January 28, 2011

On having a strong sense of reality

It may sound paradoxical, but the deepest sense of reality usually comes from a keen insight into unreality: the varieties of its forms and the underlying structures which give rise to these varieties. Have you ever met someone who you felt had a fascinating grasp of what's going on in the world, an acute sense of reality? Chances are that this person has spent some substantial amount of time and energy in the study of unreality in one or more of its forms. He or she may be a writer or movie director, a dream researcher, a historian, or a business strategist — there are many ways to become involved with unreality. They all have in common that they strengthen your sense of reality in due course.

In part, this has to do with the interplay between reflection and imagination. Reflection, the activity of cutting down instances of unreality when navigating our lives, benefits from a familiarity with all the ways of unreality: the closer you know these, the more successful you'll be in spotting and eliminating them. At the same time, imagination itself is, unsurprisingly, empowered by good knowledge about unreality, and skills in bringing it about. So, for instance, studying narrative structures and writing techniques will help your storytelling (imagination), but also keep you aware of people trying to use them in conversation to appeal to your emotions and sell you something you might not want to buy (reflection); after you've studied scenario creation for a while, you can use the skills thus gained for finding opportunities and threats (imagination), but at the same time they'll help you to recognize and disarm fear fantasies (reflection). And so on.

The dance between reflection and imagination becomes faster and more intense, more high-energy, the more detail and depth there's in your insights into unreality, and that is what increases your command of reality, something that can be felt and seen quite clearly in your interactions.

(In other words, you wouldn't expect a deep sense of reality from people who have a weak imagination, and are 'down to earth'. They might sometimes cut off too high-flying, sentimental dreaming, but tend to live in a boring and impoverished world which is by far not reflecting the whole scope of what there could be for them. On the other hand, people who are too careless and let their imagination roam free without reflection that keeps it at bay are prone to disappointment and miscalculation which lessens their grip on reality and also tends to favor shallow if emotionally intense experience over anything with a deeper and sustained impact.)

January 27, 2011

Layers of study

There are different layers to the study of unreality which I'm doing. First, there is the surface. That's where phenomenology is done: I look at different forms of unreality, such as novels, movies, dreams, lies and the past, describing concrete instances. Most often that is triggered by some interesting detail in them which I report and then reflect on. Sometimes I will connect these instances with deeper layers and then dive into those, at other times I'll just describe them as examples.

The second level is what I call substance, mostly the theory that guides my looking at examples, the concepts and their interconnections, also their connections with other sorts of theory (like film theory, or the psychology of dreaming).[1] This is the condensed, sedimented basis of everything that happens on the surface layer. For instance, the rough division into areas of the instances of unreality is based on a structure which is itself part of the substance layer. Concepts such as that of spaces of possibilities which I recently looked at, or broader accounts such as that of the interplay of imagination and reflection belong here. These are what is applied at the surface level. They are, however, not just applied, but also extended and corrected by insights found on the surface. Discussion on the surface has a validating role for the elements in the substance layer.

On the third level, I explore connections, similarities and differences with philosophy. Mostly, this means studying philosophy for analysis that might come in helpful, for precursors or providers of frameworks which bring a basis for my own project, and possible objections to my views.

The philosophy layer is a reflective one; it reflects on theory, not on the forms of unreality themselves. Concepts from philosophical works or contemporary debates might also appear on the substance level. If they do, they throw light at surface phenomena (such as what happens in a novel). If they appear on the philosophy level, however, they help explain underlying theories or concepts (which are on the substance level and thus in turn help explain surface phenomena). And finally, the relation between substance and surface itself, and other relationships between layers, are reflected here.

There is (I think) another, fourth layer, which I call the ground. That's where the philosophy parts are based in. For instance, I have to decide sometimes which philosophical frameworks I would accept for my purposes. I think there must be something in which such a decision would be founded, though I find myself unable to articulate this any clearer right now. I thus won't say much about that level, though it may happen that I'll from time to time allude to it. (Probably primarily in the form of appeal to deep intuitions.)

These layers imply no ranking (working on the surface level is no less important that working on the philosophy level). They're rather intended as a quick help for orientation for me, while writing, and for you, while reading. If you like, you can consider them as a tool for roughly grouping or classifying my postings: usually you should be able to tell at which level we're currently discussing things. Also, don't interpret too much into the terms I've used for the layers. They're chosen in part for their suggestive and pictorial characteristic; there is no deeper truth (or even a metaphysics) to be found in them. (At least none that I intended to put there.)

[1] This is another term that has a long history; I don't want to allude to the more technical uses of this term in older philosophy; the use that I have primarily in mind is rather as in "His allegations have substance." As a name for one of the deeper layers, it connects also to the original Latin substare, from which it is derived.

January 26, 2011

Reflection and Imagination

In an earlier post, I introduced reflection as a high-level concept for an activity that helps us to remain close to reality when we navigate our lives.[1]

The counterpart to reflection is imagination. This is where we produce unreality, in all its forms. We do it when we come up with ideas what to do this evening, when we are creative decorating our surroundings, when we're problem-solving, day-dreaming, story-telling, lying ... you may be professionally making up stories (because you work as a scriptwriter) or seeking for high-opportunity scenarios (because you're an entrepreneur); you may be a little fearful and imagine all sorts of weird things that may happen when you walk a dark path at night, with shadows floating along and creaking sounds that can be heard; you may be re-inventing yourself every so often or creatively play around with world history (or the history of your town or company) to inspire people to get to the next level with doing something really worthwhile. In all these cases, imagination is the activity that widens the space in which we think and feel (and ultimately, act) by supplementing reality with counterpart worlds out of unreality.

I call them counterparts, not enemies; imagination complements, not subverts reflection as an activity. We constantly do both, and have to, in order to live our lives successfully. But they must be in balance.

Again (as with reflection), 'imagination' is a term that has had many, and for the most part much more strict and narrow uses in philosophy. And just as before, the way in which I shall employ it is broader. I use it mostly in the sense in which we say of someone that "he has no imagination". We'd say that of someone who normally acts in a certain way, has certain habits and preferences which all indicate that this person is rather not creative, imaginative, spontaneous, and so on. Someone, on the other hand, who does have imagination would brim with ideas, make up stories, try out new ways of decorating their surroundings, and so on. In other words, such a person would regularly produce unreality (deliberately and usually with the result of improving their own lives and that of others).

Reflection and imagination are in constant interplay, a complicated dance of forward and backward. We need both for success in our lives, though we must keep clear of the extremes in both direction: an excess of imagination can be as damaging as shutting it off completely. Imagination, the producing of unreality, gives us a drive and provides us with energy; reflection, the constant re-alignment with reality, gives us a sense of direction; because imagination is something that goes on in your own mind, it's also reflection that keeps you interactive socially. (Or, to put the point differently, the reality we're talking about includes social reality just as well as physical reality, historical fact etc. — reflection keeps you close to reality under all those aspects. Thus, it cuts down all sorts of fantasies about the behavior and opinions of other people, fantasies that otherwise might well lead you astray.)

Now, all this is only a very vague sketch, obviously there are many details yet to be filled in. There is, however, a connection with ethics in this point which I wanted to mention already at this early stage. Ethics, the study of character and leading a good life, is a particularly important stakeholder in the philosophy of unreality, and one of the main points of contact is the interplay between imagination and reflection with all its consequences.

[1] I've discussed reflection in this sense already in other blog postings: one on the reflective stance, and in another one that looked deeper into how reflection neutralizes unreality by facilitating a critical aesthetic stance.

January 23, 2011

The varieties of unreality

I started the introduction to the central topic of this blog with a few simple examples of unreality: mistaken descriptions, lies, and fictions. Let's survey the area we are discussing a little more systematically.

We are interested in anything that can provoke the response: "But that's not really so" — discourse that has been made up at least in part (with whatever intentions).

1. The obvious examples are all the established kinds of fiction. They include literary forms such as novels and short stories, poems and cartoons; dramatic forms such as theatre plays and ballets, operas and musicals, movies, television series', and video games; and pictorial forms such as paintings and photography, and sculpture (perhaps even architecture, as a border case). Part of all fiction is a fictional world of some kind. (That's not all there is to fiction, of course: what it is to be fiction is not exhausted by giving rise to a fictional world. In many cases, that world is not much more than a framework or vehicle for something else which is the proper focus; for instance, a painting might depict a certain scene involving a couple of people, but the whole point may be to make a display of great beauty in the portrayal of the people in the picture. The fantasy world in which they appear is of secondary importance.)

In the kinds of fiction listed so far, fictional worlds are described, depicted or staged in a relatively concrete way. Next, there are more abstract forms of art, which also create, in a sense, their own 'worlds'. Abstract painting comes to mind here, or generally all music which doesn't rely on words or drama (i.e. what is sometimes called 'absolute music'). These worlds are much more strange and interesting: they may still share some very general structures, such as time structure, with the real world, but on the other hand can come to eliminate other aspects completely and so create a purity that just by itself has its own aesthetic quality. (There are none of the familiar physical objects, no artifacts or persons in them; they may consist of highly symbolic or abstract representations, or they may be constructions built mostly for reflection on social or artistic constellations.)

An example for an analysis of the world of sounds which underlies most Western music is the first chapter, on the metaphysics of sound, in Roger Scruton's Aesthetics of Music,[1] from which I've also taken the idea of metaphysical apartness that I've used already several times in my postings here. The qualities of such a hypothetical world of sounds have also been made the basis for philosophical reflection, perhaps most famously by Peter Strawson in the second chapter of his Individuals,[2] where he uses the idea of a world of pure sounds to discuss whether a concept of space is required for the possibility of objectively existing individual items in the world.

2. Closely related to fiction, but with a more practical purpose that influences how they are created, are the various sorts of scenarios used for hypothetical reasoning in situations where trying out things for real, or in all possible combinations, would not be feasible (or practical). Scenario construction goes on when business plans are made, when military operations are planned; generally it's commonly employed in planning activities of all sorts, down to very simple everyday situations. ("This is the last train; what if we miss it?" — "Well, we'd have to find a hotel then.")

Somewhat similar to scenarios, thought experiments are used in science and philosophy to conceptually isolate certain aspects of a theory and test whether the results of that theory would make sense under the conditions in the world of the thought experiment.

An influential recent philosophical thought experiment is Hilary Putnam's 'twin earth' example (follow the link for bibliographic references), with the goal of demonstrating that the meaning of words in a natural language cannot be fully determined by the psychological state of a speaker of that language. The Wikipedia article on thought experiments includes a list of other examples from many areas.

As with fiction, the 'worlds' created when scenarios are built aren't the primary purpose; scenarios are made for a purpose (for 'what-if' exploration, hypothetical reasoning, or conceptual exploration).

3. Fiction and hypothetical scenarios have in common that their character as unreal, as made-up for some purpose (whether it is aesthetic enjoyment or practical exploration of possibilities) is usually known to all involved. It would defeat the purpose of a fictional world or a hypothetical scenario if you hadn't known that it's fictional or hypothetical. (How would you enjoy its aesthetic qualities, or pursue its practical purpose, if you weren't aware of that status?) There is another cluster of forms of unreality where this character isn't known, however. It comprises any sort of (intended or unintended) misinformation: lies, misperception, misremembering, falling for rumours; cases of being deceived (both simple and elaborate deceptions, like those engineered in con tricks, even deep deception such as in Othello); superstition may count among them, illusions, and perhaps as border cases also delusions, such as those caused by mental illness.

Not every kind of false statement generates unreality. (If we'd take the set of all false descriptions, unreality would be a proper subset of it.) In order to be an instance of unreality, it must be taken as a candidate reality, so to speak. Merely false statements (such as, for instance, imprecise answers to questions) may not be able to fulfill this role. There might be a grey zone here, but I think its intuitively clear what this condition means, at least in the paradigm cases.

4. There are two more fields of unreality which both deserve a more extensive exposition of their own; therefore I shall merely list them here without commentary, and defer further discussion to later postings. (I'm aware that these two may be a little harder to recognize as fields of unreality somewhat contiguous to those enumerated above; that's another reason why I think they deserve dedicated introductions of their own. For the moment, you simply have to take them on good faith.) One is that of dreams, which I'd extend to a more broad category including also phantasy and daydreaming. The other encompasses the past and the future: what we can access in memories, history, records, and testimony; and what we find in projections, projects, and predictions.

5. With this, we've walked the main areas into which the terrain of unreality can be divided, by its various forms. In this blog, everything is centered around these, qua being forms of unreality. I've already indicated that its their phenomenology as forms of unreality I'm interested in, where phenomenology is taken in a somewhat relaxed sense. In addition, I will of course explore some theoretical aspects, both of the theory of unreality I'm bringing to bear and from many other theoretical fields from which something can be learned about these instances of unreality.

[1] Roger Scruton, "Sound", in: The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford UP 1997, 1-18.
[2] Peter F. Strawson, "Sounds", in: Individuals. An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. London: Routledge 1996, 59-86.

January 22, 2011


A note on my use of the term 'phenomenology', in the title, and also throughout this blog. What I mean by doing phenomenology is looking at the forms of unreality, describing exemplars, showing their relationships with each other and their connection with the theory underlying this blog (what I sometimes refer to as the substance layer). Thus what I'm doing is in part applicative (applying concepts to instances of unreality), in part corrective (delineating the correct use of such concepts by considering border cases, false applications vs. correct applications and so on), and also in part generative (exploring constellations where concepts have to be formed in the first place).

There's a notable difference here to a much more strict, and differently defined, sense of the term in the 20th century philosophical movement, originating in the work of Husserl, which is itself called Phenomenology. The term has been used before, though, in the broader sense I have in mind here, most prominently in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit; and it's also been used so recently, even if influenced and informed by the ideas of the Phenomenologists. In line with a convention you'll occasionally see in the philosophical literature, I shall use 'phenomenology' in this broad sense, but spell it with a capital 'P' (i.e. 'Phenomenlogy') in the few cases I intend to refer to the movement of the same name, or when I want to employ the strict methodological sense attached to it by that movement.

January 21, 2011

Spaces of possibilities

Consider this passage from the beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (by Stieg Larsson): A retired industrialist receives a gift-wrapped pressed flower.

"[It] was altogether an unpretentious flower. It had no known medicinal properties, and it could not induce hallucinatory experiences. It was neither edible, nor had a use in the manufacture of plant dyes. On the other hand, the aboriginal people of Australia regarded as sacred the region and the flora around Ayers Rock [where it presumably grows]."

Passages such as this one are part of writing craft of course; there's nothing very special about the particular novel or author. But I want to note it as an example use of the space of possibilities technique. Let's look at the function of the passage, the purposes it serves.

1) First of all, it belongs to the opening episode which is primarily a teaser. We're not told anything more about the flower until much later. True, we only gradually learn that we don't, when we read on. For all we know at the time of first reading the passage, the secret might be lifted right away. But in fact it's not; the story switches to a different line of development first, which doesn't have do do anything at all with the flower, and that creates a nagging curiosity that drives us to read on.

2) Besides that dramaturgical function, the quoted passage has another one: it opens up a space of possibilities. It does that in two senses, one more internal to the world (and the characters) of the novel, the other having to do with the audience and its relationship to that world.

First, then, it's the sort of a space of possibilities that a policeman or forensic investigator would consider when receiving a parcel with an unexpected content: is it a bomb? a spying device? seeing that it's only a flower, could it be poisonous? might it convey a message? stand as a symbol for something? is it evidence, a lead, a reminiscence, a threat? or is it simply just something without any meaning? (But then, who'd have made the effort of sending it, and why?)

The second sense in which the passage spans a space of possibilities is in a play with the audience's expectations: the novel is a piece of crime fiction (of which the model reader, that is, the sort of reader which the author had in mind, is well aware). But there's many different kinds in that genre, still. What sort will this one be? A realistic one where sending flowers is plainly what it is in everyday life (a nice gesture)? A complicated whodunit where they are the murder weapon in some devious and nearly untraceable way? A sinister serial killer psychogram where they symbolize a childhood drama that now triggers a string of gruesome events? (Normally, readers would not expressly and distinctly go through these options in their head, but they're still there as part of the underlying set of expectations.) By alluding to these options, our passage and its context make us aware of that space of genre possibilities as well. Even if the actual novel then proceeds to pin down its own type, having walked us briefly through that space it has heightened our sense of the scope of that field into which a piece of fiction might lead us.

3) All this play with expectations (by having a teaser question that isn't answered for a while, and by spanning a space of possibilities) awakens our imagination and generates curiosity. This gets us more smoothly over the first part of the book which will necessarily have a lot of expository stuff (introducing characters, rolling out backstories, describing settings) and not that much of a plot yet. It also plugs us into the realm of unreality, if you will. (Though that is of course not much more than high-flown language for the earlier point that it whets the imagination.)

January 19, 2011

Imagining where you live

Today I was at the house (now a museum) of César Manrique on Lanzarote. He was a 20th century painter and architect, and his former home demonstrates an astounding power of creation and imagination. It's built into five large bubbles in a huge lava stream from an old volcanic eruption, and those rooms are stunningly beautiful and very imaginatively immersed into the natural space created by those lava bubbles.The effect is accentuated by a very consistent use of colors (white paint for the ground and the bottom part of some of the walls, green plants, blue water pools, and red leather on the couches) and carefully implanted, elegant round and arched shapes. It's all the more impressive because this was literally imagined out of nothing but a quirky mess of rock and a couple of deep holes in it.

Source: Wikipedia
(I also fell in love there with a statue called Homenaje al mar, but that's something for another day.)

Manrique also designed some other attractive locations where artful surroundings (such as bars and pools, restaurants and a concert hall) are inserted into spectacular natural environments. They gain much of their character and uniqueness from this continuity between nature (well, certain specific and selected elements of nature) and art (again, primarily a certain style of architecture and sculpture prevailing in it). I visited a bunch of them, and again I was impressed with the imaginative way in which he carved this sort of beauty out of these locations.

January 12, 2011

Pictures in perception

Here's a small supplement to my previous post, where I mentioned a passage from Plato's Philebus in which Socrates sketches an account of perception; part of that account was the suggestion that, apart from the propositional content of the beliefs we form from perceptions, there is also some 'pictorial' content which we retain from them.

(I think, by the way, this is probably terminologically a little unfortunate, because this additional content doesn't have to be visual. It could be in any other sense modality as well. In fact, much of what makes the character of a particular perception visual, auditory, tactile and so on would be with this side of the content, rather than on the the propositional side.)

Now there seem to be some similiar findings in recent cognitive science which I stumbled upon, quoted in Colin McGinn's Mindsight[1]:
"Suppose you ask subjects whether the navel is above the waistline or whether frogs have lips. Many people report forming an image and reading the answer off that image. [...] Clearly, they conjure up a memory image, derived from past perceptions, and extract the information from this. [...] Information is encoded in the image in some sort of form (often described as pictorial), and then it is transformed into another sort of informational encoding — the kind that corresponds to articulate beliefs."

(This doesn't have anything particular to do with unreality, but I found it interesting to find Socrates' mostly metaphorical way of putting it paralleled in relatively recent, modern research.)

[1] Colin McGinn, Mindsight. Image, Dream, Meaning. Cambridge/Mass: Harvard UP 2004, 19–20. McGinn quotes Steven Kosslyn, Image and Brain, which I haven't followed up myself yet.

January 10, 2011

Plato, Poe, and Perception

In Edgar Allan Poe's satirical short story "The Spectacles", a young man falls in love with a woman and hurriedly marries her, without ever having had a good look at her. That's mostly because he is extremely shortsighted yet too vain to wear glasses. And ... what can I tell you? The whole thing turns out to be not quite what he expected.


1. Mistaken perception is one of the most common sources of unreality: we see, hear, smell something and take it to be something different than it really is; sometimes we even act on misperceptions, and then we have to correct not only our erroneous views, but also take responsibility for our misguided actions. In our everyday lives, of course, mistake and correction happen in quick sequence (for instance, when you think you see a person whom you know from a distance, and wave a greeting, merely to discover after a few quick steps towards them that it wasn't your acquaintance after all); the consequences are mostly negligible, or corrected without much effort. The basic pattern, however, is still the same as in Poe's story: we take in some sketchy information, interpret the situation wrongly, and then act in line with our false views. (The fault, dear reader, is of course not in our perception, but in ourselves; I've emphasized that point in an earlier post on "The Spectacles" and perception.)

Observations such as these suggest that we generally have a certain practical interest in keeping close to reality, which is why in our everyday lives we usually try to double-check whatever we perceive (or remember, learn by hearsay from others, hypothesize, or otherwise get out of sources which we know may mislead us on occasion). We seek small reality-checks in much of what we do, in order to navigate our surroundings without drifting too far into unreality, because we know from experience that we are likely to be more successful in everyday life if we go with the flow of what's really going on, and adjust our course if necessary. We have a constant habit of eliminating unreality from our views in order to succeed in our activities and reach practical goals, a habit I call reflection. (In some areas of philosophy, there's a much more narrow and technical use of the term 'reflection'. That's not the sense I have in mind here; reflection, in the way I've introduced it, has more to do with the common sense notion of taking a step back and a deep breath, and calmly checking things over before forming a view or taking action.) Reflection has the function of keeping us close to reality in what we think and do.

2. In an interesting passage in the Philebus[1], Plato starts out with a perception example not unlike the one I've used (and the one that is, greatly exaggerated, at the basis of Poe's story as well), and generalizes this to other forms of unreality. Most interestingly, he discusses forms of unreality connected to the past and future, and that's what I'd like to take a closer look at here.[2]

In that passage, Socrates (Plato's lead character) sketches an account of what happens when we perceive something. For example, "it often happens that someone who cannot get a clear view because he is looking from a distance wants to make up his mind about what he sees"; when making up his mind, the perceiver would ask himself: "'What could that be that appears to stand near that rock under a tree?'". This way of describing it emphasizes the process character of what goes on: we take in the scene, and sometimes, when it is not clear and obvious what it is we perceive, we first have to decide what to make of how things seem to us. Only then it becomes a judgment (whether it is spoken out loud or remains implicit in what we feel and how we behave). And of course, judgments can be correct or incorrect; we might misjudge the situation, which happens all the time with perception: it can lead us astray. In the example, the man might correctly judge that it is a person what he sees; "he might also be mistaken and say that what he sees is a statue, the work of some herdsmen".

In both cases, the judgment can be neatly expressed as a sentence, as I just did at the end of the previous paragraph for both the true and the false version. It has, to put it in philosophical jargon, propositional content. However, Socrates makes it clear that this is not all there is to a particular act of perception. There is also all the sensual input itself, which is in this case visual input (but it could also be input from other senses, i.e. auditive, tactile, or olfactory).[3] The content is not exhausted in the mere word-content. There are also the images that you see. If you'd write down the sentence and then text it to someone, you would have transferred only part of the content. (Maybe if you'd take a photo and send it along with the text, you'd have transferred more, or even most of it.) So, in addition to the propositional content (the 'word' content), there's also what we might call pictorial content.

Right from the beginning, Socrates stresses that his account also applies to what happens when we remember something. Again, memory can fail us, and we might remember something incorrectly. And once more, to our false memory, there is not only the propositional content of what we remember ("I remember having seen this street at daylight.") There are also the images, which we can revive in our mind's eye. And as we all know, vivid and even convincing-seeming as such images can be, they're extremely unreliable.

Having covered the present (in perception) and the past (in memory) in their function as "lead[ing] to judgment or the attempt to come to a definite judgment, as the case may be" (38b), Socrates finally extends this to an analogue in the future: in hopes. (It seems to me he should better have used a neutral term, such as 'projections' or 'expectations', since hopes normally are associated with positive expectations only. I presume this choice is because what interests Socrates is the pleasure that we take in them, and we wouldn't find that in negative expectations, thus the restriction. For a general account, however, hopes would be only one side of the medal, the other being fears and the like.) As with memories and perceptions, hopes (which Socrates identifies with "assertions in us", that is, presumably the sentence formulations of what we expect to happen to us in the future) are associated with images: "someone often envisages himself in the possession of an enormous amount of gold and of a lot of pleasures as a consequence. And in addition, he also sees, in this inner picture himself, that he is beside himself with delight."[4]

The structural claim here is that if there is a kind of unreality we have to cope with in the present (in the form of false perception) and in the past (false memories), then there must also be something similar in the future (false hopes). This premise is emphatically confirmed by Socrates' interlocutor, which probably indicates it's an uncontroversial premise; at least Plato wants to take it as one for the purposes of this dialogue. (Compare also La. 198d for a similar structural claim about knowledge of present, past and future.)

When we're looking for unreality, then, be it in small and simple instances as in everyday life or even in elaborate illusions as in Poe's story, we must check for all areas: not just what's directly before our eyes, but also what's before us in time, and what has been before. A phenomenology of the unreal will thus have to cover the future and the past in addition to the present.

[1] 38c–39e. All quotes (unless otherwise indicated) are from that passage, taken from the Hackett edition: Plato, Philebus. Translated, with introduction, by Dorothea Frede. Indianapolis: Hackett 1993.

[2] The context is the notorious discussion of 'false pleasures', where Socrates argues that pleasures can be literally false, just in the same sense in which opinions can be false. He lists four different classes of false pleasures, and our passage here is taken from the exposition of the first of these classes. For my purposes, the connections to the theory of pleasure aren't relevant, and I've systematically left them out.

[3] Plato's argument is sketchy, and it proceeds by analogy; of course, much more would be needed for a full-blown account of perceptual content, and from a modern point of view, several serious questions would have to be raised. I won't discuss the question whether the account Socrates gives is sufficient for the purposes of his own argument; for me, the important aspect is rather the parallel with other forms of unreality, such as false memories and hopes, which we'll get to in a moment.

[4] Socrates goes on to claim that what causes us pleasure is within the pictorial content, and thus if the pictorial content is false, i.e. an instance of unreality, then the pleasures are 'false' in his sense. As noted above, I'm not interested in pleasure here. If you want to look further into this debated notion, a good place to start is Dorothea Frede's introduction (and its bibliography) to the Hackett edition. See note [1] above for the bibliographical reference.

January 9, 2011

The point of changing reality into fiction

This is a reflection on my last posting (on Inception).

When looking at the relationship between dreams and reality in the movie, the interesting question is not so much how dreams and dreaming works. (Which is for the most part simply one of science.) The interesting question is how fiction works, especially the sort of science fiction employed in the movie, which itself uses concepts such as 'reality' to create its own peculiar fictional world.

There's reality, there are dreams, and there's fiction. Within fiction (e.g. in the specific form of a movie), there is a projection of reality, with some features left as they are in reality, and others changed or removed. We can learn a lot by looking at what exactly the author of the fiction has changed, and why. In other words, what's interesting is how, and with what intentions, the author changed the material that came from the real world when constructing a fictional world. (Sidenote: what I've described for fiction here applies more generally to forms of unreality, not just fiction; however, when we generalize this, we must take into account that then not always a deliberate authorship is part of the process.)

1. Any sort of fiction happens in its own world, a world that has been made up from elements of the real world. Sometimes, what an author wants is to illustrate some point from the real world. For instance, if I make up a story in which a character is a notorious liar, and I construct the plot in a way that lets this liar get into more and more problematic situations, I illustrate the social effects of dishonesty and deceptiveness. Although the character and the events in the story are fictional, what I want to illustrate is the dynamics of social interaction, and the impact of a certain behavior (lying) on it, and the latter is something which is shared by the real world and the fictional world. As long as I keep up this parallel (and make it clear to the audience that in this respect, the fictional world is intentionally like the real world), my fictional world could differ in almost any other respect from reality. I might bend the laws of physics, for example; in this case, we'd have a science fiction story that happens in a world very different from our own, but it still shares the same social dynamics.

I'm thinking of much of the Star Trek TV series' here; although there was much playing around with concepts from science and technology, social aspects of its world were frequently just thinly disguised aspects of the contemporary world around it, sometimes up to the point of painfully obvious moralizing.

2. Sometimes, on the other hand, the goal of the author is not so much to illustrate something from the real world, but to emphasize an interesting possibility how the real world might have been different. (A possibility that can often only be exploited in fiction, at least initially; it may inspire some serious technological invention which makes it a reality later on.) Constructing the fictional world then rather takes the form of an "imagine what would be the case if ...". Such a deliberately built-in difference from features of the real world can be very gentle, and sometimes authors take a lot of effort to have their characters 'explain' it to us, in order to earn the audience's belief in that differing feature of their world.

As an example, take H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, the novel which first introduced the idea of time travel. It begins with a long lecture about the nature of space and time which has the goal of making us familiar with this imaginative idea; only then it starts exploiting this new possibility in its fictional world to demonstrate something about the long-term development societies may have to expect, by having the timetraveler going there and witnessing it.

In contrast, the difference between fiction and reality can also be brutally direct, without much regard for the irritation both the characters and the audience might experience about the divergence.

A case in point is Kafka's Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis). In the beginning of that story, the main character is suddenly and without any direct explanation or motivation transformed into a giant insect, something which wouldn't happen in the real world. After the initial shock, however, that story rolls out the consequences of that situation without any further fictional device; it develops in the way one would probably expect things to develop, once the initial situation would be accepted. (I've elsewhere discussed that particular trick under the name of locally restricted fictionality).

3. Finally, constructing a fiction from elements of the real world can use the idea of contrasting reality and unreality itself; this is what happens when a play-in-a-play is part of drama, a character tells a story within a novel, a television show is watched in a movie, or a fictional character dreams. All these, of course, are small and simple examples. Compared to this, the contrast between reality and unreality might be made into a big theme that creates the framework for the entire fiction. This is what happens in movies such as Inception, and that's why reflecting on the particular way such films present the contrast between dream and reality is so interesting for learning about the way fiction works. (Note, however, that it is hardly a new and original genre just by itself; there's a long tradition here: just think of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

An elegant solution for keeping track of reality

(Jetlag has its good sides, too...)

In Inception (a movie about which you'll read a lot on this blog), there is the concept of a 'totem', an idea that provides "an elegant solution for keeping track of reality", as one character puts it. It's a small physical object which you would carry with you, and which has a particular behavior known only to you. For instance, one character has a loaded dice as his totem, the behavior of which only he knows. The function of this device is to tell you, "beyond any doubt", whether you are in the real world or within a dream world. From the behavior of your totem, you could tell the difference.

Now I'm not quite sure what to think of this idea. If you are training for lucid dreaming, one of the techniques you employ is habitual reality-checking: you constantly ask yourself whether you are dreaming or awake right now; and one of the ways to tell is to look at a string of symbols (a multi-digit number, such as on a digital watch, or a line of text), which generally isn't stable in dreams. The idea of a totem in the film, however, seems not to be like that. (Those reality checks aren't reliable enough to fulfill the crucial function assigned to totems in the movie.)

Perhaps it rather has to do with another concept in that movie's world, that of 'shared dreaming'. In Inception, all the dreams are arranged so that several persons are in the same dream world, acting and interacting within it, somewhat similar to what happens in a multi-player video game. Since only one of the people sharing the dream 'hosts' the world (sometimes referred to as 'the dreamer'), it's up to that person to build up the physical surroundings in it. But this means that if you are in someone else's dream, that person has created the physical world around you, and thus when you use your totem, it's the host who would have to arrange for it to behave in its peculiar way. But the host doesn't know exactly what that way is, and so your totem doesn't behave as it should, showing that you are in someone else's dream world.

If that's the idea, however, it doesn't seem to withstand a closer examination either, even within the rules that make up the world of the movie (remember: we're still talking about the fictional world of Inception, not about the real world, i.e. our world).

For one thing, I can't quite see how it would prevent you from mistaking your own dream for reality, if the outline I have given above is correct. For another, it doesn't fit with a claim made earlier on in the movie, namely that most of the details are filled in by those experiencing the dream world, in order to "make it seem real". And moreover, remember the business model of the group around diCaprio's character? It's about stealing secrets (called 'extraction' in the movie). The idea is to build a secured area into the dream world which then is filled by the victim's subconscious mind with some valuable secret information, and that's what they then steal. But if it's possible to 'extract' even such well-protected secret information from someone, then what would be different about the information how your totem is supposed to behave? What would prevent one from stealing that bit of information, and then fake the totem's behavior? So, if totems worked the way I've sketched above, they wouldn't be good enough to fulfill the function ascribed to them by the characters.

Still, the concept of a totem is an interesting idea, a clever solution to the problem of distinguishing between dream and reality (keeping in mind all along that 'reality' here means the world of the movie, which is called 'real world' in the film, but is still a fictional world). Again, this is an instance of the question of where the borders between reality and unreality run, and the way it is solved here suggests that the person who experiences both reality and unreality has itself some crucial role to play here, as have the experiences themselves.

There is an old story (I don't remember where I originally read it) in which a man is haunted by what seems to be the ghost of his late wife. She appears frequently and seems to know everything about him, even his most secret thoughts. Disturbed and not quite sure if she really is an omniscient ghost or merely a figment of his imagination, the man consults a Zen master, who advises him to put a handful of beans into a bag and ask her, on her next appearance, to tell him the exact number of beans within it. If she can't do that, then the man would know he's only dreamt her up (and presumably get rid of her by virtue of that realization).

The strategy here is basically the same: create some privileged knowledge (or non-knowledge) which you can be sure nobody else can have, and test it in order to find out whether you're in the real world or not. In the beans story, the ghost's ignorance about the number of beans demonstrates her to have implausible limits to her 'omniscience', which thus turns out to be fake. In Inception, your totem supposedly can assure you that you're not in a dream. But unfortunately, elegant though this "solution for keeping track of reality" may be, it's ineffective outside the fictional world of that movie. (Just in case you were in doubt.)

January 6, 2011

De-Lineating unreality

Here's a fun exercise in spotting the borders of unreality. (Thanks to Frank for suggesting it to me :-)

La Linea (or "The Line") is a minimalistic cartoon set in a world which mostly consists of a line. It comes to life by being shaped as a person who moves along the one dimension of its world. Most of the events that make up the plot of the episodes come from obstacles added to that world; the obstacles are built into the very line which also is the material of the main character, but they are deliberately played with by a hand (presumably that of the artist). Sometimes the hand removes the ground on which the character can move; sometimes it provides the character with helpful devices, or simply fills in holes in the floor. At one point, the hand helpfully pushes an elevator a few inches in order to close up with the floor and allow the character to move on (at around 1:15 in the video).

Now I've suggested that worlds of fiction are characterized by metaphysical apartness, and this one is no exception. This means that we could no be part of that world, that we'd be no actor within it; we're limited to observing it.

But if that is so, then what about the hand? Isn't this a case where the fictional world (the world of the line and its inhabitant) and the real world (our world, where we, among other things, can use our hands to move things around) connect and interact, where they aren't separated any more? Is not, in other words, this real/fictional-world couple a counterexample to what I've claimed? What we seem to see here is a connection, a direct interaction (going both ways) between the real world and the fictional line world.

I don't think so, and the reason has to do with where exactly the borders between the imagined world and reality run.[1] The interaction between the hand and the line character is not a case of reality-fiction interaction because both of its elements are part of the fictional world. The hand is just as much a character in that world as the line person is. You can make the test: your hand couldn't do the things this hand can do. Not even the artist's hand could do that: what you can see is not a physical interaction between the hand and the line, it's just an impression to that effect created by a technical trick. (Which is of course a common thing in film and television; the point here is just to show that all of it firmly belongs into the fictional world.)

So the fictional world comprises a little more than it looked like at the beginning; but once we've sorted this out, there is really no more question about metaphysical apartness holding between the real world and this particular sort of fictional world. Again: those two are separated, in such a way that we, as inhabitants of the real world, couldn't be part of the fictional world, we couldn't be inside it. And that is not just a separation in practice (such as when you are watching what happens on the other side of the street, but can't do anything about whatever you observe). It's a separation in principle: you, as a part of the real world, couldn't possibly be inside that fictional world (in the case of looking over the street, you might have been over there, you could have crossed the street a couple of minutes ago, and then you would have been part of what's going on over there right now — but there's no such thing that you could have done in order to become part of the line/hand world). (Sidenote: that you can't be part of it doesn't mean that such a world doesn't share some structure with the real world. In fact, every fictional world has a lot in common with the real world. In the case of La Linea, there is still time structure, some sort of gravity, energetic Italian exclamations, and the like, which is all at least similar to the real world. However, for all that, you can't be in that world.)

In summary: this nice little example gives us not only another, slightly different sort of imaginary world (an imaginative one, to be sure) to test the criterion of metaphysical apartness as a marker of unreality; it also helps to show the importance of looking closely where the borders between fiction and reality run, and distinguishing carefully what's part of reality and what is still unreal.

[1] Being able to exactly pin down where the lines run between fiction and reality is very important; if one doesn't, one might very well end up with shrill, though interesting-sounding, theories about self-interpreting texts and multi-level fiction/reality fusions which really have no other basis than someone's not looking carefully. I've criticized that sort of line-blurring in the research literature on Kafka's Über Gleichnisse in my BA's thesis.

January 3, 2011

Less apart than fiction

I recently watched Stranger than fiction, a movie which uses a dramatic technique I call 'suspension of metaphysical apartness'.[1]

Metaphysical apartness means that the world of the movie (just as any fictional world, including those of novels, video games, or the like) is separated from the real world, it's 'apart' from it. Intuitively, the criterion for this is that we, the audience, are not in that fictional world, cannot be part of it — we're always outside it, merely observing. (Unless of course we are the author ourselves, in which case we're certainly not just observing, but creating the fictional world in question.) You can't walk or travel into a fictional world, have conversations with the characters in it, influence their actions and so on.

However, there are no limits to poetic license, and what you can't do in the real world, someone might just be able to do in a made-up world: imagine you are watching a movie in which an author writes a novel, and then steps directly into the novel she has written, perhaps with the help of some mysterious machine. Note that now we have three different worlds: the real world (in which you are watching the movie), the world of the movie, in which the author is writing and then entering her novel, and the world of that novel. Metaphysical apartness still holds between the real world and the world of the movie (it always holds between the real world and any fictional world). But there is no metaphysical apartness between the world of the movie and the fiction-within-fiction which is the world of the novel. Or, to put it differently, the law about metaphysical apartness is not in force in the world of the movie.

There is nothing overly surprising about that, of course. Just as you can think up a story which takes place in a universe in which the laws of physics are no longer in place (commonplace in science fiction of a certain sort), you can think up a story where the laws that govern fictionality are suspended. Remember, though, that this only works for fictional worlds and their fictions-in-fiction. It can't work for the relationship between reality and fiction, because the possibility to suspend laws that hold in reality itself can only arise in unreality.

In "Stranger than fiction", a writer (brillantly played by Emma Thompson) creates a fictional world in which the main character (also excellent: Will Ferrell) lives his life. In the beginning of the movie, we observe him going through a morning routine, while the author's voice describes it for us at the same time, thereby introducing the character. Thus far it's an unremarkable situation; it is common to have a voiceover narration in movies to get us into the story. It gets more interesting, however, when it turns out that the character himself can hear the narrator's voice. (A little later in the movie he describes it like this: "It's just a voice in my head. [...] It's telling me what I've already done... accurately, and with a better vocabulary.") This is where we realize that we're in a two-worlds situation (the world of the movie and the world of a novel that's written by one of the movie characters), and one in which the two worlds are not apart enough to prevent interaction between their inhabitants.

Strangely enough, all the impulses that cross the line between the two worlds come from within the inner-fiction world, i.e. from the world of the novel, the fiction-within-fiction. Since it is the world of the novel, however, we'd expect the author of that world to be omniscient (and controlling) of that world, and thus of all the thoughts and actions of its characters, too. In particular, shouldn't the author have known about the attempts of the main character to find her and prevent her from continuing and finishing the book? But she doesn't. (And of course, the movie would have been pretty boring if she had.)

The point here is not that the author should have known that the things she describes actually happen in her world (the world of the movie and the world of the novel overlapping each other to a significant degree); she finds that out empirically when she writes down the lines about the telephone ringing, and then hears the immediate effect when the telephone actually does ring. The point here, rather, is that insofar events happen in the novel-world, she'd have to know about them, and their motives. That's what seems not to be the case. There seems to be no clear and principled reason why she knows and controls some aspects of the fictional world she created and is ignorant about others. So presumably, there is a price to be paid, in the form of arbitrariness and inconsistency, for bending a law of fictionality.

[1] The term 'metaphysical apartness' is originally from Roger Scruton's Aesthetics of music, where it is used in a more narrow sense; I've discussed it a little in an earlier journal entry. Here, I use it in a somewhat different way, but I won't go into the reasons and motivations for that different usage at this point. I've also noted elsewhere a suspension of metaphysical apartness in Jasper Fforde's novels which is similar in some respects to the one discussed here in "Stranger than fiction".

January 2, 2011


(Although this is going to be much more specific and less theoretical in the future, I think a little introduction to the philosophy of unreality might be helpful here — to give you at least some idea of the underlying background theory which provides the structure and motivation behind the observations and reflections in this blog.)

We sometimes talk about things that aren't so. It can happen accidentally, when we relate something to someone about which we are actually mistaken, or deliberately, when we're lying. In the latter case, we are typically doing so with the intent to deceive: we know things aren't as we are telling them, but whoever we are talking to doesn't. There are, however, other cases where the receiver is aware of what is and what isn't the case, and actually needs to be — most commonly when what is taken in is a work of fiction, such as a novel or a movie.

In all these situations, we can indicate the divergence of what we are describing from what is the case by using phrases such as: "It wasn't really so — I was mistaken about it", "I was lying — in reality things went differently", "This isn't real — it's just a movie". Terms such as 'real' (and others, such as the 'is the case' or the 'things aren't so' which I used above) have the function to make us aware of that divergence. They're not used in the description, or the telling, of something — they are necessary for saying something about the description, or the telling, namely, that it is not true to what is the case.

In many cases, at least someone knows about the divergence. This is easy to see in the case of lies or fiction. Someone knows that a description has been made up. (At the very least the person who did make it up knows that!) Unless the main goal is deception, there are normally also other signals that can be taken from the context: if you are reading a book with the words 'A novel' on its title page you'll take its contents as a fictional narrative, that is, as about something that didn't really happen.

In theory, if we could develop an account of all the ways (and motives) of making up things, we might be able to approximate the border between reality and unreality — we might be able to map out, as it were, the territory of the real and the adjacent areas of the unreal. (Much philosophical work has been dedicated to this quest over the centuries, mostly coming from a desire to get clear about the concept of reality.) At least we could do so in principle, for very probably in practice many potentially made-up stories will remain that we aren't going to verify (or falsify), and so won't be able to sort them into those which describe things as they are and those that don't — that is, some fuzziness might remain in practice. But the ideal limit of this process should give us a demarcation of reality, as distinguished from unreality.

There may, however, not be a single, reliable criterion (or set of criteria) for determining whether something is really as it is told, or whether it has been made up. Although we seem to have a pretty good idea in many cases, there are probably others where we don't. And there is much diversity among the forms and occasions of talking about things differently than they really are. Perhaps it isn't such a good idea then, to try and draw a line somewhere between what is real, i.e. what makes up reality, and what is not.

It also might be questionable whether reality is that interesting, after all. True, we have an interest, in many situations, not to be mislead, or at least not to be deceived. But if we were to proceed as described above, by studying all the ways of unreality, we would get that (at least as far as would be practicable), even if we didn't succeed eventually in getting a clear grip on reality.

What is more: we have a good starting point in our intuitive ability, in many cases, to tell reality and unreality apart. Looking more closely at these cases, and carefully analyzing the details of what is going on there, seems to be a path that is at least likely to provide some insight — if not about reality, at least about the varieties of unreality.