Intersubjective Tertiary Reality in Fantasy and Science Fiction
What is real? Or rather, is that which we perceive with our senses ‘real’, in the sense that it objectively exists? This question haskept philosophy and
literature busy for centuries. An obvious answer ismirrored by language: The German verb ‘Wissen’ for instance, as well as the English ‘to wit’, derive from Proto-Germanic *witanan, ‘to have seen’: We know that which we have seen. Equivalent verbs in Romanic languages derive from Latin ‘sapere’, ‘to taste, have taste’. Sensory input determines our knowledge of the world – a practical truth proven also in scientific experiments.
For Plato, of course, it wasn’t so simple. In his allegory of the cave, he shows that ‘to see’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘to know’ in the sense of ‘to
have a correct view of objective reality’. His cave dwellers perceive only shadows of artificial objects on a wall, while the true light of reality remains outside, unseen and unknown. Their knowledge of ‘the world’ is an illusion, a fiction existing only in their (and the fiction-makers’) heads – a shared sensory experience misleading to a limited, distorted and conventional view of reality. Because we’re bound to the physical world by the limitations of our bodies, sensory experience is novalid proof for its ultimate reality.
Dream Worlds and Fantasy Worlds: Tolkien’s On Fairy-Storiesand Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
The potentially problematic relationship between sensory experience and knowledge or interpretation of the world is a favourite subject not only in
hard science and epistemology, but also in fantastical texts. Cervantes Don Quixote or Carroll’s Alice-novels are classical examples that deal with epistemological uncertainty. In these texts, as in many others, delusion or dreams are used as framework for the fantastical content. Defining approaches to the fantastical, Tolkien in On Fairy-Storiesdistinguished “the machinery of Dream” and ‘Fantasy’, stating that the latter should be “independent of the conceiving mind” and “be presented as ‘true’”.