So with Realism Wars™ probably still raging somewhere, I am taking a mental health break, I was thinking of Karatani’s parallax, borrowed by Zizek and made into a book. It’s not really that important to me what Zizek has to say about it, what’s fascinating is the very experience of parallax, I found it hard to explain to myself and to others until I discovered came across a cool trick (or read about it somewhere and then forgot where it came from and am now claiming to have come up with it myself):
Hold up a pencil in front of you, close your right eye and notice the pencil’s position vis-a-vis something that is farther away (outside or on the wall), then look at it with left eye closed and again with your right eye closed.
You don’t have to do it more than a couple of times to see that the pencil “moves” – well, you could do it for a while and freak out your wife/roommate/arresting officer, but I don’t recommend it. I’m assuming this is how 3D vision works or those cool pictures where you have to cross your eyes and all of that pre-CGI fun. I know all of this is naive and even childish, but my question is: Where is the pencil that I am holding in front of me?
I know that this is called naive realism to suggest that pencil is where I see it is – in my case, it is seemingly in both places at once – but I’ve began to wonder recently if naive realism is actually the coolest and the weirdest realism there is, and we don’t really need sophisticated types of realism to freak us out. Let me explain.
Naive realism is the most powerful philosophical position, even if it is not the most comprehensive or the most consistent – one can easily pock holes in it with a simple pencil exercise or one can offer a sophisticated (Hegelian, a la Zizek) solution about the collapse of the subjective-objective distinction or some such, but still naive realism persists and will persist – and I think it’s good. In a sense, if Descartes is a father of modern philosophy, then, since his starting point in Meditations is clearly some sort of naive realist position, naive realism is the first really modern philosophy:
But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.
Of course, Descartes arrives at some rather peculiar conclusions, conclusions I have noticed we often celebrate without knowing much about them – for example, when praising Descartes’ contributions in Intro to Philosophy one rarely hears of his “argument for the existence of God” and its really central role in the Meditations. But clearly we can relate when Descartes declares one to be insane to doubt the very basic data of senses – we can of course pretend to be all complex and subtle in our philosophical exchanges, but in real life it naive realism all the way: I’m reaching for a teapot, pouring myself some tea, put the cup up to my mouth and take a sip. I should be insane to doubt all these movements as my movements and my actions directed at a specific objects that is right there.
I’m sure a small army of excellent examples and citations from sophisticated discussions of this experience is rattling their weapons at your fingertipc threatening to be typed into a comment box, but bear with me for just another moment.
It is indeed insane to doubt the sense, yet, as the story goes, Descartes ends up with exactly that with only “I think” and “I exist” being known with absolute certainty – but in this sense, it seems to me that anyone arguing against naive realism should be indeed rebuffed with a charge of insanity: “Are you insane? What do you mean that the object that I see might not be the way I see it?”
Isn’t the scandal of philosophy, unlike what Kant thought it was, precisely this insanity of suggesting that the world is otherwise than how I see it?