Nothing Exists Independently

One of the foundational insights of Pragmatism is that reality only exists in relationship. Nothing that is absolutely independent is real. Absolute Oneness is identical with absolute nothingness. Any concept of oneness that exists can only exist in opposition to some other concept of nothingness. This definition of reality has profound implications that I want to explore a little in this and a few subsequent posts.

If we are going to attribute the insight that nothing exists independently to one of the founding Pragmatists we would have to assign it to Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce believed that something is real if it has necessary affects (on other real things) associated with it. That means that something can only be counted as a real thing if it forces other real things to act in particular ways in relationship to it. The reality of anything is therefore always defined in relationship to other things.

Let us start with the example of a table. We know that a table is a real thing because it has necessary affects associated with it when it comes in contact with other real things. For example sunlight that shines onto a table from above will not reach the ground below. Similarly raindrops that fall from the sky onto the table will have to roll off of the edge of the tabletop before continuing to the ground. And finally if I walk in a straight line up to a table I will be forced to move the table to one side before continuing. The reality of the table forces sunlight, raindrops and me to act in specific ways in relationship to it – therefore it is a real thing.  If we could imagine a table that sunlight, raindrops and I could pass straight through without the slightest alteration of our course then the table would not exist; it would not be a real table.

For Charles Sanders Peirce and all subsequent Pragmatists reality is defined by interaction, relationship and encounter. We do not perceive reality directly; we perceive the necessary effects of the encounter of one real thing with others. Those affects are “signs” that tell us that a real thing is present. One of the implications of this way of seeing reality is that it dissolves the distinction between subject and object. No objects exist independently from a perceiving subject. Whether the subject is sunlight, raindrops or human beings, the object of the table does not come into existence until there is an encounter with some subject. And in this encounter the object defines necessary effects that will be indicative of reality. At the same time the subject will also shape the nature of those effects. The table as “perceived” by raindrops will be different than the table as perceived by me. At the same time I am different when I percieve raindrops than I am when I listen to an orchestra. Reality is found not in the object or the subject alone, but in the mutual encounter of subject and object. The subject and object define the character of one another’s existance. This insight made Pragmatism instrumental in the development of the physics of Quantum Mechanics and is also why this philosophy lends itself so well to an understanding of the self as part of the integral whole of society. A few posts ago I began a journey toward the development of a theory of social reality and these next few posts exploring the Pragmatic understanding of reality will create a deep foundation for us to continue the journey toward discovering how social reality is “really” real.