Thursday, September 6, 2012

Getting Real

One of my etymological reflexes—and it arises particularly when a term is philosophical—is to ask myself: “What is the German word for it?” That’s usually enlightening because in German the commonly used word is usually still rooted in Old Germanic; the Latin word we use is present too, but is not the dominant word. Sometimes the roots of the two are different. Take the word real. I’m on this subject because a sentence in the paper once more repeated that tired old “in the real world…” An interesting phrase. The intention is to point to conflict. In the dream world or in the imagination, anything is possible, not so in the real world. In the real world you will be up against it—people, matter, etc. Now that word, used in so many different ways, derives ultimately from the Latin res for thing or matter. The real world is the world of things. So what is the German word for it?

The German for reality is Wirklichkeit. It is rooted in the verb wirken, derived from the same roots as our “work,” but wirken has a slightly more expansive meaning, including to invent and to discover. Wirklichkeit has a more dynamic flavor because the verb is to the fore: That-which-has-been-wrought. It corresponds much better to our actuality, although at least my sense is that we don’t think of acts when we speak of actuality. The reason for that, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, is because we took it from the French actualité, which the French use to indicate the “now existing, up to date.” The older root is the Latin actualis, viewed as a Latin loan-translation of the Greek energeia. The Romans meant by it “active, pertaining to action.” That’s dynamic, but that meaning in the word has faded. It is still present in German.

Things and action. Matter and energy. Our “reality” is a little hollow. What lies behind Reality is something alive and energetic. And the “real world,” therefore, is a great deal more than the endless battle for survival and success in the realm of matter.

1 comment:

  1. I like the conclusion! And in this parenthetical period it is especially important to remember.


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