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New Realism

An Introduction to Introduction to New Realism

Fintan Neylan explains the realism Maurizio Ferraris introduces in his Introduction.

At the opening of his 1907 lecture series ‘Pragmatism’, William James commented on the growing disparity between academic philosophy and a philosophy whose relevance ordinary people would feel in their lives. This latter philosophy would be one which truly mattered to us, James claimed, because it would deal with “our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (Pragmatism, 1907). Yet while technical philosophy is found to be wanting in this regard, James had no intention of presenting Pragmatism as sundered from it. Instead he proposes it as a middle road between the two demands, as the subtitle to the published lecture series indicates: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. What James determined was new about Pragmatism was not the ideas per se, but that it presented an alternate way to discuss quite ancient ideas, or, rather, a return to them.

It is in this spirit of the ‘new’ that we may assess Maurizio Ferraris’s recently published Introduction to New Realism. Here I will focus precisely on that to which New Realism allows us to return – namely, a way to deal with perception in ontological terms (all will become clear).

As the book’s title suggests, it aims to initiate readers into Ferraris’s position, which he tells us has been developing for well over twenty years. He clearly wants to introduce more people – especially those with a stake in aesthetics – to the realist movements that are taking root in the Twenty-First Century. Sarah De Sanctis’s translation of the text from Italian renders Ferraris’s prose in a way which preserves the brisk pace of the book. Initiates are greatly helped by two extra elements too. First is the foreword by Iain Hamilton Grant, which charts the rise of ‘transcendentalism’ in philosophy, the outcome of which “undercuts any claim to ‘being,’ ‘fact,’ or ‘really existing state of affairs’” (p.ix). This orients the reader to the challenges faced by any realism emerging today. Paired with the second element, the afterword that De Sanctis wrote with Vincenzo Santarcangelo, the reader is easily able to grasp Ferraris’s position.

Rudolph II of Hapsburg as Vertumnus
“parts are inherently structured, and thus orientate the behaviour and thought of humans as well as animals” Maurizio Ferraris, Introduction to New Realism, p.37
Rudolph II of Hapsburg as Vertumnus by Guiseppe Arcimboldo 1591


Ferraris first sets out a number of elements of New Realism, all of which are inspired by the fact that it is a “critique of constructivism” (p.10). Constructivism denies the reality of anything independent of the human mind or culture, because it holds that all knowledge ultimately has a subjective or intersubjective origin. Ferraris sees constructivism as the result of the modern period’s uncertainty concerning the world perceived through the senses, so that it sees its task as being to “re-found, through construction, a world that no longer has stability” (p.26). In contrast, New Realism aims to be a “return to perception” (p.8) and engages in a “relaunch of ontology as the science of being and of the multiplicity of objects” (pp.8-9). (Ontology is the study of the types of things that exist.) These elements are framed against what Ferraris sees as the prevailing tendencies in contemporary thought, which he explores in the first section of the book, ‘Negativity’.

At the centre of ‘Negativity’ are two philosophical figures, Foukant and Deskant. These are not historical philosophers, but rather amalgamations of viewpoints which cluster around Descartes, Kant, and Foucault (or, more precisely, the reception of their ideas). In essence, both Foukant and Deskant serve as Ferraris’s intellectual foils.

Foukant is a postmodernist, and is the outcome of fusing the subject, or the representing ‘I’ (via Kant), with an ontology based on power relations (via Foucault). Foukant’s position proceeds from this syllogism: “Reality is constructed by knowledge, knowledge is constructed by power, and ergo reality is constructed by power” (p.24). The problem with this is that Foukant thereby locks himself out of being able to discuss a mind-independent reality, in part because he believes knowledge of reality is a social construction. In itself, this would be an unremarkable form of idealism, but it does not stop there. Not only is all knowledge socially constructed, but, in this position, knowledge is always compromised politically, for “behind any form of knowledge there hides a power” (p.25). So on Foukant’s account, when we happen upon knowledge which claims to refer to a mind-independent reality, what is really going on is only an exertion of power by reigning forces.

This suspicion of knowledge is not limited to postmodernity; indeed, it goes back centuries. Ferraris claims it has its origins in a much older set of philosophical tendencies, which he collects under the figure of Deskant (ie Descartes + Kant). Deskant’s thinking combines the Cartesian subject, who is isolated from the physical world, with the Kantian subject, who frames the world but is not a part of it. Deskant’s belief is that “our conceptual schemes and perceptual apparatuses play a role in the constitution of reality” (p.26). This is in response to the uncertainty of the world opened up by early modern scepticism, which generated the idea that the structure of the world people see only comes through the subject: that it is what we ourselves have put into the world via our conceptual apparati, and so not present in reality itself. For this reason, the emergence of Deskant marks the point where conceptual knowledge trumps knowledge through the senses. There is a trade-off here: to elevate conceptuality, as Kant does with his ‘pure concepts of the understanding’, shields one against uncertainty, but at the price of there being “no longer any difference between the fact that there is an object X and the fact that we know the object X” (p.27). The trouble with Deskant and Foukant is that, in this absconding from dealing with reality in itself, they cannot but conflate of the knowledge of an entity with the entity itself. Thus we enter an age where it is asked “not how things are in themselves, but how they should be made in order to be known by us” (p.26). Ferraris calls this collapse of ontology into epistemology the “fallacy of being-knowledge” (p.24).


Having charted the various vestiges of ‘Negativity’, in the next section, ‘Positivity’, Ferraris turns to his own position:

“if the realist is the one who claims that there are parts of the world that are not dependent on the subjects, the new realist asserts something more challenging. Not only are there large parts of the world independent of the cogito [the thinking subject], but those parts are inherently structured, and thus orientate the behaviour and thought of humans as well as animals” (p.37).

Ferraris’s move here is twofold. He first agrees with Foukant and Deskant that knowledge is a human construction, but rejects their identification of knowledge of the world with the world itself. He claims knowledge may still point to an independent reality which is inherently structured. There is not only the structure of the knowledge we have of the world (i.e. the conceptual schemes we have developed, which he calls “epistemological reality”) but also the actual structures of the world, whether perceived or not (“ontological reality”) (p.41). Thus his account presents the reader with two strands of reality, or, as he puts it “two layers of reality that fade into each other” (p.41).

With these two layers, it becomes clear that any attempt to portray Ferraris as occupying a more traditional realist position falters. This becomes even more apparent when he calls his position a “naïve physics” (p.40). Guided by the principle that “the world presents itself to us as real without necessarily claiming on that account to be scientifically true” (p.40), naïve physics identifies a niche area in which philosophy can work, giving full justice to the world as it appears while making no claim to be doing science. As naïve physics, New Realism takes seriously “the philosophical importance of sensibility” (p.39), by not treating perception as something to be explained by the unknown principles of an unknown world of non-sensibility, or as something to be reduced to the mechanics of neurophysiology. Rather, perception delves into the world to express the reality of it as manifest to consciousness. Thus in Ferraris’s New Realism the world as we see and feel it is philosophically central to his enterprise. Unlike philosophies which hold that one may only seek out what exists by cutting beneath or beyond perception, in the guise of his naïve physics we may consider the ontological aspects of perception itself.

In the rest of ‘Positivity’ we get Ferraris’s picture of the world; and in the section called ‘Normativity’ he explains the essential elements of this ontology of perception. At its core is a feature called ‘unamendability’, which Ferraris describes as that aspect of reality which serves as “a stumbling block to set against our constructivist expectations” (p.39). Unamendability is an aspect of reality that manifests itself in terms of nature’s resistance to the theories we concoct about it – as what Ferraris refers to as “refusals” to the scaffolding of beliefs we have constructed. The function of refusals is that they always make it clear that reality is not quite what we think it is. That is, reality is self-constructive because howsoever we attempt to pin it down in formulated phrases, unamendability means that reality always possesses the capacity to eventually shatter the theoretical cast we have crafted for it.

Spot the dog: Our knowledge of reality points to “an independent reality that is inherently structured”

New Realities

The unamendable aspect of reality does not just have the negative role of providing refusals. It also pairs with what Ferraris calls the positive ‘affordance’ of objects and the world itself. By this he means that the very aspect of reality which can break down our conceptual schemes is also that which affords us new possibilities. These possibilities cannot be intellectually deduced, but can only be discovered through interaction with the world. For example, a lemon can be food, but with the rise of electrical technology, through certain metal electrodes (zinc and copper), it may also be used as a battery. At the same time it resists being a battery with other metals. These facts are only discoverable by doing science.

The worldview offered to us by Ferraris is thus one of objects and their environments resisting and affording each other in different ways. While it seems intuitive to think of the natural world in these terms, Ferraris holds that this applies to the social world, too. Yet here Ferraris encounters a problem: given that he wishes to advance a realist position, he runs into the issue of how to grant the same ontological status to both the social and the natural worlds. Generally, one side is granted reality at the expense of the other. As we saw, by privileging the social world as real, social constructivists (as represented by Foukant) came to see the natural world as being little more than an exercise in power. Equally, scientific reductionists hold that if the natural world is real, then the social world must be an illusion. For Ferraris, what is required is a way to hold onto the social world as constructed while still maintaining it as a real, causally effective domain.

Through what he calls ‘documentality’, Ferraris proposes a theory of the social world which he claims can conceive of it as fully real whilst still remaining mind-dependent. Documentality arises out of Ferraris’s analysis of objects, which he breaks down into four distinct classes: natural objects, ideal objects, artefacts, and social objects. The first two types are mind-independent. If one considers a rock and the number one as a respective instance of each class, for example, it is clear how both objects might continue to persist without any mind contemplating them. It is with the latter two objects that matters become interesting. What Ferraris has in mind when he discusses social objects is events such as commemorations, holidays, corporations, TV shows, etc. Such objects are fully mind-dependent and cannot exist without people. While at first blush it may seem counter-intuitive to think of social events as objects, Ferraris rightly points out that they causal effect natural objects: a corporation, for example, can determine the flow of raw materials and labour across the globe in a way hitherto unimaginable three hundred years ago. Most intriguing is Ferraris’s account of what he names ‘artefacts’: they are composed of natural objects, but one can only understand them with reference to social reality. Thus, although it is made up of physical materials, an artefact such as a computer had its genesis as a computer in a specific social context.

This dynamic of artefacts and social objects comes to force in the final section of the book, ‘Normativity’. Ferraris makes it clear that his aim is to show that meaning is located in the environment, and that people are mere receivers of meaning. In short, he proposes an alternative to the idea that meaning is ‘all in the mind’. Documentality offers an account of how meaning may emerge from merely natural objects. Ferraris says documentality is “the environment in which social objects are generated” (p.63), Ferraris in fact argues that all social objects may be considered documents. He makes a series of ambitious claims about the extent to which documentality conditions and constitutes the social world. Essentially, Ferraris sees the social world as emerging with the human capacity to record – that is, with the capacity to receive and store inscriptions. The development of civilization would thus be paralleled by a development in recording technology: although the social world must have first existed only in the minds of prehistoric people, with the advent of writing, the possibility for novel social objects came into being.

Ferraris calls his position a “weak textualism” or “weak constructivism” (p.65). This may seem odd, for New Realism was initially said to be a critique of constructivism. However, just as William James did not want to disregard the philosophies against which his pragmatism distinguished itself, neither does Ferraris wish to separate himself completely from late Twentieth Century thought. New Realism sets itself against the ‘strong textualism’ of postmodern philosophers, whose thesis was that social and linguistic acts – what Ferraris calls ‘inscriptions’ – constitute all of reality. Rather, the weak textualism of New Realism means that it limits its constructivism to the social world. As Ferraris claims, New Realism’s constructivism is “Weak because it assumes that inscriptions are decisive in the construction of social reality, but… it excludes that inscriptions may be constitutive of reality in general” (p.65).

As we saw, for Ferraris it is only with the emergence of recording that one finds anything like the social world. As if to emphasize this point, he writes, “it is through the sharing of documents and traditions that a ‘we’ is constituted” (p.82). This line of thinking culminates in the idea that it is documentality that makes us responsible, for he sees our capacity to receive inscriptions as the basis of being able to make an obligation, which is the basis of any social relation.

Perceiving Reality Anew

So Ferraris’s claim that New Realism allows a return to perception and to ontology as the science of being holds up. The picture he offers us is of a “long chain of being that, through interaction, gradually leads to the emergence of everything” (p.80). This is ambitious stuff, and while the reader might at times want further detail or exploration, it must be borne in mind that the book is an introduction, and not a fully detailed explanation of his system. Keeping this in mind, the somewhat unorthodox move of using fictional philosophical figures becomes understandable. This decision recommends itself if only in that it gets around Ferraris having to labour the point between how a philosopher was received versus what they actually wrote. While no-one would deny that sometimes doing so is a scholarly necessity, it can be quite tiring on a reader who has not been schooled in the history of philosophy, or who is simply, and understandably, not interested in such minutiae. This book as a whole aims to fully equip a reader unfamiliar with the current wave of speculative and realist philosophical positions. Given that such positions themselves are works in progress, it will be interesting to see how Ferraris’s thought influences further discussions over the next few years.

For now though, we may explore with interest the realist philosophy of perception that Ferraris’s work opens up. This is a philosophy which is adequate to dealing with the push and pressure of the cosmos. In returning to perception on its own ontological terms, it opens up a philosophy that can matter to us.

© Fintan Neylan 2016

Fintan Neylan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Introduction to New Realism by Maurizio Ferraris, translated by Sarah De Sanctis, with a Foreward by Iain Hamilton Grant, Bloomsbury, 160pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1-47259-594-2

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