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Austin & ‘Reality’

Will Bynoe on milk, therapy, and the nature of being.

“Have a good look”, the magician says: “Can you confirm that this is a perfectly ordinary hat?” For you, this is no fun at all. You awkwardly turn it over a few times and self-consciously agree that it seems fine. Something is bound to be amiss – but what? You have no idea what sort of abnormality to guard against. In this setting, it is unclear what counts as an ‘ordinary’ hat, so you might object that it is senseless to confirm that it is one. ‘Ordinary’ has its meaning fixed by relevant contrasts; there is no single property which the word denotes in all settings.

Back in 1962, in Sense and Sensibilia, J. L. Austin complained that philosophers often put us in a similar predicament. They might draw our attention to a table and ask: Is this real, or is it an illusion, a ‘flicker on the cave wall’? Or they might get more personal, asking whether your life is authentic: Is this the real you?

As with the magician, these questions can leave us baffled and perhaps a little embarrassed. According to Austin, this is because the philosopher’s questions about reality are analogous to the magician’s question: like ‘ordinary’, ‘real’ only makes sense if the context makes it clear what counts as unreality. Unfortunately, the philosopher frequently withholds this context, giving the false impression that ‘real’ denotes an important property which both tables and (say) people might lack. This trick creates the bogus sense that something urgent is at issue.

Unreal Demands

Although unfashionable these days, Austin’s view in fact has a lot of relevance to metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the basic nature of the world. I think it’s also helpful for thinking about a range of earthier topics.

Let’s start with food, and build up to grander philosophy. Suppose you’re asked, “Is that real milk?” You don’t know what’s being asked until you understand what counts as ‘unreal’ milk in this context. Are you being asked whether it’s cow’s milk as opposed to soy milk, or full-fat as opposed to semi-skimmed? Or is the worry that that milky pool might turn out to be a mirage? Usually, there is no unclarity in context: for instance, someone scans the cartons behind your café counter with a suspicious expression, asking you, “Don’t you have real milk?”.

Consider, though, ‘The Real Food Company’. The name sounds like a rebuke: Are you eating real food? You feel like you ought to be. The trick here, though, is the illusion that ‘real’ refers to a single, desirable property for food. In fact, however, the use of ‘real food’ gets its meaning from a confusing mixture of contrasts. Organic food is real, as opposed to ‘chemically assisted’ food. Unprocessed food is real as opposed to processed, though fermentation is allowed. Chocolate, butter, and cheese also count as real, provided they are ‘raw’.

With this sort of thing, the suspicion is that the guiding contrast concerns a degree of technical sophistication. It is unclear, however, why we shouldn’t sometimes prefer clever artifice, and many do. People used to get enthusiastic about real ale, but now the connoisseur is more likely to go after craft beer. Often, ‘real’ food is contrasted with ‘unhealthy’ food. Here the desirability of real food is clearer – though ‘healthy’ is another word that’s illuminated by contrast. How would life be without pastries, cakes, or anything sugary? It hardly sounds like a recipe for wellbeing.

For a similar strategy, though even more blatantly manipulative, consider a (real) politician’s comment that a referendum result was a ‘victory for real people’. Again, ‘real’ is meant to seem as if it refers to some desirable status. If there are real and unreal people, of course you want to be among the real.

Here the trick is obvious. ‘Real’ in the politician’s speech in fact gets its meaning from a mess of contrasts, most importantly the one between those who accept his key political aims and those who do not. The use of the phrase ‘real people’ is also supposed to remind us of those who have ‘real jobs’ and ‘proper haircuts’. As with ‘real food’, one suspects that the key contrast is against a kind of sophistication – here, the kind where ideas and values from travel and education disrupt unaffected conformity. With his next breath, the politician describes real people as ‘ordinary’. Once we’re clear about this, perhaps the allure of being a real person somewhat diminishes.

There are many ways we’re encouraged to ‘keep it real’. In each instance, Austin’s advice would be to look for the contrasts that define the kind of unreality we are to avoid. For example, it’s often implied that the realization of your real, authentic self is proportional to how much you upset your normal routine: you find your true self on an exotic holiday, not at work. Yet once we see that ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ get their meaning in this way, they lose their appeal. One of my main reasons for not travelling is to avoid returning with boring insights. The author and comedian Simon Amstell reports being told by his therapist that in their sessions he doesn’t have to be amusing or impressive. “Do you want me to tell these stories, but not as well?” he responds. What she wants is for him to be authentic. “But, I can’t because I’m so funny and interesting.” I think the easiest way to understand ‘self-actualisation’ is to contrast it with being ‘good company’, i.e., it’s about being self-absorbed. Other times, when someone talks about being the ‘real me’, ‘real’ gets its meaning by being contrasted with what they’ve actually done. Caught for some transgression, I might say, “That’s not who I really am.” This is meant to sound like an insight into my inner self, when in fact it’s just a way of trying to reduce culpability.

Image © Steve Tarantino 2023. Please visit atevetarantino.com

Reality Itself?

More momentous than the search for real food or real people is the search for reality itself. This was Austin’s main target.

Consider again the philosopher who asks whether tables are real. In a similar tone, they might ask whether numbers are real, or whether time really flows. As with the above examples, these questions sound urgent if you think that ‘real’ denotes a single property which can apply to tables, numbers, and time. Consider, though, the question, ‘Is this table real?’ It makes as much sense as asking whether some milk is real. That is to say, it makes sense only if the setting makes it clear what ‘reality’ is being contrasted with. Are you worried that the table might be a mere toy? A museum exhibit, rather than a functioning item of furniture? Or a mere trick of the light? None of these questions benefit from a philosopher’s input. The philosopher’s trick, Austin says, is to ask about the reality of tables without supplying a context in which real tables can be contrasted with unreal ones. Posed this way, the question of reality seems mysterious, when in fact it’s a trick with words.

Since Austin’s day, philosophers have become much keener on the metaphysical project of describing reality. Why didn’t Austin’s argument deter them? One reason might be that many postwar metaphysicians use the words ‘there is’ rather than the word ‘real’: the metaphysician asks, ‘What is there?’, not ‘What is real?’ Here the question becomes: There seem to be tables, but are there any?

Austin’s argument doesn’t seem to apply here. When I ask, “Are there any tables?” it seems perfectly clear what I mean. You wouldn’t frown and ask, “What do you mean by ‘are’? With what does ‘are’ contrast in this context?”

However, a number of metaphysicians have recently grown dissatisfied with the words ‘is’ and ‘are’ and promote the word ‘real’ instead. Professor Kit Fine is a prominent figure in this project. According to Fine, metaphysics requires the word ‘real’.

To appreciate his position, suppose a philosopher is wondering about numbers. Are numbers part of reality, they ask, or just a convenient tool? Whole numbers have a ‘solidity’ to them; but what about the fancier parts of maths? We are told that the square root of minus one is an imaginary number called i. Imaginary numbers seem well named; they don’t even get a proper numeral. As the mathematician Leopold Kronecker famously said, “God made the integers, all else is the work of man.” However, words like ‘is’ and ‘are’ don’t seem well suited to stating this position, or an argument against it. Suppose a metaphysician were to ask: Is there a square root of minus one? This is a mathematical question rather than a philosophical one. The mathematician will reply, without hesitation, that the square root of minus one is i. Annoyed, the metaphysician must say something like, “I know about i, but are imaginary numbers genuine constituents of reality? Are they really there?” Fine concludes that metaphysics requires the word ‘real’.

Or consider tables again. Suppose a metaphysician asks: “Are there any tables in the next room?” You might pop your head around the door and reply that there are three. Annoyed, the metaphysician will need to add something like the word ‘real’ to express their original worry. They might say, “Sure, that’s how it appears, but are the tables really there?” Again, metaphysics requires the word ‘real’.

So, Austin’s argument has a lot of contemporary relevance. If he’s right about the deceptiveness of the word ‘real’, and yet metaphysicians need this word to state their central questions, then the metaphysicians are in trouble.

Of course, Fine rejects Austin’s view. Against Austin, Fine maintains that ‘real’ has a single meaning to philosophers. The metaphysician can ask about the reality of tables and numbers and mean the same thing in both cases. Fine says that we indeed have an intuitive grasp of the distinction between there being tables in the other room and there really being tables in the other room. To my ear, this sounds a bit like the distinction between giving 100% and giving 110%. Fine, though, says that any cynic is either “guilty of a crass form of metaphysical obtuseness or else is too sophisticated for his own good” (The Question of Ontology, 2009). I’d certainly plead the former, and I suppose Austin would be the latter. Austin’s view is that a philosopher doesn’t get to decide the meaning of a word: if they use the word ‘real’, it has the meaning it’s found with, and not some special philosophical sense. So, we must pay careful attention to the usage of words if we are to avoid saying things that are confused or silly. If ‘real’ has the meaning it seems to, metaphysics rests on the sort of muddle we’ve been considering.

Intimidating issues are at stake, the tone of philosophy among them. With his emphasis on the many ways words are used, Austin’s philosophy is rooted in the everyday. He combines a philosopher’s intensity with a focus on the mundane. The result often feels like the start of an observational comedy routine – he asks, for example, why one has an artificial limb but false teeth? In minute detail, he picks apart the difference between pretending to be angry and really being angry. If you smash enough furniture, are you no longer merely pretending? In contrast, Fine’s confidence in his philosophical sense of reality inspires grand theorising. This work is bold, ingenious and exciting, but it’s not funny in the slightest. It may be obtuse of me, but I know who I’d rather read.

© Will Bynoe 2023

Will Bynoe is the author of the Mobile Philosopher book series.

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