Like fish in the water: the strength of habit

“Fish are the last to recognize water” – fish are the last to recognize water. With this sentence, Alan Fletcher (2001, p. 104) sums up an ancient reflection, which brings together habit and wonder, and that goes from the myth of Plato’s cave to the film The Truman Show: we believe in the world in which we are immersed, we take it for granted. In other words, the question recovers a famous assumption of Wittgenstein: “The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (2009, th 129).

This preamble has a reason: the attempt to confirm that reality does not exist or, better, that there is no reality that exists for everyone. It is not about the reductionist empiricism at Berkeley, but about the affirmation of an inescapable assumption when we start talking about reality: that is, that when we talk about reality, we are already immersed in it and many sections of it do not appear to us, like water for fish

. Why is it so difficult – as if we were fish – to notice “water”? Because it’s familiar to us and we’ve lost all sensory stimulus. Using another concept dear to philosophy, a habit has been created, against which wonder stands out, as if it were an antidote. As McLuhan (1970) recalled – almost as a phenomenological eidetic reduction – in distinguishing between clichés and archetypes, we should have the ability to question everything, not to take anything for granted, to always be intrigued. “Surprising, wondering is the beginning of all understanding,” said Ortega y Gasset (1937, I

). But habit is the real deadly disease. The traditions in which the emotions and imagination of many human beings, sometimes even ratified in institutions, are mountains hard to climb: “The vis inertiae of habit is tremendous”, recalled Dewey (1929, p. 246). And it even leads us to forget, to no longer know how to remember (see for example You Must Please Remember).

In other words, reality is a progressive articulation of noumens that phenomenal and acquire a sense as semblances for the individual subject. If reality is the construction of the individual, who orders and rearranges the material that surrounds him in experiences endowed with an all-personal sense, what is the criterion of truth then? The criterion of truth is not given by a noun principle, that is, by content, but by social acceptance: what is real is what is socially plausible, acceptable, shareable, not what is true – which concept of true empties, moreover, of mea

ning. Reality is a social construction, as Searle pointed out. If we decided to educate our children by having alternative sacred places in them, and if we enrolled them in cathesistic schools that profess Santa teaching, it is likely that we would have adults who would one day a week go to the nearest Santa Temple and who, by taste a piece of sugary stick, would believe that they would be reunited with him. Because what gives reality to what we believe depends not on its veracity – on its content of truth or falsehood – but on its social structuring.

Yet reality is built from sensitive material, from what we can come into sensitive contact with, Kant explained. In fact, Kant focuses only on one aspect of the story: the reality that does not appear, not the reality that stops appearing. The great Kantian intuition lies all in the 3rd and 4th of the Transcendental Doctrine of the elements, as well as in the General Observations on Transcendental Aesthetics:

“The predicates of the phenomenon can be attributed to the object itself, in relation to our meaning; for example, pink can be attributed to red or perfume. But semblance can never be attributed to the object as its predicate, precisely because it would be attributed to the object for itself what it deserves only in relation to the senses or in general to the subject” (1868, th 8).

That’s what Locke and Hume were explaining when they talked about primary and secondary qualities. Prior to the note 1 of the 8th, the red rose is used by Kant in the 3rd:

“What is originally only a phenomenon is understood in an empirical sense as a thing in itself, which, however, as regards color, may appear differently to different eyes” (1868).

After all, as Rica pointed out to his friend Usbek,

“It seems to me, Usbek, that we always judge things on the basis of a secret reference to ourselves. I am not surprised that blacks paint the devil of a dazzling white man and their black gods as coal; that the Venus of certain peoples has breasts that reach her thighs; finally, all idolaters have represented their gods in a human figure and attributed all their inclinations to them. It has been said very well that, if the triangles made themselves a god, they would give them three sides” (Montesquieu, 1873 LIX).

This is because, if the triangles were really to do that god, they could only use the material at their disposal: angles and sides in number of three. Perhaps they would create a scale and merciful god, or isoscele and vindictive; or, again, equilateral, if their theology thought it perfect. After all, it is a little inconsistent and bizarre to believe that triangles would make a bearded god: not so much because the triangles are unimaginative or un creative, but rather because the triangles would use the material present in their reality and I have never seen triangles with beards. Nor live fish out of the water. At least, not out of their habit.


  • Dewey, J., 1929. The Quest for Certainty. Carbondale, IL: SIUP.
  • Fletcher, A., 2001. The Art of Looking Sideways. London: Phaidon Press.
  • Kant, I., 1868. Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (1781). Leipzig: Voss.
  • McLuhan, M., 1970. From Cliché to Archetype. New York: Viking.
  • Montesquieu, 1873. Lettres persanes (1721). Paris: Lemerre.
  • Ortega y Gasset, J., 1937. La rebeli’n de las masas. Madrid: Espasa Calpe.
  • Wittgenstein, L., 2009. Philosophical Investigations (1953). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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