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  3. Transcendental Experience


Yi-Jinkyung, Professor

Seoul National University of Technology


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A transcendental experience is an 'experience beyond experience'. In plain terms, it is an experience beyond the ordinary experience. To put it eruditely, It’s an experience of impossibility. To explain in detail, it’s something that forces us to think, which, however, is unthinkable and only causes an experience of unthinkability with a perplexity of “what on earth is this?”. Something unknowable that is seen or heard causes an experience of insensibility. In short, it’s the experience of encountering a situation that forces us to think the unthinkable, the experience of encountering the insensible that can only be sensed.

What on earth do I mean? Let’s take the experience of Kandinsky, the painter as an example. One day in the early 1910s, when he came back to his atelier, he found a very strange painting. It must have been one of his paintings because this was his own atelier. However, it was a painting he has never seen. What was even more surprising was that he couldn’t figure out what was drawn in the painting. He looked at the painting for a long time as if possessed by the beauty of the free-spirited forms and colors. Later, he realized it was his own painting turned upside down. This event led him to think that beautiful paintings are possible even without specific figures, and afterward his painting began to change from representational to abstract. Abstract painting was thus born.

This is precisely what we mean by a transcendental experience. It’s the experience of being completely unable to know what that is which is visible to the eye, the experience of the insensible that can only be sensed. This experience changed Kandinsky’s ideas and senses about painting, which made him one of the pioneers of abstract painting. If he had easily recognized what that painting was, he would have finished by setting the painting straight. However, because he couldn’t recognize what that was, he could change his ideas and senses about painting. This is how he became a historic figure, ‘the progenitor of abstract painting.’ This is also an example of how important the transcendental experience is.

While Kandinsky shows an example of transcendental experience associated with sense, Chinese Zen masters show the cases of forcing to think the unthinkable. For example, a monk seeking the essence of Buddhism came to see the monk Unmun and asked, “what exactly is Buddha?”. “A dry shit stake,” Unmun replied. Can you imagine the face of the questioner? ‘What on earth is he talking about? Buddha is a dry shit stake?’ Here’s another example. When asked why Bodhidharma came to China and what he tried to teach, Chaozhou replied: “the pine tree in front of the court!”

If you laugh it off on hearing this, it becomes a very ordinary experience. An ordinary experience of hearing a ‘joke’ or a ’nonsense.‘ This happens when question is asked without eagerness. If you were eager, you can’t simply laugh off this response, asking back ‘what are you talking about?’. That’s because it was an answer with which the spiritually awakened monk tried to teach the questioner the essence of Buddhism in a nutshell. However, he will not be able to get an answer even if he uses all the theories or thoughts he has about Buddhism. He encounters an unthinkable situation, which he has to think about. In that sense, this answer is the one that breaks down all the answers the questioner had about Buddhism and instead gives him one big question or problem.

‘Eagerness’ is ‘intensity.’ If one was eager for the answer, the question of “why did he say like that?” would have surged in with the utmost intensity. That’s why intensity is essential for transcendental experiences. And that’s because Deleuze even uses the phrase ‘violence that forces thinking.’ Buddhist monks sometimes literally use violence to enforce thinking. They sometimes scream and even club. Without intensity, human thought simply lets the unthinkable go by: ‘It’s nonsense.‘ On the other hand, if there was an intensive eagerness, something unthinkable would forcefully surge into the thinking. Then the ’nonsense’ will bring about intensive questions: ‘what’s this?‘; ’why did e do that?‘; ’what on earth is Buddha?‘. Thinking begins with those questions only after then. Zen masters teach the questioners to give themselves over to those questions until the ego disappears and only the question remains. This is because Deleuze emphasizes the importance of questions and problems.

Only after all his answers are completely invalidated, a thinking activity comes into operation. If we already have answers, we don’t need to think. We can find the answers we want by ‘utilizing’ the answers we already have. When thinking according to good sense, we don’t think in fact. The one that thinks is not me but good sense. We begin to think when it is unable to think while it is necessary. The violence by impossibility is exactly the main point of the transcendental experience. The violent intrusion of what stops our thinking ability is exactly the force that makes us truly think.

Transcendental experience is a very important concept in the philosophy of difference. Experience is usually based on what we know and are familiar with. By erasing the differences that seem strange, we sense and think within what we are used to and within the identity provided by the conventional view and good sense. We look upon what seems strange as something trivial, error, joke, or ‘nonsense’ and let it go by. Transcendental experience is the one in which the strangeness is indelibly powerful, so that it breaks down the familiar senses and thoughts. This is an intensive experience that forces its way into the incompetence zone of sense and thought. This is an experience where the disagreement between the ability to sense and the ability to think reveals itself, and at least one of the two has to be changed.

In some cases, this kind of experience is explained with the concept of ‘sublimity.’ A sentiment of sublimity occurs when the object of experience, such as god, a grand mountain or cascade, is so huge that one can’t deal well with it in ordinary experience and represent it properly. Of course, this kind of experience is also part of the transcendental experiences. However, this is ot the only kind of transcendental experience. Kandinsky’s experience mentioned above has nothing to do with ‘sublimity.’ Far from being sublime, both Unmun’s and Chaozhou’s answers smash up the sublime and sink what’s believed to be sublime such as ‘Buddha’ or ‘Buddhism’ into a pit.

What’s even worse about the concept of sublimity is that it makes us mistake the transcendental for the transcendent. Sublimity leads the ranscendental experience to what is great and huge which we don’t know. It induces us to leave ourselves to a ‘transcendent being.’ I’m sure you have probably seen somebody turning to god after having an unusual experience. Anyway, transcendent being is a very familiar notion either it's ‘god’ or ’nature.‘ By attributing all the incomprehensible to it, this notion makes you believe that you ’understood’ them and they ‘were explained.’ The rare experience outside the familiar sense or thought, which is a good opportunity to dramatically change your sense and thought, is attributed back to the familiar notion. In this regard, a transcendent being ruins transcendental experience. Sublimity also ruins it. You should remember Zen Master Linji’s ord for your transcendental experience: “Kill Buddha if you meet him.”

Another devastating misconception about the transcendental is to equate it with the a priori. A priori is a Kantian concept that signifies the precondition indispensable for an experience to be possible prior to that experience. In order to perceive that the animal over there now is a cat, there needs to be the form of space and time. If you change the spatiotemporal condition from ‘there now’ to ‘here yesterday,’ you can’t say you saw the cat. In other words, the experience of encountering a cat is only possible under a certain spatiotemporal condition of ‘where and when.’ In addition, there also need to be ‘categories’ such as ‘animal,’ ‘plant,’ ‘cat’ and ’dog.‘ As you see, the necessary prerequisite for an experience to be possible is a priori. It is described as ‘existing beyond experience’ and ‘transcendental’ because there’s neither the way to experience it nor it is dependent on experiences. There’s no way to experience time and space. Therefore, for Kant, the transcendental means the possible condition preceding an experience that makes the experience possible, and has the same meaning as a priori. This same form applies to everyone because it’s not dependent on individual experiences and is needed for anyone to experience. This is the form that gives unity to everyone’s experience. Kant sought therein the possibility of truth.

Deleuze also believes there must exist this a priori condition for an experience to be possible. Therefore, he acknowledges the discovery of the transcendental as Kant’s great achievement. However, as mentioned earlier, for Deleuze, transcendental experience is not an experience under this a priori condition but the one that demolishes it in order not to make it function anymore. It is not the possible condition of thought and sense but something which breaks it down and brings the unknown darkness into the experience. This is a concept connected not with the ability of thinking but with the inability of thinking. Therefore, it would be appropriate to say that the transcendental of Deleuze is contrary to that of Kant.

The transcendent and the a priori are two enemies that ruin the transcendental experience Deleuze says. These two enemies are even more devastating because they look similar to the transcendental of Deleuze. The magnitude of an extensive size is of importance in the thought of sublimity and the transcendent, whereas in the thought of the transcendental, important is intensity; the intensity surging up into sense and thought, the intensity destroying even the transcendent being. Whereas what matters to the a priori is the ability to make experiences possible, what matters to the transcendental is the inability to push the experience into the darkness of impossibility—the inability that scatters into the dark earth and thereupon becomes the fertilizer for another sense and thought.

Only when the familiar and things that let you judge as the way you know are broken down, will the true experience with what you encounter now be possible. Therefore, transcendental empiricism that emphasizes the unthinkability and insensibility makes true empiricism possible. Whereas the transcendental—the a priori—of Kant is the principle that governs all the experiences, the transcendental of Deleuze is the one that gives the experience the right to govern everything as it destroys all the principles preceding the experience. The experience that makes the difference exert a force in it by eliminating the forms and principles that identify experiences, that is exactly the transcendental experience.



translated by Jung Ki Lee