The Existential Question, What Is Real?


Richard Quinney
Northern Illinois University

Originally published in The Critical Criminologist, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer-Fall 1994

What is the ground upon which we stand, the ground upon which we act? The question, as with all related questions, is of far more interest to us as criminologists than any question about crime. What is importance in the study of crime is everything that happens before crime occurs. Thus, the elementary ontological question of the nature of reality remains a pressing one for us. Everything else follows from our understanding–our stance–toward the question of reality.

What then is real? Really real, actually existing. Simply to ask is to realize that reality is existential. All human perception is subject to the lived experience of everyday life.

Some years ago, during that ontological shift of the 1960s, I sat in the cafes of Greenwich Village, walked the streets of the New York, and participated in the political events of the time. Daily, without ceasing. The song was playing then, Les McCann’s “Compared to What.” (After thirty years, this song still speaks to me.) Singing of the events of the time, hoping to understand, McCann sang, “Everybody now, try to make it real compared to what.” He sang mournfully the lines: “The goddamn nation . . .” “The president he’s got his war. Folks don’t know what its for.” “But I can’t use it.” “Where’s my God, and where’s my money?” “Goddamn it, try to make it real compared to what.”

In those days, I was trying to make my own song. One result was a book I called The Social Reality of Crime (1970). Shortly after its publication, Taylor, Walton, and Young, in their influential book The New Criminology, wrote about my efforts: “Many of Quinney’s statements about a theoretical orientation to the social reality of crime seem to be the product more of the author’s own existential Angst than they are the result of clear-headed theoretical analysis.” I remain to this day pleased with their observation. For one thing, I am happy to be counted among the existentialist. Albert Camus, I think of you daily. (“Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday.”) And secondly, “clear-headed theoretical analysis,” abstract and removed from everyday life, is not something to which I aspire.

My questioning of the conventional scientific enterprise took further attack from Robert Merton in his book Sociological Ambivalence. He wrote:

Now, it is one thing to maintain, with Weber, Thomas, and the other giants of sociology, that to understand human action requires us to attend systematically to its subjective component: what people perceive, feel, believe, and want. But it is quite another thing to exaggerate this sound idea by maintaining that action is nothing but subjective. That extravagance leads to sociological Berkeleyanism (the allusion being, of course, to the English champion of philosophical idealism, not to an American geographic or academic place). Such total subjectivism conceives of social reality as consisting only in social definitions, perceptions, labels, beliefs, assumptions, or ideas, as expressed, for example, in full generality by the criminological theorist, Richard Quinney, when he writes that “We have no reason to believe in the objective existence of anything.” A basic idea is distorted into error and a great injustice is visited upon W.I. Thomas whenever his theorem is thus exaggerated.

I still do not know if I am a total subjectivist, or even what that might be. But it does seem to me that the subjective/objective debate is as much ideological as it is a statement about what is real and how we can know reality. The problem goes beyond a debate over the subjective and the objective. The matter has something to do with the human mind’s ability to think and to see beyond its own innate construction.

How can we know for certain of the existence of anything, including existence itself? The mind is the grand piano which provides the space for the mice–our thoughts–to play. We humans cannot step outside of our existence. And we cannot know, in the larger scheme of things, or non-things, if the grand piano is other than a dream. The dream of a cosmic dreamer. Why not?

It is not for us to know that which cannot be known. To seek such knowledge is not to be human. The simple teaching of Buddhism: “Only don’t know.” We have the mind to ask questions of the reality of our existence, universal and otherwise, but we do not have the capacity to answer with objectivity and certainty. (Camus, again: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.”) Entirely reasonable, then, our perpetual ambivalence, our uncertainty, and our fear of life and death. Humility, mixed with wonder, makes more sense than the continuous pursual of scientific knowledge.

We stand before the mystery of existence. Our understanding is in the recognition of our common inability to know for certain. Our fate, and our saving grace, is to be compassionate beings, in all humility. Whatever may be known is known in love. Not in manipulation and control, not in the advancement of a separate self and a career, but in the care for one another. That is reality enough.