Once upon a time – or more precisely, from millenia deep B.C. up to around 1950 – philosophers all made their bones by worrying about appearance and reality. The dynamic duo seem to have lost their charisma for analytic, post-analytic, and post Heideggerian philosophers, at least if you look at the titles of their books. But the problem returns again and again in everyday life, which is the pool all philosophy must eventually return to.
For instance, here’s a situtation. We are sitting, here, in a hotel restaurant in Scottsdale Arizona, Adam and me. I look at what he asked me to choose him from the buffet – the bowl of raisin bran without milk, the peach colored thing Yoplait calls Yogurt, some grapes, and apple juice in a clear plastic cup. I notice that he isn’t eating. This doesn’t surprise me. Adam is apparently going to be one of those puzzling people who do not like breakfast. He always has to be coaxed to eat in the morning. Also threatened, although Adam does not yield easily to threats – as the folks at Rand might put it, escalation leads by easy stages to a mutually assure destruction situation situation, myself in the cool down box with a tearful facedown boy. Not a good path. Anyway, I make my usual remark about how Adam chose this food and thus (throwing in a little dollop of bourgeois morality) must eat it. The whole choice – consequences racket. Adam, in response, puts a flake of Raisin Bran (I keep misspelling raisin as raison – a meta Freudian slip) in his mouth and makes a sort of swaying dancing gesture, chomping on it and staring at me. Eating – reality – and eating – appearance – jump out at me like some archetypal Pierre from Being and Nothingness. Without thinking about the consequences, Adam – much like our common ancestor of that name – acts out, doubles, mimics, exaggerates – reality. Of course, by one school of philosophy – mine – that mimicry, that exageration, merely adds to the stock of real things – which is a vast inventory never to be completed by any number of clerks, whose every act of inventorying must be added to the pile. But another school, whose point I understand, would argue that the first school is ignoring a difference known even, in this case, by a four year old – the whole point of the mimicry being to reference something that isn’t mimicry or exaggeration. That something is the real.
All of this philosophical drama is taking place in a very very Western locale – in a restaurant whose design and routines reflect late capitalist business practices down to the intentional dwindling of certain more expensive breakfast materials in order to prod customers to vacate the premises. This is a way of getting to the knotty problem of whether Adam is just responding to some mysterious conditioning that we more vaguely and grandly refer to as his cultural bias. We assume that children who are not taken by their parents to hotel dining rooms, but are taken to say and slash and burn garden, as among the Wape people in New Guinea, might respond by four years old in a completely different way, or at least a different way. I am not aware of any anthropological study of appearance and reality behaviors that I can fall back on, but I assume there could easily be differences that manifest at this point. Yet this nuance does not, of course, erase the fact that here, in the U.S., this child is making this motion of eating for this father. Our greater generalization cannot swallow this particular; it can only problematize it.
Of course, it is easy to see how training in appearance and reality impinges a very young age on children. We as parents spend much of our time drilling this in, from coding language – such and such words are bad, such and such information is secret, etc. – and punishing when the appearance forms aren’t sustained. It soon becomes impossible not to see the world in terms of appearance and reality, even if we later, intellectually, debunk this distinction for ontological work. We can’t go back.
So I tell Adam, eat some more, and some of the yogurt, and then we can watch Hulk.