Gregory M. Reihman

Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities

20042005 Forum on Sleep and Dreams

Gregory M. Reihman

Adjunct Professor and Faculty Development Director, Lehigh University

Dream Arguments in Eastern and Western Philosophy

Dr. Reihman considers how Western and Chinese philosophers have used dreams in arguments about reality. In particular, he analyzes and compares Descartes’ and Zhuangzi’s dream arguments to see how these arguments ground views of reality, identity, and ethics. 

Philosophers who raise metaphysical questions about the nature of reality often do so by first appealing to illusions, dreams, or some other category of appearances. They establish criteria that demarcate the real in terms of what is taken as the unreal. The most prominent example from the Western tradition is Descartes’ dream argument the Mediations on First Philosophy, in which he strives for evidence that could convince a skeptic that certain perceptions are real and not mere dreams. A similar move occurs in Zhuangzi’s ‘Butterfly Dream’ argument in which, after awakening from a dream in which he was a butterfly, Zhuangzi wonders whether he was Zhuangzi dreaming that he was a butterfly, or if he is now a butterfly dreaming he is Zhuangzi. He writes, “Between Zhuangzi and the butterfly, we ought to be able to find some sort of distinction. This is what is known as Thing Changing.” 

Dr. Reihman explores the similarities and differences between these two dream arguments. How do they work? Are they convincing? What presuppositions do they rely on? What challenges might be raised against them? He then connects the arguments to the larger worldviews of the authors, showing how the ontological commitments made during the dream arguments shape decisions made elsewhere in their philosophies.