Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Wings of Desire

Every so often in the film Wings of Desire (alternatively entitled Der Himmel über Berlin), directed by Wim Wenders and released in 1987, we hear extracts from the Lied vom Kindsein, by Peter Handke. The text is here:


and an English translation is here:


Plenty of lines in the Lied illustrate the claim that philosophy begins in wonder (Plato, Theaetetus 155d; Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b11-13): for example, "Warum bin ich ich und warum nicht du?"; and "Wann begann die Zeit und wo endet der Raum?".

It would be an interesting exercise to answer all of the questions that the Lied poses, and an equally interesting one to make all the connections that could be made between the text of the Lied and contemporary philosophy. For example, "Wie kann es sein, daß ich, der ich bin, bevor ich wurde, nicht war, und daß einmal ich, der ich bin, nicht mehr der ich bin, sein werde?", invites us to think about the conditions under which indexical and non-indexical terms can refer, and about the peculiar effects of using non-indexical terms to refer to oneself (with echoes both of Moore's Paradox and of Perry's essential indexical), as well as inviting us to think about coming to be and ceasing to be.

I shall here take a look at these words: "Ist das Leben unter der Sonne nicht bloß ein Traum? Ist was ich sehe und höre und rieche nicht bloß der Schein einer Welt vor der Welt?".

They have a particular relevance in the context of the film, in which angels see the world and the people in it only in black and white, and they cannot intervene causally to change people's lives, but on the other hand, they can listen to people's thoughts. But let us allow ourselves to go beyond that context, and ask what connection there may be between the idea that life is merely a dream, and the idea that we may perceive only an appearance, rather than the world.

I shall take the former idea to be that life is but a fleeting set of impressions, which if properly understood, could not be taken to be of any importance. The sentiment here is Pindar's, that a person is but a dream of a shadow (skias onar: Pythian Ode 8, line 95), ignoring the comfort that the following two lines give, with their reference to the effects of Zeus's favour. If we take the idea that life is a dream to concern importance, that idea is kept securely, and interestingly, separate from the idea that we do not perceive the real world. If we took the former idea to concern the process that produced our perceptions, then there would be a risk that the two ideas could come together, especially if it were possible to have dreams that were reliably veridical, for example by virtue of a mechanism of pre-established harmony, or by virtue of some unknowable that produced both the real world and our perceptions in parallel.

I shall take the latter idea to be that we perceive an appearance of a world, where that perceived world is distinct from the real world, and stands between us and the real world. The presence of the additional world, required by the text ("der Schein einer Welt vor der Welt", not "der Schein der Welt vor der Welt"), might be thought to steer us towards the sort of picture that would be given by a two-world interpretation of Kant, but we must allow for two non-Kantian elements. The first is that there is no requirement to regard the perceived world as empirically real. The second is the possibility (but not the certainty) that the perceived world is straightforwardly caused by the real world. The talk of our perceiving an appearance of the additional world also gives scope to introduce sense-data, or some such intermediary, but that is not the main point. The essential thing is the additional world.

First, suppose that life was a dream, in the sense of unimportance that I have just given. Could it be that we would nonetheless perceive the real world, and do so accurately - or, alternatively, perceive an intermediate world that was like the real world in its details, so that we at least had an accurate representation of the real world, and arguably did (indirectly) perceive the real world?

We could, so long as we could not act in the real world. That is, we would need to be in the impotent position of the angels in Wings of Desire, or of the deceased in Sartre's Les jeux sont faits. That would be both necessary and sufficient to make our perceptions of no importance, even though what was perceived or at least represented to us, the real world, was of importance, and even though the perceptions of people who could act in the real world, perceptions that might be qualitatively identical to our own, would be important.

If we could act to change the real world, perceptions that conveyed the state of the real world would matter, no matter how convoluted the process by which they conveyed that state. Perceptions of a world that was not the real world, and that did not convey the state of the real world, would not matter. They would be like the dreams that we, real agents in the world, in fact have when we sleep. Those actual dreams do not matter, except perhaps in indirect ways that do not rely on the accuracy with which they represent the real world.

Now suppose that life was not a dream, in the sense that our perceptions did matter. Would that impose any restrictions on the perceptual process?

We would need to be able to act in the real world, in order for our perceptions to be important. But our perceptions would also need to be useful guides to action. They would not need to give us wholly accurate information about the real world, but they would need to be such that paying attention to them led to action that was, on the whole, more appropriate than our actions would be if we did not pay attention to them. They could, however, fulfil that condition, whether we perceived the real world or some other, intermediate, world.

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