The Real

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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  1. Garth William Carthy

    I share most of the views expressed in “The Real”: However, I feel that Philosophy as an academic subject does sometimes tend to make my eyes glaze over.
    In my opinion, and it may be only my opinion, Philosophy starts to be less interesting and less relevant after reaching “intermediate” levels of study.
    The basic problem is that when all said and done, everything is subjective and therefore nothing is absolute.
    For example, I am an atheist but feel strongly about certain moral issues and yet when I ask myself why I believe so passionately in these issues, I can only find answers in my emotional responses. I suppose the best that philosophy can do here is to suggest that behaving morally or “well” is conducive to harmony and therefore the survival of a species. Then of course philosophy forces us to confront the question: “What is behaving well?”

  2. The expression “Real World” is used in two different contexts or universes of discourse. These my be described as Philosophical and Sociological.
    Philosophically we may claim that all we ever contemplate are our own ideas. This means that action potentials whiz around in our brains and out of that mass of electrical conductivity and connectivity we somehow interpret that the cause thereof lies in a “Real World” outside of us. We accordingly wonder for instance, how does the tree in itself, and out there, in the Real World, compare with the tree we understand as produced by the brain.
    Sociologically “Real World” has different meanings for different people. This makes it somewhat difficult to pin down. People’s responses to what goes on in their brains varies immensely and it is one of the jobs of the Psychologist and Social scientist to attempt a categorisation of such responses. Across these categories there arises much dispute, some of it quite acrimonious as to which life experience genuinely is the “Real World”.
    “Real World” is really a misnomer it is so often no more than a meaningless term of abuse. My life experiences are different from yours, but that does not invalidate yours, mine are no more or less than yours. I may think you have better or worse life experiences than I and I may recommend you endeavour to change your approach accordingly, but it is surely no more than thoughtless arrogance to suggest that someone is not living in The Real World; it is tantamount to denying the value of their existence. As Mike suggests “What is wanting is, of course, an argument that shows that I am, in fact, in error.” or I would add, on the other hand, correct, or failing all, we just agree to differ.

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    The article was filed under “Chinese Philosophy,” but I saw no other reference within the article. However, as we are now approaching the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Rabbit, a few suggestions about reality can be taken from Chinese philosophy. The Year of the Rabbit begins on February 4. According to tradition (taken from Wikipedia), we can look forward to a year of kindness and elegance as well as stubbornness and self-indulgence.

    Zen Buddhist training involves many exercises for removing brain productions, and bringing a student to become aware of a larger “real” world. The exercises do not necessarily make one happier, but have been known to reduce unhappiness; that is, unhappiness is often a self-invention. Zen exercises reduce the subjectivity of philosophy, and bring one closer to objectivity. Western philosophers may believe that all we ever contemplate is our own ideas, but Zen practice is to remove oneself from the self-indulgence of personal interpretation, and become aware of the real world around them. A Buddha is considered to be someone who discovers the true nature of reality.

    A discussion of Chinese philosophy cannot be without a famous quote:

    “To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality (Hsin Hsin Ming).”

  4. I think Don was on the right track when he pointed out that we have to give a sociological definition.
    When people use the word “real”, they sometimes use it as a synonym for “serious” or “authentic”.

    So take, for instance, the following example. At one point last night while celebrating New Year’s, my friends were playing a drinking game called “Kings”. The game gets steadily harder and harder as each player gets to add new rules that everyone has to obey (e.g., everyone has to pretend to have the arms of a T-Rex). After the rules became unendurable, somebody laughed: “This shit just got real.” Real meaning onerous or serious.

    Or take Notinavat’s suggested gloss on the phrase “Real America”, meaning “the red states”. Real, in that case, means authentic.

    The ordinary language usage seems to map onto the philosophical one. The two criteria for the philosophical use of the term are “mind-independence” and “accessibility”. When we talk about pains, frustrations, and so on, we’re talking about forces that are independent of our will — serious or onerous experiences. And when we talk about authentic experiences, common ground, common experiences, like paying the checks, going into debt, having children, etc., we’re talking about things that are cultural, popular, easily accessed.

    This makes sense of how people justifiably criticize intellectuals. Ivory tower types are seemingly immune from harm; they’re not faced by burdens of the working class, and they experience things that are completely unusual. For instance, being paid to go to Rome so that you can talk to a room full of interesting strangers about something bizarre for 20 minutes and be given applause. So if somebody said “You’re living in a dream”, who can blame them?

  5. Re Dennis @ 4:40/1/1/11

    If we’re talking Chinese Philophy then I think you mean Chan Buddhist training which transliterates to Zen under its later South East Asian transmission and particularly under its Japanese appropriation and hence Western uptake.

    Toma’to / tomate’o

    Another good quote for the real is from The Zhuangzi –

    Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly… [who] didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.

    Goes to the Ben’s living dream later @ 11:25. Given the choice and the opportunity, I do believe I’d take the Rome one though. Grazie!

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    Dana Roberts,

    Thank you for your illumination into the history of Asian Buddhism. I also forgot to mention the image of the laughing Buddha; that is, some variations of Buddhism stress happiness as a goal.

    This is an interesting point about dreams and reality. In many traditional North American native cultures, the dream state is considered more real than the awaken state. Spiritual medicine men take herbs and teas to deliberately stimulate the dream state. However, in the wrong hands, this practice has been known to lead to substance abuse.

    Perhaps you could explain your secret code “Toma’to / tomate’o”.

  7. Oh – Dennis. I wasn’t stressed or unhappy in the least…

    Zen / Chan = toma’to / tomate’o

    I was essentially agreeing and gently subscribing to rigor.

    ’tis all



  8. oh – ‘n by-the-by…

    Thanks for the gentle warning regarding substance abuse. Been there – done that.

    Not real.

    Good to know we’re looking out for each other tho’.

    Does raise an interesting point about the lengths a human will go to towards transcending ourselves to gain a firmer grasp of the real and the dangers of the journey.

    Ultimately it is minimizing suffering that bottomlines the real act of living a good life. Perhaps the Buddha was a utilitarian.

  9. …but.

    since the subject of mind altering substances has been opened up:

    Kung Fu Panda.

    Quite a good exploration of Chinese contribution to the real I think.

  10. I would tend to agree with Don in the idea that we are dealing with different “senses” of the term “real”, but I don’t like the materialisic flavor of his phrasing of the “philosophical” sense of “real”. I admit that I have a brain, and I am of course ever so loathe to have it shot at. I also admit the “fact” that changes to my brain will result in changes in my actions. But the really interesting question is whether one can establish absolute identity between who/what I am and the “reference” of this term “brain”. I honestly do not think this is possible under constraints of meaningfulness. While it’s true that “I have a brain” is meaningful, “I have chosen the entire world” is also true in a certain sense.

    This is not meant to imply that Don is a materialist, because I don’t know what his view is.

  11. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by Dana Roberts | January 2, 2011, 11:02 pm
    “Perhaps the Buddha was a utilitarian.”

    No, the principle of Utility does not come very close to Buddhism.

    Buddhism in its simplicity is beautiful, encouraging, blissful, etc. However, over the millenniums, Buddhism has been layered with so many variations and dogmas, that many Asians are reluctant to listen anymore. Utilitarianism is destined to follow the same fate, or worse. Too many sub-variations and loopholes have been added to the principle of utility to explain its abundant shortfalls.

    For example, Buddhism offers everyone the opportunity of enlightenment. By comparison, Utilitarianism brutally and mathematically condemns a minority percentage of the population to unhappiness.

  12. I agree that Buddhism is not utilitarian, because the Eightfold Path sounds deontological. But it is surely hedonistic, though. The whole thing is an attempt to escape suffering.

    Also, that Trolleyesque style of indictment of utilitarianism might be more a critique of consequentialism than anything else. And weirdly enough, some have argued that Mill’s utilitarianism is non-consequentialist.

  13. Some opposites are not either/or. Some are most/least.

    When you speak of “the real world” compared to “the Ivory Tower’, you’re not ‘really’ saying that one is the true and existent and the other is somehow non-existent.

    Nope, not that at all. You’re really saying that the real world has a lot more stuff that is much harder to understand.

  14. Re:-Joshua Davis Jan 3rd.
    My sympathies are with the materialistic viewpoint. You state.-
    “But the really interesting question is whether one can establish absolute identity between who/what I am and the “reference” of this term “brain””
    If by “reference” of this term “brain” you mean the organic machine in our heads composed in the main of neurons and Glia serviced by a blood supply and floating in cerebrospinal fluid then I would reply there is no identity whatsoever as to who or what a person is.
    This is not to claim that out of the functions of this machine there is not by some means an idea generated, concerning who or what the owner is. How this idea is generated by the brain functions I do not know. No more do I know how electrical activity in the brain results in the wonderment which we commonly call reality. However I tend to agree with Alfred North Whitehead who described Nature outside of the Human brain as “a dull affair, soundless, scentless,colourless,merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly,”
    How to explain all this is the hard problem of consciousness which presently engrosses some philosophers and neuroscientists.
    Is it a problem? Some, such as philosopher Simon Blackburn consider it to be an illusory problem. It may be, and ultimately go the way of Vitalism which posited an Élan Vital to explain the mystery of why some matter was imbued with life and other matter was apparently inert in this connection. Dan Dennett describes The Elan vital as now relegated to the trash heap of history.
    The materialist viewpoint is not without its problems. The process of Natural Selection at this point in knowledge cannot be completely reduced to the Laws of Physics and Chemistry as there seems to be a physio-chemical indifference as to how Nucleotides combine. Science is based on the laws of causation from which predictions can be made and any system or a part thereof tantamount to randomness, poses a problem for the materialist.
    The brain/mind problem and it relationship to the philosophical real world is far from solved. My own opinion is that if an answer is not outside of the human powers of cognition now or some time in the future, it will be Physically/ Materially based. I would not expect an explanation to embrace anything in the nature of para-psychology, Élan Vital, Religious beliefs, States of mind induced by drugs, or meditative states.
    Additionally you state ““I have chosen the entire world” is also true in a certain sense.”
    I am not sure what you mean by ‘chosen’ here. Surely we just get what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. I suppose there is some choice in what behaviour patterns we adopt, and our attitudes to life.
    Most of this is highly controversial, and I do not think it really addresses the problem posed by Mike LaBossiere which I think dwells on what I have described as the Sociological problem in the use of the term “Real World”

  15. True on all counts. And, in this economy, the prospects of getting tenure is less a matter of “living the dream” and more a matter of “living in a pipe dream” by the day.

    But it’s not just a way of speaking about intellectuals from days-gone-by. The same remarks can be said for anyone who has had unusual experiences and ends up in relative leisure: sports stars, celebrities, Wall Street bankers, etc.

    A “real life” is the life of suffering that most people have in common.

  16. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Posted by Don Bird | January 3, 2011, 7:37 pm
    “Science is based on the laws of causation from which predictions can be made…”

    I disagree. Science is a description of reality, science is not reality itself. Scientific explanations and predictive results have been historically dismal. Successful science on a large scale is perhaps a century old; a drop in the bucket in human history. Yet, science has discovered almost nothing new of any consequence in about thirty years, and we may be expecting too much in the future from science.

    Science is not guided by the principle of strict causality; science is confused by it. The best examples are when scientists make observations without any discussion of cause. Finally, it is very important to distinguish the difference between scientific observation and moral cause. They are different concepts that barely resemble each other. When writers try to compare the two topics, they often end in similes and metaphors that are subject to indefinite and open interpretation.

    For the philosopher to resolve the mind/body problem, I believe that only new scientific material will come from the work of psychologists who are capable of making the necessary observations about human behaviour without interference from causal explanation.

    The past works of ancient cultures and their seemingly irrelevant endeavors into religion and consciences expansion should not be discarded too readily. The most an academic training can offer is an insight into how little is known about the universe, not how much.

    As to the issue of the meaning of “get real”, a possibility is that someone plays too much D&D.

  17. Benjamin S. Nelson,

    True, it does seem a bit unreal that someone could be paid to do such a thing. Of course, it also seems a bit unreal that people can make lots of money bundling derivatives, preaching, trying to catch/hit a ball and so on. 🙂

  18. It seems to me that all those discussions about what constitutes the “real world” versus academia/philosophy, etc are purely ideological in the sense that the only imagined “real world” is one dominated by a mythical capitalist ethos. After all, how “real” are all those electronic dots flashing across countless computer screens within the financial houses of the world. Financial markets in reality are mere phantasy representations of someting else that is presumably real. Think, for a moment, of what happens during a market crash like the one we all recently experienced. Was the capacity of the globe to produce needed goods and services diminished in any “real” respect? Not at all. As near as I can tell not one factory anywhere on the planet disappeared. Not one farm vanished. Instead, the symbolic representations of that wealth creating agricultural/industrial apparatus shrank in size due largely to the manipulative greed represented in the stock market. Millions lost their livelihoods, found themselves without a home, and many starved because of the collapse of abstract illusions. So who exactly is it that doesn’t live in the “real world”?

  19. Garth William Carthy

    I agree with Jay.
    When we are exhorted to live in the real world by big business, politicians or economists, they are talking about the world as they demand it should be. It is only a “real world” because they are the dominant force and they say so because they have created it.
    I would go further and say that in the not so distant future, capitalism will have to change radically because of climate change; the unreality and absurdity of the capitalist belief in infinite economic growth using finite resources in the face of a massive and exponentially increasing population. Of course I may be seen to be making political points here, but surely philosophy cannot be divorced from politics or religion, both of which touch on all our lives.

  20. The ‘real world’ critique is used politically, but it is based in an appeal to something that is experienced. Largely it is a failure of imagination. It is easy for TV to broadcast Housewives of Rich Place and include harpies, thugs, sociopathic Johns, and yet the pathology is similar across economic strata. For the viewers – swallowing some of their envy – there is commonality: these rich jerks are just like me. But it is not easy (maybe impossible) to portray literature and philosophy professors’ lives as they exhibit a collection of thoughts and feelings. (It is easier to write a song – with end rime!)
    It comes back to the idea of economic discounting and the vagaries of an appropriate price for culture, gained after a long time. How can I, as purchaser, know what ‘ideal forms’ are and whether they are worth even ‘owning’ if I cannot see them and there is no discernible monetary price attached?
    I suspect that it all returns to a central fact – that teaching the concept of ‘opportunity cost’ is a problem – and that the ‘real world’ is an economic concept.
    My apologies – I am trying to cram too much in.
    Economists should be better trained in philosophy ( as should the ‘scientists’) and philosophers would do well to read all the wonderful popular books on economics.

  21. Is being a summum genus? Staerting with Aristotle’s famous problematic, and Aquinas’ treatment thereof, I asked in my fb page whether existence is a predicate. mentioning briefly Kant, Heidegger and Meinong, even Royce, I concluded the brief exposition by spicing the question so that it interests even lovers: what is that other ‘something’ that they love in their lover/spouse. Does existence exist? I was thought of as less ‘real’, being a philosopher, not living in the real world, for the simple reason that I asked “what makes real being ‘real’! Back to the cave, chaps, we never win!

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