Philosophers On Dreams


Philosophers On Dreams Essay, Research Paper

Although the idea of dreams has always been a psychological one, there is a philosophical side to them. Descartes once said, “For all I know, I might be dreaming” (Bruder/Moore, Philosophy, 81). This conjecture of Descatres was one that explained the concept of dreams. He asked the question, How do we know that we are not dreaming and our whole life is but a dream? There can never be an answer to this question but it proves that there is a philosophical view of dreams.

A dream is a form of mental activity that occurs during sleep. Dreams reveal our inner most secrets and even allow us to emerge our hidden selves. Because they unleash some of our most intimate experiences, every dream is unique. Most dreams are in the form of interrupted stories, made up partly of memories, with frequent shifts of scene. Our ancestors believed that dreams were messages from the gods.

Descartes idea that we are not aware that we could be dreaming is found in the answer of lucid dreaming. This is the idea that you know that you are dreaming. Lucid dreams usually begin in the midst of a dream when they realize that they are not experiencing a physical reality but it is a dream. Being lucid in a dream increases your deliberate influence over the course of events. Once you are dreaming, you are likely to chose some activity that is only possible in dreams. You will always have the choice of how much control you want to exert and what kind. A dreamers ability to succeed at this seems to depend a lot on the dreamers confidence.

Sigmund Freud’s dream theory “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious; it is the secret foundation of psychoanalysis” (Gardner, Skeptical, 10). But earlier efforts have been made to unravel dreams. Dreams were often interpreted as precognition’s of future events or visions of current, faraway events. Essayist, humanist, and skeptic Michel Montaigne wrote “I believe it to be true that dreams are the true interpreters of our inclinations; but there is art required to sort and understand them” (Gardner, Skeptical, 10).

One idea of what dreams are, can be found from the Indian philosophy. A realist claims that objects that experience presents as existing externally do in fact exist internally. The denial of externality appeals both to those who doubt that experience is identical with existing objects, and those who think that experience is there only if objects are not external. Dream are a great appeal to those philosophers who deny externality. Objects appear as distinct from the cognition of them. They do not appear as if they were in the subjects cognition alone, since to dream of an object is to dream of an object located in space. Both the Cartesian skeptic and the Berkeleyan idealist use dreams to challenge externality. The idealist accepts the doubt that dream cast upon externality but idea not accept the implication of the non-verdicality of cognition. The disagreement about the consequence of denying externality was recognized by Kant. He distinguished between the Cartesian problematic idealism and Berkeleyan dogmatic idealism.

But there were two famous philosophers that have differing views on the way that dreams are used. Buddhist Vasubandhu and Advaitin Sankara are the two men that wrote about the ideas of dream and externality. Vasubandhu is an idealist in a sense given by his own characterization of the position “that which is distinguished does not exist thus; all is therefore mere representation in consciousness” )Ram-Prasad, American, 225). He argues that experience presents us with a distinction between consciousness itself and the objects of which we are conscious. But such objects do no exist as thus experienced; they are mere appearances. Vasubandhu uses the idea of dreams to display the claim that an account of experience does not need this cognition-object distinction. He claims that such an account is independent of the notion of objects being external to cognition. On the other hand Sankara argues that dreams cannot be understood except on the assumption of the very notion of externality.

Vasubandhu uses dreams to argue that the version of reality that proceeds in terms of an account of external objects. This holds that experience is caused by the entities constituted by atoms. Ultimately, it causes perception of those very objects that they constitute. He disputes that atoms could explain the perceptual experience of objects and dreams. His alternative to explaining cognition’s in terms of atomistically constituted objects is that in general, cognition occurs without objects at all. Dreams are then used for the reason of accepting this claim. This is where Vasubandhu’s ideas differ from Berkeley. Vasubandhu uses dreams for the express purpose of denying externalism. On the contrary, Berkeley mentions the non-externalist consequences of dreams, he does not build an idealist argument around them. He merely takes them as a perfect metaphor for a nonexternal experience in which the ordinary perception of things is ” a kind of waking dream”. Vasubandhu points out that dreams can be internal and can thus represent objects even if the objects represented do not have an external existence. Dreams therefore demonstrate the dispensability of objects in the analysis of cognition: externality is refuted. This requires Vasubandhu to distinguish between waking and dreaming through other criteria other than externality. But he fails to do so and this brings in the ideas of Sankara.

The critique of Sankara is not that the features of experience require externality but that the problem of externality is itself a feature of experience. Sankara acknowledges that the idealist can distinguish between dreaming and waking but claims that the consequence of that distinction has problems. “It cannot be asserted by a man who comprehends the difference between the two [sorts of experiences] that the apprehension of waking experience is false [as to its externality] just because it is an apprehension resembling that in a dream” (Ram-Prasad, American, 11). Sankara argues against the point of externality. He points out that one who cannot establish the absence of objectual support of waking experiences should not try to establish such an absence of support to the same extent with dreaming experiences. Sankara’s point can be best said by a waking experiences features various qualities of objects and their appearance of externality which is an undeniable fact in the nature of experience. Dreaming experience features the same qualities and the appearance of externality but when dreaming there is no actual externality. By using Sankara’s point it shows that the idealist can no longer prove the cognition of externality in waking experiences nor in dreams.

Although dreaming and the concept of dreams have been included in the psychological teachings these points have made it to be a philosophical one too. Both Vasubandhu and Sankara have valid points. The concept of externality was used in both arguements-Sankara for the idea and Vasbandhu against it. If Vasubandhu was correct then we should be aware at all times that our experiences are an illusion. Sankara an anti-idealist states that ” they too, in the manner known to all people, become aware of the appearance of externality and only because of that are able to use the qualifier ‘as if ‘ in the term as if external; yet they deny externality” (Ram-Prasad, American, 35). This quote sums the points up the best in displaying the concepts of both philosophers and the ideas that they had. A dream is something that we will never fully understand because it is mysterious in itself. For now we will go with the basis that there is a difference between waking and dreaming and that we are fully aware of it.


Bruder/Moore. Philosophy:The Power of Ideas. London: Mayfield Publishing Company. 1990.

Gardner, Martin. Waking up from Freud’s theory of dreams. Skeptical Inquirer. v19:n6. p10. 1995 Microsoft Corporation.

Hartmann, Ernest Louis. “Dreaming”, Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. 1993-1996 Microsoft Corporation.

Ram-Prasad, C. “Dreams and the coherence of experience: an anti-idealist critique from the classical Indian philosophy”, American Philosophical Quarterly. v32:n3. 1995 Microsoft Corporation.

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