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Keeping It Real
by Rick Lewis
Here at Philosophy Now we try to perform a whole set of disparate tasks, often simultaneously, rather like a seal juggling coloured balls while also honking a horn with its nose and riding a bicycle. We endeavour to present the best philosophy articles we can, for your edification and astonishment. We also delve into the history of philosophy, exploring the ideas of some of the most intriguing thinkers of the past 2,500 years, including the crazy ones. We also investigate some of the great philosophical problems such as the foundations of ethics, the nature of consciousness and – two months ago – the existence of free will. But on top of all of this, we keep a weather eye out for significant new trends and developments in philosophy, wherever they take place and then report them to our discerning worldwide audience (that’s you). For instance, we have previously published articles on disjunctivism and on experimental philosophy by leading exponents of those approaches. And in the issue you are holding in your hands right now, we are covering a new philosophical movement from Italy and Germany that goes by the name New Realism.
New Realism is this year’s hot trend among idea-fanciers, particularly those in Germany and Italy. It’s mainly the brainchild of (in no particular order) Prof. Maurizio Ferraris of the University of Turin and Prof. Markus Gabriel of the University of Bonn. By happy coincidence – no, away with this false modesty, it was through hard work and bold planning! – the current issue features illuminating interviews with both of these influential contemporary thinkers. This means that much of our New Realism section consists of conversations with the very people who are pioneering this approach. This is cutting-edge philosophy from the horses’ mouths. I would like to particularly thank Manuel Carta for his initiative and hard work in bringing this issue together, and for conducting two of the interviews within it. I would also like to express my gratitude to Sarah de Sanctis, translator of several books by Ferraris, for her help and advice, and for giving us her own thoughts in her conversation with Manuel.
An old joke about the Holy Roman Empire goes that it wasn’t Holy and it wasn’t Roman. So what about the New Realism? Is it New? Is it Real? Luckily, at least arguably it is both.
Firstly, this isn’t the first time a bunch of philos have described themselves as ‘New Realists’. As you’ll read in Anja Steinbauer’s interview with Gabriel, an earlier group did so about a hundred years ago. Nonetheless the new New Realists are undoubtably much newer than the old New Realists. Secondly, what is a realist? In everyday speech, I’ve been told, it means any person sensible enough to realize that there is no market for a philosophy magazine (compare with ‘idealist’). But in terms of philosophical positions, a realist is somebody who believes that the things we perceive are really, objectively, there. So a moral realist is somebody who thinks moral values have a real existence independent of us. A number realist is a mathematician who thinks numbers really exist. (See article on Max Tegmark in this issue). If you believed in the Easter Bunny, that would make you an ‘Easter Bunny realist’. So what do New Realists believe in?
New Realism springs from the tradition of hermeneutics, that led through 20th century Continental philosophy to, eventually, Derrida’s claim that our world is constructed like a piece of literature and there is “nothing outside of the text”. In reaction to this, the New Realists say that while society and its institutions and customs are indeed socially constructed, external physical objects aren’t, and resist our efforts to reshape them. This sounds suspiciously like common sense. Should we merely be cheering because these thinkers, despite being philosophically born in the cave dug by Derrida, have now climbed up to the light? Or do they have more to teach us? It seems they do. For starters, both Ferraris and Gabriel claim that the meaning of an object is not in people’s heads but resides in the object itself. It is ‘real’, not subjective. Perhaps if there is ever a New Realist ethics it will be a form of moral realism.
How else does New Realism differ from other forms of realism? A big clue comes from the title Markus Gabriel has chosen for his book: Why The World Does Not Exist. This is an unusual choice of title for any book purporting to advocate realism. Gabriel thinks that ‘the world’ is not real, but that individual objects (chairs, trees, even unicorns) are real. This is why we picked for the cover of this issue a painting called The Librarian by Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), who specialised in constructing portrait heads out of objects. Does the Librarian exist, or is he a social construct out of individual elements that themselves have an existence independent of society? This type of question ties into some current debates in physics (if not in Library Studies). For instance, do exotic particles like the Higgs Boson exist independently of us, or do we find them because our best theories lead us to expect them?
In our everyday lives too there are questions about what is independently real and what is socially constructed. Houses are literally ‘socially constructed’ but seem pretty solid too. What about bank loans, currency, countries? In the online world, in social media and virtual reality – to what extent are the people and things we encounter real? How can we know? Above all, what exactly do we mean by real? Read on!