When we think about reality or talk about reality the big assumption we almost always make is that there is a reality to think and talk about. When Rene Descartes drew an astonishingly original distinction between the subject and the object he began a stream of thought that solidified a certain relationship to the concept of reality. We as the subjects are the perceiver and we look out at the objective world. The object(ive) world is seen as really real and our thoughts and language about it are seen merely as descriptions that help us to understand it. Reality is out there. It exists independent of us and we perceive it, think about and talk about it. We can certainly be wrong in our perception of reality. We sometimes think we see what is real only to discover later that we were mistaken, but reality itself is always there waiting for us to see it clearly. And the rationality and the science that was born during The Enlightenment was based on a belief that as our ideas and conceptions about reality become more clear we are seeing more accurately the reality of what was there all along. Ideas are a medium of perception. They are the light that is cast upon reality allowing us to see it more clearly. As our ideas become more luminous we see more detail about the reality that was already there even when our minds were enshrouded in the darkness of ignorance. Reality is static and unchanging. What changes is only our perception of reality.
Then Immanuel Kant, the German Idealists and the Romantic thinkers developed a new conception of reality. They imagined a creative reality, a reality in which human beings play an active role in constructing. We not only uncover reality with our ideas – our ideas are actually partly responsible for the form that reality takes. There remained shades of the old more static view of reality embedded in these creative notions. For instance Kant imagined that the numenon was the deeper unknowably reality of the “thing in itself.” This deeper reality stood in opposition to the phenomenon which was our perception of it. Hegel, one of Kant’s successors, definitely held a view that reality was being created through our thoughts and ideas. At the same time he believed that reality existed already in an Absolute unmanifest form and was only squeezing into manifestation through our creative process. Reality was still something that pre-existed our ideas about it even if in some nonmaterial ideal realm.
When the Existentialists and Postmodernists of the twentieth century entered the scene they began to question whether there was any reality at all. Taken to its extreme this line of questioning leads to a nihilistic and relativistic position that insists that there is no inherent meaning in the universe – there is nothing real – there is only interpreted and created meaning. Our ideas are like paper money with nothing in the bank that gives them inherent value.
Pragmatism is sometimes accused of being relativistic, but I don’t think it is. The Pragmatists did believe that there is something real in the universe, but they also believed that whatever it was, was so vast and we knew so little about it, that we should treat all of our ideas about reality as, at best, very tentative guesses. We would be wise to hold onto our ideas loosely knowing that in time reality might prove itself to be dramatically different than anything we imagine now.
We are one species on one planet in an inconceivably enormous universe. We have five sense mechanisms for taking in information and those are very limited in their range of perception. We also have only been a self aware species for no more than 100 million years or so in a universe that is over 13 billion years old. It seems silly to imagine that we could possibly have amassed enough data to generate an accurate picture of all of reality. It would be similar to examining a single mountain face during one summer afternoon and thinking that what we saw would allow us to know what the entire world through all of its history was really like. So for a Pragmatist something real does exist, but it is a safe assumption that we have only the barest understanding of what it is.
If we think about our own experience, isn’t it true that generally without realizing it we are almost constantly assuming that reality is, if not identical with, at least very close to the way it appears to us? This is another generalized statement of the problem of “the myth of the given” and it is much more pervasive and profound than we might imagine. I believe that our most troubling philosophical and existential problems are rooted in the mistaken assumption that we see reality clearly or at least nearly so.