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Philosophy and Dreams


Dreams, of course, have figured more significantly in philosophy. Being a mode of consciousness – prompting Aristotle to say that “the soul makes assertions in sleep” (On Dreams 458b) – dreams seem one step up from the mere putting out of zzzs. More to the point, they place a philosophically interesting question mark against our confidence in the nature of the world we appear to share with others. Your dreams as you are dreaming them may be as compellingly real as the fact that you are reading this article (and possibly dozing off over it). “There are no certain indications” as Descartes pointed out in his Meditations, “by which I can clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep.” The glib response to this – that we should not be looking for mere ‘indications’, because we do not rely on these kinds of things to find out whether we are awake or sleep – doesn’t work; and so we are embarked on an endless, and endlessly fascinating, journey in pursuit of the kind of certainty that only our philosophical selves want, or pretend to want, or need, or seem to need.

There is a kind of pathos to our vulnerable, gullible, sleeping selves, and the dreams that something that is ourself and yet not ourself puts together in order to make narrative sense of what is going on in our brains and bodies when they are almost completely disconnected from the world. To meet our insatiable appetite for coherent meaning, we unpack a whole scene out of a sensation, say, or make sense of a sudden movement of a limb by inventing a cliff down which we are falling. The fact that we can make a sort of sense out of whatever is served up to us is an interesting sidelight on the question of the relationship between the real and the rational: whatever we can rationalise may seem real to us, and whatever seems real to us we try to rationalise – with impressive rates of success. The division within our (mind-constructed) dreams between the ‘I’ that is making sense of what is there, and the ‘there’ that is made sense of – so that we can even wait tensely for what happens next – is particularly striking.

Paul Valéry The great French poet and thinker Paul Valéry invented the character Monsieur Teste. ‘A mystic without God’, Teste was committed to uninterrupted, undistracted thought. His whole life’s work was “to kill the puppet,” the automaton, inside himself. In the famous An Evening With M. Teste (1896), Valéry leaves his hero drifting off to sleep, observing the stages of his own gradual extinction, and murmuring “Let’s think very closely… You can fall asleep on any subject… Sleep can continue any idea…” as his self-awareness fades into suspension points. Valéry himself kept a diary for over fifty years (collected as the Cahiers [Notebooks]). One of his central concerns was to observe the successive phases of his awakening, as in the early hours of the morning he annotated his mind-rise. Naturally, dreams preoccupied him as much as the daily resurrection of the self. He suggested that dreams might be an attempt to make sense of the body’s passage from sleep to wakefulness. Like me, he was unimpressed by Freud’s evidence-impoverished claims about dreams being the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ – that multi-storied jerry-built word-castle which so many otherwise intelligent people have taken for a scientific idea. Nor did Valéry buy the notion that dreams could be prophetic, the mind slipping along loops in time to enable us to see the future of the world or the will of God.

These nightly adventures, spun out of a consciousness permitted to free-wheel by disconnexion from a perceived world, are of compelling interest when we are in the grip of them as lead actor or as the helpless centre of events. Yet by an irony, nothing is more sleep-inducing than the egocentric tales of someone else’s solipsistic dreams. We long to hear that magic phrase “And then I woke up.”

I could go on, but I won’t, lest I cause your copy of Philosophy Now to fall from your lifeless hands as you slip from the philosophy of sleep to the thing itself…

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet, broadcaster and novelist. His latest book In Defence of Wonder is just out from Acumen.
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