Formerly titled Real is an absolute, and this was a reply to a small writeup, which the writer has now deleted. The nature of its claim should be clear enough from what I say here.
There are possibly no absolutes at all in the sense of the original write-up (now deleted): that is, adjectives or predicates that don't admit of any degree or quantification. Real is certainly not an absolute.
Nor are perfect, optimal, well, or many others that initially appear to denote an all-or-nothing state: pure, complete, unbreakable, known, exact. For example, if I am given a perfect dinner, or a perfect present, and express my delight at how perfect it is, that does not rule out the possibility that my benefactor will then unveil an extra, another dessert perhaps, that makes it even better: I might exclaim that it is now even more perfect, but it would be churlish to claim that the earlier stage was now apparently imperfect. For another example, an optimum can be local; and it is relative to constraints, such as budget and time, and these may be somewhat arbitrarily set down. If you change them, your local optima may change, as may whether one is a global optimum.
We don't say weller because the comparative is better. I was ill in bed all last week, well enough to get up yesterday, and better today. If we need to talk about a final state we can say completely well, which is not a redundancy. But if I'm a chronic invalid, I might be completely recovered from last week's pneumonia, and still not be well as regards my other aches and ills.
We don't say realler
, we say more real
. Of what do we say it's more
real than another, when do we ask how
real something is, when do we say a thing is growing more real or becoming less
real? One big problem is that words such as this are usually considered in isolation
, their fine polish admired, and then put away again, without being used. Use them, and you start to see how they actually work.
A second big problem is that they are typically only compared to one canonical sort of thing, probably a small, solid object like a coin or a knife. People glance at what a real knife is and think that covers what it is to be real. But it doesn't. I'm going to cover these small, discrete objects first, but with a warning that these are not nearly representative.
The third big problem is that the word isn't put against anything at all, but examined in a vacuum: What does real mean? This often results in a snap judgement such as that real means not imaginary. Well, I'm sorry, but no it doesn't.
We have the familiar example of Macbeth
reaching out for the non-existent
dagger. But quite as likely, Is that a real dagger?
would be out of concern that someone has just plunged, or looks about to plunge, a dagger up to the hilt into someone's body. A child watching the play wants to know it's not a real dagger; you tell them about the stage
dagger. At home, a child might have a plastic toy
dagger, or might be using a wooden lath as a pretend
dagger. Or they might just lunge at their playmate with clenching fist, using an imaginary
dagger, which is different from Macbeth's delusory
What is a real coin? It's one that isn't counterfeit; or it's one that isn't a medal or a token or a slug; or it's not a plastic toy coin; or it's not an imitation or stage prop in a scene about buried treasure; or perhaps it's not a trompe-l'oeil painting of one on the floor tempting you to pick it up.
So real doesn't mean anything particular by itself. You have to know what you're talking about, and in what circumstances. Now in the case of a coin, it does seem to be a fairly definite matter of fact that it's either a real, legal tender coin, or it's one of those other substitutes that are definitely not acceptable legal tender. But a coin is designed to be a precise, constrained thing that excludes substitution.
Is this a real gun? A replica 16th-century pistol is not a real 16th-century pistol, but it could well be a real gun, if it can really fire. But perhaps it was built so as not to be able to fire, merely to hang on a wall. Is there much difference between that and a real gun that's been disarmed so that a collector is legally able to keep it? Is that his real hair? Or is it a wig? But wigs are usually made out of real hair, not nylon, I believe: so the fact that his hair isn't real doesn't imply that his hair isn't real hair.
Having sketched some ways things can be real, let's move away from small, discrete objects. Is this real love
, is this the real thing
? How real is someone's concern
? Their surprise
, their self-confidence
, their friendliness
, their depression
, their air of absent-mindedness? Any such social
emotions are ones where it is very common
both for people to simulate
, and for people to be in genuine doubt about the strength
of their own feelings.
If you've lived in an earthquake zone, the impression the news footage makes on you may be more real than on me. In the theatre, how real is the atmosphere of being in a war zone? In a painting, how real is the scene? Was the artist there on the spot? Were they painting at ease from a hill, watching the battle, or were they in the thick of it fighting and only in the studio composing a scene from it? Did they take sketches, make written notes, rely on their memories; did they use the sketches, descriptions, or reminiscences of others?
Any situation that is complicated, composed of many parts, and difficult to describe or apprehend exactly, is very likely to have degrees of reality, varying strengths of reality, debatable approximations to reality. In such cases there often simply isn't an answer to the over-simple question of whether this or that is real or not; and to discuss how real it is we have to move away from the inadequate word real.
The reason we don't usually go into detail about how real something is, is that it has no precise meaning of its own, and is parasitic on many different properties. To go into detail, we discuss the specific property that real is shorthand for. How genuine is the Rembrandt, how authentic is the diary, how realistic or conjectural is the reconstruction, how accurate or irrelevant is the answer, how sincere or feigned is the confusion, how functional or ornamental is the musket, how natural or replanted is the wilderness...?
These are the real questions.
J.L. Austin discusses all this much better in his Sense and Sensibilia.