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Commentary

What’s New About ‘New Realism’?

by Gloria Origgi

Postmodern philosophers have awoken from their long semiotic slumber when it seemed no longer appropriate to make any distinction between facts, words, interpretations, or misinterpretations. Now these philosophers have rediscovered reality, no less. This mass conversion is, to be sure, a good thing. In Italy it was effected thanks to the Manifesto of New Realism by Maurizio Ferraris; in France, thanks to the new Elements de philosophie realiste by Jocelyn Benoist, and last but not least, in Germany by 36-year old philosophy professor Markus Gabriel, the brilliant Wunderkind who teaches us the meaning of existence in his fundamental, brief volume, Fields of Sense: A New Realist Ontology.

The new realists are advocating an end to the postmodernist nihilism according to which there are no facts, only interpretations. Postmodernism did have the virtue of doing away with the “grand narratives” of science and politics, and to reveal the dark side of concepts and facts, revealing the underbelly of desire and power present within them. But, at the same time, it threw out the baby with the bathwater and landed us in a morass of illusions, picturing us as residing within a gigantic, collective hallucination of which we are the hapless victims.

As it happens, this was too much even for postmodernists themselves, who, once they saw how everything was dissolving before them, suddenly felt an acute need for reality and for a metaphysics of a realist persuasion. On the road to post-nothingness they were overtaken with a treacherous nostalgia; they realized how much they missed the ground beneath their feet, and longed to return to an old-style, pre-Kantian ontology. Forget the frameworks for interpreting reality, they now cried: the world is out there, before our very eyes, it exists and it resists us – tables, chairs, storms, lightning, ecological catrastrophes are there for all of us to see, and they do not depend on us for their existence!

Maurizio Ferraris (c. 2007); photo: Wikimedia, used under CC BY SA 2.5 license.

Maurizio Ferraris (c. 2007); photo: Wikimedia, used under CC BY SA 2.5 license.

So where does this leave us – the philosophy nerds, the so-called analytic philosophers – who, according to Ferraris, are “at the service of Her Majesty the Queen of England”? We have been taking reality seriously all along. But through modesty – not pride, as is often insinuated – we always insisted that debates on what exactly constitutes reality (tables, universal concepts like whiteness, numbers, fictional characters, holes, borders, boundaries) should be kept within the confines of academic auditoriums and specialized journals. We did not let them out into the public realm. They needed to be dealt with within a restricted setting, because most people have other things to think about than philosophical quibbles, however necessary these are to develop a coherent view of the world, and however rich they are with metaphysical and epistemological, moral and even political implications.

But now we feel a sense of bemusement and are wondering: what is so new about “New Realism”? Hasn’t realism always been around as a philosophical option in the sphere of philosophy? And why should it be relaunched now, of all times, when reality is clearly – and increasingly so – a matter of social construction, when it has become disingenuous if not outright ridiculous to claim that this or that is true, that things are as they appear, and that the way in which we humans, scientists, politicians construct the world counts for nothing?

I would like to review here some of the naïve conceits of New Realism which, from a philosophical point of view at least, seem most alarming to me. It is, of course, possible that New Realism may be of use to other professions: to architects, who applied post-modernism to buildings and, proclaiming that “space is a social construction”, designed crooked ceilings; to sociologists, who, convinced as they were that social categories were conspiracies engineered by the ruling class, refused to accept that there was any difference between fat and thin. But it is unclear how New Realism can be of any use to philosophy, other than helping it save itself from post-modern excess, and reforming those who fell for it.

The first conceit consists in thinking of Kant as the father of constructivism and hence of post-modernism (see Gabriel, Fields of Sense). Kant opened the way for the liberation of metaphysics and its integration with epistemology: reality only exists through the transcendental unity of apperception, and through the schemata thanks to which we can know about the empirical world. Kant replaced the notion of reality with that of objectivity, which, arguably, is much more useful to the project of understanding how the world works. The Kantian world is, indeed, objective. It is not a matter of desires, tantrums, or personal impulses. His transcendental categories are modelled after mathematics and geometry, that is, formal theories whose virtue is to “get it right”, that is, to describe objectively the structure of the world. To give up on Kant seems senseless to me: it is to give up on the most important turn in modern philosophy, one for which the subject is not a mad sleepwalker but a responsible agent whose capacity for judgement is what holds reality together.

Second conceit: After having intoxicated departments of cultural studies around the world, discrediting – in the eyes of many – the study of the humanities (whose survival within academic institutions is now jeopardized because it is considered “irresponsible, anti-scientific and fundamentally useless”), postmodernists themselves are now turning their noses at modernity. What is modernity? Simply put, one may characterize it as the progressive transformation of “natural facts” into “social facts”: where one lives, what one eats, one’s gender, membership of an ethnic group – all those things that our ancestors thought of as natural are now culturalized, they have become social facts. This seems undeniable to me. One need not be an anti-realist for thinking that some aspects of our sexual identity are socially constructed. I am not an anti-realist for thinking that my “Italianicity” is not a matter of genes, but is the product of a way of representing myself, which itself is a reflection of culturally determined stereotypes. It is not an anti-realist stance to say that objects of scientific study like climate change aren’t material things one stumbles upon, but complex socio-cultural constructs built out of political and emotional motivations, normative pressures, and so on. The elimination of Pluto from the list of planets, needless to say, did not happen by stipulation of an individual astronomer first observing it before suddenly exclaiming, “Hey, it’s not there anymore!” It is the fruit of deliberations by the International Astronomical Union, of many votes and complex decision-making procedures. So, yes, facts are complex and varied, and it is increasingly difficult to distinguish them from our decisions and actions. To be modern means to dirty one’s hands and dig into reality with a variety of tools. But, like all new converts, the ex-postmodernist is pure: no more dirty hands for him; he much prefers sidestepping modernity and its inconvenient complexities.

Third conceit: To make a clear distinction between ontology and epistemology and leave the debate about realism to ontology. First, this is a historical conceit, which could well lead our reborn Realists to retrace roads already taken by philosophy over the past sixty years; this was the debate at the centre of its preoccupations, albeit in an epistemological key. Second, since at least the ontological relativism of the late Willard van Orman Quine, it seems to me quite simply obsolete to distinguish epistemology from ontology within the context of this debate. For Quine – a reminder to those who have forgotten or have never read this – “To be is to be the value of a bound variable”. The phrase may sound mysterious, but in fact is is very simple. When I describe the world, I describe it via scientific theories, not by simply looking out of the window; and scientific theories take a particular form: they contain axioms, inferential rules, constants and variables. Variables are those x’s and y’s that vary according to given rules and axioms, and they can take on the value of whatever category of object is “expressible” within that theory: numbers, protons, human beings, cells, and so on. A bound variable is one that is set before a quantifier, that is, a symbolic device that allows one to say “x exists”. This, pace Markus Gabriel, is the meaning of existence. To exist does not mean anything other than being describable as an object in a formal theory of an assertion of the type “x exists”. Does that not suffice? Why add anything else? Why probe the ontological depths and hunt around for other ways of complicating existence?

neuer-realismus-suhrkamp-cover

Cover of edited volume, Suhrkamp 2014 (image: fair use)

At the same time, it seems obvious to me that Quine’s assertion is not just ontological, but also epistemological, since the fact that x can be expressed depends on our epistemology, not on our ontology. Besides, there is no point in relaunching within ontology a debate that has simultanenously raged within epistemology since at least the 1990s, without trying to build some sort of bridge between the two. The infamous Science Wars that were waged twenty years ago set up the post-moderns and the realists on either side of a barricade, firing at each other with heavy weaponry, including the notorious prank by Alan Sokal, who in 1996 submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, replete with abstruse post-modernist nonsense. The day the article was published in the journal Social Text, Sokal announced in another journal that his submission was a prank, his text being just a jumble of post-modernist jargon without any clear thesis whatsoever. Those were the years when battles raged over the objectivity of science. There was the book by Paul Gross and Normal Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel with Science. There were political accusations of irresponsibility against the American left which, according to realists, had been seduced by social constructivism and had adopted an anti-scientific stance. And so, as a responsible epistemologist, I believe that the debate over the reality of science should be taken into account in any debate over the reality of reality – but maybe I am displaying a rigidity typical of us moderns, who believe, rightly or wrongly, that science is the best language we have to talk about empirical reality.

Fourth conceit: To believe that the question philosophy is supposed to answer is the following: “Do objects and facts really exist or are they merely the product of our social constructions?” This, I wish to submit, is just a badly formulated question and is not the central problem of any responsible philosophy. Even if the world were entirely constructed, even we were like the protagonists of the movie The Matrix, trapped in a matrix of representations, there would still be a need to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate modes of constructing it. All the objectivity we need is that which enables us to go on living, to walk without bridges collapsing under our feet, to predict the behaviour of others and also, where possible, that of nature. What needs to be recognised is that some modes of constructing objectivity allow us to get on with life better than others, epistemically and morally.

Fifth conceit: To turn ontology into a sort of new phenomenology that appeals nostalgically to common sense. The minimalist realism of Ferraris relies on the idea of friction of reality (see Manifesto, p. 69). We “rub against” reality because objects resist us, because nature exists and its existence imposes constraints that are independent of us. This return to naïve realism, according to which reality is “out there” –- beautiful, undeniable, eternal –- to my mind smacks of phenomenological nostalgia, of the sort where one looks at the world without scientific or political filters and says, “What a beautiful sunny day today!” It is a return to old-fashioned common sense. But, in fact, common sense isn’t a sixth sense. It is one of our most culturally constructed senses. I firmly believe I was born in Milan at a certain time of a certain day – not because I was there at that time and on that day (even though I undeniably was), but because I believe in a series of procedures thanks to which facts are legitimised and knowledge is transmitted, and thanks to which I can trust in the veracity of the birth certificate registered by my father or mother in Milan city hall on that particular morning. In other words, common sense is not a “sense” that puts us directly in touch with reality: it is a feeling of legitimacy, one that allows us to trust in a series of linguistic acts whose authority we recognise. Not to admit this is to fall back into the most naïve state of philosophical contemplation.

Philosophy faces many serious problems. Most crucial is the question of how it can continue to be taken seriously in the 21st century, how it can avoid degenerating into an abstruse discipline and thereby falling into cultural oblivion, as once did the sciences of the medieval trivium and quadrivium. In order to rescue it from such a fate, one cannot simply resolve to return to a practice uncorrupted by science, politics and reason. Instead, one must live up to the epistemological responsibility of being modern subjects who observe reality through complex filters, endless negotiations and a variety of perspectives, influenced by power and authority. It can be done, if one is responsible. By putting in the effort, and moving forward – not backward – one can give philosophy the role it deserves in helping us make sense of modernity’s challenges. But it is pointless to complain that the world is not a simpler place. As Einstein once put it, “Things should be made as simple as possible… But not simpler”.

 

Maurizio Ferraris: Manifesto Del Nuovo Realismo
Rome: Editori Laterza, 2013
ISBN: 9788842098928
126 pages, Paperback, EUR15.00

Jocelyn Benoist: Elements de Philosophie Realiste
Paris: Moments Philosophiques, 2011.
ISBN: 9782711623501
180 pages, Paperback, EUR 13.99

Markus Gabriel (ed.): Der Neue Realismus
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014
ISBN: 9783518296998
422 pages, Paperback, EUR 18.00

Gloria Origgi is a philosopher and researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris (Institut Nicod). She is the author of numerous articles on the theory of mind, epistemology and cognitive sciences, including its applications to new technology; much of her recent work revolves around issues of trust and reputation.

Translated from the original Italian with the help of Noga Arikha.

(c) 2016  The Berlin Review of Books.

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