The Real

Published 12 Apr 2017


What is real?

The question on what is real in this world is nothing new. In fact, it has been the perennial question that many thinkers have been trying to address. Such question has provoked the emergence of a variety of thoughts. Some are almost the same. Some served as a development of the previous thoughts of reality. Some even are clashing points in addressing the question. This just shows how the question has been very problematic to human reason.

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But what really is real? When do we say that something or an object is real? This paper aims to present some common notions about reality. At the end of the paper, we hope to establish a statement on what really is real, that is, if there’s something real in the world.

Apollonianism and Dionysianism

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, introduces an interesting way to understand what is real through his concepts of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. This was actually based on Greek mythology account where Apollo is the god of lightness and poetry and Dionysus is the god of wine and drunkenness (Porter, 2000). The Apollonian relates to art, beauty, education, and rationality or reason. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is more of passion, hysteria, intoxication, nature, and music. Seemingly, these two are mutually exclusive to each other. Each one seems to be different from the other.

But Nietzsche argues that both of them are intimately related to each other. They work together to give beings a sense of reality. To quote Nietzsche, “Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed … wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever” (Cowan, 1962). To say therefore that they are mutually exclusive is in a sense that both of them are relating to different areas of man.

Hence, what is real for Nietzsche is a balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the passion and the intellect. Life is a totality that involves an interaction and/or a struggle of these two elements. Neither of the two contains or overpowers the other nor one be under the other. It can be said therefore that reality is composed of these.

The Symbolisms of Ernst Cassirer

Another German philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, developed his understanding of the real through symbolisms. He wrote the An Essay of Man some few years after the publication of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. This set the context from which Cassiser thought of reality. In the An essay on man, Cassiser made a conjecture of human thoughts about man as he calls history a crisis of knowledge of himself (Cassiser, 1944).
“Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality.” (An Essay on Man, 1944)

He (Cassiser) argues that what we have are not actually real insight of our human nature despite the advanced discovery and development of facts about ourselves. Facts are but information and they do necessarily mean knowledge. Such case brings us into question how man actually deals with facts, how he establishes, relate, and communicate them.

For Cassiser, man uses symbols to relate himself to the physical world. Symbols such as the language he uses allow him make thoughts, relationship, nd judgment of the world. It is this kind of system that provokes him to develop science. Hence, science is not actually concerned of the truth about the world and all that is in it. It is only about the truth of the symbols and of the language that man uses to convey what is in it.
He further claimed in this essay that science is but a means to establish of our thoughts. Our sense of morality makes our action in order and at pace. And art gives us order with how things appear to us. These simply mean that man is in conversation with oneself in understanding reality by creating symbols and orders. What is real then is something he makes symbols of. Man does so because it is or cannot be fully grasped. It is only through symbols can have understanding of reality.

Berkeley’s Empircism

Close to Cassiser’s understanding of reality as based on symbols in George Berkeley’s famous empiricism. For him, the objects we perceive are actually only ideas of the mind. This view seems to suggest that anything we know is but a mental construct.

We cannot know what an object is. We only know of an object as we perceive it through our mind. What we know then is not the being of the object but our perception to it. This idea of perception is further developed in terms of experience. We perceive something on how we experience it. Beyond that is already non-sense or beyond our mind.

Reality then is enclosed on our perception. It is based on our mind’s ability to perceive what the object as we experience it. What we know is not the “essence” or the profound “whatness” of the object. We only of it as how we perceive it through our experiences with the object.


Another understanding of what is real is the notion of materialism. This thought is pre-dominant in the Ancient Greek period. Thales, Anaxagoras, Parmenides, Epicurus, and even Aristotle prefigure later materialists (Flanagan, 1991). It holds that the only thing which exists as real is matter. We, as observing subjects, can only know of matters, of material objects. All things are composed of matter and everything that occurs in the world is a result of material interactions.

To understand the world then is basically to understand these interactions of matters. There is no more than material phenomena. Other dimensions are beyond our understanding or grasp of reality. We don’t have to go through the profound conjectures of the supernatural and the spiritual. We simply have to see the world as it is through its material composition, interactions, and relationship. This is reality.
Lincoln Barnett on Einstein`s Relativity

While Einstein provides with highly scientific understanding of every “real” occurrence in the world, Lincoln Barnett argues that what is real cannot just deduced into empirical data. In his words, he said that (quantum physics) “.

demolishes two pillars of the old science, causality and determinism. For by dealing in terms of statistics and probabilities it abandons all ideas that nature exhibits an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. And by its admission of margins of uncertainty it yields up the ancient hope that science, given the present state and velocity of every material body in the universe, can forecast the history of the universe for all time. One by-product of this surrender is a new argument for the existence of free will. For if physical events are indeterminate and the future unpredictable, then perhaps”(Barnett, 1948).

This is in contrast to the extreme empiricist. What is real cannot just be understood in terms of numbers, measurements, and the like. There is still causality and determinism that governs beings and occurrences in the world.

The Dimensions in Flatland

Reality can also be understood in terms of dimensions. Edwin Abbott presents this in his mathematical-philosophical piece Flatland. It is about a story about encounters of beings of different dimensions. It suggests that there is different or even greater dimension for every being. Our sense of what is real varies then from one dimension to another, from one context to another.

Cosmicomics of Italo Calvino

Another narrative from which can understand reality is Cosmicomics. This is a book of stories of the universe. It starts with a claim or of fact in developing the plot. What we have from Calvino is basically one of the general themes understanding reality. Reality can be best understood in terms of our human nature. Human nature is described and actually experienced as limited. From this, what we conceive as real is basically limited. We cannot perfectly grasp the real, yet we do have an experience of it.


There really are a lot of ways to which “the real” appears it self to human person. Nietzsche sees it as balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Cassisser understands it through symbolisms that the mind crafts. Empiricists like Berkeley also see it in terms of perception and mental activity. Materialists see it as no more than matter. Barnett insists on causality and determinism, not just mathematics and matter. Abbott and Calvino see it in terms of man’s capacity in the context of dimensions and reason.

These and more are statements seek to understand reality. The common denomination amongst these is that this puts man in the center. What is real therefore is that which the man, in his truest potential, understands and experiences.


  • Cowan, Marianne (1962). Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Washington, D.C: Regnery Publishing, Inc.,
  • Cassiser, Ernst (1944). An Essay on Man. CT: Yale University Press.
  • Barnett, Lincoln (1948). The Universe and Dr. Einstein. NY: William Sloane Associates.
  • Abbott, Edwin (1994). Flatland. Canada: HarperCollins.
  • Calvino, Italo (1976). Cosmicomics. NY: Harvest Books.
  • Dancy, Jonathan (1987). Berkeley: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Flanagan, Owen (1991). The Science of the Mind. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.
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