Aug 252015

Markus Gabriel, Fields of Sense: A New Realist Ontology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015; 272 pages. ISBN: 9780748692897.

Reviewed by Joshua Lalonde, University of Ottawa

In Fields of Sense, Markus Gabriel expands on the “no-world” doctrine introduced in his Transcendental Ontology (Continuum, 2011) and popularized in Why the World Does Not Exist (Polity, 2015). For Gabriel, to say that the world does not exist is neither an idealist or skeptical rejection of the existence of the “external world,” nor a postmodernist claim that everything is an interpretation, there is no truth, etc., but rather the denial of the existence of one particular object, namely, “the world,” defined as “any kind of unrestricted or overall totality, be it the totality of existence, the totality of what there is, the totality of objects, the whole of beings, or the totality of facts or states of affairs.” (187) Whereas traditional ontological theories that accept the existence of the world could define existence as belonging to the world, Gabriel cannot adopt this definition and must consequently explain what existence is if there is no world. Fields of Sense is accordingly a treatise of ontology, and the no-world doctrine is ultimately only “shorthand for the ontology of fields of sense” that Gabriel develops to replace world-centric ontology. (246)

Gabriel’s helpful introduction summarizes the argument of the book and situates it in relation to contemporary philosophy, particularly analytic ontology and metaphysics. Gabriel argues for a sharp distinction between these two terms, in opposition to their prevalent use as near-synonyms. The conflation of the two domains arises from confusion between the ontological distinction existence/non-existence, on the one hand, and the metaphysical distinction reality/appearance, on the other. (167–169) The confusion between these two distinctions leads to a misunderstanding of the task of ontology as involving a reduction of appearances to the underlying reality: only what really is really is, whereas appearances must be satisfied with some form of quasi-being or illusory non-being. This “ontotheological” (22) conception of ontology/metaphysics leads to a global “dualism of reality and appearance, where the first is unified by being in itself and the second by how it appears to us” (6), and hence constitutes the basis for the doctrine of the world as totality of what (really) is. Contrarily, then, the no-world doctrine implies a “meta-metaphysical nihilism, that is, the view that metaphysics literally talks about nothing, that there is no object or domain it refers to”: if there is no world, there is no global distinction between appearance and reality and consequently no general theory of this distinction (metaphysics) (8).

Following the Introduction, the book is divided, in what is presumably a reference to Schelling’s distinction between negative and positive philosophies, into two parts: “Negative Ontology” and “Positive Ontology.” In the first part, Gabriel defends the no-world doctrine by presenting his ontology of “fields of sense” as an ontological realism, while in the second, he presents the consequences of this view for a theory of modalities and for knowledge, as an epistemological realism. This review focuses on the first part, as it is here that we find the most original contribution.

After an opening chapter on “Zoontology,” which seems to be somewhat out of place, we enter in the second chapter into the main argument for the no-world view with the claim that existence is not a proper property, that is, “a property reference to which puts one in a position to distinguish an object in a domain from another or from some other objects in the domain.” (43) Since the answer to the question “what is there?” seems to be “everything,” we cannot use the property of existence to distinguish between objects. Gabriel considers a number of possible ways of defining existence as a non-proper property, giving detailed consideration to Kant’s and Frege’s theories. In arguing against these positions, he gradually develops his own ontology of fields of sense, according to which “[to] exist is to appear in specific fields of sense where the fields of sense characterize what exactly it is for something to appear in them.” (44) For a physical object to exist is to appear in the field of physical objects (the universe), for a fictional character to exist is to appear in some work of fiction, for a Danish citizen to exist is to appear in a field of Danish citizenship law, etc.

The appearance of an object in a field does not in general depend on its appearing to someone; “appearance” is simply a technical term for an object’s meeting the conditions for belonging to that particular field, and whether or not an object in fact meets those conditions does not in general depend on whether or not any subject regards it as meeting them. Nor should the appearance of an object in a field be contrasted with its “reality” outside of it: there is no such thing as a bare existence, an object as such, which would subsequently enter into a field. (60) To exist is to exist under at least one description and so to appear in at least one field; hence what exists is indeed “everything,” but everything “does not co-exist.” (178) If there is no such thing as bare existence, neither can there be a finite set of pre-existing fields into which objects must be sorted (categories), as any such “metaphysical finitism” would presuppose an underlying monism of everything that is, which is then divided among the categories (218–219): “[existence] is radically disjunctive, without there being an overall disjunction such as for objects to exist is either X or Y or Z.” (61) It is because existence is disjunctive and necessarily qualified that there can be no world: “[the] relation between ‘bare existence’ and its manifold shapes is one where ‘bare existence’ is never instantiated, which is to say that there simply is no domain for which it is the case that everything exists in it.” (60)

If everything exists (though not together), we are faced with the problem of “Plato’s beard”: what could it mean to deny the existence of an object, if to assert anything of an object is to regard it as belonging to a field of sense, and hence as existing? Gabriel argues that denials of existence are always relative to a field rather than absolute: to say that there is no beer is not to deny the existence of beer überhaupt, but to deny its appearance in a certain field (usually fixed by context), such as the fridge or the vicinity of a party. (174ff) Always, that is, except in the case of the world, whose existence is denied absolutely. This denial does not, like other denials of existence claims, say of an object (the world), that is does not exist; instead, it is “shorthand for the ontology of fields of sense; it limits the operations that can legitimately be carried out by ruling some operations out as overgeneralized.” (246) This is presumably why the first part of the book is described as “negative ontology,” for its value lies in “being able to criticize positions in ontology that lead to metaphysical (hyper-substantial) claims in specific regions of philosophy or scientific discourse.” (192)

In the second part, Gabriel applies the no-world doctrine to modalities and to knowledge, arguing that possibility, reference, etc. can only be defined relative to particular fields of sense, and that various problems related either to modality or to knowledge, such as free will or global skepticism, disappear once we deny the existence of the world.

Overall, Fields of Sense makes a significant contribution to ontology and is deserving of close study by anyone interested in that field. Gabriel’s writing is clear at the scale of sentences and paragraphs, but the argument of each chapter is sometimes hard to follow due to its dialogical character (24) and the consequent tendency to get lost in series of nested tangents. Though there are discussions of the German idealists, of classical phenomenology, and of contemporary French philosophers such as Badiou and Meillassoux, the work is generally focused on what Gabriel takes to be the default ontology in contemporary analytic philosophy. He argues convincingly against the idea of the world as a big object containing everything else, but barely discusses alternative conceptions of the world as a non-objective horizon or as appearing within itself. This fault may perhaps be remedied in future writings; in any case, even those who do not accept Gabriel’s answers will benefit from considering his questions, no matter what school they may belong to or how they may practice ontology.