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The Etymology of Reality: OED Contradictions

Owl's picture

When looking at the definitions of Reality under the  OED online, I found that their definitions were contradictory to one another. Some stated that reality was based on what is real or true rather than desired or imagined,  making a definitive claim towards reality being based on something that is of so called actual existence. But other definitions explored the varying sense of the word. For instance, one definition ( the first  one on the list) stated that reality was " The quality or state of being real."  This definition, as I said in class, made me question what was exactly meant by "quality." When I looked up "quality" on the Merrian-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions said that quality was "degree of excellence". This came as a shock to me for two reasons, 1) because "degree" in itself indicates that there is a standard set for what is reality. But  who or what judges what these standards are? and 2) because if someone or something is already determining what reality is,  than what is the use of others words in our vocabulary such as perspective, opinion, or experience. For if reality is already determined, than would there only be one perspective, one opinion, and one experience? 



mavin's picture


- hi owl, for the stuff to do with 'degree', I stumbled across it in Howard Caygill's "A Kant Dictionary" yesterday, in the entry under reality, which provides a lot of philosophico-historical context, and reads as follows - hope this helps...

Reality is the first of the categories of quality which corresponds to the affirmative function of judgement. Along with the remaining categories of quality –negation and limitation – it yields the principles that make up the anticipations of perception. As a category or ‘pure concept of the understanding’ reality is defined as ‘that which corresponds to a sensation in general’ or that ‘the concept of which points to being (in time’. (CPR 1st. Ed p.143/2nd Ed.182). It is opposed by the second category of quality, namely negation, which represents ‘not-being (in time)’ (ibid.). Since Descartes, philosophers had conceived of reality as possessing degree, as in the view that substance possessed more reality than its accidents. Kant used this quality of reality to underwrite the claim for the existence of a continuum between reality and negation, one which makes every reality representable as a quantum’ (CPR 1st. Ed 143/2nd Ed. 183) . This quality is then extended to sensation or the representation of objects in intuition.
The correspondence of the category of reality with sensation is accomplished by means of perception. Kant writes at one point that ‘the material or real element, the something which is to be intuited in space, necessarily presupposes perception’ (CPR A 373). But this perception is not to be understood as pre-categorical, but as a principle or ‘anticipation of perception’. Kant’s use of the Epicurean term prolepsis or ‘anticipation’ allows him to situate the anticipations of perception between sense and ‘formal a priori consciousness’: perception is not prior to the category of reality, underwriting it in some way, but requires that the category be given in order to take place . The ‘real’ intuited in space may indeed presuppose perception, but perception itself is only possible when anticipated by the principle that ‘the real that is an object of sensation has intensive magnitude, that is, a degree’ (CPR 2nd Ed. 207). Kant admits that this must ‘appear somewhat strange’ and points to the source of the strangeness as the [H. Caygill, A Kant Dictionary p. 345] question of ‘how the understanding can thus in a priori fashion pronounce synthetically upon appearances’ (CPR 2nd Ed. 217).

The reason for the complex machinery which relates the category of reality to sensation in general is the need to prove that the ‘absence of reality from a sensible intuition can never itself be perceived’ and that consequently an empty space or time ‘can never be derived from experience’ (CPR 2nd Ed. p.214). This proof is desirable in the argument against the absolute reality of space and time. The reality of the forms of intuition [space and time] cannot be separated from the reality of the objects of experience; they do not, Kant insists, belong ‘to things absolutely, as their condition or property, independent of any reference to the form of our sensible intuition’ (CPR 1st Ed. 36/2nd Ed. 52). The category of reality can thus only be applied as empirical reality in space and time, and never absolutely to space and time themselves.

‘Another critical dimension of the category of reality is revealed in the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’ where Kant argues against the elision of reality and existence. The word ‘reality’ which in the concept of the thing sounds other than the word “existence” in the concept of the predicate’ (CPR A 597/B 625) cannot in fact be applied to something which is not a possible object of experience, such as God. If it was so applied, it would be illegitimately extended beyond the bounds of its proper jurisdiction, which are set by the limits of possible experience.

Although Kant on the whole rigorously confines reality to the limits of possible experience, he does at one point in CPR hint at an extra-categorial dimension to the concept. This is in the context of the discussion of transcendental affirmation and negation, when he identifies the former with ‘reality’ ‘because through it alone, and so far only as it reaches, are objects something (things)’ (CPR A 574/B 602). In this context reality is an idea of reason, a ‘transcendental substrate’ of ‘the reality of everything (omnitudo realitatas)’ (A 575/ B 604). With this view of reality, Kant extends the concept far beyond its categorial bounds while yet keeping it, a an idea of reason, within the wider critical project.’ H. Caygill, A Kant Dictionary, p.346

Loek's picture

reality explained :-)

Hi Owl,

The origin of the word is clear: re has to do with 'res' in Latin meaning 'thing' and the suffix -al means 'kind of' or 'having the form of' and the suffix -ity meaning 'a state or condition'. Implying that reality means the state of kind of things. Because of the two suffices it is actually a word with three layers and is there best interpreted as (state of (kind of (things))). It is therefore highly left unclear what reality might be and hence can be translated freely with 'whatever'.

With kind regards,


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