Exploring “Experience and Expressions” in Climate Change Anthropology

Lake Sebu at dusk


The truth is, I have never heard of Wilhelm Dilthey until I’ve read “The Anthropology of Experience” edited by Victor Turner and Edward Bruner – and I am a Philosophy major. In his introduction to the book, Bruner presented him as a German thinker when Kantianism was the trend in Philosophy.  This is palpable in the way he critiqued the philosophy of a priori principles, meaning-complexes and absolute value norms, in his theory that assumes that all thought processes arise out of experience (erlebnis – what has been “lived through”) and derive their meaning from their relation into experience, and therefore critiquing the Kantian a priori.  For Dilthey, “reality only exists for us in the facts of consciousness given by inner experience” (as cited in Bruner, 1986: 4).

Dilthey asserted that experience is the ”foundation of the whole edifice of knowledge” going on further to say that it is “only by reference to experience that we can define what we mean by saying that anything ‘exists’” (Hodges, 1952). Bruner worked on Dilthey’s notion of experience to expound on an “Anthropology of Experience” where lived experience, “as thought and desire, as word and image, is the primary reality” (Bruner, 1986: 5).  As lived and embodied, experience becomes a critical focus of anthropology because it is a causal point for personal and community action which directly affects persons, outcomes and therefore cultures.

Reading Bruner talk about Dilthey’s notion of experience brings me back to my proposed study of climate change in the T’boli community of Klubi; a study on “experience and expressions of climate change”. Climate change, as a reality in the sense of something actually existing outside of the knowing self and in opposition to a notional idea, demands that social scientists turn their focus on how it is experienced and expressed especially in indigenous communities who are considered most vulnerable to climate perturbations. How is it represented in the language of our research partners? How is it told? What are the emerging expressions of this global phenomenon in the local communities that are the traditional partners of anthropologists? Are expressions related to climate perturbations becoming part of the dominant narratives? And as the peoples’ “articulations, formulations, and representations of their own experience” (1986: 9) how is climate change adaptation or response appropriated in those articulations?

Bruner expanded the concept of experience by including “feelings and expectations” (4), “images and impressions”, (5) as sources of experience. It comes to us not just verbally but also from the richer sphere of images and feelings, which goes beyond languages. We may say that given the ‘reality’ of climate change – of existing perturbations in the weather and unreliable traditional agricultural calendars as in the case of the T’boli – feelings, expectations, thoughts, images and impressions are also actively imprinted in the mind, which in turn are expressed, articulated in different modes.

Bruner accepted the idea that experience is “self-referential” – reality is experienced only by the person and that we can never completely know the experiences of another. Basically a study of the other, this then became the problematic in the anthropological study of experience. How can the anthropologist study another’s experience? He states:

 How, then, do we overcome the limitations of individual experience? Dilthey’s (1976: 230) answer was that we “transcend the narrow sphere of experience by interpreting expressions.” By “interpreting” Dilthey meant understanding, interpretation, and the methodology of hermeneutics; by “expressions” he meant representations, performances, objectifications, or texts. (1986: 5)

In my study of climate change experience and expressions among the T’boli S’bu, I start with the different experiences, but these can only be culled out from their own articulations of the changing weather patterns, inconsistencies with the agricultural calendar, their ‘feelings’ in the changing temperature, and the images that comes to mind given these perturbations. These expressions that include Bruner’s “representations, performances, objectifications or texts” encapsulate the experiences of the T’boli S’bu.

Questions on expressions and articulations of climate change may be asked: How are their mythologies appropriated in these perceived weather patterns? What rituals are employed to ‘fix’ these inconsistencies in the agricultural calendar vis-à-vis the weather? What are their impressions and desires in the midst of these uncertainties? What structures and episodes in their narratives of folk heroes and heroines help them in decisions related to agriculture and weather perturbations?

Bruner further clarified the relationship between experience and expressions:

 The relationship is clearly dialogic and dialectical, for experience structures expressions, in that we understand other people and their expressions on the basis of our own experience and understanding. But expressions also structure experience, in that dominant narratives of a historical era, important rituals and festivals, and classic works of art define and illuminate inner experience. (1986: 6)

One example, to further understand this experience-expressions relationship, is the k’mohung and seselong connection. K’mohung is the T’boli term for the “fish kills” that regularly happen in Lake Sebu. Several perspectives on the k’mohung are evidenced in the narratives related to it.

One narrative suggests that it is a curse. In this story, a T’boli cursed the Ilonggo fishermen, saying that the T’boli are the guardians of the Lake and that their fishes will die, unless they give the fish to the T’boli. Indeed, according to an informant, whenever there is a fish kill, the fish pen owners will give the dead fish to the T’boli or sell them at a much lower price.

Another perspective views it as a gift from Fu S’bu, owner/spirit of the lake. My informant described a time before the Ilonggo settlers put up their fish pens and when the lake was still covered by water lilies and lotus plants. She shared that whenever there is a k’mohung , people would see fish and shrimps floating in the surface, but not quite dead, “as if they were dizzy”. They can easily “pick these fish and shrimps with their bare hands,” she said. Indeed, outside Western, Modern Science, one will view this as a gift from the lake, almost congruent to the biblical “manna from heaven”. This idea of a gift clearly opposes that notion of a “disaster” and in fact, it only became widely-known as a “disaster” when the Ilonggos came and put up their fishery industry in the lake. The disaster-gift dichotomy clearly delineates not only economic valuations of the lake, but also belief or supernatural categorizations of the natural world.

Here, the experience of the k’mohung is expressed in different narratives that show polar notions between the curse-gift discourse based on different circumstances and point of views – differing but still constituting peoples’ articulations, formulations and representations of the experience. On one hand the experience is akin to sacredness, as a gift from the spirits, while the other as curse to their livelihood. Expressions are indeed “rooted in a social situation with real persons in a particular culture in a given historical era” (1986: 7).  Bruner manifested this rich array of expressions, saying “every telling is an arbitrary imposition of meaning on the flow of memory, in that we highlight some causes and discount other; that is, every telling is interpretive.” (7)

These narrative expressions of a singular ‘reality’ but of plural experiences, continue on to shape a particular cultural action – that of the seselong.

The Focus Group Discussion I conducted in Brgy. Klubi on March 30, 2013 described the k’mohung and seselong in this way: after a leme-et, a type of weather defined by occasional strong rains and wind coming from the north, and then suddenly clearing (my informant likened the leme-et to an impending typhoon), T’boli in the uplands would then gather their rootcrops and other produce from their gardens to prepare for a seselong, a system of barter trading between the upland-living T’boli and the lake-side dwelling T’boli. During the leme-et, people surrounding the lake would also prepare for the seselong by observing the lake for the telltale signs of the k’mohung. My informants shared that there are no celebrations or rituals conducted during the seselong, something that I didn’t foresee especially in the case of an event that may be deemed supernatural or an event that gathers people from the upland and lakeside. The seselong becomes an opportunity for the lakeside dwellers to trade their gathered fish in exchange for the rootcrops of the upland T’boli.

This pattern in the activities and interaction of the upland and lakeside T’boli, provided by the seselong, may be viewed as a distribution of resources and exchanges of protein and carbohydrates-rich food between the two groups of T’boli. This intertwining of the natural world and the cultural aspect of the T’boli seselong may be viewed as one of the solutions to what I assume is an imbalance in the protein and carbohydrate diet of the two groups. In the old days when the T’boli were still exclusively hunters and gatherers, this system of exchange provides an easy source of protein for the upland T’boli whose main protein source are the animals that they hunt in the forest, in exchange for their carbohydrates-rich rootcrops. In turn, the lakeside T’boli whose diet consists mainly of protein from the fish caught in the lake, exchange their fish for the upland T’boli’s rootcrops.

The T’boli’s experience of the  k’mohung also turns our attention to indigenous meaning-generation. By studying the different expressions of narratives and the system of seselong that springs from the experience, I can engage with Bruner’s method of starting with expressions to understand the experience because the “basic units of analysis are established by the people we study rather by the anthropologist as alien observer” (9). Anthropological understanding of climate change adaptations and responses of the T’boli S’bu may also use this approach.

Bruner’s interpretive approach of the experience-expression relations operates on two levels:

 The people we study interpret their own experiences in expressive forms, and we, in turn, through our fieldwork, interpret these expressions for a home audience of other anthropologists. Our anthropological productions are our stories about their stories; we are interpreting the people as they are interpreting themselves. (10)

Although I disagree with Bruner when he says that anthropological studies are intended for a “home audience of other anthropologists”, believing that the ultimate audience of the anthropologist are his/her community partners, I still agree in this bi-level operation of cognition where people interpret their own experience while the anthropologist interprets those expressions to gain access to the original experience. In once instance, for example, I was invited to attend a tutul (chants) performance of several master-chanters of Klubi, Lamdalag and Lamcade. Several times, community members listening to the stories would cut the singing and comment on the story’s episodes relating them to contemporary issues, such as mining in T’boli municipality or treasure hunting in Lake Holon, yet the story itself (of the hero Tudbulul) is of mythological time, a story outside time, indeed serving as “meaning-generating devices which frame the present within a hypothetical past and an anticipated future” (1986: 18). Their own interpretations of the age-old stories, relating them to contemporary problems and issues give me adequate hope that among those stories and tutul performances, I may perhaps glean the hows, and whys of the T’boli S’bu mind in the ‘reality’ of climate change and from these expressions – of performed texts and dormant meanings in folk narratives – I may catch, even for a brief moment, a T’boli S’bu ‘experience’ of climate change.




Hodges, H. A. The Philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey. Routledge & Kegan Paul (1952).

Bruner, Edward and Turner, Victor eds. The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1986).