“The fons et origo of all reality is subjective, is ourselves.”

-William James

Reality is a concept we may find easier to glimpse through the back door, by noticing the innumerable daily examples of people being out of touch with it. We may not be able to say precisely what it is, but we know when someone’s missing it. The “reality based community” has room to grow.

The invocation of Einstein to grace a chapter on Reality implies some preference for  inquiries into the far-flung cosmos and its abstract underlying principles.  No doubt, much light is to be shed on the real nature of things by looking “out there.”

But we shouldn’t overlook our more intimate acquaintance with reality at first hand, in our own immediate perceptions and observations. The late great literary critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly before his death, with sharp insight into William James’s passionate respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his existence” as part of  “the axis of reality,” what he called the deep and insistent “throb of our actual experience.”

On this view, our own original thinking and feeling present our most concrete encounters with “fact in the making.” We are ourselves pieces of natural reality. “The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience,” so we should “take reality bodily and integrally up into philosophy in exactly the perceptual shape in which it comes.”

There is a long tradition of dispute among philosophers as to whether we can directly know reality, or must filter it through the presumably-distortive lenses of our words and concepts.  The radical empiricist’s position on this is unambiguous: use concepts in the same way a carpenter uses his tools, to get the job done; but choose the right tools,  remember their instrumental (not essential) nature, and when the time comes lay them down. Sometimes, too, you have to fashion a new tool.

The “job” here  means respecting (and accurately characterizing) reality when it jumps up to greet (or bite) us… as it did James in Palo Alto in 1906, for instance. Or, as Garrison Keillor says of his recent medical adventure, as it “bit [him] in the butt.”

There aren’t always words for our most primal and immediate and delightful experiences, but that shouldn’t shut us off from them. We just need to remember to holster the “conceptual shotgun” we all use to excess, and that philosophers more than anyone ought to be wary of:

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy...

The thrill of a crisp autumn sunrise, a new idea, a sharp feeling of love, a subtle feeling of separation, an empty feeling of loss atautumn sunrise the death of a loved one, a rollicking earthquake, a brush with your mortality… all such experiences may give rise to feelings you can’t articulate but also can’t ignore. “There are occasional moments,” wrote James’s student and biographer R.B. Perry, “when experience is most fully tasted—in the exhilaration of a fresh morning, in moments of suffering, or in times of triumphant effort, when the tang is strong, when every nuance or overtone is present. James would arrest us at such moments, and say, “There, that is it. Reality is like that.” There’s no formula, no E=mc2, to encapsulate those moments. But they’re very real.

Our chapter begins with a list of items we’re to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being “most real”:

___The person sitting next to you. ___The chair you’re sitting in. ___God. ___Last night’s headache. ___The wo(man) of your dreams. ___Electrons. ___Love. ___Truth. ___Beauty. ___Einstein’s brain. ___Your mind. ___The color red. ___The NFL. ___Your body. ___Your soul. ___Time. ___Dreams. ___[          ]…

Strange list. Everything on it is real, right? So what does it mean to be more or less so? Maybe the question is really asking you to prioritize your sense of reality. Are particulars more real than abstractions? Are things less real than experiences, events, and processes? How can you even compare unseen, unproven things (souls, Deities) to tangible objects? Is reality itself even real, or is it just a concept? But wait. Why aren’t concepts real, since real people invent and entertain them?

The pre-Socratic materialists wanted desperately to summarize and simplify reality (“It’s all air/water/fire/number…”) but, most moderns would say, were too reductive in their analyses. It’s not all any one thing.

school of athensPlato had some wild ideas about reality. Aristotle was more grounded. (Recall your art history.) Two worlds or one? Are essences (Forms, Ideas) here or there? Are we in a cave, or in the light? Myth of the Cave, Republic Bk VII… cave

“A strange image, and they are strange prisoners.”

Like ourselves?

What would Socrates say?


The great critic Alfred Kazin graced us, shortly
before his death, with sharp insight into James’s passionate
respect for each person’s “own sense of the exceptionality of his
existence” as part of “the axis of reality.” His deepest
commitment was to “the throb of our actual experience.” His
spiritual sensibility was not that of a true believer but of a
“fellow soul.”

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One Response to “Reality”

  1. stephen king Says:

    i don’t believe reality can be truly proven by any means; but i would like to think that everything is real because it would seem very pessimistic to think of the lives we live as fantasy. I would rather die not knowing if everything i felt was not an actual emotion. I would have to agree with aristotle more than plato.

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