• Andrew Field

Why is Racism Implicit in Plato's Reality-Appearance Distinction?


I've been thinking lately about the old differences, posited by Plato, between appearance and reality, and wondering about the efficacy of this strange differentiation, the harms that come with it, and what might be more fruitful and less erosive ways of conceptualizing this age-old distinction.

Being critical of the appearance-reality distinction is not something new. If we read Richard Rorty, we find extremely convincing arguments for helping us realize that, even if an ancient distinction, from Plato himself, is sent down to us from the Western philosophical tradition - even that, we should say, as good pragmatists, if it is not helpful, then we should look at it with fresh eyes and see if we can come up with a better way of talking about these things.

Why do we have the appearance-reality distinction in the first place? Let's start with the allegory of the cave, Plato's famous parable about a kind of form of Buddhist enlightenment, though its roots are nominally Western. In the allegory of the cave, there are people dwelling in a cave. Outside there is sunlight, there is a world, shimmering, beauty, there are trees with trunks of such manifold curvature and lines indented with the organic finesse of a master craftsman, but we are stuck in the cave; and so we watch shadows on the wall of the cave and call that the world, and we wander about like shades in that cave, observing the shadows dancing on the wall, and we call that the world, while outside a different world bakes in the sun, and is fresh, and alive, and colorful, with a rich kind of suchness, a Buddhist term, transplanted into English, to describe a kind of vividness - the vividness we might experience through a novel, or a vividness we might find, presumably, if and when we woke up, became aware of our unconscious assumptions, and then became conscious enough to really experience, in an intense way, what Leonard Cohen described as "the blues were so blue." The bluest of the blues, the greenest of the greens, the way light fills an opening on a terrace along the brick walls, then plummets to the ground as rain drips from the ceiling also to the ground; how do we convey the suchness of being awake, of seeing, of experiencing that suchness, that richness, that robustness, that vivid life current that allows us to truly feel and see how bright the world is?

I suppose the reality-appearance distinction for Plato was useful, because it was a way, a manner, of differentiating between the world we see when we are not attuned to the beauty all around us, when we are not feeling inwardly free, and I suppose perhaps one way of putting a divide between someone who is "enlightened" and someone who is "not enlightened," if we want to use those Buddhist-like terms. "You see the appearances, but I see the reality." Or "You only see the appearances, but behind the appearances is the reality, or a reality, and you can't appreciate the appearances because you don't see the reality." Something like that.

The problem is the "behind," the sense of something behind the veil, because then, as Rorty knew, we begin to form a sort of framework, a tentative conceptual way of thinking, that is not based in or on experience, and that drives towards something like an essence, as if reality were one thing for all people. Rorty was wary of thought that flirted with convergence, because he felt that truth itself, at least the way we spoke of it, was useless and bankrupt if it tried to convince us that reality was one way and not another way, that it wasn't different for different people in different contexts and different times, or even working through and with and from different traditions. And he's right, I think - we should not think of truth, or reality, as convergence; and perhaps we should not even think of reality as reality, as something monolithic, or mono anything, but rather, if we use the term, as realities, and truths.

If there are realities, and truths - "a million suns left," in Whitman's terms - then we move away from the convergence idea and towards the divergence idea, that each individual is divergent and should be allowed to grow in whatever way he or she deems fit for his or her own talents, and we should not get in the way of that but simply provide heuristics for people to discover their own path, their own "daimon," to use the term that Harold Bloom was fond of invoking. Like an acorn, a daimon is the part of us that is older than the world, that thrives through acts of deep feeling, concern, thinking, imagination, and when we find teachers who can help us grow into our own shapes, our own traditions, then we can be more honest about the bankruptcy not only of the idea of "truth" or "reality," but also of the meaninglessness of the reality-appearance distinction and its strange emphases on essences over people.

How so. If we subscribe to this pernicious idea, then what happens? We start to banish poets, and then we start to banish the mentally ill, and then we start to banish Black people, and then we start to banish Jews, and gays, and anyone who might be seen as outside the box of whatever essence is stipulated by the "reality" behind the "appearances." In other words, we should not hold on to any idea of what reality is, but talk to people, and learn about what they value. Value is more important than "reality," because value is what people base their lives on, and life, experience, is more important than concepts, than sheer intellectualizing. Although I am not in the philosophy field as a professional, or academic, I can't help but wonder if this is why, as I'd guess, there are very few African-Ameriocan men and women interested in the subject, because lots of academics probably have ideas about the essence behind the reality-appearance distinction, and this essence is probably some outdated Eurocentric idea about "universals" that only betrays these academics' lack of experience or relationships with anyone outside their class, race, age, religion, etc.

I find Buddhist thinking helpful, because it is moral and because it does not use ideas of God to get in the way of people communicating. And I think - although I am not an expert - that Buddhists would be suspicious if not outright skeptical of any posited distinction between reality and appearance, for in Buddhism a core understanding is that we are all enlightened, and we just need to figure out how to bring that up, or out, to cultivate the inner life, the inner light, the daimon, the Buddha, choose your terms. But morality - not something desiccated or fearful, not a crucified Christ in a disturbing Bergman scene - but actual relationshps, listening, loyalty, trust - these things are more important than "reality." Rorty knew this - it's why he emphasized the importance of solidarity; and even when he focused on both artists and those more interested in social justice (he grouped Nietzsche, for example, in the former category, as someone who succeeded in creating himself, and Jurgen Habermas in the latter category, as someone interested in communicative justice), he knew that both types of people operated within a framework shaped by cultural politics, by the ontology of the social. We could not have a Nietzsche without a Habermas, say, to define himself against, and vice versa. For that reason, as Bloom and William Blake knew, all arguments and positions and stances are always ratios and not black or white or cut and dry things.

The reality-appearance distinction, to my mind, is not a ratio, and that is why it's problematic. It is not thick; it is not ambiguous; it is not rich or polysemous. It is a vague statement (not a "pregnant vagueness," in William James's terms, which he meant positively, but something like a sketch by Vesalius), and it gets us into more problems than anything else. We like it because it sounds mysterious, like an adventure, but it is only a linguistic construct and has nothing to do with helping us help others or ourselves. It is a parlor game, while Black boys are murdered in the streets; and how many articles have been published about it in the academic journals while actual people are murdered unfairly, jailed unfairly? This is not to say that there is not a relationship between academia and the world, for there is, and should be, a robust one. It is only to say that, because there is a fundamental relationship between thinking and action, as all pragmatists know - because intention is the driving force behind what ends up happening, behind where we go, how we behave, what we see - then we should be very careful about the ideas we encourage and, if we encourage them, we should be aware of their implications.

I earned a masters in English at the University of Toledo, and it was a way to study literature and also, to a certain extent, visual art, since there were two teachers there, Sara Lundquist and Joel Lipman, I looked up to who are both interested in the relationship between poetry and visual art. I remember going to the art museum there once - Toledo has a marvelous art museum - and hearing the director of the museum speak. I don't remember what he said, exactly, but I remember one sentence, which was basically, "all these paintings in this museum are not worth one human life." We should approach every intellectual matter in this vein. In other words, how does what we do actually help people? I am not trying to suggest a program, and I know that sometimes the strangest conjectures, the most out there creations - Einstein's theory of relativity, or, idk, a novel by Nabokov or Calvino - happen because an individual discovers something, or creates something, and that these occurrences don't happen exactly because one is thinking about others, per se. But Einstein's theory, or Nabokov's novels, liberated them from stale ways of thinking, and they helped change the world, the paradigm, either in science or literature, whatever. What I'm trying to say is that we should be adventurous in our thinking, and not masochistic; and sometimes we have to create out of necessity that is hard to describe; but we should also think somewhere inside, is this helping me? If it is, great, for it can help others. The famous rabbi, Hillel, said that if you save one life you save every life. And he's right. But if it doesn't help you, or if the values are strange - for money instead of people, for power instead of people, for selfishness instead of people - then we should examine our intentions.

These kind of arguments inevitably rankle artists. I know, because they used to rankle me. "If we are supposed to approach every intellectual matter in the context of helping others, then what is the difference between an Ashbery poem and working as a social worker? Why read an Ashbery poem, and why conflate Ashbery to a form of social work?" But the truth is that an Ashbery poem is a social document, and we can use any words we want to describe it - ideally words that capture the flavor of it, that are a good fit for the joussance of it - while acknowledging that his poems help people in interesting and fascinating ways. They open our eyes, they help us on an adventure of the imagination, they give us metaphors we had never dreamed of, they are fun, they lay down groundwork for new ways of thinking, and therefore new ways of experiencing.

The challenge is, how do we create robust art that is not thin, that knows how to represent in as powerful a manner as possible? How to unite social justice and art? For me, it's through Aristotle's notion of catharsis, rather than Plato's reality-appearance distinction, mostly because the former has more possibilities for helping many different individuals feel welcomed and included, and is less exclusive, than Plato's core contribution to philosophy. For that reason - and this is not exactly brain science - Aristotle's philosophy is more amenable to democracies, while Plato's, as well know, for "philosopher kings." Not everyone is a philosopher king, and who would want to be one, anyways? We need weird people, adventurous people, poets, lovers, mystics, artists, witches, we need Edgars and Rosalinds, Jews and gays and Blacks, we need people who think outside the box, and Plato would have put an end to all these people. Our weak poetry comes from him - the moralizing, tepid kind - as do our Stalins and Hitlers. We need to push back against this strict divides, and I think, from an academic perspective, that Aristotle's philosophy provides a better route for doing this. If we look at a tree, and see the tree, then we are doing good. If we look at our lover's body, and kiss the body, and are kissed in return, then we are doing good. If we look at the body, and try to see something else, instead of the sloping breast, the hips in bed on a regular Monday morning, with the rain outside and a look of love in her eyes, then we are in trouble. But if we hold the body, and feel warm, and loved, and know we are doing our best, then Plato can be thrown out the window, and we can turn to commonsense.

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