The Practical Idealist

Esse is Percipi

Staurn V launch

Esse is Percipi, but a Rocket is Nothing without the Stomp.

By Neil C. Olsen


“To be is to be perceived” Bishop George Berkeley, 1710

“I perceive and act, therefore I am” the American President Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1752

stomp bottle launcherThe featured image is that of a Saturn V Rocket launching into space. It does not take much pixel inspection to realize it is not “real”. It is, in fact a digitally edited image of a 12 inch long paper model of a Saturn V rocket, though the black triangular cardboard fins are not even close to the original.  It was constructed by my nephew Christopher one summer afternoon. We took its picture, located an image of a plume of a rocket on the web, and digitally edited them together.  To the right is the “stomp” launcher, consisting of an empty 2 liter plastic diet Dr. Pepper bottle, a rubber bicycle tube, a 12″ plastic tube to hold the paper rocket for launch (covered in the photo by the flame colored rocket), and plenty of duct tape. The image was created by editing the photos, using the GIMP software application.  I merged the two photos, adjusted contrast and brightness, moved, resized, cloned, smudged, and air-brushed the images, all under the close direction of my 11 year old nephew.

We then went outside and launched the more colorful sister paper rocket (the Saturn was considered too good to risk). You can see below the launch mechanism.  The lightweight paper rocket slides over the tube. You stomp on the soda bottle, and the paper rocket rises quickly and quite high into the sky.

On the second launch, the paper rocket stuck in a 70 foot pine tree. We knocked it out of the tree with a long pole. But on a later launch, when it disappeared into a large holly bush with thorny leaves in his mother’s beautiful garden, we left it to an honorable dissolution rather than risk destroying the well-tended flora.

Rocket on a stickWe also faked the original picture; the rocket was not in flight but on a stick held by my nephew. Still, at first glance at the first photo you might be fooled into thinking it is a real rocket, or perhaps a model rocket launched by solid or liquid fuel. You might think it exists, because you perceive it in the photo. Pixel is perception.

The conflict between perception and existence is a venerable one. The most famous man to consider the difference was the great philosopher George Berkeley (12 March 1685 – 14 January 1753). He is commonly reputed to have said, esse est percipi [to be is to be perceived]. What he actually wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) is a combination of Latin and English: esse is percipi. This is about the same idea, and shows the perils of teaching college courses in Latin to English speaking students even by Berkeley, a great promoter of classical languages in college education, who endowed a scholarship at Yale so that students could be taught the classics. It is the core statement of his idealist philosophy (sometimes inaccurately labeled “immaterialism”), where he maintained that we only exist because we are perceived in the mind of God.

Berkeley, while much admired, was not much followed. There was one exception. The American Samuel Johnson (October 14, 1696 – January 6, 1772) of Stratford, Connecticut, was a disciple of the philosopher George Berkeley. The great philosopher spent almost three years in America. Johnson visited him often. They took long walks along the cliffs and rural roads of Rhode Island, discussing philosophy. They exchanged letters until Berkeley’s death in 1753.

But Johnson was an American, the first one who was neither a Calvinist-Puritan nor a “Social-Anglican” imitation Englishman. Even before he met Berkeley, he had derived a philosophy based on “the pursuit of Happiness” as the core desire of humans, an preached sermons on it as early as age 19. He extended both Berkeley’s “esse is percipip” and Descartes’ even more famous “cognito ergo sum”. He fused the English idealist (perceive) notions of Berkeley and American practical (action) part of his experience into his own novel action-oriented definition of knowledge and human self-consciousness. He combined  the static and the dynamic into a perfect slogan for a “pursuit of Happiness” philosophy. It embodies in one phrase both a means and end. It encapsulates not only the speculative, but the practical application of knowledge. He wrote “I perceive and act, therefore I am.”

Samuel Johnson went on to further craft his philosophy in a series of seven published and one unpublished (until 1929) works. Naturally enough, the published works were not just speculative works of philosophy but practical textbooks intended to lead young students to wisdom and graduation. They themselves were works of speculation and practice. For this reason, his repetitive teaching prose lacks the elegance of his contemporaries.

His work on moral philosophy was introduced at Yale in 1740, when his eldest son, not yet 13, entered the college. Johnson revised it in the 1740s, when his second son entered Yale, and expanded it and revised it again at the behest of his friend Dr. Benjamin Franklin in 1752 who wanted to teach it at his proposed College of Philadelphia.  Johnson’s protégée Provost William Smith revised it in London in 1754, the year Johnson founded his own school, King’s College in New York City. Taught now at Yale, King’s College, and the College of Philadelphia (founded by Franklin and Smith), and at other colleges, about one-half of Colonial American college graduates between 1743 and 1776 were taught Johnson’s moral philosophy.  It became known in the words of its most famous formulation, when it was encapsulated in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It may be said America was created out of this addition of one word to the great philosophical construct of western philosophy: “I perceive and act therefor I am.”

I perceive and act, therefor I am. Pursuing model-rocketing happiness, first construct, then stomp, and you are a rocketeer – even if you fake it. First take pictures, then edit, and you are an artist. First think, then blog, and you, well, are an internet-philosopher.

In  some cultures, creating a rocket is enough. Contemplation of its form is sufficient. For an American, action is also required. For an American, a rocket is nothing without the stomp.

For more on how the American Dr. Samuel Johnson’s philosophy created the American Mind and how it entered the Declaration of Independence, see Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress, by Neil C. Olsen.

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