Here is a quotation from Mae Jemison:

"Science provides an understanding of a universal experience. Arts provide a universal understanding of a personal experience."

Could you help me making sense of this quotation? Maybe, restating this quotation differently would be enough. My problem might of understanding might have to do with the meaning of "universal understanding"? The first sentence of the quotation makes sense to me but not the second one.

  • I suppose this quote is somewhat philosophical in nature, but I'm not sure it's appropriate (in the sense that such an activity has value) to analyze random sayings by non-philosophers. A lot of quotes are just made to be witty, and aren't really intended to have any profound meaning. Not only do witty saying often prove nothing, but in reality they often mean nothing as well... (at least, nothing serious, they are just "in jest" or simply admired for how they pleasing they appear without any deep thought as to their meaning. I think this is such a case.)
    – stoicfury
    Nov 26, 2013 at 20:19
  • contra stoicfury, I think they are appropriate. they might not be fully worked out philosophical systems, but they do contain some insight, which to the uninitiated may be obscure. Dec 3, 2013 at 17:42

3 Answers 3


Just a suggestion rather than a definitive interpretation of her meaning:

Real "universal" as meaning "for everyone," and in each sentence, read the second term as referring to what is possible to experience. That is, science aspires to provide an understanding of things that anyone could, in some sense, experience were they at the right places at the right times. Indeed, it tries to give an account of what everyone would experience if they were at the right places and times and had the right equipment, senses, memory, etc. Art, in contrast, draws on private experiences — the stuff of our private thoughts, feelings, dreams, and imaginings. If art tries to provide a universal experience of those things, that means that it's a matter of sharing private experiences with everyone.

Now, I am not sure why we shouldn't think of science as also aspiring to providing understanding for everyone, and I am not sure what to make of art that tries to capture ideal types of things as they're experienced by everyone. (That is, I am not so sure art necessarily starts with the personal.) But you haven't asked whether her claim is plausible!

  • Thank you for your answer. Indeed I didn't ask about wether her claim was plausible in order to not ask to many questions on the same post. Here is a new post that might interest you, on which I cited part of your answer.
    – Remi.b
    Oct 23, 2013 at 2:56
  • Forgot the link... philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/8456/…
    – Remi.b
    Oct 23, 2013 at 5:43
  • I'm not so sure that art should be equated with the personal/subjective. For one thing this excludes political & religious art which no longer has a real presence in Western Art - but it is still pretty prevalent elsewhere in time & space. Nov 26, 2013 at 8:10
  • @MoziburUllah , Well, yeah, definitely. The sentence Remi.b asked about is pretty questionable on its own. Remi.b asked for an interpretation of the sentence. Do you think my interpretation is wrong? Dec 3, 2013 at 17:08
  • No, I think your explication is spot on and very clear; it was its clarity that made me question it - but really it should've been aimed ar remi's couplet. Dec 3, 2013 at 17:34

Before giving the aforistic maxim, Mae explains what she is about to mean:

The sciences, to me, are manifestations of our attempt to express or share our understanding, our experience, to influence the universe external to ourselves. It doesn't rely on us as individuals. It's the universe, as experienced by everyone, and the arts manifest our desire, our attempt to share or influence others through experiences that are peculiar to us as individuals.

I.e. science explores and makes available facts about the universe - "universal experience" in a sense that we're all subject to experiencing them, while arts attempt to exposing to everyone ("make universal") those special facts that normally are only available to a particular person.


As a first approximation it holds. But lets consider whether we can find personal experiences in science, and universal experience in art:

Understanding why & how a certain mathematical equation works and what it means is individual to the person. Of course one can argue that equation is available to anyone.

The experience of childhood drawn upon by so many poets, and I mean by that its illumination & intensity is a quality that is available to everyone. Of course one could argue that each persons childhood is particular to that person.

That is when one investigates the picture becomes complicated.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .