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Real Life

The sense of "real" that interests us is the one captured by this quote, spoken by a local singer who reached the big time after ten years of rejection by labels:  "I'm from Oakland--not Berkeley.  I'm from East Oakland--the REAL Oakland."  I fear that the comparison to Berkeley may put us on the defensive, but there it is.  It's come up many times that we live in a privileged part of a rich state in a powerful nation, so our "good" life may not be representative of "real" life.  Is that why we are so ready to hedge our assertions, to shrink from proclaiming any universality, to focus on our own, private "truth"?

People who claim to live "real" lives DO claim to know about other people's lives, both those with whom they have much in common, and those who live on the opposite side of the tracks, so to speak.  And who can argue that sex, births, and deaths don't affect individual lives in much the same way?  If a huge portion of one's experience is traceable to the human life cycle, then one (feels that one) has access to others' emotions and experiences.  "Reality" is "common".  What we have in common is what's real.  And what you have that I don't is obviously a luxury, inessential.

So life (by) itself is stripped down to our lowest common denominator, to human ways of being.  If we say "animal ways," we risk seeming to accuse others of being incompletely human, and surely we don't intend that!  Then again, many want to bring nonhuman animals (some of them, at least) into the "moral circle."  This, however, would present an insuperable difficulty to our makeshift tribe of philosophers, whose main way of being (together) is to talk.

Rather than concerning ourselves with differences, we could attend only to similarities.  Our repeated run-ins with slippery slopes assure us we can find life (to be like) itself.  But this would be giving up before we started:  we are trying to find our way TO what is (most) real in life.  We start from the (somewhat) unreal place we already inhabit--and then we must travel, leaving something (someplace) behind.

To travel light, we sacrifice luxuries.  Asceticism is prerequisite to the journey:  the rope passes through the eye of the needle more easily than the rich man through the gates of heaven.  Rather than an example of life in spite of itself--negating the strength of the rope in favor of the weakness of the thread--the reduction of the rope to a thread is how life pares itself down to essentials in order to pass through a gauntlet.  Rather than extolling conservation or humility, life (through) itself is about passage, about "making the cut," about survival.  When everything depends on passing that test, getting that interview, winning that girl, making that basket, dodging that bullet--does life get any more REAL than that?  We jettison all that is unnecessary, focus becomes automatic, because it's time to do or die.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the forum.  As in any road trip film, change is the result, not of arrival, but of travel--especially, of traveling together.  During passage through the gauntlet, differences tend to be made irrelevant, and we stumble upon shared realities.  Learning about the world is something apes can do--only humans create worlds.  The life outside ourselves is not us and yet is all of us, belongs to all of us, is what we hold in common, what makes "us" real.  In the crucible, a group is forged.  ("The PLACE where we meet is the constant in the change which ensues.")

Let's prove the Stoics right.  The thinking life IS the good life.  Philosophers' relentless quest for essences is an opportunity, or a pretext, to eliminate baggage that separates us.  It can be the Berkeley way of aligning the Good and the Real (a.k.a. the True).  We have only to exercise our recognized faculty of invention FOR REAL--not "in private."  There is uncomfortable truth in the observation that the good life of reflection requires material goods, but this can be taken as a responsibility to share with others whatever of value comes of that reflection.  But we have to believe that what we think (up) CAN be made public.  Rather than "get out of our heads," let's turn our heads inside out, exposing the interesting parts to others, with the idea that shame resides not in difference, but in INdifference to the reality we create with others.  Imagine how real Berkeley would be--how real philosophers would be--if we only acted as if thinking was real!


Speaking of crucibles, the eye of the needle, and road trips in crowded VW buses (hey, it's Burning Man season, isn't it?), the cafe gets crowded now that UCB is in session, so I anticipate difficulty hosting the larger groups that have been coming of late.  Expect a smaller group, still with a variety of viewpoints and experience levels.  The waiting list is a waiting area, not a queue; alternatively, you can message (using the new Meetup feature) or email me to indicate interest.  And your succinct answer to the RSVP question not only makes your interest real, but it helps in planning the discussion.  This week the question is, "What do you expect might prove difficult about discussing Real Life?"

Also, there was a suggestion that we have a social gathering at a different location on a weekend.  Let's brainstorm at the break:  what an uncanny fit to "Real Life"!

--Jeff


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  • Carlos C.

    Jeff, I like your: reality as the closest to a universal axiom for the good. My own prior conception is "to survive and thrive", driven by evolution. But one finds an immediate exception in those who loose the will to live and commit suicide. Universality in ethics is either/or thinking when broad commonality works perfectly well. Ethics is about actions, which can be neither true nor false, strictly speaking. Plenty of evidence shows that "right and wrong" comes from a psychological predisposition. "That's unethical," is better phrased as, "That doesn't conform to the ethical standard we should both follow." But ethical standards can be measured against each other in how well they achieve a given goal like survival.

    1 · August 26, 2014

    • Carlos C.

      Please don't read me as inflammatory. Questions are supposed to be particularly diplomatic. I think there is serious confusion in the concepts we are discussing. Better to continue elsewhere where we can synchronize all these loose ends.

      August 27, 2014

    • Jeff G

      No worries. I've concluded you had tapped into the spirit some other discussion you've had. And 1000 characters won't do for the technical discussion you want to have.

      August 28, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    A propos of our many mentions of The Matrix movie (as Plato might have put it, a projection of a projection in the cave we live in), and Dave says we have mentioned that movie every time he has been to our meetings, here's a Fermilab (no small potatoes) research program trying to discover if we are actually 3D projection on a 2D hologram (attention, Carlos). This is way ahead of AI discussions. It's the kind of science that our obsessively referenced "Matrix" was based on. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/188727-pixels-of-the-universe-experiment-begins-to-see-if-the-universe-is-a-2d-hologram

    August 27, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    Last night I strangely said that I never think of "reality." It must have been the eggplant sandwich speaking. I don't often use the word, reality, but I do think quite a lot about the relation of memory and perception to that which initiated both. I also wonder about what instrument measurements as with the Large Hadron Collider are actually (really) measuring. It's a wonderful time to observe science when scientists are being particularly humble about what it is they are measuring and theorizing about the limits to scientific/human knowledge.
    As for "reality" being only "skin deep" (i.e., our knowledge limited to immediate sense perceptions-an idea growing out of Nietzsche among others), the co-author of the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Robbe-Grillet in his books demonstrated the radical edge of recognizing the limits of human knowledge of the world. His many books (often a bit Sadeian) won many prizes and left a strong mark on literature (e.g., on Bolano).

    August 27, 2014

  • Charlie5

    Real life as opposed to "virtual" life, the virtual machines move around on top of the "real" hardware, a flight of fancy in an isolate mind a 'virtual life' dependent upon the 'real life' of the body that eats and lives and dies, flows and becomes increasingly real as it connects to its environment, to others, to meaning, to universality.

    August 27, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Not sure where you wanted these suggestions for a get-together: take Scruples-type scenarios (moral dilemmas) and discuss what we'd do and why. Or, everyone submits a favorite philosophical quote (or just Google a quote - there are hundreds of them). And the list of quotes is passed out and then we do "philosophical quote charades" , acting act quotes from the list.

    August 27, 2014

  • Jeff G

    The first part of the meeting notes, where I try to summarize--and in this case, respond to--our opening contributions, is always fun: http://www.meetup.com/Philosophy-Cafe-Cafe-Philosophique/messages/boards/thread/45991452/10#124434082. Feel free to correct or expand.

    August 27, 2014

  • Arnold S.

    Jeff says, in his thought provoking essay, "But this would be giving up before we started: we are trying to find our way TO what is (most) real in life."

    But why is that? One version of the "naturalistic fallacy" assumes that if it is natural, it is good. Do we assume that what is “most real in life” is better than what is less real? Could this be, perhaps, the “reality fallacy”?

    August 25, 2014

    • Charlie5

      film/news/gambling/praye­r/hunting/sports/week in the desert in summer - people use these things INSTEAD of philosophy, as a guide for life, and an outlet, for a flow of exercise or of inner intensity, to collect within experience, which guides the neurogenesis of the new brain cells you'll grow six weeks from now, and how best to use them; philosophy as a deeper understanding of what goes on around us also brings that inner intensity that works like exercise, just maybe involves more reading than some other hobbies or professions; we get energy from emptiness and danger; where some sports or gambling provide elements of danger, philosophy offers opportunity to fathom emptiness, another road to energy.

      August 26, 2014

    • Jeff G

      Not everyone has the "sane" option of "escaping" the vicissitudes of Real Life. Besides injury, sickness, and death there is the assortment of smaller defeats in work, in love, and yes, even in thinking. These pre-meeting conversations have convinced me we need to add The Real to The Good and The True--to what philosophy should be concerned about. Real Life is about consciousness of limits, which certainly wasn't new to the ancients, but it differs due to the intervening Enlightenment. The ancients (and Nietzsche) had "amor fati" (learning to love fate), but that is easy to do only when life is going well! Charlie's reference to "inner intensity" is our toehold on a new conception. Philosophy--done well, right, and "forreal"--IS dangerous: we pursue it hoping for "another road to energy," but it could as well be our undoing.

      August 26, 2014

  • Colin F.

    So is there no chance, I could get a spot at the discussion? Is it completely full?

    August 26, 2014

    • Jeff G

      We're very full. There'll be another Sept 9.

      August 26, 2014

  • Charlie5

    The yellow flower blossoms, the trees stand, the sun beams; for a "good" life, especially a "real" "good life", a good "real life", is anything needed, does anything need to be added, CAN anything be added by a philosopher, or by thought? Or, as we learn about life and what's "good" and "real" do we only realize that the one thing we need to do is leave everything alone, get out of the way? Or if something needs to be done, what is it? Contemplation? Only to understand "real life", or are we supposed to change it in some way? Maybe all the esacpes from real life, the tangents, are only distractions that are ultimately taking away from the good and the real life?

    August 26, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    With great reservation, since division implies a lack of theory, unity, or elegance, I suggest three ways of looking at reality. I don't suggest that one is more real or useful or beautiful or true than the other. The first is everyday or quotidian reality: do I have a quarter in my pocket to put in the parking meter? Do I have to run from this person who seems to be trailing me? The second is intuitive, subjective, some may call it spiritual: Reality is what overcomes me, absorbs me when I contemplate it. I have a feeling of universal truth, universality, when I achieve a sense of this reality. The third is scientific reality: I was just now reading about Voltaire's very influential book about Newtonian physics and worldview. From Newton on, many people believed in the reality of laws, often mathematically expressed that revealed deep relations among phenomena. For Voltaire and deists this reality was the creation of a perfect God who meddled no more in the world.

    August 25, 2014

    • Harlan L.

      I certainly agree with your "furniture" view of theory. Question: Did you mean that the quotidian is a problem for academics because others intuitively understand it? Or, did you mean that we should leave the quotidian to be discussed by academics. In the latter case, I would cite Nietzsche as someone who elevated the quotidian (of course in an evolving context) over against grand theories of certain previous philosophies or religion. The truly excellent article posted by Jay about Nietzsche and the Romantics focused on N's celebration of this world and our immediate experience versus grand theories, religion, and the search for transcendence, the latter of which characterized both the old and new Romantics with whom N shared little philosophically.

      August 26, 2014

    • Jeff G

      I meant only that to problematize something like "is there change in my pocket?" is very academic, done on the very thin pretext that, were we to "solve" it, the solution would translate to harder, practical problems. (But it seems to me its real utility is to score points for tenure...and we're all past that:-) I guess that Nietzsche's destruction of idols might be seen as a raising up of what is not ideal (that is, the real), but, not being "above" anything, it's hard for me to see the quotidian as having been "elevated." As to whether he celebrated immediate experience, there is nuance there that we might address Sept. 9.

      August 26, 2014

  • Jay C.

    A bridge from LifeItself to TheGoodLife ? From isness to oughtness ? Certainly there is a chasm there.
    Are we evolutionarily ready for this ? If, as some say, we are not evolved enough for our modern diet, perhaps we are not evolved enough for a modern ethic ? We are more at home with a Paleo Ethic, that would be the natural way to behave, and would make us more comfortable.

    1 · August 24, 2014

    • Jay C.

      The Naturalistic Fallacy is alive and well in the marketplace, but today we apply it to food.

      I think it Good to be reminded that the “Naturalistic Fallacy”, is just a metaphor, not a designation of some Aristotelian logical error. The number of things one can prove with unassailable deductive logic is very small. I can’t even prove my own birthday a priori. Perhaps if we had a universally acceptable axiom for the good ?

      Spinoza, very early in his Ethics, separated Ethics from Morality, Ethics are good and bad, and just observations in nature, like color and size. Morality was good and evil, and based on rules and authority. (Unfortunate that “good” is such a useful word. Conatus-wise, you can usually substitute “enhancing”.)

      Jay

      August 25, 2014

    • Jeff G

      Jay, if there is a universally acceptable axiom for the good, it would be Real Life: whatever people say is Good, when the chips are down, they go with the Real. The naturalistic fallacy was the accusation used by early Moderns to insulate science from religion; I agree that it has the status of a heuristic, not a logical error. (But don't disparage metaphor!)

      1 · August 26, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    Sorry, Dr. Johnson was never drunk.

    August 24, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    Things adversity can lead Oaklanders (and Dr. Johnson) to be: suspicious, sly, duplicitous, volatile, loving, spontaneous, drunk. I remember being accosted by some muggers in a sketchy part of downtown San Diego where I was working in a loft. They growled and threatened and demanded my money. I started laughing. Suddenly, the three of them also started laughing and we waved good-bye. Spontaneous. Maybe reallife is when your heart is racing and survival is in question. In the mess of Olongapo City in P.I. I got into the back seat of a taxi and two muggers jumped in on either side of me as the taxi took off. Yeah, my heart raced.

    1 · August 24, 2014

  • Jay C.

    Well, now, that is disappointing. I had always thought that Dr. Johnson had stated a universal truth, and now I find it was just a contrivance. So the prospect of the gallows may very well lead to abject confusion...
    Perhaps there is nothing that “no true Oaklander” would ever do/not do ?

    1 · August 24, 2014

  • Harlan L.

    There's a famous quote touching on being attuned to real life. Samuel Johnson's friend, the Rev'd. Wm Dodd, chaplain to the King and Bishop of St. David's lived high and forged a signature to a bond, for which he was sentenced to death. Helpful Johnson wrote a lofty, moral sermon for him to give to prisoners (he wrote many of Dodd's sermons). People doubted Dodd wrote the sermon. To put them off his trail, Johnson said: "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Previously, I have opined that adversity makes us more aware of realities such as the "true Oakland." I wouldn't go too far with this, though, because, obviously, adversity can also make us into frauds and forgers.

    August 24, 2014

  • Jeff G

    Let me stress (and I think it is clear in the announcement) that our theme is *not* the perennial favorite of "reality" vs. imagination/dreams/plans/what-have-you. Befitting a follow-up meeting, it will try to bridge our exploration of essences of Life Itself and the meaning, practice, and ethics of The Good Life. Think of "real life" as a single noun, not an adjective.

    August 24, 2014

  • Charlie5

    the cloud of unreality doesn't just precipitate by itself, we design and implement it in the wilderness of finite time and space, among the cocophany of all the other stuff , "happening", around us.

    Real life is populated by people keepin' it real, but everybody dreams tangents of unreality when we sit around the campfire with our myths at the end of the day, and these dreams, whether of fullness, perfection, and contentment, or scarcity, need, and ruin, go a long way toward determining the kind of real life we create in the commons, in the light of day. Real life is only for a moment, and then, "real life" actually happened, and the actual is an altar held in much higher regard in consensual reality; what "actually happened" is often pursued with religious fervor.

    August 23, 2014

    • Charlie5

      Only in play for a moment, "real life" becomes "recollected" life, survivors from the war on the western front coming back together to drink beer, reminisce, and remember the fallen; that memory becomes a force for the rest of "real life" going forward, strong memories of real life that alter our thoughts, outlooks, plans, and so real life, creatively recollected, can become the core of a new real life, not less real, but with more of the unreality of ideality incorporated into it. things that have actually "happened" before, we tend to believe can happen again more easily than things that have not "happened" in "real life" before; ("who SAYS that? who DOES that?"). But infinite and beyond the real, the cloud of unreality pecolates.

      August 23, 2014

  • Charlie5

    Real life is true; real stories, not the revisionist history we might come up with at the end; real life actually happened, real life is full of surprises, challenges; real life is "happening", in "real" time, on a stage whose full depth we don't know.

    The team might be really good and well prepared, but real life is when they go out in real time, in the wind and in their bodies and in the stadium and up against the other team.

    Real life is where we can only try, 'cause there's no way we can promise, we can direct it but we know we'll be surprised and set back, we can be prepared, but in the stadium of real time, "a flung sone is the devil's", the rational ego can help direct nature but nature also plays its part, and has its say in "real life".

    August 23, 2014

    • Charlie5

      Real life is the dangerous game that sometimes gets out of control, the conversation that goes in directions we didn't want it to go, a game, it is said sometimes, for the "hard-headed realist", where all the forces of our destiny - our training and our preparation but also nature, and the others around us, the web of circumstance and the powers that be, get to have their say, We make efforts to influence "real life" with strength of character, self-direction, and right resolution, but we realize our best laid plans are scattered to the wind when "real life" happens, and all the forces at the time get to have their say on the stage with us;

      August 23, 2014

    • Charlie5

      Real life happens, but unreality designs real life; real life happens on the common ground, but tangents of unreality go out in every direction from that one port.

      When a group of people at a restaurant pause before the meal to say grace together, that cloud of unreality (or transcendental reality) is making an effort at creating a new "real life", to hallow the common ground of "real life" in a larger cloud of meaning.

      The real is pruned from the vines of the (pluripotential) possible and the ideal; the precipitate, the snowflake of the real sits at the center of the cloud of unreality.

      Human reality, philosopher talk, real life, happens so fast, we pad it with layers of unreality, the better to digest the rich core; the unreality of mind, outside of time, our mental life, full of infinity and perfection, a cloud of unreality, and the snowflake at the center of the cloud of unreality

      August 23, 2014

  • Jay C.

    How much of our life is real, and how much imaginary ?
    Religious ? Economic ? Public ? Professional ? Online ?

    Excellent essay, Jeff. You're getting even better.

    1 · August 23, 2014

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