Zachary Allard (2)


The Fallacy of the (Known) Empirical

“Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”
At heart, this essay is a philosophical examination of “reality” and the ghost of Cartesian empiricism that pervasively haunts Western thought. Beginning on a similar path as Descartes and drawing on substantial influences from Rorty and pragmatism along with the complex ontologies of Kant, Wittgenstien, Heidegger, Zizek, Deleuze and others, this essay finds itself at altogether different conclusions. This essay is an attempt at a redefinition of the word/concept reality/the real from any notion of the known empirical objective and an exploration of the implications of finally escaping the Cartesian fallacies inherent to foundationalism that touch on concepts as disparate as the problems of skepticism, infinite regress, dreams, virtual reality, and madness.

Literature Review

The literature review is longer than perhaps is typical for academic essays, but given the ambition of this essay’s scope, it is important to situate it firmly in the Western tradition of thought that it encounters. The length is absolutely necessary to establish not only the credibility but the position of the essay within the philosophical canon. While not as integral as those analyzed here, the thought of Plato, Kierkagaard, Nietzsche, and others played an important role as well.

The most important works in the bibliography emerge from the work of Renee Descartes, an eighteenth century philosopher whose work is crucial to understanding contemporary Western thought. “Descartes is universally acknowledged as the father of modern Western philosophy” (Cottingham vii). His particular brand of skepticism turned positivism is one of the pillars of this essay and Western thought writ large. At the same time, his conclusions are exactly what will be countered in the analysis. Descartes’ work is tremendously wide-ranging and deals many topics other than basic ontology and epistemology. Yet, most, if not all, of his further philosophical conclusions and analyses stem from this actually unproved positivism. In Meditations on First Philosophy as an effort to prove that God exists, he writes, “So there is a great difference between this kind of false supposition and the true ideas which are innate in me, of which the first and most important is the idea of God. There are many ways in which I understand that this idea is not something fictitious which is dependent on my thought but is an image of a true and immutable nature.” (Descartes 108). There are many, many problems with this assertion, but what is important to note right now is that Descartes builds to his proclamation of God on the faulty foundations of discrimination between the “real” and the “false” he had already laid. The two most important works to this essay are Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Others works such as Principles of Philosophy were researched and may occasionally be referenced as well.

In Discourse on Method, Descartes tackles skepticism (among other ideas) and writes the most famous quote in modern philosophy: Cogito Ergo Sum. In part I, he outlines who he is to write such an ambitious work. He writes, “But I say without hesitation that I consider myself very fortunate to have happened upon certain paths in my youth which led me to considerations and maxims from which I formed a method whereby, it seems to me, I can increase my knowledge” (Descartes 21). In part two, Descartes lays out that he aspires to build the very foundations of knowledge (at least for himself) from a deeply skeptical point. He writes, “The first [precept] was never to accept anything as true if I did not have evident knowledge of its truth: that is, carefully to avoid precipitate conclusions and preconceptions, and to include nothing more in my judgments than what presented itself to my mind so clearly and so distinctly that I had no occasion to call it into doubt” (Descartes 29). Unfortunately, Descartes wavers on this goal, but it is an excellent ideal nonetheless and crucial to this essay. Near the beginning of part four he writes, “For a long time I had observed as noted above, that in practical life it is sometimes necessary to act on opinions as if they were indubitable, even when one knows that they are quite uncertain” (Descartes 35). In many ways, this is a fundamental precept for this essay and a perceptive insight from a writer who would ultimately argue on the wrong side of certainty. The most insightful assertion from Descartes is a little later in part four when he writes, “But since I now wished to devote myself solely to the search for truth, I thought it necessary to do the very opposite and reject as if absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt, in order to see if I was left believing that was entirely indubitable” (Descartes 35-36). In many ways, that stance is as influential on this essay as any other piece of philosophical writing. It is an amazingly clear goal for foundations or bust at any cost. While Descartes ultimately comes to almost oddly positivist conclusions (Descartes 39-40), this beginning is unimpeachably strong. This essay in many aspects is an attempt to fulfill the broken promise of Descartes’ trenchant beginning.

Meditations on First Philosophy is considered, “Descartes’ philosophical masterpiece” (Cottingham viii). It ranges across topics as varied as his own existence, the nature of reality, and God. Like in Discourse, he, “realized it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last” (Descartes 76). Of course, Descartes is ultimately too concerned with establishing something that will last rather than staying true to his maxim to demolish everything. But, once again, the underpinnings of his thought are far more piercing than its conclusions. He also argues without proper follow-through about the nature of dreams and God. He writes, “Nonetheless, it must surely be admitted that the visions which come in sleep are surely like paintings, which must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and hence that at least these general kinds of things—eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole—are things which are not imaginary but are real and exist” (Descartes 77). What a tremendous non sequitur. He believes to understand completely that what he call dreams are reliant upon what he calls, “real” without any real underpinning to this line of thought. Once again, Descartes’ thought begins well only to derail because he deems certainty and foundations absolutely necessary.

The work of eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant was also crucial to the ideas developed within this essay. He was an idealist whose skepticism about knowing the true nature of things is important to understanding the skepticism (and its own flaws separate from realism) that is also common in modern philosophical thought. Modern philosophy would be unrecognizable without his contributions. He helped to move Western thought beyond simple rationalism and foundationalism and empiricism that had (and still) plagued it since the Greeks. His work is certainly more consistent with its conclusions than Descartes but is still rife with its own problems. He has a tremendous body of work that (like most great philosophers) spans many subjects over many years over thousands of pages.

It is his seminal work, Critique of Pure Reason that is most important to this essay. One of his most important ideas is that man should not reach beyond the limits of possible experience for metaphysics. He writes, “It is therefore from the human point of view only that we can speak of space, extended objects, etc. If we depart from the subjective condition, under which alone we can obtain external intuition, or, in other words, by means of which we are affected by objects, the representation of space has no meaning whatsoever” (Kant 25). That is a circuitous way of saying that one should not deign to speak of those things that one can not have an external perspective upon. In other words, the subjective condition is the only condition for Kant. He has also placed substantial limits on knowledge of the “real.” He wrote that, “objects must conform to our knowledge” (Kant 23). While this essay does not entirely concur, it is an important concept and development in modern critical thinking that places objects (and "reality") under the purview of human consciousness. He contended that knowledge is based upon experience instead of some a priori awareness. Kant writes, “That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise otherwise than by means of objects which affect our senses” (Kant 14). While this is not flawless reasoning as it assumes knowledge of what the “senses” are and how they are influenced by something external, the reasoning does make the essential point that nothing can be known outside of whatever it is that is referred to as “experience.” He continues later in that same passage to unseat “empirical” knowledge. Kant writes, “our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions and that which the faculty of cognition supplies from itself” (Kant 14). What is wonderful about this passage of writing is that he essentially unseats the very idea of the empirical (the objectively known and knowable) since he links it inescapably with the senses that he already said are part of our limited frame of reference(i.e. subjective). Therefore, in Kant’s view, any empirical is subjective and therefore, no longer empirical (by definition). He believes that we only relate to objects through intuition/perception. Kant writes, “they [sensory perception] are only sensations and not intuitions, do not of themselves give us the cognition of any object, least of all, an a priori cognition” (Kant 26). In other words Kant is saying that man cannot know things beyond our perception of them (whatever that is). He insists that man only knows the “form” of things and not their actuality (Kant 23-24). While this too has led to flaws in modern thought (different but not altogether so from Descartes’ errors), it is an important step in the development of epistemology. His idealist skepticism (as this essay refers to it) is tremendously important to the work of this essay—though it remains imperfect.

Like Descartes, Hegel’s thought has strengthened the specter of the known empirical in Western thought. His idealism and dialectics influenced the thought of those who followed in his intellectual footsteps and those who would bury his thought, not praise it. His ideas are once again wide-ranging, but his work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, is the most pertinent to the essay at hand.

The Phenomenology of Spirit is where Hegel lays out his brand of idealism and his complex concept of the dialectic. He sees a fundamental separation between the mind and nature while simultaneously postulating that it can be bridged. He writes, “Nature, however, is so far from being fixed and complete, as to subsist even without Mind: in Mind, it first, as it were, attains its goal and its truth. And similarly, Mind on its part is not merely a world beyond Nature and nothing more: it is really, and with full proof seen to be Mind only when it involves Nature as absorbed in itself” (Hegel 112). There are a multitude of errors in this line of reasoning. It postulates a separate mind and reality while simultaneously proscribing an interdependent relationship between the two. Hegel proposed a system of differing levels of consciousness that can and must be scaled to understanding. It involves the “consciousness” examining itself and reality and coming to a synthesis over time (Hegel 37, 42). He believed that “truth” (or reality) could be found (or really, synthesized) this way(over time). It is a fascinatingly positivistic idealism that assumes a fundamental connection between an outside empirical reality and the human mind. More egregiously, he posits a relationship to an outside world that can (after synthesis) be understood. Hegel writes (again rather circuitously as if Byzantine language alone might confirm his ideas), “This dialectic process which consciousness executes on itself--on its knowledge as well as its object--in the sense that out of it the new and true object arises” (Hegel 51). He continues later on dialectic, “this dialect is not an activity of subjective thinking applied to some matter externally, but is rather the matter [reality, if you will] putting forth its branches and fruit organically” (Hegel 53). Apparently, it is through the application of the mind that the “true” nature of matter (reality) is brought to bear that is not merely “subjective thinking.” It is a tremendously complex epistemology that presumes the mind and reality almost working together (apparently through history as well) to understand the “true” nature of things. While not directly touching on his thought as much as Descartes’, his thread of idealistic empiricism is definitely a problem in contemporary thought.

Wittgenstein’s work is in many ways the functional opposite of Hegel’s. He is one of the most important figures in analytic philosophy, but currents in his thought can be linked as a precursor to pragmatism and Rorty (who himself left the analytic tradition). His later works of epistemology question what man can know and then take it that next step and question the value of questioning. Of particular value for its trenchant insight is his final work, On Certainty, with its final thoughts written just before his death.

On Certainty is a beautiful treatise on what man can know, what he can not know, and what that matters. Written as a series of statements, propositions, and aphorisms instead of a unified essay, this broken approach works well for philosophy as it boils down Wittgenstein’s oft poetic musings and ideas into elegant ideas and traces a clear line throughout the text as he begins with a skepticism only to question the value of such a skepticism. He writes early, “From it seeming to me--or to everyone--to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so” (Wittgenstein 2). This is a nice piece of skepticism that is philosophically sound but not entirely groundbreaking. What follows pushes his thought into more insightful realms. He continues in that same passage, “What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it” (Wittgenstein 2). This brief passage could be a thesis statement for the entire work. It is ultimately skeptical but skeptical in a way that anticipated the pragmatists and Rorty by questioning the value of the questions. He writes later (in a passage that unseats a lot of philosophy), “doubt about existence only works in a language game” (Wittgenstein 5). Rorty’s work would definitely echo such sentiments. The brilliance of such statements is that it begins the philosophical work of unseating “reality” from the binary of true-false, something that truth claim can even be made about one way or another. He writes later “The propositions which one comes back to again and again as if bewitched--these I should like to expunge from philosophical language” (Wittgenstein 6). He continues later that page in the same vein, “Thus we expunge the sentences that don’t get us any further” (Wittgenstein 6). Rorty echoes many of the same sentiments in his work, and the purpose of this essay is in many ways to expunge the ideas of foundationalism and empiricism once and for all. In another passage later in the book Wittgenstein writes, “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing” (Wittgenstein 24). What a beautiful insight. It addresses the lack of foundations and how thinkers have struggled with the importance of belief coupled with an utter lack of necessary foundations. Much of the essay could be encapsulated in such an elegant thought. Later, he sets the guidelines for which something may be given a truth claim. He writes, “Really, “The proposition is either true or false” only means that is must be possible to decide for or against it” (Wittgenstein 27). This is a superb realization as it gives a rubric for that which can be judged as true or false. There are many more pertinent insights within this work, however, the final passage (written just before he died) carries its thoughts about the complicated relationship of man to whatever “reality” using a poetic beauty. He concludes, “But even if in such cases I can’t be mistaken [on certain epistemological truths], isn’t it possible that I am drugged? If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I can not seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says, “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain” (Wittgenstein 66-67). Aside from offering an elegantly indirect refutation of Hegel’s convoluted relationship between what he separates into consciousness and reality, it details the complicated (and possible unknowable) nature of things--and its many contingencies.

The next author whose thought was important to this essay is the philosopher, Heidegger. His work in existentialism and phenomenology (particularly in relation to the nature of time and being) is crucial for understanding the grain of contemporary Western philosophy. His thoughts about being are key even though the nature of personal being is not within the purview of this essay. His thoughts on being spill over into observations and repercussions for epistemology and reality—which is the focus of this essay. While his deconstruction of Descartes is important, his thoughts on the nature of being and truth are crucial. Being and Time is the most important source, but The Basic Problems of Phenomenology was also helpful.

His most important work is Being and Time. This work details his most important epistemological thought. Like Descartes, he is searching for some foundation or what he calls “ground-concepts” He writes, ““Ground-Concepts” calls for us to grasp the ground, reach the foundation” (Heidegger 3). He tried to elucidate philosophy that, “wishes to be fundamental.” At the same time he writes, “the realm of beings is not identical to the actual” (Heidegger 22). Of course, this is still too positivist at its core but is getting closer to a limited skepticism. He hints at a pragmatic sense when he writes of reality that, ““realities do not need such far-ranging reflections. There are already abstract enough, and additionally, they attempt to demonstrate the emptiness and groundlessness of the abstract A forthright man experiences the whole of being not through the dislocations of empty thinking about being but only by acting and effecting among things” (Heidegger 31). Put simply, reality is not a thing experienced abstractly through dialectics or analysis. Heidegger prefers to explain reality (and what he argues as true) through paradoxes. He writes, “Being is the most reliable, and so unconditionally reliable that, in all spheres of our comportment toward beings, we do not ever become clear as to the trust we everywhere place upon it” (Heidegger 52). He continues in that same passage, “Being is the refusal of very expectation that it could serve as a ground … Being the most reliable and at the same time the non-ground” (Heidegger 53). Putting aside the eccentricities of his language, this is a valuable point that he makes about being that will also apply to whatever it is that is called “reality.” Responding to those positivists who believe that foundations are necessary for truth and belief he writes, “Subjectivity surely does not mean the exclusion of truth” (Heidegger 67). He refutes the fallacious notion that subjectivity automatically leads to an absence of truth or predisposes the conditions for valid belief. Lastly, he writes a wonderful observation about being that translates perfectly to “reality.” He writes, “Being immediately becomes a being though all representing and thinking of it” (Heidegger 72). An incredibly elegant point that in other words means, that being is being if it is perceived or experienced as such. This will become a crucial point for this essay.

The thought of Gilles Deleuze was also important to the development of the ideas in this essay. He has a strange and complicated metaphysics (could be argued to be convoluted) and on oft-mis-represented ontology. He has a tremendous (and particularly wide-ranging) body of work that touches on everything from basic philosophical concepts to things like film theory.

Difference and Repetition is Deleuze's most relebant work to this essay, but Pure Immanence and Desert Islands also lent important insights. Deleuze is what could be described as a transcendental empiricist. He argued that life, reality, etc. is all based upon difference. He wrote that, “reason is carved out of the irrational” (Deleuze 36). While not directly applicable, the idea that these notion that these ideas are carved out of a “reality” that is not affected by human speculation. Where to begin in philosophy has always been one of the fundamental questions. It is certainly a question that this essay has to come to terms with (the value of the search anyway). He dispatches the question summarily, “there is no true beginning in philosophy” (Deleuze 129). He writes later of the senses, “Each faculty is the presence of that which it calls its ‘own’” (Deleuze 141). In other words, for an ear there is nothing but sound. This has some interesting ramifications, particularly if the principle is expanded out to consciousness writ large. Like Heidegger, Deleuze is comfortable with paradox. Going so far as to write, “Philosophy is built on paradox” (Deleuze 227). He has a strong sense (again) of perceptive skepticism. He writes, “To ground is to determine. But what is determination, and upon what is it exercised?” (Deleuze 272). This is an excellent question that positivists really have no response for. Foundation demands just that, something to be built upon. Deleuze continues, “To ground no longer means to inaugurate and render possible representation, but to render representation infinite” (Deleuze 273). This is a complex thought, so he continues on the next page, “To ground is to always ground representation” (Deleuze 274). Essentially, he is arguing that foundations are always based in something without foundations. Lastly, he writes, “The fact is that to ground is to determine the indeterminate” (Deleuze 275). Basically, he is arguing that people may establish foundations where they will, but they are implicitly groundless structures, castles in the air, so to speak. While this notion of epistemology is not exactly in line with this essay, his analysis is a crucial building block.

Jacques Lacan’s work, while not bearing directly on the more fundamental concerns of this essay, still has a certain value, especially for understanding why Western thought has been so consumed with foundationalism and empiricism. His thought deals less with the ontological nature of the “real” and the epistemological problems it brings, so much as the psychological problems encountered with the real. For him words and language order the unconsciousness and the “real” (Lacan 39). His most pertinent insight is when he writes, “the objectifying thinker make[s] an almost imperceptible transition from the concept of the moi [self] defined as the system perception-consciousness—that is as the system of the objectification of the subject—to the concept of the moi as correlative to an absolute reality” (Lacan 68). To put it in simpler terms, people are obsessed with the “real” because they think it makes them real. This foundational obsession is misplaced narcissism looking to prove the self by proving the real. This is a superb insight into the unconscious motivations of the positivists and their thought.

Derrida’s thought is not as directly applicable to the issues addressed within this essay, but his ideas are crucial to understanding contemporary thought. He did not directly address the Cartesian questions of external reality, but his ideas of deconstruction and “de-centering” false binaries (Derrida 119) are important to the analysis of this essay in an implicit--if not always directly stated capacity. Writing and Difference is one of his most important works, and the one whose ideas most directly inform the analysis within this essay. He consistently insists upon the absence of a “transcendental signified” an idea related to language but again important because it is a reminded that a lack of foundations extends even to something as seemingly transparent as language. So while his work is rarely directly referenced, his methods of thought in terms of the destruction of the hypocrisies inherent in systems are crucial to the analysis in this essay.

Foucault’s work does not often intersect with the basic questions of epistemology that this essay tackles but does more so than Derrida. His work, Archaelogy of Knowledge is another important reconfiguration of Western thought. In Archaelogy, he searches the conditions of history necessary to allow something to become an object of discourse (Foucault 23). This is a relevant question since the point of this essay in many ways is to rid philosophical discourse of its foundational bent. He writes that it is, “Objects that emerge in discourse” (Foucault 31). In other words, it can be inferred from his ideas that the idea of “reality” empirically “true” or not, merely emerged out of discourse (a similar notion to some of Wittgenstein’s thought).

Foucault’s collection, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology was also valuable for this essay. In this collection, he has an essay titled, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire” (a direct Descartes reference) that deals expressly with Descartes’ notions of sleep and madness. He writes, “Everything that madness … could make me doubt can also be rendered uncertain by dreams. In their power to make uncertain are not outdone by madness” (Foucault 395-96). This is an excellent dissection of dreams and madness, essentially equating them in “knowableness” and most importantly “unknowableness.” He writes a little later, “there is no certain index that can separate sleep and waking” (Foucault 397). Combining this observation with hos previous assertion about dreams and madness, he basically unseats any and all foundationalism. He is saying that dreams and madness are indistinguishable and that wakefulness is indistinguishable from sleeping (and henceforth) dreams. Lastly, he argues a brilliant dissection of Descartes. He writes, “If I must begin doubting the place where I am, the attention I am paying to this piece of paper, and this heat from the fire which marks my present moment, how could I remained convinced of the rational character of my undertaking? In placing this actuality in doubt, am I not at the same time going to render impossible all rational meditation and remove all value from my resolution to discover the truth at last?” (Foucault 408). Foucault brilliantly surmises the ultimate end of Descartes’ (admittedly brilliant) beginnings in his treatises. It is a crucial point for this essay.
Slavoj Zizek is an incredibly important philosopher and one of the few rock star intellectuals working today. His thought and criticism might be the widest of any thinker used in this essay. Zizek touches on everything from film and literature to sexuality and even questions of psychology. He deals less with the base level epistemology of Descartes/Kant/etc., but his work does intersext with Descartes, Kant, Foucault, and Lacan (among many, many others) quite a lot. He is a Marxist (though that is all but ubiquitous in academia) and much of his work deals with socio-political structures (of power, gender, etc) and Lacanian symbolism.

Parallax View is the book of his (though hardly the only one researched for this essay) with the most wide-ranging philosophical musings. It holds the most relevance for this essay as well. His thoughts are tremendously varied, with Zizek’s interests alone as a constant thread through his dense prose. He discusses the nature of self to the theology of materialism to the nature of politics, freedom, and morality. The basic thread of the text (such as there is one beneath the profoundly dense language), is the idea of a parallax view. He writes, “The standard definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in the observational position that provides a new line of sight” (Zizek 17). In other words, the subjectivity of language and ideas and the way they shift and morph in each other’s presence is (ostensibly) the thread that runs through this labrynthian book (that Daedalus could have been jealous of). While he argues for the cogito as a place to begin (at least for him) he writes, “The cogito is not a substantial entity but a pure structural function, an empty place” (Zizek 8). This is an important concept for this essay as it addresses the issue of self (and its construction). He continues later with a superb analysis of Kant’s work. He writes, “in his transcendental philosophy homelessness remains irreducible; we remain forever split [between what is and what we “see”] condemned to a fragile position between the two dimensions, and to a, “leap of faith” without any guarantee” (Zizek 9). This is a superb analysis of Kant. Zizek also makes the point that the acceptance of materialism does not necessarily place one within objective reality. (Zizek 17). He continues later, “this Thing [reality, if you will] is not simply transcendental entity beyond our grasp, but something that is discernible only via the irreducibly antinomic character our experience of reality” (Zizek 20). The brilliance of this observation can not be overstated. He is basically saying that whatever reality is, people can not discern it in any other than their experience of it. This is an incredibly important observation for this essay. Once again, the nature of “self” is not really in the purview of this essay. Zizek writes that, “the self is a purely formal function” (Zizek 23). The self is important linguistically but not beyond that. He writes later that, “reality is non-all, but there is nothing beyond-outside it” (Zizek 24). He calls the real “insubstantial” (Zizek 26) and “fleeting” (Zizek 49). Once again, he is suffering from the error of positivist skepticism. But, the importance of his analysis can not be overstated for this essay.

Except for possibly Descartes, the work of Richard Rorty is the most important author in regards to the conclusions drawn in this essay. His turn to pragmatism was incredibly important to the shape of 20th century philosophy, and his break with analytic philosophy laid the groundwork for much of the thought within this essay. He dismissed many of the arguments surrounding discourses such as truth and its ontology/epistemology for being unsolvable (a language game) and thus irrelevant. He was a massive and self-reflexive intellect who moved philosophy to a more relevant place. His work is also wide-ranging, but two works are particularly crucial for this essay: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was Rorty’s landmark work that shook the philosophical world and announced his departure into a pragmatism influenced by Dewey and Wittgenstein (among others). It is a work that takes to task many of the unsolvable obsessions of Western thought and the absolute “unknowableness” of truth (and reality). Rorty ultimately advocates a liberal democracy and a system of thought without pre-suppositions or ultimate foundations. He wants a society where ideas are allowed into the public arena to fight it out, so to speak (Rorty 374-75). He argues that Western thought (and all philosophy) is simply the emergence of new vocabularies attempting to “explain” things better than the previous one. He even goes so to far as to self-reflexively implicate his own thought in this cycle. (Rorty 393). Early on in the book he writes, “to know is to understand what is outside the mind” (Rorty 3). It is a concise definition of the Western conception of empirical knowledge that sets it up to be deconstructed (and a moment clearly influenced by Wittgenstein’s similar proclamations). He states his thesis few pages later, “The aim of this book is to undermine the reader’s confidence in “the mind” as something about which one should have a “philosophical” view, in “knowledge” as something about which there ought to be a “theory” which has “foundations,” and in “philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant” (Rorty 7). This is an amazing piece of writing and strongly informs the conclusions of this essay. He skillfully dismantles the idea of a possible “theory of knowledge” or “representation. Rorty writes, “The notion that there could be such a thing as “foundations of knowledge” (all knowledge—in every field, past, present, and future) or a “theory of representation” (all representation, in familiar vocabularies and those not yet dreamed of) depends on the assumption that there is some such a priori constraint” (Rorty 9). He continues on the next page, “Reality is what is better for us to believe” (Rorty 10). This is a crucial series of thoughts as it will directly inform the conclusions drawn in this essay. Early in the book he dismantles the Cartesian mental/non-mental dualism. He writes, “Discussions in the philosophy of mind usually start off by assuming that everybody has always known how to divide the world into the mental and the physical—that this distinction is common-sensical and intuitive, even if that between two sorts of “stuff,” material and immaterial is philosophical and baffling … These purported intuitions serve to keep something like Cartesian dualism alive” (Rorty 17). This is a superb destruction of one of the fundamental assumptions in Western philosophy. The rest of the book continues this trajectory of pragmatic dis-mantlings of many Western philosophical false binaries and irrelevancies. It is ingenious and essential to everything within this essay.

Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth is a later, excellent example of Rorty’s work that continues his incredible ability to dismantle the obsessions of Western philosophy. It is a work that primarily deals with more contemporary thought and his political ideals but is not without merit for this essay. From the start, he continues to dismantle the pre-suppositions of Western thought. He writes, “questions which we should have to climb out of our own minds to answer should not be asked” (Rorty 7). This is an incredibly important observation for this essay and philosophy in general, and it gives an excellent rubric for dismissal of certain frivolous philosophic inquiries. He continues, “both realism and idealism share representationalist pre-suppositions which we would be better off dropping” (Rorty 7). Rorty might be the only philosopher who eschews (for the most part) the positivism of skepticism. He defines a pragmatist as someone who dismisses the difference between knowledge and opinion (Rorty 23). On the next page, he writes one of his most famous statements: “But the pragmatist does not have a theory of truth, much less a relativistic one … “knowledge” is like “truth,” simply a compliment paid to the beliefs which we think so well justified that, for the moment, further justification is not needed” (Rorty 24). These criticisms are (ironically) foundational for the analysis within this essay. Later in the book, he dismantles the realist standpoint for the desire for, “a more universal standpoint” (Rorty 30), which is of course (as he established) an impossibility and a question best not asked. Lastly, while the notion of self is a construct, Rorty writes, “But once we drop the notion of “consciousness” there is no harm in continuing to speak of a distinct entity called “self”” (Rorty 123). It may be a construction, but it is a useful one and one that will be used in this essay in full-knowledge of its constructedness. Rorty’s work is a remarkable tool that is sure it will be superseded in time. It is a remarkably self-reflexive position for such an important thinker. The importance of Rorty’s dynamic thought to this essay cannot be overstated.

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Understanding the nature of things has been one of the pre-eminent obsessions within Western Philosophy since (at least) the time of Plato. Countless thinkers have grappled with the nature of “reality” and what humankind can know about it. There always assumptions about nature of knowledge and reality embedded in any ontological/epistemological system of thought--even those that do not directly grapple with issues as fundamental as the nature of reality. In fact, some conception of reality (as a thing with foundations or as something which may be analyzed through the rubric or “true” or “false”) is inherent to any system of thought. However, I posit that in the West there has been a particular obsession with the notion of an empirical objective (at least since Descartes), the idea that there is “something” (some reality) ontologically separate from humankind, whose nature can and should be determined. As Foucault would insist, it is this history that allows the notion of the empirical objective to dominate the discourse of the real (Foucault 23). I am writing to separate this (as I will argue) fallacious necessary connection of the empirical objective to the word/concept reality. In fact, I will argue, that something like “reality” is not something which one can even make truth claims about. I plan to start with “myself” (a convenient construction as Rorty insists) and actually finish Descartes’ line of thought, to, “reject as if absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt, in order to see if I was left believing anything that was entirely indubitable” (Descartes 36). I am not interested in the “self” for this essay but rather “reality.” As Rorty writes, “once we drop the notion of “consciousness” there is no harm in continuing to speak of a distinct entity called “self” (Rorty 123). It is a convenient construction that will enable the writing to be more accessible. That is where I am choosing to focus and as Deleuze writes, “there is no true beginning in philosophy” (Deleuze 129). Wherever I choose to begin or focus is already arbitrary. Many of the conclusions drawn are firmly rooted in Rorty’s brand of humanistic pragmatism. Ultimately, my driving argument is that “reality” must be disassociated from any necessary relationship to an empirical objective (or any such truth claims) because there are no grounds even for the question/argument. While a seemingly simple argument, it comes with a host of ramifications for dreams, insanity, the potential emergence of “virtual reality,” and the skepticism rampant in philosophy since Descartes.


Like Descartes, I shall begin with myself. It is an assumption and construct, of course, as Rorty, Zizek, and Lacan all insist. “The transcendental I, its pure apperception, is a purely formal which is neither noumenal nor phenomenal—it is empty” (Zizek 21). So, it is a construct and an arbitrary beginning but a convenient one. Descartes was by his fire with his paper (Descartes 36), and I am here with my laptop on a couch. Again putting aside the constructed issue of self, all “I” have is the experience of this data. (In layman’s terms, what would be referred to as “sensory data” though that conception implies certain presuppositions). I do not, in fact, know anything empirically about this data: this screen I “see” or the couch I “feel” beneath me. Nor, do I know whether this data (as close to a neutral term as I can find) is somehow a representation of what it appears to be (screen, couch), if it is representing everything, or if it is even a perfect experience of “reality.” Whatever this data “is,” it could be generated by some other being like Descartes’ “daemon” (Descartes 47). It could be generated from the thing I call myself. I do not necessarily know the limits of what I refer to as “my” mind or the possible connectedness to other beings. It could be a “glass darkly,” a shadow of the real world (Plato 17). Kant wrote, “But all thought must directly or indirectly, by means of certain signs, relate ultimately to intuitions; consequently, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us” (Kant 23). Put simply, only through our own intuition (mind) can we experience anything. This “data” could a completely accurate experience (or representation) of the “real” and how “things are” (an option all but ignored by credible philosophers for millennia). Or, this “data” could be something else entirely never dreamt off before, something that I cannot think of nor ever could.

I also have no idea whether this “data” (that I experience) corresponds to what I perceive to be my senses (that I presume to intake this “data” that makes up everything I experience as “reality”). This is because I perceive (and understand) my sensory “organs” using the very same senses. There is no way to “escape” this “sensory” data to make any kind of claim about it (either way—positively or negatively). As Rorty writes, “questions which we should have to climb out of our own minds to answer should not be asked” (Rorty 7). Making a determination about “sensory data” would require such an impossible climb. However, for the purposes of this essay and the convenience of the term for communicative purposes, I shall refer to this “data” (which can not be properly analyzed as it is ubiquitous and taints any analysis of it with itself) as “sensory data.” It is this data that I appear to “perceive” (another imprecise term that will have to do).

In the Western tradition of philosophical thought, “reality” has commonly referred to an empirically objective thing/place that exists separately from mankind, something with an ontology all its own. The relationship of humanity to this “reality” has been discussed/debated for centuries. It this idea of a necessary separate ontology that I take umbrage with. But, for now when I use the term “reality,” it is in this parlance as has been the case for hundreds of years (something outside myself with a potentially separate ontology). This is another, “useful construction,” but one which will do for now.

All I have is “sensory data” (or whatever it is) to "know" “reality.” I have no idea the relation (if any) of this “data” to any “reality.” I have no idea the relation (if any) of this “data” to any ontologically separate empirical objective. So, all I have for this (potentially ontologically separate) “reality” is sensory data that I can not make a truth claim about (either way) because I cannot crawl outside my own mind (Rorty 7). Therefore, this also limits my (empirical) knowledge of these other beings that I "perceive" (an imperfect word) to be like myself. Because I have no idea about the nature of this sensory data (which is the only way I experience the “reality” in which I experience these other beings), I could very well be alone in the universe. These other beings could be implanted by Descartes’ “daemon,” imagined by a lonely unconscious (Lacan 68). Or, it could be a totally accurate presentation of my place in a society. So, because it is a useful term, I shall sometimes use the term “us/we” on the (admittedly groundless) assumption that there are other beings in a similar position to myself (and if not, this essay will matter little anyway). I cannot know because (again) my “sensory data” is all (something that I cannot make a truth claim about). There is nothing to say about this data because this data is everything I can know of said data. “”The proposition is either true or false” only means that is must be possible to decide for or against it” (Wittgenstein 27). Something clearly not possible with "sensory data" or the “reality” it might announce. That was Descartes’ fatal flaw: the idea that he could recuse himself from the “data” and make some kind of argument about it—impossible! He writes (after his elegant skepticism), “the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true” (Descartes 36). This is a philosophically ridiculous statement riddled with assumptions and holes. There is no “vantage point,” no information about this sensory data/reality that is not from this sensory data/reality. Therefore, there is nothing that can be said about a "reality" that can be known as ontologically separate and/or empirically objective.

So, it is absurd to speak of reality as “true” or “false” or a shadow or utterly inexistent (or whatever binaries/statements philosophers prefer to cloak their positivism within). As simplistic as this may sound, it simply is whatever it is (and to make claims about it is impossible). In fact, even if what we (another convenient linguistic construction) are experiencing as “real” is produced by our minds or some “daemon” (or the Matrix), it is still functionally real (legitimate). To tie the legitimacy of “reality” to some outside ontology, some intrinsically unknowable empirical objective is absurd. Heidegger writes, “being immediately becomes a being through all representing and thinking of it” (Heidegger 72). While this applied to the idea of personal “being,” it beautifully carries over as concept to the idea of “reality.” Whatever it is I (we) experience as “reality” IS real regardless of its possible separate ontology from the construct I refer to as myself. Because there is no way for me (or the beings like me—if there are any) to judge whatever it is I experience as “reality” as anything but real, it is absurd to worry about it being the fiction of a “daemon” or our minds or a shadow. Whatever it is that is represented as reality or experienced thusly, is for all intents and purposes: real. Therefore, the term/concept “reality”/”the real” must be detached from some unknowable idea of the empirical objective that we cannot know. Again, we must not ask questions that would require us to crawl out of our minds (Rorty 7).

So, we cannot know the potentially external nature of what we experience as “reality.” We could be marionettes, entirely alone in the universe, everything could be as it seems, or some alternative un-considered. Rorty defines knowledge as, “To know is to represent accurately what is outside the mind” (Rorty 3). Simply put, there is no certain knowledge or foundations. That entire idea is scurrilous. There is no knowledge, no foundation, no absolute to build from because anything resembling knowledge is an assumption. “At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded” (Wittgenstein 33). Rorty brilliantly continues Wittgenstein’s idea here and argues that knowledge is essentially, “no different from opinion” (Rorty 72). And all foundations demand, “a priori constraint” (Rorty 7). If “reality” is contingent then it is impossible to have knowledge that is functionally different from an opinion because any statements about build on pre-suppositions and opinions.

So, we are left entirely without foundations or knowledge, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. There is an obvious freedom that this gives us. More importantly, we might as well embrace assumptions because assumptions are all we have. This does not mean that some assumptions are not, in fact, true, but we cannot know their possible truth in the empirically objective sense. The conclusions drawn about “reality” in this essay would tend to concur with Rorty’s ideas about the primacy of foundationless dialogues. (Rorty 372, 375-76). That is not my ultimate topic within this essay but important to note nonetheless.

The arguments presented here against the known empirical objective are not arguments for relativism. There may well be objective truth/ontologically separate reality/etc. But we can not confirm it either way. All we have are assumptions and pre-suppositions; some of which may be better than others. As Heidegger wrote, “Subjectivity surely does not mean the exclusion of truth” (Heidegger 67). We are left in a purely subjective realm, to take our belief with a Kantian (or Kierkagaardian) “leap of faith.” Zizek describes it beautifully, “We are compelled to engage in a kind of “leap of faith,” and commit ourselves to a fundamental trust in the friendly structure of reality” (Zizek 48). Kant is somewhat correct, except I dislike the term “leap of faith.” It implies a choice and agency in choosing to live in a world without foundations. It is much more of a fall. All of our beliefs are “leaps of faith” whether we want them to be or not, so they are more falls of faith. Descartes wanted foundations (and consequently made them up), but foundations cannot be had, so we are left falling and accepting what pre-suppositions we will have. “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing” (Wittgenstein 24).

Assumptions are all. Therefore, just because whatever it is that I experience/perceive may be self-generated, empirically separate, “computer”-generated, a shadow of things as they “are,” or something I cannot even fathom does not mean it is not legitimate or “real.” Reality may only appear to be real, and it is only an assumption to accept/treat it as real, but it is also the only productive choice. A good example is a particular scene in the film, The Matrix. Much has been written about The Matrix, and I am not going to add to that pile of scholarship. I am merely using a clip as an example. In this scene, the secondary villain of the film (Cypher) eats a steak at a fancy restaurant with the primary villain, Agent Smith. Cypher is making a deal with Agent Smith (a program in the digital prison of the matrix) to sell out his colleagues in the “real world.” He wants to be placed back into the Matrix (which generates a world like late twentieth century America into the brains of people). Cypher takes a bite of steak and says, “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? (Pause) Ignorance is bliss” (The Matrix). Well, he is half-right anyway, but he does not realize how far that ignorance actually reaches. Cypher has absolutely no evidence (or place to argue from) that the “real world” (with Zion and Morpheus and the Nebuchaneddzar) is any more real than the world he perceives within the Matrix. He experiences/understands them in a fundamentally identical way. He understands them each with the “sensory data” (that I discussed earlier). The Matrix could be more empirically/ontologically “real” for all he knows, or both could be generated by another outside source and be both “false” or both could some be “real.” The point is, he actually has no idea about their ontological objectivity or empirical reality (nor can he). All Cypher actually knows is that he appears to experience two different universes. (He could be dreaming, on powerful drugs, the nature of things as they are, etc., etc.). Essentially, therefore, the matrix is just as legitimate as Zion (the “real” city at the center of the earth). It is just as tangible (and experienced in the exact same way), so therefore just as “real” and “true.” They are not necessarily tied to the same empirical objective or ontological separateness (in other words, one may have a different nature from the other outside of our experience therein) but Cypher cannot know either way about either the matrix or the “real world” because both are perceived in as legitimate (or real) in the same fundamental way.

The Matrix scene--embedding not allowed

In fact, it is absurd for Cypher (or philosophers or anyone) to talk of any experience of reality as “true” or “false.” Such a judgment is a perfect example of a false binary and the kinds of thinking that Derrida deconstructed. As a thing experienced (that is all what we call reality is), the Matrix and Zion are legitimate (and real). This is a much better way of conceiving them. It is more effective and less charged with notions of the ontologically separate and empirical objective to describe reality as “legitimate.” In other words, whatever we experience as reality is legitimate as such. Reality is legitimized (made real) by the experiencing of it as reality, so to speak.

There are several implications to my line of thinking. Firstly, the least dynamic conclusion is a critique of the inherent positivism of (definitive) skepticism. Since Plato (and especially Descartes) countless thinkers have definitively claimed how broken/flawed our experience of “reality” is. Kant writes, “they are only sensations and not intuitions, do not of themselves give us the cognition of any object” (Kant 26). Plato obviously had his metaphor of the caves and the world as a shadow of the “real.” Even Zizek writes, “the real is the impossible hard core which we cannot confront directly, but only through the lenses of a multitude of symbolic fictions” (Zizek 26). This conception of reality is just as positivist as those thinkers who accept empirical objective reality as an a priori fact. What we experience (reality) is not necessarily a shadow or illusory or generated by some malevolent being. It may be exactly as it appears. We cannot know either way. This is all too common fallacy in modern philosophy of positivist skepticism.

The next implication from my line of thought dissolves the problem of infinite regress. We could just be brains in a vat, stimulated to believe this as “real” (and there can be layers behind other infinite layers of reality creating the next. Take The Matrix (again) for example. Even if they know, the Matrix around is created by a machine, they cannot know that there is not another level of machines behind those, then behind those, and so on for infinity). But, if each of these “levels” is equally “legitimate” (can be experienced as a reality just as much as the others), then there is no problem of infinite regress: they are all real. This solution is a sidestepping to some extent, but if the “problem” was never anything the abstract language games of philosophers, then like Rorty writes of truth, it no longer deserves to be spoken of. (Rorty 24).

A more interesting implication of my reasoning surrounds the notion of “virtual reality.” Should we—in this “reality”— create a “virtual reality” (a convenient term) that when experienced would be perceived as equally legitimate, then it would be as legitimate as our “reality.” The matrix would be legitimate, the dreamscape in Total Recall would be, and so would the dreams in Inception. So, ontologically speaking, if scientists created a technology that created a virtual reality that could be experienced as richly as this, one would have essentially created another, legitimate reality. The same logic applies to hallucinogens. There is no way to de-legitimize hallucinations; they are as legitimate as what we consider “real.”

Total Recall


Dreams have a similar legitimacy. They are equally valid “realities” as whatever it is we think is wakefulness. There is no way to truly differentiate. Descartes groundlessly contended that dreams are, “illusions” (Descartes 36). Foucault tears this apart, however. He writes, “there is no certain index that can separate sleep and waking” (Foucault 397). Dreams are experienced through the same sensory data that we experience “real” life. Therefore, there are no truth claims to be made about dreams, and more importantly, they are just as legitimate as “wakefulness.” They are legitimized by the same lack of foundations as reality. There is no way to know (in that empirical objective sense) that this more coherent (seeming) existence is not the wish-fulfillment dream of a scattered universe. Or, perhaps, we exist in multiple realities at different times that are equally valid. Regardless of the ontological nature (that we cannot know) of, whatever we experience as “dreams," they are just as valid and “real” as whatever we consider reality. They are both understood/experienced/legitimized in the same fundamental way. There is no reason to make an ontological hierarchy.

My final conclusion is the most (potentially) disturbing conclusion I draw from these concepts. Given the intrinsic unknowableness of “reality,” there is no safety from madness. If a man says he is a king and I perceive him a pauper, perhaps he is right and I am wrong. Perhaps, I am the madman, and he perceives that which I do not. The notion of “madness” is ultimately a blackly democratic affair. That is the dirty, little secret no one wants to acknowledge, considering someone “mad” is a decision made by others and put upon the individual—not necessarily a pre-existing state. (Such a person may be mad, but we cannot know it). If enough people in a society see the person as behaving outside the bounds of prescribed reason, then that individual is considered mad. But, perhaps the emperor is wearing clothes after all. This is easily the most terrifying of my conclusions because there is no objective judge of madness, no shelter from anyone being considered mad if enough people agree. If all each of us have are assumptions about everything, there is no way to empirically know that mine are any different from the insane. The reality of those we perceive as mad is as legitimate as ours, we just do not share it, but they experience it in just as legitimate a fashion as we do ours. Most sadly, there is nothing to do about this pre-supposition. Because if they are actually mad and actually damaging themselves and others, it is for the best to treat them thusly—but we cannot know. That is the sad and frightening truth of living in a reality based upon assumption.

Perhaps now we can give up the idea of knowing the empirical nature of a reality we cannot escape (or have a vantage point out of to criticize). There may be no one to read this; I may be a madman; there may be untold worlds in my dreams. There are no truth claims to be made about “reality.” We know only what we are given and cannot escape that. It is conditional and subjective and an existence based on inescapable presuppositions. We can believe what we will. That is all we have.

Web Sources and Links

Inception Trailer


The Matrix Clip


Total Recall Trailer


Works Cited and Consulted

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