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Climbing the Real Mountain
Rebecca Glass on the importance of fables of ‘the really real world’.
John Dewey criticizes our desire for the transcendental and supernatural as inimical to growth and education. Yearning for an otherworldly reality is “vicious in the separation of desire and thought,” an “asylum from effort,” and thus also from development (Human Nature and Conduct). Nietzsche shares Dewey’s concern that belief in what we will call a ‘really real world’ (that is, a world beyond and contrasted with the somewhat less real world of what is before us) is pernicious to our ability to grow creatively. “Remain faithful to the earth,” says Nietzsche, “and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
An educator of philosophy who agrees with Dewey and Nietzsche would be uncomfortably confronted by how thoroughly the idea of the ‘really real world’ has saturated the history of philosophy s/he is supposed to teach. Nietzsche recounts this in his six-stage ‘history of an error’ in ‘How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable’ from Twilight of the Idols.
First the idea of a ‘true’ world beyond our everyday world of appearances is born as a ‘relatively reasonable’ equating of the sage with truth. “I Plato, am the Truth” Nietzsche writes, pointing through the Platonic Forms at the second stage – the full “insidious” strength of the idea of the Christian Heaven, promised to those who wait with chastely downcast eyes. The third stage is Kant’s noumena, unknowable and yet still used by Kant to justify his ethics. The unknowable ‘true’ world is taken to its logical extreme by the Positivists in the fourth stage, in which the ‘true world’ is finally meaningless for us. Nietzsche predicts another two further stages beyond these four historically-attested stages: Fifthly, since the really real world is now meaningless for us, it is “superfluous – consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it.” There is only this world left. The projected history does not end here, however, because this world is only this one in reference to some other world. Thus in the sixth and final stage, “with the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.” There is left only reality as it is.
Nietzsche believes that the idea of a really real world is pernicious because it keeps us from living fully in this life and world that are the clay of our creation, and further, as Dewey says, because it “identifies the fixed and regular with the reality of Being,” denying urge and longing (Experience and Nature). The darkest night, Christianity, is “insidious” because it is negative, rejecting all that is before us in favour of an unchanging, uncreative heaven. Positivism is the “grey morning,” because with it begins our ability to affirm, and therefore creatively to engage, the world in which we live: we are no longer always waiting for, looking towards, or pining over the other ‘more real’ place. The last stage, in which the affirmation of the world is such a huge part of one’s being that it never occurs to one to refuse it, is the stage of the child, who innocently knows nothing of the so-called ‘real world’, and is better for it.
While discussing several of the thinkers who figure prominently in Nietzsche’s history with students in a course on Modernism, I was very surprised to find that they encountered significant difficulty comprehending the basic idea of the ‘really real world’. Perhaps this is because I am now in Eastern Canada, far away from the Bible Belt where people like my mother lovingly remind each other to be “in the world but not of the world.” Perhaps my students watched The Matrix at too young an age to transform the story into an analogy. In any case, whether discussing Kant or Plato, not only did the students think the idea that what we see is ‘only appearance’ exceedingly pointless and bizarre, but the very idea of a ‘real’ world – or an ‘apparent’ world – was most definitely absent from the minds of all but two students, both of whom are active Christians. Are these students the fruit of a society that has reached the sixth and final stage in Nietzsche’s history? If so, am I teaching poison? Is it a blessing when I am not taken seriously? Introduction to Philosophy classes focus heavily on the thinkers included in Nietzsche’s history of an error. It is always important to ask: To what do we introduce students when we introduce them to philosophy? In the context of the concerns of Dewey and Nietzsche, we may ask whether the students’ introduction to philosophy is an introduction to something that, if understood in the lived earnestness teachers desire, is an impediment to their development. If as a culture we are just starting to get away from a weakening theory, it might be reasonable to introduce it as part of a history of ideas. But what then are we teaching – philology or philosophy? No mere fascination with the history of ideas I want, nor the childish satisfaction of proving. Nor do I want to teach only upper-level students who have already chosen to enter the philosophical community, and therefore also enter the conversation that includes the history of ideas. I want to introduce students to philosophy as truth-seeking, and to the willingness to follow that seeking even at the risk of their present conceptions of themselves. It is, however, precisely in this context that I believe, contrary to Nietzsche and Dewey, that fables of the really real world are not necessarily a disease, nor necessarily an impediment to growth. Rather such fables contain a lesson needed as part of the process of developing creative, honest, philosophizing minds. When Nietzsche rejects the fable of the really real world, it is because he wants to create space for a new kind of longing. This longing is for a different kind of really real world; a different kind of ‘next world’. He does not want to make this world as it is before us into another ‘fixed being’. He wants this world to change. But ironically, in order to conceive of a world that is not this one as it is now, even if we move to it by our active creation of this earth through time, it can be helpful at a certain age and stage of development and with the right teacher to listen to fables that plant the seeds of looking beyond.
The stages that Nietzsche chronicles in his ‘history of an error’ are not only stages that culture is going through, but stages which we each must sequentially live as individuals. This is similar to how Hegel chronicles not only the development of the Zeitgeist in culture, but also the development of the individual from infantile sense-certainty through to maturity in the dialectic. In ‘The Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit’, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra describes the human spirit as progressing through the stages of the camel, or the “strong reverent spirit who would bear much”; the lion, who speaks a “scared no” against the values that the camel accepted; and finally the child, who speaks a “sacred yes” for “the game of creation.” But thedevelopment of each stage requires the force and wisdom of the previous stage: the metamorphosis into the lion occurs in the desert of the camel, with the strength that the camel has created; and the metamorphosis of the creatively yes-saying child occurs only in the context of the space created by the no-saying lion. Similarly, the last stage of this history of an error – the “yes” of the child – can only come through and by way of what came before. This necessity for fables of the really real world surfaces not only historically, but also individually.
As the famous Zen saying goes, before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while one is studying Zen, mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers; after one is enlightened, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Although it is true that even the enlightened see the world as real, one can’t get to that point without going through a process in which the world is not real – in which we feel the unreality of the world so strongly that we apply the “full force of personality” as Suzuki says, to seeing what is real. (Essays in Zen Buddhism)
Although we must see by way of this world, we must also “see through the world” as through a deception. Even if, as Suzuki says, “Nirvana is to be sought in the midst of Samsara [the earthly cycle of birth and death]” – or as Dewey says, “the perfect or complete ideal is operative here and now,” (Democracy and Education) – it is on God and the horizon that we whet our minds. We must look for reality first, even if when not finding it where expected, we look so hard that the everyday world splits out of focus under our gaze and we say with an ancient Zen master quoted by Suzuki: “my staff has turned into a dragon, and it has swallowed up the whole universe; where would the great earth with its mountains and rivers be?” It is better to look too hard – such looking is already an activity, and it is easier then to throw that activity and the frustration of not finding into creativity. The “full force of personality” is already involved. The feeling that the world we see is not real is part of discovering that one is willing to do the substantial work to go beyond appearances to reality, both in seeing and doing, as the urgency to see spills over in positive inertia into enlightened activity and shaping of the world. Ultimate truth, no matter how you fancy it – the objective truth of what is, or the subjective truth of what we create, or the continually evolving truth we live – does not lie open for us on the surface of things. We must cultivate the habit of seeing. But if our default is to accept the world at ‘face value’, then trying to see lacks urgency, at best.
There is in fact something beyond what is at first perceived. Most immediately, the sense data with which we are presented must be organized into structures. Moreover, even scientific facts were discovered in time and through the application of intellectual tools – and are still being revised. I must work to create and then work to use the tools of understanding to understand even the annual cycle of seasons. Secondly, beyond the lack of obviousness about the physical world, I am constantly presented with unrealities through political and social deception. Here are not only lies of incorrect factual declarations or insincere promises, but also of Procrustean subtlety in how the syntax of language is structured to suggest the necessity of a social value or belief. Thirdly, my mind is complicated, and often my beliefs and motivations are inaccessible to immediate reflection. I can be underground for myself. When I am a child, my conception of subject and object changes as I grow. When I am considered adult, I think I am complete. Sometimes I even war with myself; sometimes I don’t know what I want or why. And along with presidents and mothers and everybody with whom I’ve ever danced, I often see first what I expect to see, whether in desire or fear. Finally, things are not what they seem because things change. Following Sartre, if one is not what s/he is, the world which she or he constructs is not statically defined either.
We cannot fully and creatively live in a world that is not even this world unless we have already learned the meaning of looking and longing. This is not a ‘compensatory’ looking for supernatural dreams, as Dewey argues; rather it is an honest looking that paves the way for honest love and co-creation. Neither is this a negative longing which rejects the world; rather it is an affirming longing, in the sense that neither parent nor patriot wants what is loved to be static. The solidity of sense-data, the damage of deception, the false necessity of ‘how things are’, the entrance of fear and desire into facts through expectation rather than construction: none of these can withstand looking and longing. When Suzuki was asked if there is any difference between the first stage when mountains are mountains and the last, after enlightenment, when mountains are mountains again, he said, “No difference – only the feet are a little bit off the ground.” But this little bit of air makes all the difference: it is the space that makes engaged change possible.
To posit a creative plan of becoming, says Sartre, we must first conceive of the possibility of a not-this-world. But how do we gain the ability to posit the ‘pure possible’? Sartre explains that a worker, for example, “who lacks the education and reflection necessary,” will not be able to change his social circumstances because “he can not even imagine that he can exist in it otherwise.” (Being and Nothingness) For the educational life and the philosophizing mind we need first not the idea of the thing for which to long in creation, but rather the idea of longing itself. We need to be educated in longing. The ‘innocence’ of Nietzsche’s child is deliberate, developed, reflective.
One of the main attributes of the philosophizing mind is to be able to change, making the world and ourselves such that we can be surprised by them. Thus, as teachers of philosophy, we are unlikely to harm our students by helping them begin the process of development Nietzsche described. The idea and the excitement of ‘the really real’ is one of the essential elements of introducing somebody to philosophy – and in starting them out on the effortful path towards moving mountains.
© Rebecca Glass 2007
Rebecca Glass is a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education, The Free Press, 1997.
Dewey, John. Experience and Nature, Dover Publications, 1958.
Dewey, John. Human Nature and Conduct. Modern Library, 1930.
Kaufman,Walter, trans., ed. The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin, 1982.
Suzuki, D.T. Essays in Zen Buddhism, Grove Press, Inc., 1949.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Hazel Barnes, trans. Washington Square Press, 1956.