when it comes to issues such as mental illness. The true nature of suffering from clinical anxiety cannot be conveyed to somebody of sound mind through literature or language. I could never describe in its entirety the derealisation within a panic attack and the nature of the irrational fear it presents. Somebody suffering through a mental state as removed from reality as schizophrenia would have an even more challenging time describing the true experience of their delusions to another human being. So if such near-qualia are essentially locked off from people of sound mind, then it can become exceptionally difficult for them to truly empathise with those who live through such experiences.

Looking beyond just mental illnesses, we should also note that the conditions in which we as individuals live can place limitations upon the possible range of mental states experienced. When a person has never experienced racism before, they have no understanding of the near-qualia associated with experiencing the institutionalised discrimination that affects so many groups of people. If somebody has lived their entire life without being discriminated against for their sex, then they cannot truly understand the challenges presented by sexism and the mental toll they exact upon a person. These experiences can be presented in literature and communicated through language, but the lack of understanding about the near-qualia of such experiences make empathy unintuitive. If somebody wrote an entire novel about the unique colour of x-rays, you would not walk away from the novel with an actual understanding about what x-rays looked like. Now replace the word “x-rays” with discrimination, spirituality, personal identity, or any range of other human experiences. When I consider the implications of subjective experience, I begin to realise that I have to make a conscious effort to empathise with things I don’t entirely understand.

I don’t know what it feels like to be schizophrenic, but I can see that people suffer for it so must express empathy for them. I have no idea about the range of emotions and struggles presented by institutionalised discrimination truly are, but I can see their effects upon people in my society and so I must express empathy and acknowledge their effects. I have never personally had a spiritual experience or travelled down anything that could be considered a path towards Enlightenment, but I also have no hard evidence to argue against the qualia of such experience. My lack of understanding of particular subjective experiences should be no excuse for ignoring their effects upon other people. It is necessary to make the conscious effort to acknowledge my ignorance of certain issues and, if true empathy is impossible, then I must at least express sympathy to those who do claim to be affected by mental states beyond my own understanding.

So what I take away from Siddhartha is two-fold; the novella has further developed my understanding of the importance of subjective experience in living life to its fullest extent, whilst I must also acknowledge the limitations imposed upon my possible range of experiences and the way in which that impacts how I feel empathy for others. Like Siddhartha, I must forge a path through life and not rely entirely upon teachers and literature to understand the world. Life has to be experienced. True understanding is the intersection between the universe and an individual’s subjective consciousness: a point which is not an element of anything communicable through language or lessons. But the set of all of these points becomes the human experience, something truly unique and special to each and every person.

References and Further Reading
Dennett, D (1988), “Quining Qualia”, Consciousness in Modern Science, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom

Dennett, D (1991), Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Co., United States

Jackson, F (1982), “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 127, pp. 127-136

Michel de Montaigne (1993), The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne, translated from French by M.A. Screech, Penguin Classics, Australia

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