I Exist but in What Way? Thoughts on Berkeley’s “To Be Is to Be Perceived”

I really do think I exist. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. Whether it’s reasoning by way of Descarte’s famous mantra I think, therefore I am, or by some other means of self-awareness thought exercises, I don’t doubt that I exist. But I do admit that existence is a very weird thing, and that weirdness showed up today while flying to Portland, Oregon for a conference. Keep this quote by Irish philosopher George Berkeley in mind as we move forward, 

To be is to be percieved. 

Kirsten and I are rarely apart, and when we are, we are with other people or on the way to meet other people. It’s just how we are, and it’s great; wouldn’t want it any other way. But I am rarely alone. When I am alone, I enjoy it. This is mostly because the times that I am alone are generally brief (a few hours) and in very familiar environments which help ground my experience. Right now, however, I’m quite alone, and it’s a very strange thing.

I’ve come to this conference by myself. No Kirsten, no colleagues, no one. This is fine, really. But as I was walking through the terminal this morning towards my boarding gate, I noticed (not for the first time) my inability to share my experience with anyone. There was no one to point out observations, to complain about the length of the line at the Starbucks, to note that terminal C is much nicer than terminal E. Thousands of people swarming all around me going to their appointed places, yet I was utterly alone. I mean, I could have stopped a random stranger and told them how it annoys me that a bottle of water costs $3.50, but you get my point.

My body was not alone, but my mind was. Clearly, my body was in a space where there were other bodies; there were thousands around me, yet my mind, i.e. my mental self, was isolated. From this, it’s not a big stretch to understand how someone in a large urban area can feel the crushing weight of loneliness in a city of two million people or how someone in solitary confinement might lose their sense of self.  Here I was, a thinking thing inside a body that I and others identify as Derek, but abundantly clear that without the acknowledgment of others who know me, or familiar physical spaces that I would at least associate with my own life, I was undefinable.

I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t exist in that airport terminal. Physically I did, and mentally I did, but my physical self seemed to be in greater existence than my mind.

There’s a bit of this connected to the philosophical/psychological theory of Social and Cultural Identity. This is the theory that our identity comes not from ourselves but from the people and cultural influences around us. This view has been supported in many ways throughout history, whether it’s Aristotle’s musings on friendship,

Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them…

Or contemporary historian and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht who says in her book Stay,

We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.

To further the point, once on the plane, I was sitting on a row of three seats. The other two seats were occupied by two women. I didn’t say much to them other than the usual short exchange of pleasantries such as, “Good morning”. I spent much of the flight reading, staring out the window, and napping. It was only near the end of the flight that I spoke with the woman next to me. It went something like this:

Me: Did I overhear you say you have a brother in Portland?

Woman: Yes.

Me: Is he your older or younger brother?

Woman: He is my younger brother. I haven’t seen him in a while.

Me: Ah, I have a younger brother too. I have to travel to see him as well.

After this conversation, I wondered to myself, did I become more real upon this woman learning that I had a younger brother? Before our brief conversation, from the perspective of others on the plane, what could objectively be claimed was that there was some physical matter in seat 24A (my physical body), but after my brief conversation, another person outside of myself could verify that there was a “Derek” in seat 24A. Her knowing that I physically existed was a given (I hope) but knowing a little bit about me reinforced my personal identity. And maybe more importantly, my own solipsistic, mental isolation became less worrying.

Physically existing and personal identity are two different things, yet they both are what makes “us” albeit in two very different ways. 

Some interesting questions arise from this, such as, is there a hard line between a human’s physical body and their mind? Are the body and mind one in the same, being that the mind is in the brain and the brain is a part of the physical matter that is the body? Would a human in a coma be any less a person since their mind would not be accessible to others? Are humans more than the experiences they share with others? And what would demand an entirely different blog entry, what does all of this suggest about the existentialist notion of freedom or moral responsibility?

Perhaps we are more fully realized when we are present in the eyes of others, not just as a physical thing occupying space, but as something with identity. 

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