World and Self

For her undergraduate thesis project one of my friends wrote a play on the theme of identity (which you can view here).  She later gave a presentation about this play to elucidate its academic content, and one of the things she talked about was her interest in the examination of self.  She proposed that the examination of self is challenging because the observer is also the object, and therefore the observer changes itself in the act of observing.  This is in contrast to the observer observing objects, because the object is theoretically static.

I think that she pointed out a very interesting problem, but one that can be taken further then she took it.  One of the divides in philosophy is idealism vs. realism.  Idealism holds that reality is mental, while realism holds that reality is independent of mind.  It is dangerous to make sweeping statements of any sort on this topic, but since this is my philosophy blog and not an academic peer reviewed paper I’m going to make one anyway: I do not think that we can meaningfully think about the world other then the world as our own experience – this means that the only reality we can know is a mental one (broadly speaking).  From this position it then follows that all reality is subject to the same problem pointed out by my friend: to examine something is to change it, because everything that you know is an extension of your own being.

I’ll expand on my last claim.  Imagine that you see a tree.  My claim is that everything that you know about the tree is your experience of it.  All the tree is to you is your sight, your smell, your taste, your touch, and your thoughts.  Here we are tempted to ascribe these properties to the tree.  When we feel the roughness of the bark we think that the roughness is possessed by the tree, and its flavour, and that our thoughts are about the tree.  My proposal though is that these properties are dependent on you.  The tree does not have an “objective” appearance; it always has an appearance to someone.  There is some ambiguity I have not resolved.  For example, we all have similar experiences of a tree, so it seems that there is an objective object that is fixed for all of us to experience.  My claim them that any experience of the world is an experience of ourselves to some degree.

In conjunction with Ashley’s claim, what this means is that to examine the world is to change it, to the degree that it is ourselves that we are examining.  To dwell on the roughness of the bark of a tree is to change the experience.

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman


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