Things are out in the real. Nothing is more real than things. Things are not unreal. To be realist is to believe in things and in the power of facts that organise them. Reality is the state of affairs.
These are some of the convictions we depend on to figure out what reality is all about. Fundamentally, reality is one of those ideas that is best defined negatively, that is, saying what they are not or saying to what their concept is opposed to.
Hence, real is what effectively exists and is in our possession, as opposed to what we do not possess. That is what the popular saying expresses when stating “better a bird in hand than two in the flying”. The expression means that the real is preferable to that which we only wish for or hope to have but don’t. In rhetorical terms, C. Perelman, in his Treatise on Argumentation, invoked this expression as an example of a premise of argumentation while topos of the preferable expressing a hierarchical value.
Common sense establishes therefore a hierarchy in which the real existent in terms of possession is preferable to what is not possessed and therefore does not exist. It is not real, it is only desired. The two birds that continue their flight escape our reality.
But it is not only what one does not possess that reality opposes and distinguishes. Reality is what is not only imagined or dreamt of. Reality is what is not fiction.
This last category, fiction, is perhaps the one that most clearly opposes reality. Fiction is a result of imagination. The artist, writer or other, creates his works of fiction using the capacity to imagine what does not exist, that which is not real. And yet, many times, even in cases like surrealism, it is reality that artistic creation refers to.
For example, a painting by Magritte like the one entitled “The Empire of Light” immediately seems to represent a reality that is perfectly recognisable: a house, trees, lamp posts, the sky above. Everything that is familiar to us from everyday life. However, if we take a closer look, all this recognisable familiarity disappears when we notice that something is not quite right in that scenery as a representation of a calm and silent reality. A feeling of disturbing strangeness intensifies its contemplation. We discover that the bright daylight sky that occupies the top part of the painting does not match the nightly scenery that the bottom part represents. This lack of coincidence with the real is where the artist’s imagination builds a feeling that makes the spectator lose its references and feels a certain unquietness.
Reality and imaginary are therefore frequently related in artistic terms. Although there are artistic trends, as we know, that claim reality as what art aims to represent. Realism, Neorealism, socialist realism all of them aspired to attribute the artistic expression, under all its forms, the function of representing the real or at least what was intended it should be as a representation.
Reality is made of things that are real facts. But what is a fact, a real thing, may vary from culture to culture. For an anthropologist schooled in the West thunder is really a meteorological phenomenon while for the indigenous person this fact may be a manifestation of a transcendent entity. It is above all in the contemporary West, through the process that Max Weber called disenchantment of the world and in which the scientific rationality developed, that this distinction between a notion of a real fact and its opposite more rigorously was defined.
But what appears clear and distinct in scientific reasoning is not necessarily in the same way at the level of the human psyche. In this way, for example, Freud showed how the human psyche is shared amongst very distinct forces that he called the reality principle and pleasure principle. Normally the reality principle opposes the pleasure principle and vice versa in which the latter, given its self-destruction potential, tends to be limited by the reality principle. All addictions fight against the reality principle to fulfil the pleasure principle. The gambling addict that is from where his pleasure principle is fulfilled, may, according to the law, self impose the reality principle requesting his own prevention of entering a casino. It is in this case the Law that restricts the destructive capacity of the pleasure principle taken to its extreme, that is, as an escape from the real.
This does not mean that the reality principle can not also be itself wrecker of the mental and affective equilibrium. A total adherence to reality imposed, the absolute rejection of any expression of pleasure may also destroy a personality.
If reality is normal, a pathology of normality that may develop can take the individual to an existential imbalance. Without a function for the imaginary in personality, even reality is going to be reduce to a impoverished and destructive schematism.
Nobody lives exclusively in or out of the real. The imaginary is also an essential dimension to survival. Reality is what is imposed to each one of us, whether we want it or not. Each person creates or receives an imaginary bound to a culture or a tradition.
When a psychoanalyst like the French Jacques Lacan proposes a description of human psyche in which three instances are distinct – real, symbolic and imaginary – in a certain way this is what he is talking about. The indivisibility of the human spirit only finds its equilibrium in the harmonisation of all these levels. The symbolic that society, culture and tradition impose, the inventive imaginary of fiction and the real in which, in the last instance, we always aspire and with which in any case we always have to count on.
In this sense, the famous slogan from the 60s “Be realistic, ask for the impossible!” expresses a paradox in the heart of human existence. The real to which we aspire also is what we will never return to, hence its impossibility.
Reality, if it is made of things, may also be something very poor. A thing is something that is not alive or that is inanimate. Nothing that is alive is understood as a thing. People are not things. Animals are also not things. When there exists an attempt to reduce, even if only conceptually, an animated being to a thing, this process has a name; it is called reification, words whose connotations are always negative.
The real is also something that opposes words. Words are not things and as such are rhetorically depreciated, as paradoxical as that may seem. In the common places of discourse the reality of things superimpose the fragility of words and rhetoric is only thought of as a discourse and, as such, depreciated before the concrete domain of the real where the action takes place. And nevertheless, as Austin showed it, words also can make things.
But words also serve to name things and common sense usually appreciates the attitude that consists in “calling things by their name” which seems to be a guarantee of truth in discourse. What would reality be like without words? Therefore, all human search for the real, as the review of literature well shows, consists in searching, as a French novelists said, “words to say it”.
In one way or the other, rhetorically or literally, the real largely constitutes what can be said about it. The question remains: does everything we can not say stay, for that reason and necessarily, outside of existing reality? In that case, silence like music is completely unreal, not because we can not talk about it but because all the words that we add to it tend to become superfluous.