Friday, December 01, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

It seems that humans are divided into two fundamental classes more radically distinct than the gender division of male and female. After all we know that there are males with a high ingredient of femininity and females with a high ingredient of masculinity. But among Idealists and Materialists there is no sharing and no common ground.

Plato twice asserts and underlines this distinction. In the Sophist we read: “What we shall see is something like a Battle of Gods and Giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality. … One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands; for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word.” ( Sophist, 246a-c). And in the Crito Socrates, having asserted with no less emphasis his conviction that “'we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone”, goes on to say, “this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another when they see how widely they differ” (Crito, 49c-d, tr. Jowett).

Socrates was speaking of moral ‘idealism’ but we can apply what he says, word for word, to ‘metaphysical reality’, to what different persons mean by reality, to what is real and what is not real, which is what I am concerned with in this essay. This is a battle that has been raging between the two camps from Plato and Aristotle, through Bishop Berkeley and Dr. Johnson, to the present day.

First I have to confess that I am semantically at a disadvantage. It is so common and so natural to speak of what can be touched and held in one’s hand as real that it would be unrealistic to ask people to reverse this usage. What I can and do ask for is that in philosophical discussions we should keep in mind that the metaphysician’s (Plato’s say) ‘reality’ has nothing to do with the commonsense usage of the term. When I wrote my first book, Let Us Philosophize, I hesitated long between ‘Reality’ and ‘Being’ for designating what is ultimately real. I have repeatedly said that my electing ‘Reality’ was foolish or at least unfortunate. But I don’t think electing ‘Being’ instead would have made much of a difference. I have lately found Berdyaev using the term ‘Spirit’ for what is ultimately real. For a while I said to myself I wish I had hit on that, but once again I don’t think that choice would have made any difference.

Thus once again, hoping against hope, I will try to clarify what I mean by what is real and what I, chiefly in common with Plato, mean by saying that the things we encounter in the world around us are – in the technical meta[hysical sense of the term – not real.

We know that the things around us, from Dr. Johnson’s rock to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear missiles at no moment of time have a constantly stable being. Heraclitus knew that all things are constantly changing and that the sun that came up this morning is not the same sun that came up yesterday. Heraclitus affirmed this despite the fact that the state of knowledge at his time seemed to belie him. The mountains at least seemed fixed and firm. Now our scientists know that the particles that constitute the Himslayas know no rest, that the sun today is one day nearer its final extinction, that the farthest galaxies vie with our oceans in their ceaseless commotion. Modern science taught us that this red rose is not in itself red and that the colour I see is the joint product of a complex operation involving rays of light, the physiology of my eyes, and the faery dances of neurons in my brain. Scientists were so taken by their discoveries that they, and not any Idealists, denied the ‘reality’ of the red colour. It was left for A. N. Whitehead to call this denial the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.

In their search for what is ultimately real scientists went farther and farther away from the ‘commonsense real’. They sought the final constituent(s) of things, in other words, they continued the quest of Thales and Anaximenes. For a time the atom was triumphantly hailed as the answer, but then the ‘indivisible atom’ proved to be neither indivisible nor final. The old naïve materialism represented by Dr. Johnson’s solid rock was no longer viable. (The word is now used as a convenient blanket term for physicalism, scientism, empiricism, etc.) The search continued till we reached at one end Quantum Mechanics which nobody understands and at the other end the Big Bang characterized as a singularity which is a euphemism for absurdity.

But far more important than all of this is the following consideration: Supposing we reached a final objective thing, and quite apart from the question about the origin of that thing, we face the question: what supports that thing, what gives it its credentials for being?

Confessedly, the Idealist has no answer to that question any more than the scientist, but there is a difference. The Platonist would say: We do not know of a single thing in the natural world whose being and whose character may not be subjected to doubt. Our own subjective being is the one thing whose self-evidence, immediate presence, and present immediacy are beyond all doubt. This of course is what Descartes affirms in his unfortunate formulation, je pense, donc je suis. This Is the thought behind Kant’s noumenon set against all the phenomena of the natural world. Shelley with the prophetic insight of a philosophical poet condenses it all in one line: “Nought is but that which feels itself to be” (Hellas).

But Platonism does not stop there. What is the worth of all the world, of all we encounter in it and all we do in it as against the delight of understanding, the peace of loyalty, the bliss of generosity? What gift has the world to compare with the joy of intelligent contemplation?

To remove a widespread misunderstanding: neither Plato nor Berkeley nor any sane Idealist denied or doubted the actuality of the world around us. But which is more worthy of being held more real and more valuable: the hard world outside us or our mind and the verities of the mind within us? Socrates said it in a few words: The best thing for a human being is to discourse of virtue every day.

D. R. Khashaba

December 1, 2917

Posted to xnd


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