A Philosopher's Blog

The Real

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2010
Plato's The Republic, Latin edition cover, 1713
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As a professor (and even worse, a philosophy professor) I have become accustomed to people talking about the real world as a land far from the ivory tower in which I am supposed to dwell. Naturally I, and folks who are supposed to be like me, are not supposed “to get” how the real world works. Thanks to Sarah Palin and others, I have also grown familiar with the idea of a Real America, which is also presumably a place where I do not live. Not surprisingly, all this talk of the real got me thinking.

When folks accuse me, as a professor, of not being in the real world I tend to smile a bit. After all, there is a certain irony in accusing a philosophy professor of being far from the real world or not “getting” the way the real world works. This is because, obviously enough, of Plato’s famous discussion of the distinction between the lovers of wisdom (philosophers) and the lovers of sights and sounds. For Plato, the true philosophers were the ones who deal with the real.  The real for Plato is, of course, those mysterious forms. The other folks, those who seem to now claim to be the kings of the real, were characterized as merely playing with images and opinions.

Naturally, talking about Platonic forms and other philosophical stuff does little to convince folks that I  do not live many zip codes removed from the real world. As such, it seems like a reasonable approach to set aside talk about unseen realities and take a somewhat different approach.

One reasonable approach involves considering what is supposed to distinguish the real world from the sort of world that I and other philosopher types are supposed to reside.

On the face of it, my “world” seems to be just as real as the “world” of the folks who accuse me of keeping it unreal. After all, the buildings seem solid enough as do the people around me. I do work, I get paid, I interact with people, and do the things that other folks do. As such, my “world” just seems to be part of the world, rather than an unreal realm distinct from the allegedly real world.

But, someone might say, you philosopher types deal with things that are not real. You live in books, talk about made up ideas and so on. In the real world we deal with real things.

One obvious reply is that the “real” world contains an abundance of made up ideas and other such things that are supposed to be part of the unreal world. To use an obvious example, consider politics. As another obvious example, consider the financial system. The so-called real world seems no more (or no less) real than the world of philosophers and other academic folk.

But, suppose that I am willing to accept that the “world” I occupy is not the same as the “real” world. That is, that there are differences between what I do in my professional life and what, for example, people who are bankers, construction workers, engineers, financial planners, bureaucrats, priests, and so on do. There is still the obvious question as to why their “way of life” should be considered real and mine should be considered unreal.

This would seem to take us to the old saw that philosophy in particular and intellectual endeavors in general are useless. The real world is the world in which people bake, build and kill rather than think, talk and write. However, this seems to be a mere prejudice on par with intellectuals looking down on those who bake and build for not discussing Proust over lattes in the cafe. These “worlds” seem to all be quite real. I see the value in being able to repair a two stroke engine (having done it myself), cook a fine steak (or tofu) or put a round through a person’s head at 800 meters (haven’t done that, but could). I can also see the value in being able to consider various moral views, speculate on the nature of the universe or do mathematical proofs.

This is not to say that different professions are not different and that some professions (or specific people) might be less than useful. However, the blanket dismissal via the use of “the real world” seems to have no real substance.

As far as “getting it” or being part of the Real America (or Real Britain or whatever), this seems to be primarily a rhetorical device. Merely saying that someone does not get it or accusing them of not being Real Xs does not prove that they are in error or morally wrong. For example, someone might tell me that I “just don’t get it” when it comes to taxes and government spending because I argue that cutting the deficit requires increasing some taxes and reducing major expenditures, such as defense spending. Obviously enough, no matter how many times someone says that I do not “get how the real world works” or that I am not part of the Real America, he does not show that my view is in error.  What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.

In many cases it seems that accusing someone of “not getting it” or “not understanding the real world” or of not being “real whatever” is merely another way of saying “they don’t believe what I believe” or “they don’t see the world as I see it” or “they do not have the same values as me.” Obviously enough, the mere fact that someone has different beliefs, views or values does not prove that these beliefs, views or values are inferior or mistaken. Of course, the use of such rhetorical devices can be rather effective. After all, the real people want to get it.

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19 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on December 31, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Two of my friends, Jim and Farnoosh, each suffer from vivid, identical hallucinations.

    Jim is unaware that he hallucinates, so he takes everything that he perceives at face value and responds accordingly. Because Jim believes that he is a passive observer, he assumes that the world exists exactly as he experiences it.

    Far, however, is aware that she hallucinates, although she isn’t sure when or where it happens. Because of this, she questions everything she perceives, constantly trying to distinguish between what is and what is not hallucinatory. Since Far believes that she is an active observer, she assumes that the world is to some degree different from how she experiences it.

    Because Jim and Far experience the same things, Jim doesn’t believe that Far hallucinates; he sees her worries and efforts as being just so much wasted time that she could be putting to productive use.

    Conversely, Far thinks that Jim is living with his head in the sand; as she sees it, it’s treating the hallucinations as real that wastes both her and Jim’s time and effort. If she could just figure out the hallucinations, Far believes that all that wasted time and effort could finally be put to productive use.

    Because Far sees the problem as cumulative between everyone who hallucinates, she perceives the net stakes involved to be enormous. As such, she’s dedicated her entire life to cracking the problem — she sometimes thinks that this is the single most important endeavor anyone could ever engage in. To Far, it is beyond life and death.

    To Jim, this just makes Far seem even more obsessed and out of touch.

    Since Jim sees the problem as limited just to Far, the stakes are very low for him. So low, in fact, that he mostly doesn’t care — because Jim values productive work, Far annoys him in principle, but Jim only gets upset when he sees his taxes used to support Far in some fashion.

    Which of them is more in touch with reality? The question boils down to whether or not they are actually hallucinating at all — if they are, then the answer seems to be Far since she’s at least aware of the problem, but if they are not, then the answer is surely Jim.

    Since Far seemed the more thoughtful of the two, I put that same question to her. She said that she had already considered it: If she were mistaken and they were not hallucinating at times, then the inevitable result of her inquiry would be that conclusion.

    Although it would simply confirm what Jim believed all along, Far pointed out that that simple act of confirmation was itself a worthwhile end — at the least, it would give her and other philosophers peace of mind and stop them from wasting any more time and effort on useless things.

  2. WTP said, on December 31, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Mike, I searched in vain for the words “responsibility” and “actions”. To be in the real world (my perspective), one must take responsibility for one’s own actions AND the actions taken at one’s behest. Granted, you do that when you cook a steak, etc. Philosophically, one can extrapolate how to roast a chicken from what one knows about cooking a steak. So even though you may never have roasted a chicken, when speaking to those who can’t even boil water, your philosophy for roasting chicken has value and you could guide those people on how to do so. While one could draw parallels between lecturing on cooking and lecturing on planning a business trip to a foreign country, i.e. the preparing (packing) and planning (itinerary, reserving the car, buying train tickets), there are significant differences such that, assuming you had never actually done this, lecturing on the subject would best be left to someone who has. Yes, I am greatly exaggerating some details with these examples, but do you get my drift here?

    Asur, I really thought I was with you there. My mistake was in misreading the following sentence (wife is nagging at me to get off the damn computer, so I skimmed it too fast):

    “Far, however, is aware that she hallucinates, although she isn’t sure when or where it happens. Because of this, she questions everything she perceives, constantly trying to distinguish between what is and what is not hallucinatory. Since Far believes that she is an active observer, she assumes that the world is to some degree different from how she experiences it.”

    What I read into that was that Far, because she questions what she perceives, she took some physical action (“active observer” is what threw me) to discern how the world actually works, testing her perceptions against reality, whereas Jim did not. Consequently I saw Jim as the philosopher in the ivory tower and Far as the taxpaying citizen.

    This leads to what I consider the fundamental question of philosophy. If we can’t agree on this fundamental question, our worlds do not meet and we are living in parallel universes, thus constantly talking past each other on every other issue we discuss. That question being, “Perception is reality. True or False?”.

    • Asur said, on December 31, 2010 at 5:28 pm

      Yeah, you’re right; the “passive/active” distinction has to do with whether what we perceive is raw or cooked.

      Although Far is the only one trying to test her perceptions against reality, both she and Jim test their expectations against reality.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on December 31, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    How is Far aware that she hallucinates, but Jim is not aware that he hallucinates? How does she know that she suffers from hallucinations?

    • Asur said, on January 1, 2011 at 10:13 am

      The same way you or I would, I imagine: Anecdotal evidence. If someone else’s objective report contradicts yours, one of you has to be wrong about what you experienced — in other words, at least one of you two (maybe both) experienced something that didn’t correspond to reality.

      Far is alarmed by this, whereas Jim thinks it’s just an everyday fact of life that people disagree about things.

      This is actually the genesis of both Science and Philosophy as disciplines, and also what separates them from each other. It all comes down to the nature of disagreement about reality, and what aspects of reality people are disagreeing about. You can see science as trying to settle disagreement over facts, and its recourse is measurement; philosophy tries to settle disagreement over ideas, and its recourse is reason.

      The better our science, the better, the more productive the technological applications we can squeeze out of it. The better our philosophy, the better, the more productive our social structures.

      Both Jim and Far understand and value science; they differ over the value of philosophy.

      An example is politics, which is clearly a social structure: Far wants to know what the best political system is for the country she lives in, and knowing that, she wants to put that system into place. Jim thinks this is too idealistic; he doesn’t ask what the best system is, he asks how to best work with the system that’s already in place.

      It’s these differences that make Jim feel that Far is wasting her time, and Far feel that Jim is settling below his potential.

      • WTP said, on January 1, 2011 at 11:49 am

        Well stated again, however if…

        Far – “wants to know what the best political system is…to put that system into place”
        Jim – “thinks this is too idealistic…asks how to best work with the system that’s already in place.”

        Jim and Far seem to have a static bias, though Jim much more than Far. Consider slightly different from both, upon observing that at any specific “now” instant it is difficult to determine if the existing system is working and while also understanding that any system will need to work in a very dynamic future (similar, see Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), “Willie” believes in allowing the greatest freedom with only the most necessary rules to allow the best system(s) to evolve/emerge. Upon recognizing that he is in a very small minority in observing this, should Willie throw his political lot in with Far or Jim?

        • erik said, on January 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm

          Far and Jim. If the system that’s in place is a pretty good one—a constitutional republic based on a representative democracy–and it has been around for a while–200+ years–Jim and Far should be able to work together, within the good system, to create a better system.

          But that won’t happen.

          Willie has a noble goal it would seem; he’s created quite a series of tasks for himself. He has to define what “the most necessary rules” are. And that requires defining when the point of “greatest freedom” (I assume somewhere short of anarchy) has been reached. Then Willie would have to choose, someone or ones to apply those standards. Willie’s goals– “. . .allowing the greatest freedom with only the most necessary rules to allow the best system(s) to evolve/emerge”– seem to hint that his choice of “the right people” would be skewed by his ideology: i.e. his choice would likely lean libertarian. So the choice would not be objective.

          That individual or those individuals (seemingly not the likes of erik, Mike ,many liberals or independents) would then provide some likely predictable answers to the questions “What are ‘the best system(s)’ as they are evolving?” and “When has ‘the one’ finally emerged?”. And the answers would not likely be objective.

        • Asur said, on January 1, 2011 at 5:43 pm

          Willie should throw in his lot with Far: Willie represents a specific answer to Far’s question of what the best political system is — one allowing the greatest freedom with only the most necessary rules.

          That the system you describe is designed to eventually replace itself isn’t an issue as Far’s question necessarily refers to a specific “now” instant as you put it, hence there’s no contradiction if the context of a future “now” dictates a different solution.

          The trick is that Willie will have to persuade Far that his solution is the correct one. Although this would be true of Jim as well, what makes Far the better choice for Willie is that she is already committed to impartially evaluating Willie’s argument; Jim may well do the same, but having no such prior commitment, it’s up in the air.

          Although the cynics would shoot me for saying this, the other benefit of Willie going to Far is that regardless of who ends up persuading whom, provided they were sufficiently thorough and open-minded with their argument, they will end up believing the same thing — even if it is different than either of their starting positions.

          Jim, however, does become a better and better choice for Willie the more the existing political system already aligns with Willie’s views — essentially, he has less work to do here than he would with Far.

          • erik said, on January 1, 2011 at 8:30 pm

            While Far may appear to be the better choice, her commitment to impartially evaluating Willie’s argument. . .”, while a commitment, is hardly a guarantee that her evaluation will be impartial.

            And I’m one of those cynics. Cynical enough to ask ‘who’ will determine if “[Far or Jim] were sufficiently thorough and open-minded with their argument”. And to ask what is deemed “sufficiently thorough” (i.e., on a thoroughness scale of 1-10, what is sufficient?
            And on an “open-minded” scale of 1-10 what is sufficiently “open-minded”? If 10 represents reaching a conclusion that coincides totally with the person determining the sufficiency would a score of 7 represent sufficient open-mindedness?

            And aren’t we getting down to this: Willie’s looking for a “political system [that] already aligns with [his] views “. And he’s going to find one regardless of the very abstract concepts of thoroughness and open-mindedness. In that way, Willie’s not much different than a Christian who goes church-shopping to find a version of the faith that fits his/her current worldly-and-otherworldly-views.

            • Asur said, on January 2, 2011 at 1:40 am

              It’s true that there’s no guarantees, but in their absence going by odds is the next best thing.

              As for thoroughness and open-mindedness, it’s like striking a match — the strike either makes enough heat to light it or it doesn’t, and when it did it’s not because anyone said it did. The assumption I’m making is that out of any given set of incommensurate positions, there is always one and only one contextual best fit to reality.

              Although WTP is the authority on all things Willie, it seems to me that Willie isn’t shopping for a political system, he already has one — freedom tempered by only the most necessary rules. I can’t think of a name for it, but it seems deep on the libertarian right.

            • erik said, on January 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

              So what are the chances that Wilie is going to find anything other than exactly what he has now? Or that he REALLY wants to?

              Willie would seem to “know” what is “most necessary” though the concept of what is “most necesssary” is a most personal one based, as seems clear in your second paragraph” on “next best things” and “assumptions”. In your analogy, if we were sitting in a circle watching that match being lit, anyone but the blind, blindfolded, and ignorant in the audience, would know whether there is light or not. That is not the same kind of process required to determine “thoroughness” and “open-mindedness”.

              You wrote at 2:11 1:40 that Willie’s looking for”. . .freedom tempered by only the most necessary rules. I can’t think of a name for it, but it seems deep on the libertarian right.”

              Presaging that comment I wrote this, taking that idea a step further at my 1/11 2:05—-Willie’s goals– “. . .allowing the greatest freedom with only the most necessary rules to allow the best system(s) to evolve/emerge”– seem to hint that his choice of “the right people” would be skewed by his ideology: i.e. his choice would likely lean libertarian. So the choice would not be objective.

              I want just what Willie wants. Deep down, you probably do, too. It is the “ideal” our country is based on. But, it carries an inherent danger (call it a “difficulty”) common to most “ideal”ologies—-people believing fervently that they and only they have the right/best insight and know the only way to reach the perfection that can’t be reached.

              To get to what Willie says he wants, I think we need many more inquisitive and apparently open- minded Fars and seemingly pragmatic Jims and far far fewer Willies.

          • WTP said, on January 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

            “what makes Far the better choice for Willie is that she is already committed to impartially evaluating Willie’s argument”

            While that would be my first instinct, I would only agree in so far as Far is willing to take an active approach in her analysis, as I stated above. Yet this still comes around to my concern with rules becoming restrictive as a society moves into a newer environment. And as technology and social understanding progress, the lag time between adapting rules to fit the new environments would become more of a burden on progress.

            Either way, I also have the concern TJ expresses below. While Far may have the best of intentions, I am uncomfortable with the need to control others. I believe that such rules should only be implemented in situations where great harm may come from the activities one aims to control. I believe it is far more dangerous to use power over others to “improve” the world. Especially if the parts to be controlled do not buy in to the “improvement”. While Far’s approach might be all good and well within the confines of a private business or, at most (and I’m really trying here), a small government agency that is directly accountable to the sources that fund it.

            Also, the analogy breaks down in so far as it is highly unlikely that Jim exists in an environment of just himself. Would his hallucinations also apply to all of the interactions he has with other people? Would those other people have their own hallucinations? Would Jim not be able to detect where others are hallucinating but where others also see a common reality or possibly a common hallucination that is closer to reality than his individual one? Not really interested in pursuing these questions so much as defining the limits of the analogy. While I think it was a good one for the purpose of this original post (what was that again?) , in my observation all analogies eventually break down as you approach the complexities of the “real”.

            • Asur said, on January 3, 2011 at 3:11 am

              Yeah, I made Far and Jim just to characterize the two positions of believing philosophy to be worthwhile and believing it to be a waste of time.

              The latter view is really only motivated by the belief that philosophy cannot provide better answers than the ones we already have. Although I disagree, I don’t think that this position can simply be dismissed; Far must justify her existence.

      • T. J. Babson said, on January 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm

        I still don’t get it. Jim and Far see an oasis in the distance. They reach where the oasis should be and Far accepts that the oasis wasn’t real but Jim still believes it? Can you give an example?

        • Asur said, on January 1, 2011 at 5:20 pm

          Jim and Far see an oasis in the distance. Jim is the easy case; he gets there, still sees the oasis, and believes that it’s there exactly as he sees it. Far gets there, still sees the oasis, and wonders if it’s really there just as she sees it — she tries to think of ways to test this.

          My use of the metaphor of hallucination implies that Far is doubting matters of fact, the realm of science, but this is somewhat disingenuous because it’s really the use of and belief in ideas that concerns Far…unfortunately, it was the best metaphor I could think of.

  4. - Sue Barnett, BA English said, on January 1, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Oy, bugalugs, wot ya on about? Who are you talking to? Obviously not me. You guys who go on about getting “it”, you never define what “it” is or if you are offering it and on what terms.

    Booyacka!!!!

  5. - Sue Barnett, BA English said, on January 1, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Replies will be tolerated.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on January 2, 2011 at 11:34 am

    “Far wants to know what the best political system is for the country she lives in, and knowing that, she wants to put that system into place. ”

    Far scares the hell out of me. You might even say she gives me the “Willies.”

    • erik said, on January 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm

      At least Far appears to be open to choice. Let’s say Far lives in. . . let’s say she lives in America— a constitutional republic based on a representative democracy. That would be the macro political system that she lives in and since it appears she doesn’t wish to change countries, she apparently finds that macro system more favorable to her views than anarchy or theocracy, or . . .

      But she seems to be open to discussion about the “best” (a supremely objective judgment) micro political system or party —Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent (if we could just organize them–it’s like herding cats). Is that worse than “knowing” what the “best political system is” and wanting to put that system in place”, despite views of others who are arguably as interested in the welfare of the country? Is it worse than having already made a decision on one’s choice of micro system but pretending to care enough to make an choice between Far and Jim. Or actually believing your choice between the two is the best because you believe it so? Or worse still believing that the choice between Far’s and Jim’s input will be based on adequate thoroughness and open-mindedness?

      Now somewhere between Ideal and Real there’s Pragmatic. That’s another ideal place–probably more ideal than any so far proposed, but we can’t get around that. We can gather Far and Jim and Willie and representatives of political parties other than Willie’s , strap them down, and lock them in a room without food or water until they reach a unanimous agreement on what’s best –generally, in terms of rules and freedoms– for everyone. They’d be doing what the original Founders didn’t do. Determining the dividing lines between too many and too few freedoms and between too many and too few regulations. The extreme stress and the crude mixture of multiple opinions should produce results eventually. Proceedings would be monitored and when a decision is reached the results can be proclaimed to an elated populace who will treat the results as a Second Bill of Rights to be added to the original. The country can and should move on.

      But don’t unlock the room. Keep the ultimate decision makers there until they breathe their last. They will not be forgotten. They will be remembered for their sacrifice. The New Founders. Sometime in the future, the originalists will pop out to argue what those people in that room really meant with those proclamations. And we’ll be able to pull the discs of the monitored session off the shelves–not-so-instant- replay, if you will– and start right back where we started from. Arguing over the interpretations of multiple opinions and deciding which should be weighted more or less and., and …Good God it’s depressing.


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