Dressgate proves once again the power of philosophical problems to be both perpetually captivating and infuriating, both of which follow the fact that, like teenagers in love, everyone who gets bit by problem like this feels like first person ever to experience it. On the one hand, there is the awareness that we’ve struck something deeply significant, but on the other hand the difficulty of the resolution becomes quickly insufferable, and so we turn to the answering-class to exorcise our frustration with an appropriate spell, which nowadays needs to include clauses like “our ___ evolved in order to”, along with the spice of some in-group shop-talk.

The dress is a pretty basic problem of illusions of the sort Descartes introduced into modern thought but which was developed into its weaponized form by Berkeley. The basic insight is just a variant of the principle of contradiction:

If p is not more reasonable than its denial, then p is not

(1) real/objective/episteme/fact but only

(2) illusion/subjective/doxa/opinion.

When it comes to illusions, we’re forced either to say that one of the contraries is unreasonable to hold or that the p in question is somehow outside of the field that we are gesturing at with (1), and therefore has some sort of type-2 existence – though whether “existence” is the right word here is part of the problem. As a rule, the first wave of responses is to deny the antecedent in some way or another (and so to say that p is more reasonable than its contrary); the second wave (or the first response of the answering class) tries to make the case that p is a 2. Some ‘realist’ philosopher then comes along and try to make a more sophisticated case that p is a 1. What we now call “science” leans toward the second wave response, and in this they are defending a variant of the old sophistical epistemology that Plato combated with such care, and which he might have conceded too much to, if we believe Aristotle.

In the face of this, its inevitable that someone will try to come up with a declension of type 1 existence, though this is an area where talk is cheap and real, principled solutions are difficult. For all that, it’s hard to see how the right answer can avoid being an account of how 1 and 2 are a graded continuum of possibilities that can progressively depart from one extreme and shade into the other. St. Thomas argued that, while all knowledge was immaterial, that some of it was more “immersed in matter” than others. Kant seemed more to be working from a peculiar spin on the Scholastic axiom that whatever was known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower, and even if we disagree with his solution it still might be necessary to revisit the axiom.


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