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Do We Experience Reality?

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, and Language

Do the election results make you think that some people have lost touch with reality? If it helps, many philosophers think no one has ever made contact with reality in the first place.

Beginning in the 1600s, philosophers started to say things like, “For all you know, nothing outside your head exists. All you’ve ever experienced are your own experiences. All you’ve ever sensed are your own sensations. It might all be hallucinations — all ‘images in your head’.”

This idea didn’t finally start to die until the 20th century, or thereabouts. And I’m not even sure it’s dying. You’ll still hear philosophers talk about seeing a cat as “having a representation of a cat in your brain.” (“Representations in the brain,” it seems to me, is just the fancy new way of saying “images in the head.”)

We had a great discussion of this kind of thing in Philosophy of Language yesterday. The words we use affect the way we see the world, ourselves, and other people. We “interpret” reality, in large part, based on the words that are available to us.

The question is whether we only ever experience our interpretations of reality. Do we never experience reality itself; is each of us locked inside her or his own interpretations? If I see something “in a certain way” or “from my point of view,” am I not seeing the thing itself?

As a phenomenologist, I say that interpretations, sensations, feelings, etc. are like windows. You actually see (hear, feel, experience) the thing you’re interpreting, sensing, feeling, etc. through your interpretations, sensations, feelings. The window might not be very clear in some cases, but you’re still seeing the cat through it.

But I often get the feeling that I’m all alone in this view. (And that makes me a rebel. Which makes me cool. Which makes me popular. So I’m not alone after all.)


  1. Gene Chase
    Gene Chase

    Who was it who when he heard someone doubt external reality stomped on the fellow’s toe, to prove that not everything was just in the brain (“mind?”)?

    I gave a question something similar to this to the Philosophy major who is taking Mathematical Logic as an independent study from me this semester. My textbook talked about “properties” of numbers. E.g. Peano & Dedekind’s approach to number theory. But in his Philosophy of Math independent study from me last semester, he learned that Frege used the term “concepts” instead of “properties.” (I don’t speak German, so you can tell me what the words actually were.) On his homework for next week, I asked him, “Are Peano and Frege talking about the same thing?”

    November 7, 2014
  2. Dr. Chase: I believe G.E. Moore gave a similar proof of extra-mental reality, but I’m not sure if he was the toe-stomper 🙂 And hooray for number theory! I just read a book on the history of numerals. Now I need to read one on the history number theory.

    Ezra: Sweet and glorious Derrida/Double Dragon! I shall have to write a post on my interpretation of Derrida. My interpretation of Double Dragon is: “I remember it being difficult the few times I played it.”

    November 10, 2014

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