Is there an external reality? By Eugenio Trías

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Is there an external reality?

Of course there is. In this issue, I try to stick to naive perception, which I believe to be true. Even though it’s true that the external world and our own world -in the strictest sense- are different things. Sometimes they are coincidental, sometimes they aren’t. There’s a condition, which we could call the contemporary condition, which makes us live at the same time at different scales: the local scale, our town, region, country, etc. Nowadays most people are aware of the global frame. We are in a world which is becoming more and more interconnected, which doesn’t mean it’s becoming more uniform. So I think there is an external reality. Nobody denies this. Actually, the ones who do are in fact trying to formulate it in a more rational way. I’m thinking about the whole western philosophical tradition, from Berkeley to Leibniz.

Some people say that everything that is said about the external world are mental constructions; that, if there is such a world, we have no access to it.

I think there is construction in knowledge, evidently. The proof lies in the realm of science, but also in philosophical speculation. I also believe there’s some kind of primary perception -empiricist traditions insist on it- which cannot be denied, cannot be forgotten. The best is to find a way to put together both modes. Lately I’m thinking about this extraordinary quote from bishop Berkeley: “Esse est percipi; to be is to be perceived.” This sentence, which lies at the root of what Leibniz later develops in an extraordinary way, means that, between being and perception and being perceived and existing, there is some kind of monadic unity, in such a way that one thing cannot be dissociated from the other. All of these -often idle- debates, about mentalism or the naive reality of the world, allow some kind of different view. In a way, there’s a very close unity between matter and spirit. In that respect, I agree with Leibniz. But, on top of that, science in the 20th century steers us in this direction: the -special and general- theories of relativity make us think about reality as if every fragment of matter, even the most microscopical one, was actually as a pond full of living creatures. And it has its own perception. It has its own perspective, from were the world is built. In this sense, the 20th century has given us many lines of research in the field of philosophy, stemming from science. From the best science: Einstein, Heisenberg, microphysics…

For Berkeley, when the subject is not perceiving, God is. What happens without God?

I think Berkeley has been misinterpreted. He says “to be is to be perceived.” There is no statement of a solipsist subject, but the seed of what later Leibniz will extend: a union of substance and subject. Every fragment of the being is both substantial and subjective. It has a kind of subjectivity. Leibniz spoke of the little perceptions, Freud will later speak of the unconscious, the romantics will speak about an unconscious, organic frame,

which is already in Nature. But I think Nature holds many secrets, many enigmas. I believe in the continuity between Nature and culture, Nature and education, Nature and spirit. At the end it seems like a radical naturalism ends up being coincidental to a spiritualism which is, strangely, materialistic. This would be the paradox where I try to place myself.

How to reach the external reality? How to get knowledge of it?

Well, maybe, the way Marx would put it, “each one according to their abilities.” Each one has its means, its form and intensity. In the animal or vegetable kingdom, in the human kingdom, in its diversity of cultures and individuals and forms of creation, we find the possibility that intercommunication may not happen, the kind of relationship which guarantees the nature of contemporaneity in our lives. Without putting aside the more problematic aspects of our lives: that which moral conscience and ethics deal with. There’s the problem of evil, the drive to destruction, that which Freud called the principle of death. We have to take all of this into account in order to approach reality in a philosophical way.

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