Review by Keith R. Peterson, Colby College, ME
The sudden entrance of realism onto the Continental philosophy scene has indisputably raised a dust cloud in recent years, and the dust may now just be beginning to settle revealing some contours of the terrain. This short text by Maurizio Ferraris, Italian professor of philosophy at the University of Turin, summarizes some of the key arguments he employs to establish his own particular form of “New Realism”—one of the major geographical features in the new terrain. While Ferraris’s project is related to the “speculative realist” trend insofar as it too is an explicit reaction to antirealism in contemporary philosophy, it differs from it significantly in that its ultimate aim is to develop a realist ontology of the social world, fully developed in Documentality: Why it is Necessary to Leave Traces (Fordham University Press, 2012). This compact text is bookended with a Foreword by Iain Hamilton Grant, one of the original participants in the “speculative realist” workshops, and an Afterword by frequent Ferraris translator de Sanctis and co-author Vincenzo Santarcangelo. Neither of these bookends is devoted to Ferraris’s work exclusively, but they are helpful for situating his work within the expanding landscape of approaches which take realism and the critique of “correlationism” as their dominant theme. Of the three very similar short works by Ferraris published in English in 2014 and 2015, including Manifesto of New Realism (SUNY) and Positive Realism (Zone Books), this book appears to be the more comprehensive and perhaps the best introduction to his work.
The book is organized in terms of the grand themes of “Negativity,” “Positivity,” and “Normativity.” In the first part, Ferraris reviews the “fallacies” of contemporary constructivism and the absurdity of its postmodern extremes. These positions exhibit “negativity” because they deny that reality exists independently of human language, conceptual schemes, subjectivity, or power, and he devotes his time in this part to elucidating and refuting some of the fallacies inherent in such negative positions. For example, in the section amusingly titled “Foukant (Foucault + Kant),” Ferraris examines the thesis that reality is constructed by knowledge, and if knowledge is constructed by power, then reality is constructed by power. There are three fallacies contained here: the so-called “fallacy of being-knowledge” (also known as the “transcendental fallacy”), which amounts to the conflation of epistemology and ontology; the “fallacy of ascertainment-acceptance,” which applies to the postmodern critique of realism which says that just to “ascertain” that something is “real” means to “accept” it uncritically, making the rejection of realism tout court an apparently emancipatory move; and the “fallacy of knowledge-power,” according to which “behind” knowledge is always some form of dominating or enslaving power. He refutes the second and third fallacies here, and deals more fully with the first fallacy in the remainder of the text.
The section “Deskant (Descartes + Kant)” explores the Modern conflation of knowledge and being, and describes the motivations behind the search for a foundation of knowledge beyond that supplied by the “unreliable” senses. Descartes taught us to be wary of the evidence provided by the senses, since they can sometimes deceive us. Therefore, if as philosophers we seek one hundred percent certainty—a claim endorsed not only by Descartes but also by Hume and Kant—then we have to reject the senses as sources of knowledge. Unwilling to give in to skepticism, Kant reasoned that—according to Ferraris—“if all knowledge starts from experience, [and] if the latter is structurally uncertain, then it will be necessary to found experience upon science, finding a priori structures that can stabilize its uncertainty.” (26) Ferraris argues that with the critical turn Kant adopted an a priori epistemology from mathematics, carrying mathematical constructionism into the field of ontology. Construction becomes the way in which every human mind works, which means that certain knowledge of experience is then assured, but at the price that “there is no longer any difference between the fact that there is an object X and the fact that we know the object X.” He sums up the whole line of thought leading, eventually, to postmodern constructivism this way: “since science is the construction of paradigms, at this point experience will be construction too, namely, it will shape the world starting from conceptual schemes. Here is the origin of postmodernism.” (28) Finally, in the last section titled “T-Rex” he addresses one of the difficult questions that arises when conceptual schemes are given determining power. What he here calls the “argument of pre-existence” is almost identical to Meillassoux’s argument, in After Finitude, regarding the “arché-fossil.” The existence of the fossil T-Rex presents a problem for the view that reality is constructed by concepts, since if knowing and being are the same, then claiming that dinosaurs existed before humans came along is nonsensical. Here he discusses stronger and weaker options for interpreting the “world’s dependence on conceptual schemes,” and this is one of the most helpful sections for those trying to pin down just what positions correlationists have taken. Whether extreme “correlationism,” “conceptual dependence,” or “representational dependence” (and their differences are instructive), antirealist theories cannot bear the burden of showing that fossil dinosaurs depend for their existence on thought. We should conclude instead that dinosaurs existed independently of our conceptual schemes.
In “Positivity,” the second part of the book, Ferraris foregrounds the features of reality backgrounded by the prominent “negative” views. These center on the aspect of the “unamendability” of the real and the nature of “interaction,” and encompass a discussion of ontology, affordances, objects, and environments in a broad sense. Here Ferraris gives substance to the mind-independence claim of traditional realism. He contrasts metaphysical realism (mind mirrors nature) with constructivism (mind creates reality) and his own positive realism (reality affects thought). To counter the “fallacy of being-knowledge,” he distinguishes between ε-reality and ω-reality, or epistemological reality and ontological reality. The first is what we think we know about reality, the second is what there is whether we know it or not (the world external to conceptual schemes). This forms the basis for a host of further distinctions between epistemology and ontology, science and experience, truth and reality, internal world and external world. For example, actual scientific practice is discursive, historical, deliberate, cumulative, and intentional. The Kantian or constructivist notion of experience, which builds a priori conceptual schemes into it, is a “rational reconstruction” of experience that corresponds neither to everyday life nor to science-as-practiced. The key feature of ordinary ontological reality is its “unamendability”—the fact that the real provides a resistance to our projects, desires, intentions, and conceptual schemes. Historical events also have an unamendable character as irrevocably past, a feature they share with physical facts. Throughout, Ferraris treats “perception” in its ontological rather than epistemological role: the world presents itself in perception without thereby claiming to be scientifically true, and it can also disprove our theories. This treatment of aisthesis as ontological testimony is something of a return to the “natural attitude” or “natural realism” of some early 20th century German philosophers. Ferraris explains the differences between natural objects, ideal objects, artifacts, and social objects, and even social objects can be unamendable: a traffic fine cannot be wished away by changing our conceptual schemes, and the Italian Constitution is binding (on Italians) even when they are not thinking about it. He notes in passing that values and morality depend utterly on the existence of a real world of facts.
The section “Normativity” explains what “documentality” is and how it functions as the necessary condition for social normativity, by which Ferraris seems to mean rule-governed behavior in general. The concept of documentality is based on Ferraris’s qualified acceptance of Derrida’s statement that “there is nothing outside the text.” Social objects are indeed constituted by their social context, and beyond it they cease to be social objects. Documentality is “weak textualism” because it says that “there is nothing social outside the (con)text,” and does not extend this to objects in general (the postmodern error). Constructivism’s “sphere of competence” is the world of social objects, including all manner of documents, records, inscriptions, rules, and the institutions built on them—this is the social “environment” which we all inhabit as the kind of animal that “makes promises.” He understands the human as a creature that depends for its existence on “documents” such as recordings, rituals, inscriptions, exemplars, and texts, where “social object = recorded act.” (64–65) Social objects depend for their genesis on human minds (recorded acts involving at least two people), but once objects exist they no longer need to think about them because they are inscribed somewhere. Documentality is the necessary support for normative social practices in a society and is at the same time a result of some of those practices and acts. Intentionality remains inert without recording, and the “dead letter” is the foundation for the “living spirit,” not the reverse as the tradition would have it. Ferraris argues that intentionality in fact depends on documentality (there is a critique of Searle’s notion of collective intentionality here), because without recording, intentions essentially do not exist. This is shown by the fact that we often act entirely automatically and habitually in the world: blindly follow rules without endorsing them each time, are indoctrinated by education and are usually not aware of the rules we obey. We need documents and inscriptions, without which there is no social world, intentionality, or normativity. Responsibility in such a world just seems to mean that we are compelled to respond to all the inscriptions made in our documental cultures.
As many of the voices involved in the current resurgence of realism have done, Ferraris points out that Kant’s alleged Copernican revolution was really a Ptolemaic revolution that centered the world around the subject. His response to this has a number of advantages over competing accounts, two of which I will mention here. First, he offers more avenues for upsetting the current mainstream than the generalized critique of correlationism because he distinguishes many different fallacies in constructivism, rather than just one key error. Although the “transcendental fallacy” and the charge of “correlationism” are very similar, Ferraris also notices other fallacies and so creates opportunities to distinguish between different types of correlationist philosophy and their mistakes (i.e., Foucault does not make exactly the same mistake as Heidegger, but these would be indistinguishable on the anti-correlationist account). Secondly, he has a more sober view of the sciences in contrast to the views of his competitors. It is less naively Cartesian than Meillassoux’s, would reject Brassier’s eliminativism, and suggests a less divisive role for philosophy than Harman (who still has a strong Heideggerian suspicion of the sciences). Certainly he doesn’t go as far as Latour in the domain of science studies, but his position leaves room for development. If there are weaknesses in this particular text, it is that it is too short, and he doesn’t fully elaborate the ways in which “normativity” itself operates, limiting himself to showing the way that documentality serves as its necessary condition. But these are weaknesses that are perhaps mitigated by the size of his contribution to the realist project in other areas. Certainly the debates over realism in Continental philosophy are not over, but as the dust settles, it’s likely this particular geographical feature will stand out prominently from the others.