One thing lies common to all of us: we are human. We have human bodies, human minds; human feelings, human thoughts, human desires, human beliefs. But aside from these and other such generic commonalities, our experiences differ. The experiences of being a man or being a woman (or being intersex, for that matter, though an abnormal case) all fall within the category of human experiences, but seem at least somewhat mutually exclusive. To be a man is not to be a woman and vice versa. Likewise, some of us are born with a disposition towards athleticism and sports, others towards bookishness and study. Others are “neuroatypical”, an umbrella term (that seems ever widening) to designate those on the autistic spectrum, with schizophrenic tendencies, or bipolar disorders. And all of us have variation in our cultural experiences: from the minor variations evident in families living on the same street, to the major variations of Western and Eastern civilizations.
Our experience of being human receives formation, in other words, by factors both internal and external. Some of what we experience depends on the context into which we are born, raised, and move throughout our lives: the cultural world—not merely the physical structure of the planet (though certainly a part of it), but the relational totality of the environment against which we are opposed as a self. This relational totality is complex and includes various objects irreducible to the physical structures we sensorially experience [an idea to be explained elsewhere]. But the self—while never apart from the world and “always-already-in-it”—as a singular and unrepeatable nexus of experience, does not receive all of its determinations from cultural realities. Some are innate: born into us, passed through genes, whether faithfully or defectively received. Others are the product of our own willfully-chosen behaviors; probably, in fact, more than we would like to admit (namely, most of our failings).
Both the “external” or worldly factors and the “internal” or innate and chosen factors are commonly inscribed in individual persons: that is, the context of experience always finds itself inscribed in the text of the human life. This idea of treating not only human history but also individual human lives as “texts”—suggesting the idea of stories or narratives—might and often gives the wrong impression: primarily, the valorization of the self as a hero. This valorization may come through a passive re-interpretation of the events surrounding oneself—reappraising all that has happened in one’s life so that one appears the protagonist against malevolent or oppressive forces—or through a more proactive “self-authoring” tendency (such that enterprising capitalists like Jordan Peterson will charge healthy rates to help you “re-write” your life).
Regardless of whether one reappraises the context of life or reappraises oneself, the dramatization of life as a story, in which the self stands as the protagonist, follows the broader cultural trend of emphasizing the importance of lived experience: not so much the intelligible or articulable content of what one has experienced, but the undergoing of it, the being-the-one-who-experiences whatever it might be. Integral to lived experience are the cathectic responses we have (“cathexis” here being a term appropriated from an English translation of Freud to mean, generally, both feelings, or physiological responses to perceptions, and emotions, or physiological responses to intellections often including feelings, as intellections correlate with perceptions; something to be investigated further down the line). Because all of our experiences are unique in time and place and the circumstances of their occurrence, the whole of our lived experience is always singular; it cannot be shared precisely as it has unfolded for us with anyone else—there is an irreducible subjectivity to the living of our experience, meaning that it belongs to that specific subject and no other; it cannot be reduced into a form which may be objectivized, i.e., turned into an object, that others can perceive and know.
Incommunicability of lived experience, and particularly of its cathectic core, has led to a belief that there is a kind of idiomorphic self-consciousness that every individual possesses—that my being myself cannot be understood by you nor any other self—that, fundamentally, unless you have the same experience as I do, or one very similar, you cannot understand what I understand. In other words, it has become a widespread belief that knowledge or understanding of what it is to be something is derived from lived experience, and this knowledge cannot be communicated by language. In consequence it is argued that one cannot understand what it is to be transgender if one is not transgender; what it is to be a woman if one is not a woman; what it is to be black if one is not black; what it is to be poor if one has not been poor; and so on.
To a certain extent, this is true: to the precise extent that those experiences are lived in an irreducibly subjective way. But this extent does not go nearly so far as generally believed or claimed. Living through some experience does grant a privileged knowledge of how that experience has affected oneself. This privileged knowledge does not comprise the entirety of the experience, however, nor is “knowledge”, let alone “understanding”, comprised of naught but the living of an experience. To the contrary, lived experience contributes only a minor part to the greater whole which we call knowledge. Although a unique form of disclosure, lived experience reveals for us only the phenomenological moment of selfhood, at the intersection of meaning and experience.
Meaning itself, however, can never be circumscribed by what has happened to or within some individual subject. It is, by its very nature, suprasubjective, communicable, articulable. How often do we have the experience of searching for the right word? We have a sense of what we would like to say; we have an idea that we want to communicate; but until that right word is found, we feel an incompleteness to our knowledge—like when we cannot remember an actor’s name, or where we know that woman from, or the word which describes a feeling we are experiencing.
Or, put succinctly: if we cannot put something into words, do we really, fully, truly know it? If we cannot explain what it means to be a man, or a woman, a Catholic or a Jew, a theist or an atheist—if we cannot explain what it means to be human—do we really know what it is at all?