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The Publisher's Desk

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On a problem of perception.


An early conundrum I assume many young children discover concerns perception: how do I know that what I see and call the color blue is the same thing that you see when you describe the same thing as blue, and not some other color—say, red—that you have simply always learned to call blue? We know that at least some form of this perception dilemma really does occur due to the existence of color blindness, most commonly the inability to distinguish between the colors green and red. (For Hannah Rowan on a more prevalent physiological defect, see page 41.)

One solution to the problem is to accept that much about our world depends not on grasping the essence of things but on agreeing with others that we regard and react to the same kinds of things in what we believe are the same kinds of ways. Pragmatically, we can hope that whatever the truth of things really is, at least we can reach some sort of working arrangement about how things ought to operate from a social standpoint. (For Stanley Fish on the social conventions of American justice, see page 29.)

But on reflection this solution opens up a deeper problem about how we know the most basic things about the world around us. If we cannot be sure other people are seeing the same colors we see, how can we be sure that we are perceiving those people themselves correctly, and that they are perceiving us as we are? In Kant’s parlance, we cannot know the noumena, the things-in-themselves of the world around us, but only their phenomena, the manner in which we perceive them. (For Edmund Waldstein on King Lear’s own struggles with sanity, see page 37.) Are there other people beyond ourselves, or just our own impressions of people? Are our memories of the world really tied to past events, or were they created in our minds five minutes ago with an appearance of age? (For Nic Rowan on the animal kingdom’s most famous citizens of the past, dinosaurs, see page 58.)

But these are the specious questions that attend a philosophical midlife crisis, and they do not trouble children, who can see through them. How could my mind know the impressions of a thing, its phenomena, without knowing something real about that thing? The world is in a concrete way what we perceive it to be, if imperfectly; other people—our friends, parents, classmates, siblings—are real and care for us, and our lives have the meaning we give them by living in the manner we do. It is by their fruits that ye shall know them (emphasis mine), and so Christ established His Church in this world, through which we may really and truly know Him. Saint John Henry Newman reminds us: our faith’s “home is in the world; and to know what it is, we must seek it in the world, and hear the world’s witness of it.”

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