Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Thematic: Reality and Its Alternatives

Reality: A Shopper’s Guide

Realism, an idea whose time has come…again.

Paul Nedelisky

Page from Principles of Philosophy, 1699, by René Descartes (1596–1650); Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

Realism is back. After several decades of denying there was anything beyond interpretation, thinkers in the postmodern tradition are returning to reality. A new cluster of Continental thinkers—including Maurizio Ferraris, Graham Harman, and Markus Gabriel—argue that realism was unjustly, and unwisely, abandoned.11xSee, for instance Ferraris’s A Manifesto of New Realism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2014), Harman’s Speculative Realism: An Introduction (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2018), and Gabriel’s (surprisingly titled) Why the World Does Not Exist (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2015). While part of their motivation is purely philosophical, they also see realism as a defense against a crude, Nietzschean style of politics exemplified by a crop of world leaders who act as though the truth is whatever they say it is. Even in sociology, the thin, metaphysics-free theorizing of rational actor theory has been joined by “critical realism,” a metaphysically heavyweight view that accepts that things have objective natures that make them what they are, and powers that enable real causal interactions between things.22xAndrew Collier, Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy (New York, NY: Verso, 1994); Philip Gorski, “Beyond the Fact/Value Distinction: Ethical Naturalism and the Social Sciences,” Society 50 (October 2013): 543–53.

Analytic philosophy, meanwhile, has remained predominantly realist since its inception, but it has also struggled with whether we can really be justified in claiming knowledge of a world outside our heads, or any knowledge at all.33xFor a trenchant apology for radical skepticism, see Barry Stroud’s The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1984). Lately, however, thinkers from its fringes have challenged this recurring skepticism, pointing to allegedly flawed but deep-seated assumptions in this Cartesian legacy—e.g., that our ideas of the world are radically separate from the external world itself—and reminding analytic philosophy’s adherents that we are thinkers embodied in the real world, even prior to conscious thought.44xSee, e.g., Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor, Retrieving Realism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

No one begins life as an antirealist. Indeed, historically speaking, realism seems to be our default position. Why, then, had realism become, until recently, so implausible? One answer would be is that antirealism resulted from certain unintended consequences of the Enlightenment.55xIn what follows, I draw on Ferraris’s account in A Manifesto of New Realism.

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