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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I am a newcomer to philosophy and have been amazed at some of the views that some philosophers take seriously. For example, Descartes questioned whether he was awake and not just dreaming when he was really awake. And Berkeley went so far as to argue that even when we are awake we are dreaming (as it were) to believe that there is a physical world. Then if we look at some Oriental philosophies, they tell us that everything is an illusion, even the existence of ourselves! It looks to me like people go insane when they take up this sport you call “love of wisdom.” Please explain.

Two Feet on the Ground

Dear Two Feet,

Yes, it is an occupational hazard of philosophy to fly off into the clouds. But I think there is something quite down-to-earth that one can learn and apply from this sort of exercise. Perhaps it all boils down to this: any act of perception involves at least two ‘things’ – perceived and perceiver. This is completely obvious once pointed out (as I have just done); yet it is also exceedingly profound and can lead to endless thought. While it is indeed an overreaction to jump to the conclusion that nothing is known, a là the skeptic, or that everything is subjective,a là the idealist, the realization of perceiver and perceived is still enough to confound one’s normal view of the world. At the very least one will wonder just how much, and which parts of, the familiar world truly belong to the world one assumes one is perceiving, and how much or which parts are purely functions of one’s point of view or of the act of perceiving itself. But that the familiar world is a chimera consisting of both can no longer be doubted once one becomes acquainted with the idea.

For the ordinary person who is rooted in a ‘real world’, it seems total nonsense to question what can be plainly seen and even touched. But I tell you that after a lifetime of pondering this simple postulation of perceiver and perceived, I consider what is ‘right before my eyes’ to be a complete mystery. It is as if the world had become my Rorschach – nothing but an ambiguous inkblot to which I could ascribe any of countless different and even contradictory meanings. No, it is not a tabula rasa – an absolutely blank slate – on which I could ‘draw’ whatever I wanted, for there is indeed a world out there (I assume!). Rather, there is the world and there is myself; and knowing which is which will determine how truthful my perception is. Hence the injunction to “Know thyself,” for only by doing so will one know what is true about anything else.

What is unacceptable to the philosopher, then, is to accept things at face value. But… where and how to begin this investigation? One very useful technique, which I find compatible with the advice given by philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, is to ‘mix it up’ for the hell of it. Thus, take anything at all that seems obvious to you, and then question it. For instance: “The sky is blue.” Oh really? If you begin to attend to the sky, you will discover that it contains every hue imaginable. But even supposing you were staring at a perfectly blue sky, it must be the case that its blueness can only be known to you by means of your eyes. The sky is ‘up there’ and you are ‘down here’; hence also a medium must be involved, such as light. And none of that would be of any avail if your eyes were not connected to your brain. Well, with all those intermediaries, just what is that blue you are perceiving? Is the blue in your head? I don’t think a surgeon would be able to find it there! It gets pretty confusing, and you’ve only just begun to consider the complexities.

This kind of enterprise becomes more characteristically philosophical if it involves the prior step of making yourself aware of something you took for granted. What is curious is that the more fundamental or ‘obvious’ something is, the more difficult it may be to become aware of it! It is like the fish who may never realize it is swimming in water. Then, having become aware of such a thing, question it. Neither of these steps need be taken intentionally since life all by itself provides occasions for all of us to be philosophical in this way. Thus, without any effort on your part you might all of a sudden simply become aware of, say, your having assumed that your spouse was put on this earth for the sole purpose of pleasing you. And then, still with no conscious effort on your part but from the mere fact of having become aware of it, the questionableness of that assumption might suddenly jump out at you. The philosopher is one to whom such epiphanies tend to happen of their own accord with some regularity … or one who, if not so naturally gifted or inspired, has cultivated the conscious habit of searching for such assumptions, in oneself and others, and then actively interrogating them.

So, Two Feet… do you exist?

As ever,


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