Institutions Featured

Sonita Alleyne and “Lived Experience”

Jesus College Tobias Rustat
Written by Robert Jackson

The Master of Jesus College has complained that the court decision to retain the memorial to Tobias Rustat in its chapel “is not capable of accounting for the lived experience of people of colour in Britain today”. This is not the only recent claim founded on the “lived experience” of an individual or group -an idea with a complex intellectual history. While the genuine “lived experience” of an individual is incontrovertible, it is not irrefutable; and no one’s “lived experience” has primacy over that of others.

The Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, Sonita Alleyne OBE, has complained in the Guardian that “the process” of the Church court which ruled against her College’s proposal to remove the memorial to Tobias Rustat from its chapel “is not capable of accounting for the lived experience of people of colour in Britain today”.   Such a claim raises very interesting and important philosophical and historiographical questions, and it has significant implications for law and politics.

The Philosophy of “Lived Experience”

What does the phrase “lived experience” mean? It is useful to reflect on the history of this expression. It is not a native English idiom. It translates the German noun Erlebnis from the verb erleben, where the er- is intensitive and leben refers both to “life” and to “living”.

As a term in German philosophy it emerged in the Romantic period in the context of its shift of focus to human subjectivity, reacting against what was regarded as the excessively objectifying tendency of 18th century thinking. It was introduced by Fichte at the end of the 18th century to designate the unreflective realisation in a human subject of an immediate apprehension. It featured prominently in late 19th century Neo-Kantianism, where it designated the subjective givenness of a phenomenon prior to any objectification; and then again in the early 20th century “Phenomenology” pioneered by Husserl. Thence in the mid-century it was taken up in French philosophy, notably in the work of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty. Thus Sartre distinguishes between an object which exists en-soi (so to speak, objectively, in the Third Person: “it”), and the human consciousness for which it exists pour-soi (in relation to a subject: subjectively: in the First Person). He also observes that such consciousness carries with it an apprehension of “the other” (l’autre): this is the intellectual origin of the notion of “Othering” (as perhaps in “whiteness” being othered by “blackness”).

Of special interest for “History Reclaimed” is the way in which in Germany in the late 19th century the philosophical notion of “lived experience” as a special kind or way of “First Person” knowing also had important repercussions for historiography and other so-called “hermeneutical” studies, of literature and art. Dilthey distinguished between the Naturwissenschaften (= “natural sciences”) and the Geisteswissenschaften (originally translating J.S. Mill’s term “moral sciences”: for Dilthey these included the study of history). The former investigate things, ie Third Person objects, while the latter (among other things) investigates persons, ie First Person subjects. In this context Rickert distinguished the former sciences as “generalising” and the latter as “individualising”; and Windelband added that the former are “nomothetic” (= seeking to frame universal laws) while the latter are “idiographic” (= aiming at what the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called “thick description”). The Third Person natural sciences aim at Erklaerung (= explanation: typically in the form of cause-effect generalisations): by contrast, the First Person Geisteswissenschaften aim, rather, at Verstehen (= understanding, to be achieved by way of “empathy”: Einfuehlung). Among the thinkers influenced by this approach were Max Weber and his notion of “Ideal Types”; Edmund Husserl and his concept of the Lebenswelt (the “life-world” of inter-subjective relations); and Ludwig Wittgenstein and his concept of the “life-form” (Lebensform: the practical “forms of life” within which meaning and value are “given”).

Note that the basic thrust of this thinking was directed against “scientistic” reductions of the vital internalities of human culture to nomothetic external “explanations” such as Marx’s notion of culture as “a particular mode of production”, together with later sociological-anthropological theories of “Functionalism” and “Structuralism”

Although this German thinking in terms of Erlebnis had important parallels in American “Pragmatism” (cf William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), after 1914 its unfolding into “Phenomenology” and “Existentialism” were in the main unfortunately either ignored or discounted in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, Anglo-American “Analytical Philosophy” has also confronted some of the same problems, in a tradition going back to Locke in the 17th century. One of these has been the problem of “Qualia”: i.e. of what is particular and so to speak First Personal in a subject’s experience of what Locke had called the “secondary qualities” of objects, eg my experience of the colour red: cf the title of Nagel’s enquiry into What is it Like to be a Bat? (1974). Another has been the problem of “Other Minds”: I can (perhaps) have First Person knowledge of my own mind – but how can I have Third Person knowledge of the mind of another? One answer adduces (empathetic) analogy; another, that of “Behaviourism” (much favoured in early and mid-20th century) was to deny the scientific relevance and thence also the significance of First Person knowing: another, that this problem is one of the many unsolved and perhaps unsolvable “mysteries” of consciousness.

However, notably in America in the last few decades of the 20th century – and to some extent in reaction to the earlier philistinism – the barriers to the reception of “Continental” philosophy were heavily breached by an immense inrush of originally German (and French) ideas and ways of thinking, generally assimilated in English translation and without much awareness either of their original context or of their logic. The first wave of this goes back to the early mid-century and the reception of Freud, Jung, and “Psychoanalysis”, leading to what one observer (Philip Rieff 1966) described as “the triumph of the therapeutic”.  The next wave, in and after the radical 1960s, was the reception of Marxism and neo-Marxism. One feature of this was the expansion of notions of “false consciousness” (= that of a person whose consciousness does not accord with that which is deemed to be appropriate in his or her class or, later, other kinds of grouping such as skin colour, race, sex, and gender). Another feature was the adoption of the neo-Marxist reversal of the relations between the cultural “superstructure” and the economic-technical “infrastructure”, elevating the power of culture in the new “information age” – and thence hopefully enabling the engineering of various kinds of “revolution” by promoting or imposing changes at the level of culture, language, and other symbolic systems (including notably those of historical memory). This is the intellectual background of “Political Correctness”, and also of the “Critical Race Theory” which are currently winning an uncritical audience in academic and corporate environments across the Anglophone world.

Yet another feature of this reception-history has been the notion of “lived experience” appealed to by Sonita Alleyne. In a popularised form this has become especially prominent in the proliferation of “therapeutic” interventions across the Western world, reaching not only individuals concerned with the state of their “mental health” but also penetrating everywhere that “human resources” are held to require “management”. This industrialisation of “lived experience” is also especially noticeable in the radicalisation of universities and the media, sometimes imagined as bases for the radical transformation of popular consciousness.

It should be noted that much of this new thinking is logically inconsistent with any principle of the incontestability and irreducibility of First Person “lived experience”. The notion of “false consciousness” asserts a claim to be able to see through such experience to what one ought to experience, so to speak “authentically”: it originated in late Marxism (Engels 1893).  Similarly Neo- and Post-Marxist are notions of the primacy of the power of culture or of language in determining social and personal existence, which similarly purport to see through the individual human “lived experience” of personal agency, reducing it whatever factor (“patriarchy”, “radical feminism”, skin-colour) is now being asserted as a “systemic” or “institutionalised” victim/oppressor “structure of dominance”.


Sonita Alleyne and Others on the Primacy of “Lived Experience”

Reflections on Sonita Alleyne and her assertions concerning the “lived experience of people of colour in Britain today” may usefully also be joined with three similar phenomena:

(1) “recovered memory syndrome” (1990s)

(2) what may be called the Macpherson principles (in the case of this judge’s enquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence), to the effect that racism is defined by its victims (“any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person”), and that institutions and those who work in them may be “systemically racist” even when racist intentions are “unwitting” (1999) – and

(3) the principle that the police should always “accept any allegation [of sexual abuse] made by any victim in the first instance as being truthful” (2002).

In the first case it has subsequently emerged that many purported “lived experiences” had been “confabulated” under therapeutical influence. In the second the consequence was a kind of “institutionalised anti-racism” which caused the police to dismiss the genuine “lived experiences” of rape reported by numerous young women, because of fears of being found to be “institutionally racist”. And in the third it turned out that a purported “lived experience” was deliberately lied about.

The eminent philosophers who introduced the valuable concept of “lived experience”, and the academics and administrators who have followed in their wake, took it for granted that reports of such experience would be truthful and could be trusted. These cases indicate that this assumption was naïve: their practical consequences have been disastrous.

So what are we to make of Sonita Alleyne’s claim that the “lived experience” of “people of colour” has been ignored or even controverted by the proceedings of the Church court which is somehow “incapable of accounting for” that experience?

First, let us distinguish between on the one hand an individual’s “lived experience”, so to speak in the First Person Singular, and on the other any claim to a putative “lived experience” of a group in the First Person Plural.


Individual First Person “Lived Experience”

The philosophy of “lived experience” has persuasively indicated the incontrovertibility and irreducibility of those First Person “lived experience” of individuals which are genuine and truthfully reported. In the case of the Rustat memorial and the court proceedings concerning it, Sonita Alleyne does not refer to her own First Person individual “lived experience”. But if she were to do so, and her report were truthful, no one would deny the (subjective) reality and power for herself of Sonita Alleyne’s personal and individual feelings: they are what and how she tells us they are. And the philosophy of “lived experience” also indicates that the rest of us should make an empathetic effort to “understand” her “lived experience” as she reports it and without reduction to any “explanation” in terms of general laws of human behaviour or of any ulterior considerations, either conscious or unconscious.

A dispassionate reading of the judge’s account of her evidence at the Court suggests that he made this effort: he approvingly cites a view that she is a “deeply impressive person” – although he also notes the view that it is “hard to get a concise answer from her” (para 55). (Cf his more hard-hitting judgment on the leading academic proponent of the removal of the memorial, Dr Veronique Mottier, who he found to be “an underwhelming witness … firmly wedded to her own entrenched opinions and unwilling to recognise any views other than her own”: he also does not dissent from the statement by another witness that “on one occasion” she was “not truthful with the court”: para 54).

However, the philosophy of “lived experience” also implies that the First Person world of my own “lived experiences” is situated in various Third Person worlds of natural and historical facts, not to mention the First Person lived experiences of others than myself. Sonita Alleyne’s individual feelings in the First Person singular are incontrovertible (and perhaps even also irreducible). But it does not follow that they are irrefutable, to the extent that they may be based on an incorrect apprehension of matters of fact. For instance, the proceedings of the Consistory Court indicate that Sonita Alleyne may first have been confronted by the Rustat memorial in the context of what it found to be a “false narrative” to the effect that Tobias Rustat’s benefactions to Jesus College had been derived from the profits of slave-trading. The discovery of the falsity of this historical narrative cannot change Sonita Alleyne’s original “lived experience” of the memorial: but it is at least arguable that it should change her thinking about it – and also that it can do so, at least to the extent that first impressions are revisable in the light of further experience.

Moreover, the “lived experience” of a phenomenon by any one individual may also be legitimately compared and contrasted with the “lived experiences” of other individuals addressing the same phenomenon. How is Sonita Alleyne’s First Person “lived experience” of the Rustat memorial as “offensive” to be weighed against those of the many graduates of Jesus whose individual “lived experiences” of Tobias Rustat and his memorial are bound up with feelings of gratitude and respect due to a long-honoured benefactor of the college?

So much for individual First Person “lived experience”. But Sonita Alleyne’s claim is not made in respect of her own individual “lived experience”. Rather, it refers to a putative collective “lived experience” of a large group, also putative, that of “people of colour in Britain today”. How does this claim stand up?


Collective “Lived Experience”

A striking feature of the Consistory Court proceedings was the evidence as to his or her own personal “lived experience” of the Rustat memorial and the controversies surrounding it which was given by an anonymous former post-graduate student at Jesus College, described as “a person of colour and a direct descendant of slaves who were transported from Africa to the Caribbean and from there to Virginia” (para 68).  This witness argued that “our world is the product of a time that slavery was permissible and even innocuous – meaning that our whole world is, in a sense, a “legacy of slavery””, such that the proposal to remove the Rustat memorial “obfuscates the most important ways that the “legacy of slavery” manifests itself in our world”.  Continuing, the witness argued for the dismissal of the proposal “in exchange for a more serious discussion… without deluding ourselves with a false aesthetic sense of progress”.

Is this alternative First Person “lived experience” attested by a member of the group for which Sonita Alleyne claims to speak to be explained and dismissed as a case of “false consciousness”? As we have seen, such disrespectful dismissal is logically inconsistent with the philosophy of “lived experience”, for which any such genuine experience is incontrovertible and irreducible. Nevertheless we have seen such a strategy of disrespect put into operation in the case of the chairman and members of the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, dismissed as “uncle Toms” or “coconuts”.

In fact any suggestion that a whole group of people shares in the same “lived experience” is not a statement in the First Person: rather, it must count as a Third Person generalisation which is neither incontrovertible nor irreducible.  Its truth-value can accordingly be tested against observable facts. And here there is a great deal of evidence, from personal testimony (as from the anonymous witness) and also from opinion polls and voting behaviour which suggests that Sonita Alleyne’s generalisation about “the lived experience of people of colour” is in fact false.

Adjudicating opposing Claims

In a world in which different individuals have differing “lived experiences” which ground opposing courses of action it may sometimes be necessary to refer adjudication to a judge bound to impartiality. In spite of Sonita Alleyne’s objections, and also in spite of the (now surely discredited) Macpherson principles which she may suppose to authorise them, the question whether a judge is indeed impartial, and whether the proceedings of his Court are unprejudiced cannot be decided simply by assertions made by one or other of the parties in dispute. First Person “lived experience” cannot have primacy here: these are, rather, Third Person questions and as such eminently contestable.

Here it is relevant to refer to the principles adduced by the judge in framing his judgment, and to the process of the court proceedings which Sonita Alleyne seeks to challenge.

The judge in the Rustat case referred to so-called “Duffield guidelines”, based on precedent. These are fully set out in this judgment (para 78). They include

(1) the “ordinary presumption that, in the absence of good reason, change should not be permitted”

(2) tests as to whether “the proposals, if implemented, would result in harm to the … special architectural or historic interest” of a church – and, if they would

(3) “how serious that harm would be”;

(4) “how clear and convincing [is] the justification for carrying out the proposals; and

(5) whether “any resulting benefits [from removal] [will] outweigh the harm” that might be done.

Of these principles the first may perhaps be challenged, but surely not the others. Reference to the putative “lived experience” of various people might perhaps be counted as some kind of justification in applying the fourth Duffield principle. And in fact considerations of this kind were extensively debated during the hearings. In his findings the judge explicitly referred to such “considerations of pastoral well-being and lost opportunities for mission”. He did not find the arguments of the college to be “convincing” (paras 124-5).

Sonita Alleyne’s statement in the Guardian specifically asserts that “the process” of the court was/is “not capable of accounting for the lived experience of people of colour” (here she must surely mean “taking account of”: “accounting for” means “explaining”, which is not the issue here). What is this “process”? It is one in which both sides in a disputed policy are able and obliged to present evidence and arguments for their respective positions, in public, before an experienced judge bound by duties of impartiality and by law and precedent, and subject to the possibility of an appeal being made against his findings. In her statement Sonita Alleyne adduces no evidence or arguments for her contentions concerning this process.  And she and the college have probably wisely declined to appeal.

“Discourse Ethics”

In Germany, where the philosophical reflection on contrasting or differing arguments from First Person “lived experience” has arguably been most developed, Juergen Habermas and K.O. Apel have proposed a “Discourse Ethics” by way of a transcendental deduction from the phenomenon of discourse itself. Presuming (perhaps naively) that the proponents of opposed positions are prepared to join in genuine debate, they suggest that one of its rules must be a principle of trust in the good faith of one’s opponent. This is not compatible with any suggestion of (undemonstrated and probably indemonstrable) “systemic” or “institutional” prejudice either on the part of one’s opponents or a fortiori in respect of the processes of debate and adjudication. Nor is it consistent with any assertion of the primacy of one party’s putative “lived experience” over all other considerations.

The Christian Context

A final consideration in the case of Sonita Alleyne’s reference to “lived experience” must surely be the context in which its primacy is asserted, which in this case is that of an ecclesiastical building. This special context was well described by the judge, in words which should also be noted not only by the Master of Jesus (although she is apparently not a practicing Christian) but also by the Archbishop of Canterbury who has unwisely aligned himself with her and against the findings of an ecclesiastical court exercising a jurisdiction conferred by parliament: “A church (or a college chapel) is a house of God and a place for worship: it does not belong to conservationists, to the state, or to the congregation, but rather to God”.

As well as being a great benefactor to Jesus College, Tobias Rustat was also a sinner. But all men are sinners, and a proper Christian perspective on Rustat’s memorial at Jesus is surely to be found in the words of the “Pax” which are an important feature in the Eucharistic liturgy: “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to thine Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on your faith of Thy Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with thy will”.

Robert Jackson is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a former Member of Parliament and Member of the European Parliament. 

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Robert Jackson