Philosophical Realism and Xin 心

Week 9, lecture 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss philosophical realism.
  2. Define xin 心.

Realism, as we use the term in Philosophy, generally means that things, stuff, “the world out there” exist independently of whether or not we observe it. If what is real does exist independently of whether or not we observe it, then how do we explain the existence of universals?

Recall in the Phaedo that the body is phenomenal and the psyche (ψυχή) is noumenal. According to Plato’s story, in the Phaedo, Socrates spends his last moments alive discussing the existence of a realm beyond human experience that is the proper home of our psyches (ψυχή). The phenomenal world, the one that we experience with our bodies, is a shadow of a more real—the True—world, the world of Forms.

If I draw a triangle, according to Plato, my drawing is participating in the idea (ἰδέα) of the Form (eidos εἶδος) called triangle, our psyches observe this shape I’ve drawn and are reminded or recollect the True Form of a triangle back in the noumenal dimension. We’ve touched in this matter previously (you can review it here).

In this Platonic sense, the Forms are real, but they exist outside of space and time (because space and time are phenomena). To be accurate, I would say that this thing (res) I’ve drawn has the property of being triangular in shape, but it is not The Triangle. If I draw a series of triangles, they will each demonstrate the property of being triangular, and here I now have evidence of what is meant by “universal.” A universal is what particular things have in common.

I’ve led you to a major philosophical problem: does the universal exist in this phenomenal dimension or is it noumenal? The Forms (eidos εἶδος) are communicable through their ideas (ἰδέα) which demonstrate the character of the Forms but are not the same thing as the Forms.

The result is that philosophers can agree that people talk about properties, but it’s not clear of the ideas being exchanged between those people are real or not.

Plato’s theory of Forms informed a tremendous amount of thinking among people in what we would call the West for millennia. Later this semester we will read Immanuel Kant, largely because, next to Plato, it’s hard to imagine another philosopher who has so fundamentally reoriented our thinking in the West.

Kant follows the lead of Aristotle and holds that our knowledge comes from our experience of the world. This means that our knowledge is always imperfect, because experience is phenomenal, not noumenal. We can think up and imagine a noumenal world, but it is not the noumenal world in itself, only a device for our imagination. Our ability to use reason enables us to uncover degrees of truth about the universe, but ultimately our ability to reason is limited.

Kant’s “Copernican revolution” has us shift our model of thinking: since the reality of things-in-themselves are always is always hidden from us, our model of reality needs to shift from asking about “what can we know about stuff” to asking “since our minds are the faculty that enables us to know about stuff, how do our minds operate?” The model shifts from “stuff out there” to “what is going on inside here?”

We’ve read the assigned selections of the Daodejing and my notes to this point have been prepared for you to consider a fundamental problem that the Daodejing proposes to overcome: How should we act and what should we do?

Following the Kantian set-up we arrive at the problem of other minds. Since we cannot know things-in-themselves, we can only know what we observe, and since we cannot see the minds of others, only their actions, how can we be so sure that others do in fact possess minds?

This is a perennial issue present in the West which we term the “mind-body” problem. The Phaedo is fairly explicit about the mind-body problem: the mind (psyche ψυχή) has a body and that is the problem: “we” are trapped in these bodies.

Despite this “revolution” brought forth by Kant, the Western tradition still holds that “what is true” is a matter of correspondence between what we see and what we think. The mind mirrors the world. The world is a matter of representation, and its image is possessed by an individual’s mind.

There is a danger in growing too enamored of our mind’s own image, though; isn’t there? We look to the story of Narcissus to illustrate. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who loved to hunt and was cruel to his peers who would try to love him. One story tells us that Echo, so lovestruck by Narcissus, followed him through the woods. Narcissus, hearing he was being followed, called out, “Who’s there?” and the smitten Echo found she could only reply, “Who’s there?” Finally she approached him, he rejected her, and she wandered away into the woods. Heartbroken and determined to be alone, she withered away until all that was left of her was her voice repeating what it heard. Narcissus himself, later, came across a still pool. When he went to gather water he saw his beautiful reflection and fell hopelessly in love with this image. Realizing that he could never have his love reciprocated, he killed himself there.

Reflecting on water, in this story, is a source of death and water is a different kind of image in the Daoist tradition. Click here to continue our lecture and learn more about Daoist philosophy.