A few months ago I read Robert Richardson's William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, and I'm still absorbing the lessons to be learned from this incredibly rich intellectual biography. In the book's penultimate chapter, Richardson quotes from James's Some Problems of Philosophy:
The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substituting a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes.
The profound meaning of this quote for me is rooted in the fact that my work hinges upon the unique ability of experiential learning to expand both our self-awareness and our behavioral repertoire, and (by extension) upon the inability of conventional modes of instruction to achieve the same results. Richardson continues:
For this aspect of his later thinking, James has been called anti-intellectual. A better description of his real position would be anti-abstraction; best would be to recognize it as the culmination of a lifelong protest on behalf of experience. This is not a new position for James, of course. It is the same clear opposition to Plato, who denigrates perceptual knowledge as mere sense impressions, and contrasts them with ideas, which are true and eternal. Jame's life work had been to reverse this polarity, to answer Plato.
From Wikipedia (as of today, anyway):
Plato...argues...that knowledge is always proportionate to the realm from which it is gained. In other words, if one derives their account of something experientially, because the world of sense is in flux, the views therein attained will be mere opinions. And opinions are characterized by a lack of necessity and stability. On the other hand, if one derives their account of something by way of the non-sensible forms, because these forms are unchanging, so too is the account derived from them.
I appreciate Plato's appeal to the instructor: If real knowledge is based on constant universal truths and unaffected by individual sense-impressions, the process of imparting knowledge suddenly become much more efficient. As an instructor, all I have to do is tell you what you need to know. And I can tell everyone the exact same thing.
But that model is much less useful in a field where there are few (if any) universal truths, which is the case in my areas of expertise: executive coaching, leadership development and group facilitation. I can't tell anyone anything and have confidence that real learning will occur. I can disclose my own sense-impressions, but the choice to view them as relevant and meaningful remains in the hands of the learner. Ultimately all I can do as an instructor is act on hunches, ask questions, and make observations, and hope they register with the learner as lasting sense-impressions and that the learner infuses them with meaning. And that meaning must be created out of their own, personal experiences as a leader or in a group.
I don't want to overstate the case against Platonic ideals; after all, I propose pseudo-universal truths all the time with the intention of using them as teaching tools. But I realize that the map is not the territory, and the purpose of these tools is simply to help us better understand and make meaning of our own sense-impressions, our own experiences.