Real Or — Something Else?

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced — even a proverb is no proverb to you until your life has illustrated it.”

John Keats

What exactly does Keats mean by this? Or perhaps, in what sense does he mean this? Surely we can’t all have all experiences. Does this mean that we’re limited to only our own experiences? Surely not? On the other hand, there are a lot of things that I “know” because I’ve read about them or heard about them. But then — through a trip, an encounter, a book, a song, a scent, a taste, yes, an experience — suddenly that thing takes on a totally different kind of reality. I recognize that it is no longer simply words or thoughts or ideas, it has become really REAL for me. But what is that about?

So, Yes or No to the poet? I can vote both ways, depending on my mood, the weather, the season, what happened to me yesterday or what’s on the calendar for next week. But if I find it so puzzling, then I’m really curious —

What do YOU think?  What makes something real to you? Or is it sufficient that it IS to make something real?

Or do you, like Hamlet or Eliza Doolittle, scorn all this as Words, Words, Words? Not me. I look forward to this conversation —

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26 Responses to Real Or — Something Else?

  1. Christine Grote says:

    The whole question of reality is a little complex for me. Some say that we create our own reality with our thoughts. I think Keats may have been commenting on the difference between intellectually knowing something versus experiencing something with our senses, as you mentioned.

    That’s a fairly easy distinction to make. The problem lies in the definition of the word “real.”


    • Touch2Touch says:

      You may be right, Christine.
      For some reason when I first read this quote, it kind of kept gnawing at the edges of my mind. It seems clear — but then is slippery. I think maybe you’re right. What is “real”? And, I suppose, the corollary question, how do we know?
      Philosophy, eeek!!!!!! I can’t DO it, but something about the questions gets to me anyway.


  2. Joceline says:

    I would agree with Keats on this one. Until you experience it, something is truly only a theory in your mind, once felt, touched, heard, seen or known, then it becomes real. Which of course begs the question of what is real??? couldn’t resist.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      I can see it shaping up, Joss —
      That’s kind of the problem. Yeah, I’m 100% with the pragmatic Keats. BUT ———
      do things or people or ideas, whatever, have real existence apart from our minds/brains/consciousness? What a can of worms, eh???? I hoped it would be fun for people to join me in the can, as it were!
      Have a great weekend —


  3. Stef says:

    For me, there are two forms of ‘knowing’: one is intellectual, and the other experiential.

    Intellectual knowing is helpful in that it points me to experiential knowing; but intellectual knowing is limited. I easily forget stuff I “know” – sometimes just minutes after I learned it. However, I never forget stuff I experience – even 20 years later. (See: bike riding, yoga, cooking, the smell of my elementary school, etc, etc…)


    • Touch2Touch says:

      You have just proved your FANTASTIC experiential memory in your latest post, So you make a compelling witness.
      Fly in the ointment, at least for me: MUST I experience something in order really to know it? Because that would leave my reality pretty limited.
      I think Christine’s getting to it, the issue is not so much What is Knowing?
      as What is Reality?
      (When it comes to knowing, I’m mostly with you.)
      I REALLY thank you for your comment 😉


  4. Pauline says:

    I might amend Keat’s statement to read “Nothing is real TO US till it is experienced…”

    Even great thinkers can’t agree on what defines “real.” Is it something that exists even without your knowing? Is it just matter that we can detect with our senses? Is it a difference between perceptions of things earthly and spiritual?

    In the mid-fifteenth century, when the word apparently first appeared in writing, it meant “related to things, especially property” which led to the 1660’s OE usage, “real estate.” (Who knew?) “Things” is the key word here. Real was something you could touch or see or own. Gradually the definition was extended to the Latin words for “actual” and “matter,” still appearing related to things. The meaning “genuine” is recorded from the 1550s and moves us slightly toward the philosophical realm. “Actually existing” was in use by the 1590s, an embrace, it seems, to the earlier version of real, and “unaffected, no-nonsense” stems from 1847, once more pushing the definition to include the philosophical.

    My favorite definition for real comes from Margery William’s The Velveteen Rabbit:
    “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”


    • Touch2Touch says:

      The Scholar — and Historian — and Etymologist — and genuine Philosopher has weighed in. Wonderful summation!
      Thank you so much, Pauline, for tracing the theads of both the word and the concept.
      And for the quotation from the “children’s” favorite, The Velveteen Rabbit, which to this day I can’t read without tears — because it says it all.
      You might say (well, she just about does) that a well-spent life is one in which at last one arrives at being a REAL PERSON.


    • tms says:

      I am more and more delighted with the quote! If we leave the rabbit’s perspective aside and just look at the thing from outside, we might say: As it starts to bear traces of usage it accumulates meaning. The worn fur and the missing eyes speak of a history, and they make the much-loved rabbit a part of our lives. So children claiming they do not want a new one because they just WANT THEIR OLE RABBIT are actually … intuitively right, are they not?
      So do not throw out all your old stuff. It is very much yours, more and more resembling Keats’s ‘real’ proverb. It may “illustrate your life”, even if other people cannot understand.


      • Touch2Touch says:

        I loved this comment! You have touched on a great truth here, the children are right!!!
        You explain something that is a favorite story from long ago, when our daughter was a little girl with a favorite stuffed animal, Mrs. Chicken. She took her everywhere, which took a toll on Mrs. Chicken. We repaired as we could, but the day inevitably came when Mrs. Chicken (perhaps like us and our neighbors in a retirement community!) was falling apart faster than she could be repaired.
        Well, we found another Mrs. Chicken, exactly the same, only new. But we intuitively knew she would never swap her beloved animal for this new imposter! So we got her consent to have Mrs. Chicken go to the hospital for an operation, and lo! a couple of days later, Mrs. Chicken returned in perfect health again.
        Of course our daughter was very young.
        And hospitals don’t seem to perform as well for human beings. But an interesting story.
        Our son took a different approach, perhaps closer to yours?
        We tried to get him to clear out his room of some clutter (which were precious possessions to him). We said, Look at all this old stuff!
        And he said (six years old, seven, eight?): I LIKE old things.

        I will think of this comment when I look in the mirror in a little while. 😉


    • suitablefish says:

      I love Margery William’s definition of real! love, love it!


  5. fb says:

    Your mention of Eliza Doolittle brings to mind George Benard Shaw’s character in his play Pygmalion. In its re-incarnation on Broadway as the musical My Fair Lady, Eliza remains an impoverished cockney flower seller, and Professor Henry Higgins remains her mentor. To win a bet that he can make her a lady in speech and in social graces in a short time, he drives her terribly hard. Here is what she says as she laments in the song, Show Me;
    Words! Words! Words! All the day through
    First from him
    Then from you
    Is that all you blighters can do?
    She persists, as does Professor Higgins. The time comes eventually when she is ready and Higgins introduces Eliza as a Duchess, no less, at a fashionable society ball. She is a smashing success, which Professor Higgins of course credits to his training and what she has learned. I believe, though, that it was her successful experience that changed Eliza so profoundly. My Fair Lady doesn’t really raise the issue of what actually makes Eliza the woman she becomes. A case can be made that it was really Higgins, but I will go for the experience at the ball as crucial.


  6. Rebekah says:

    When I first read this post, I was going to say something, spontaneously. Decided against it … to think about it first. The question kept nagging me … ‘what is real?!’ It is indeed slippery, as you say. How I loved Pauline’s last paragraph about the rabbit!


  7. tms says:

    Just a try – “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced”, and we do not learn theories but by experiencing lectures or texts or whatever. They may seem mind-boggling, or smooth or even humorous. Just to give an example, I take some delight in Heidegger saying not just “a tree” or “a bird” when he tries to illustrate a point but “the tree in blossom” or “the eagle in the skies”; the dry philosopher gets fairly poetic in his language, offering more than needed for getting his reasoning clear. And the delight I take in reading these lines seems to prove I experience something. The text has a tangible quality, it affects the senses. It is real… But this is all about the text, it is about what you can actually buy in a bookstore (“real estate”?), not the ideas.
    I think ideas become real TO US once we can – as Keats seems to say – connect them, either to our everyday lives or – as I would like to add – to other things we know, other ideas we learned even. Or let’s say, they then become relevant to us, and that’s what he may be aiming at: Learning something for life, not just for the sake of learning.
    “Do things or people or ideas, whatever, have real existence apart from our minds/brains/consciousness,” Judith asks. I would like to ask two questions at this point:
    — How about that feeling we may all have experienced: “Darn, somebody else already had this idea before…?” The idea is already there, then. Or is it not?
    — And (how) would our lives and theories work if we just said that this is an unanswerable question and therefore an irrelevant one? Maybe we simply cannot know because we are so much a part of the system we are trying to analyze.

    Ah well, just my two cents.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      As always, Tobias, your two cents adds up to a very large sum indeed!
      So many ideas open out from your comment: your delight in language (as Heidegger delighted in it in your example), for one. What you are experiencing is DELIGHT, which makes the text real. Yes, absolutely.
      The point you raise that has powerful meaning to me is that ideas become real when they become relevant to our lives (our lives including things that we know). When I was first a “mature” graduate student in English Literature, I was often outraged by what I saw as nit-picking analysis for the sake of analysis, all the Whats and Hows picked over without any connection at all to Why or What For. If one (I) tried to make a meaningful connection with everyday life, or with consequences, I met with scorn, hostility, or at minimum, eye-rolling. But I’ve never changed my mind: learning for the sake of learning, nothing more, still seems pointless to me. If I’m in a benevolent mood, at best incomplete. But still needing to be finished.
      It is my problem with theory, which always in my mind carries the adjective “mere.” (Unfortunately this is often intellectually disadvantageous :-(.)


      • tms says:

        What about ‘mere practice’? We would not say, “this is only practice, it does not work in theory.’ Or would we?

        I may be utterly wrong but to me there were alway two proof points for theory: Formal logic and: experience. A theory sounds plausible if it does not contradict our experience. My delight with Heiddeger’s delight with language in a way scores a point for Deconstruction and all those who claim that form also matters a lot in ‘theoretical’ texts – now I seem to have EXPERIENCED what these authors like Derrida and De Man were concerned with.


        • Touch2Touch says:

          I certainly would never couple “mere” with practice. Practice is what it is, more accurately it is what we do. At least in the Zen form of Buddhism — practice is not designed to “work”, in or out of theory. It is what one does, because that is what one does. One may well start practice with a goal, but if one advances — the goal drops away. Practice is experience; experience may or may not be practice.

          It’s the formal logic part of experience that I don’t have an intelligence (therefore have no taste) for. We’re currently watching a Great Courses DVD on Consciousness given by a philosopher. He begins by positing zombies (different types of them, yet!) who are human in every way save consciousness. And then he takes off defining consciousness using the zombies.
          But there never were any zombies to begin with! They are a construct, that’s it. So it sounds plausible — but so what?

          Okay, that’s two points. Third: anybody who claims form matters (you see, I studied pre-Deconstruction and have never really known just what it was/is) will get a hearing at least from me.
          Do you know the famous anecdote about James Joyce and Ulysses? Someone asked him, What is the meaning of Ulysses? He replied, “Stately plump Buck Mulligan came…” No, no, his questioner interrupted. “What is the meaning of Ulysses? And Joyce repeated, “Stately plump Buck Mulligan….”
          (Hey, neat way to get up in the morning and exercise the little gray cells! 🙂


  8. suitablefish says:

    When I read this quote of Keats I first think about how his poetic sense of real is imbedded in Romanticism and his notion of Negative Capability. The poet describes what he means by Negative Capability as ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

    “Oh for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts.”

    . . . and the Romantic’s idea that there is a harmony between nature and the human mind based on the belief in the oneness of all things (the understanding of many great sages before, of, and beyond Keats’ time).

    So I think what resonates for me is that we cannot know the ‘realness’ of something until we have fully experienced it free of our preconceptions. ‘To see into the life of things.’

    “Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”

    I may have wandered.. . I love this quote of Keats. Thanks for sharing it for a lively conversation.


    • Touch2Touch says:

      Yes, you’ve wandered —- down alluring paths, I must say. Through Negative Capability, serenely, along into Mystery, without irritability! (And how many people become intensely irritable confronted with mystery and doubt?)
      For such a short quote, it’s capable of stimulating thought in remarkably many different directions. A poet’s mind in action —

      Who said, “Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know”? Are we to assume that it’s ALSO KEATS?
      It’s such a wonderful expression of happiness! The clincher for me is the music played? or written? by “somebody I do not know.” There must be mystery!
      Susan— thank you for a wonderful and provocative comment.


  9. tms says:

    I was trying to add a comment concerning a photographer’s angle on reality when I realized that Keats’ lines do not seem to cover reality as much as relevance (‘the reality of things FOR US’) – that’s why the quote from The Velveteen Rabbit seems so fitting here. A couple of lines from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s FAUST then came to mind:

    Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie
    Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.

    (Grey, dear friend, is theory
    And green the golden tree of life)

    …says Mephistopheles, my favourite devil in literature. He claims to be part of the power that intends evil and creates good – but bear in mind that he is the devil! His advice cuts both ways – in fact, he is making fun of an aspiring scholar here.

    Then another classic came to mind – actually, the idea keeps coming to mind: “Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind,” writes Immanuel Kant in his KRITIK DER REINEN VERNUNFT: Thoughts without content are empty, perceptions without concepts are blind. I think we may assume that ‘content for thought’ comes from perception, and I gather from this discussion that everyone would agree (including Keats, of course).

    But imagine you visit a very foreign place and know nothing about it: What would you actually see? Do we not need “words, words, words” to alert us for the things we might be able to see? I do think that the more you (intellectually) know the more you will make of experience…

    …although I am always charmed by the idea of the innocent eye Susan’s comment seems to aim at.

    Fiction and poetry do a lot for our perceptiveness by telling us of times and places and things we could not access otherwise. They speak of ‘the possible.’ And in (allegedly) being more open than many theories, they may not limit our perceptions as much as “grey” theory might.


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