On the real and the actual

So David Graeber has made some very convincing arguments for toning down the Parmenidean thinking that the world consists of objects that move around and for adopting instead Heraclitean thinking that the entire world is a wave in flux. I think modern physics bears out Mr. Heraclitus, and so I propose now a potentially helpful linguistic distinction (that I’m sure someone has already drawn).

The way we usually talk about it, we call all-that-is “reality.” The word comes from Latin “re,” meaning thing. But if there are no things, then why talk about reality, “the sum of all the things”? Instead, I propose, we should speak about the actual. The actual has no such problem–there is no speaking of the actual without speaking of specific true events as they occurred in specific regions of spacetime.

When people speak about what’s “really” true, they sometimes are still thinking in terms of abstraction–“really” does not always specify a time and place when an event is supposed to have occurred. But “actually,” as in phrases like “actually existing capitalism,” captures the idea that we are indeed speaking about some specific event that did indeed occur in the world, instead of merely updating our abstract ideas about some eternal object based on how that object is said to have behaved.

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