Can one embrace ‘new realism’ without being a realist?

Can one embrace ‘new realism’ without being a realist?

10 May 2018

In two of his recent books, Fields of Sense: A New Realist Ontology (2015) and Why the World Does Not Exist (2017), contemporary German philosopher Markus Gabriel embraces a form of transcendental ontology, which some label meta-metaphysical nihilism – namely, the view that the world (as a single unitary whole) does not exist; rather, objects and entities exist in different ‘lists’ (i.e. worlds) and only those belonging to the same world interact with each other. For instance, angels (or unicorns) belong to a different ‘list’ than chairs and oranges, so they simply exist in a different kind of context. “We only ever know sections of the infinite”, he says in Why the World Does Not Exist, and they don’t have to be ontologically continuous (or consistent); just as they are not epistemologically consistent. Hence – the various labels that have been attached to Gabriel’s species of realism – “neutral”, “liberal” etc.

Incidentally, this isn’t such a radically new view, after all; it is simply a more elaborate kind of pluralism. Cohorts of philosophers, from both analytical and Continental traditions, have argued similar positions – William James to Rorty, and Quine to Badiou. The question I’d like to ask is, does this amount to a metaphysical worldview, and if so – does it entail a realist ontology? If my understanding of Gabriel’s line of arguments is correct, then the answers are yes and no, respectively. He does embrace a metaphysical (indeed, almost classical) view of the world, when he attempts an overall philosophical vision of reality – “the theory of absolutely everything that exists” as he says in a Philosophy Now interview (113, April/May 2016, p. 8). But this does not seem to entail an ontology in its traditional sense, as Gabriel does not believe in a single, unified reality. Instead, he advocates a pluralistic view of existence, as spread over “indefinitely many domains”, over which we don’t have an outside perspective. New realism is still realism, as it entails a belief in our ability to “grasp things in themselves”; and new, because of the sheer pluralism at its core.

Does the latter still entail an ontology? Not, if we take ontology to mean an investigation into the reality (or the world) as we know it – as one. And if we associate it with the classical epistemological belief in objective, consistent reality. But yes, if we expand the scope of ontology to cover any kind of systematic investigation into existence, including a multitude of domains, similar to Wittgenstein’s ‘forms of life’ and Rorty’s language games.

This is not unlike the situation that neo-pragmatists find themselves in, vis-à-vis traditional metaphysics and epistemology. I discuss this in my PhD thesis, where I argue that Rorty’s ‘post-metaphysical’ view is but another kind of metaphysics, a pluralist worldview devoid of any belief in a single, unified reality, or in epistemological ‘essences’. He also shares Rorty’s view of the self – as a non-unified entity, one without a single essence.

I wonder what Gabriel might think of this possibility of a (transcendental?) metaphysics, without a realistic (i.e. objectivist) ontology, but with a pluralistic view of ontological realities. Shame; I missed the opportunity to meet and ask him about it twice – once, when I attended Gadamer’s graduate workshop in Heidelberg in December 2000, a couple of years before Gabriel started his PhD there. And again, at the New School for Social Research in New York, in 2003/2004, where I was finishing my thesis; five years later, he would become Assistant Professor there, before joining the University of Bonn, where he still is to date.

Things v. facts and… events

Things v. facts and… events

3 May 2018

Is there any difference between states of things and states of affairs? Of course there is; the former are features, the latter describe something, as being the case that… Things are always particular, facts not necessarily so. For Wittgenstein (at least the earlier one, from the Tractatus), the world is a totality of facts, rather than particular things. What he means is, over and above things and their features, the world is made of facts.

In metaphysics, the distinction goes further. As things change, whilst facts do not, but they are caused by events, it would be interesting to explore the nature of events. Jonathan Bennett does just that, in his Events and their Names, where he denounces a large part of metaphysics as mere semantics. Events are to be understood as changes in objects and their properties; events cause certain facts to be true, rather than others. (The fact that the candle is lit is true because of the event of my striking a match in order to light it).

Facts and events have different identity conditions. Their ontology is completely different. Their relationship with time is different – facts are timeless, whereas events occur in time and at particular times. Facts are what happens in the absence of changes. States of affairs.

The gift of time

The gift of time

23 April 2018

This Easter, I’ve received an unexpected gift: the gift of time. Being tired of holidays into the future, I decided to revisit my past. So I spent a day wandering through the halls and amphitheatres of my old university. A lot of it has changed, perhaps for the better — there are vending machines in the corridors now, and pretty paintings on the walls. A lot of posters in foreign languages. And a new bookshop. But to me, what hasn’t changed is even more special. The air in some big amphitheatres. The smell of wood. The silence. The sense of something hanging in the air — it could be unspoken words, or a shared understanding, or unfinished sentences at the end of lectures. Whatever it is, it lingers behind in classrooms after everyone has rushed out, and it reverberates into a memory theatre, when you return, retracing your steps from many years back. It’s like time has stood still, in these amphitheatres. The gift of time.

So now when I am back from holiday and we resume our philosophy sessions, I mention Carlo Rovelli’s recent book, The Order of Time, to my students. And we debate the impact that space has on it, and whether either has any kind of reality to it. We do this using reasoning and argumentation, precise articulations. Next time, we should include examples of situations where space and time have become relative (or outright absent), in our own life experience. Not all philosophy happens in texts, words, and lines of arguments.

From morality to ethics and beyond

From morality to ethics and beyond

17 April 2018

What justifies morality – is it reason, or something else, some kind of higher authority? The word comes from Latin, where moralis denotes ‘character’, and it can be seen to be related to vertu, or merit, and virtutem or moral strength, high character. Both terms, ‘virtue’ and ‘morality’, are used less and less nowadays, where they are increasingly replaced with ‘ethics’, which comes from the Greek ethike philosophia, moral philosophy and has a more normative nature. Are we, nowadays, more interested in principles of action, than personal development? Norms, over character? Regardless, the question remains, what justifies our morality – or our public ethics? What are the grounds for either, or both?

In a section from After Virtue, dedicated to the Enlightenment project, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that it was not until late 17th century that morality became the name for a set of rules of conduct distinct from the theological, the legal and the aesthetic; one that would become central to the European project. But it did not take long to discover that no rational justification could be provided for morality. This, MacIntyre describes as the ‘arbitrariness in our moral culture’, which Kierkegaard saw as the failure of the Enlightenment project. For him, the ethical is “that realm in which principles have authority over us independently of our attitudes, preferences and feelings” (MacIntyre, 2007, 41). And they have such authority not because of some universal reason, but due to the choices we make (insofar as these are based on some good personal reasons). For instance, we can decide to become vegetarians for reasons of health or religion; none of these is universal, but they are both good reasons nonetheless.

MacIntyre believes that the Enlightenment had to fail in its attempts to justify morality not because there were any faults in their arguments, but because of the shared worldview at the time – namely, a rejection of traditional values (mainly, Aristotelian teleology). If we no longer see the good as related to a telos, as Aristotle did, then our moral statements lose any factual value. Likewise, once we accept the secularization of morality by the Enlightenment, we cannot justify moral statements as divine imperatives either. So, in the absence of both a scientific and a religious justification, what are we left with? If something is good neither because it fulfils its purpose, nor a divine reason, how else can we justify it? Pure relativism, one could easily argue. But there is an alternative to it, which MacIntyre seems to suggest when he talks about practical rationality as a third way between moral universality and pluralism. To justify a moral choice this way would amount to verifying that it expresses the norm, which best defines the good in a certain situation, and helps us act according to it. It is a “kind of capacity for judgment which the agent possesses in knowing how to select among the relevant stack of maxims and how to apply them in particular situations” (MacIntyre, 2007, 223). Neo-pragmatism, in other words.

Read more…

What is private about our identity: against a substantialist approach

What is private about our identity: against a substantialist approach

15 March 2018

The private v. public dichotomy is taken for granted in much of contemporary philosophical inquiry in ethics, as well as in the philosophy of mind and language. Interestingly enough, however, a lot of debates end up challenging the distinction. Take, for instance, the notion of private sphere, in Wittgenstein and Rorty.

Despite their different perspectives (one epistemological, the other ethical), they raise the same issues, e.g. the role of language and that of community in building our sense of identity; they even use similar metaphors, e.g. the “ornamental knob” in Wittgenstein and Rorty’s “orchids”; and they arrive at the same conclusion, with regard to the private: namely, that it is conditioned and shaped by the public. Does this lead to a somewhat diminished private sphere? Or on the contrary, is our self-identity enriched by its social roots and purpose?