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.

Royal meditation

Royal meditation

12 March 2016

It’s been years now since I gave in to my passion for old books, which almost feels like a vice, if you consider the opportunity costs involved. In one of my regular, guilty trips to Cecil Court, I discover a copy of Heinrich Zschokke’s Meditations on Death and Eternity, from a limited royal edition – “for private circulation only”. It is a translation of sections from the original work Stunden der Andacht (Hours of Devotion) and it was published at Victoria Press (London) in 1862, at the request of Queen Victoria, in memory of her husband, who used to read it frequently. His Royal Highness the Prince Consort had died prematurely, of typhoid fever, in December 1861. The dedication says that these sections “have been selected for translation by one to whom, in deep and overwhelming sorrow, they have proved a source of comfort and edification”.

The book was translated by Frederica Rowan, who also translated, incidentally, The Life of Schleiermacher (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1860), the 18th century hermeneutic theologian who explored the common grounds between Christianity and modern metaphysics (Kant, in particular). Just like Schleiermacher, Zschokke was born in Prussia – but he spent most of his life in Switzerland. And again, just like the hermeneutic scholar, he was also concerned about society, to the extent that he made a career in the civil service – as a representative of the Prussian government in Switzerland. Once he retired from public life, he spent seven years writing his devotional meditations, which were published in over 20 editions and widely read.

The most striking feature of this work is its simplicity – which could also be seen as the reason why it became so popular. To quote just a few chapter titles: “Is slow decline or sudden death most desirable?”, “Fear of death”, “God is love”, “Why must the future life be hidden from us”, “A joy in the hour of death”, and “Thoughts at the graves of those we love”.

That a royal family would dwell on such meditations and find consolation in them cannot but fill one with awe. That a queen or a king would frequently wonder, with Zschokke, “what is the destination of man?” and “what is the purpose for which God called me into being?” (pp. 166-7) could inspire our own spiritual development. Just as the very fact that royals would spend so much time reflecting on death and eternity might.

The PLATO quiz

The PLATO quiz

23 September 2015

1 – Does the “dividing line” divide, or unite things – and how?

2 – How can we learn to see the Ideas (or Forms), both from within ourselves and from the world around us? Do we ‘see’ the Forms of abstract things (e.g. beauty or love) differently compared to the way we see the Forms of visible things like pens or apples?

3 – Why is Good the supreme Form, and why does Plato choose the sun to be its representation?

4 – Do we become better people, when we “see” things more clearly? Can you give an example of a situation when this happened to you?

Descartes letter

Descartes letter

15 February 1650


Your Highness,

There are still god in heavens and holy messengers on earth, since I could find a way to have this letter sent to you, together with the accompanying package. My name is Jules Ferry and I am nothing but a servant. Were it not for the unmeasurable importance of this message, and for the fact that I was conjured to deliver it with utmost discretion, I would have never taken the liberty of addressing a letter to Your Highness – nor a single word, for that matter. But, for reasons which I do not even begin to understand, God gave me access not only to secrets of the state, but of the soul, too. As servant of Your uncle – Charles the 1st – I came to see the British political scene with more than just bodily yes. But since from surfaces to depth is just a one-way street, I could not go on living in London after Your uncle’s death, so I went to Sweden, being accepted at the Royal Court as a librarian.

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