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Markus Gabriel one of the founders of New Realism, talks to Anja Steinbauer about why the world does not exist, and other curious metaphysical topics.
I’m talking with Markus Gabriel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bonn, in particular about his new book Why The World Does Not Exist. But first tell us a little about your background. How did you get interested in philosophy in the first place?
At some point in school I felt frustrated because the questions that were raised there and the ways they were answered didn’t seem satisfying to me. The answers were somewhat unjustified and ungrounded, in pretty much all disciplines. Then I happened to break my ankle skateboarding and I had to stay at home over the summer, so I started reading some philosophy because a friend of mine who was much older gave me Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. So this is how it all started.
Wow, and you read through the entire book?
Oh yes, I read the entire book. I’m not sure what exactly I understood, but afterwards I read Schopenhauer, and then I thought for a while that I had finally understood what I had read before.
So then you decided to study philosophy?
Yes. When I was about fifteen or sixteen I decided to become a philosophy professor! I said to myself that’s the only viable career if I want to do that.
You became a philosophy professor younger than anyone else in Germany, so that’s kind of cool. Are you very ambitious?
I’m certainly very ambitious, but I think I just really absolutely love philosophy. It’s a form of obsession. Philosophy is the one activity I love most.
So the sort of questions Kant asks in the Critique of Pure Reason  are the kind of questions that have stuck with you as well?
Yes, the topics Kant raised seem to me still central. I disagree with most of the things that Kant has to say about them, but I think he raised the right questions and defined the right framework. So in that sense I’m still working from within that tradition.
Talking about traditions, would you align yourself with a particular tradition, in terms of the analytic/continental split, or perhaps even something more specific?
I think I just think of myself as doing what philosophers have done under the name of philosophy. The only tradition I like to adhere to is the one which happily embraces the label ‘philosophy’. I hate the idea of analytic and continental philosophy as distinct, I think this distinction is utterly misguided. Analytic philosophy usually just means ‘philosophy’, and continental philosophy usually also just means ‘philosophy’, but it is used as a pejorative term by another group. On the [European] Continent, where I am from, you cannot find ‘Continental philosophy’ just as you can’t get a ‘Continental breakfast’ in Bonn – or maybe only in some tourist hotel. But then also, ‘analytic philosophy’; what exactly does it mean? So I just happily embrace the label ‘philosophy’, I don’t want to go beyond philosophy like Nietzsche or Heidegger wanted to, so in that sense too I just adhere to the tradition of philosophy.
I think you’re right, that sort of labelling is misguided. It is wrong to think that ‘continental philosophers’ don’t analyse, because clearly they do, or that they’re only to be found on the Continent. So philosophy in your sense is not one thing, but could be lots of different things?
Oh yes, that’s true. In a certain sense I’m just a very traditional modern philosopher, in that what I am trying to do is to give an account of what reason is in its most general shape. This commits me to radical cosmopolitanism, and all sorts of things follow from it, but I think that I’m just digging into the structure of reason itself.
That’s interesting. Where has it led you?
Well, currently it has led me into being part of a group of people who are declaring a new form of realism. New Realism here is just the idea that with the help of good old armchair philosophy we can actually describe how reality is in itself. I don’t think there’s anything standing between us and how things are, and I think that reason, if it does a good job, has an immediate grasp of how things really are.
Your new book is called Why The World Does Not Exist – great title, and people would want to know that. But who is the book for? Is it for other philosophers, or for everybody? Why should philosophers read it? Why should everybody else too? What is it meant to do?
Well it’s really a book for the general educated audience, but it contains new thoughts, so on the one hand it’s pretty much a book for everybody, but many of the ideas I present I think are new and radical. It is a presentation of my approach to philosophy, but it’s designed to be accessible to anyone who is willing to read a philosophy book, so I try not to make any assumptions, neither historical, nor technical. It should just be the clearest expression possible of my thoughts on the topics I deal with in it.
‘New Realism’ was used as a label before, a hundred years ago, but this is not the same thing, right? This is a new movement, which you have co-defined with Maurizio Ferraris, is that right? So what’s that all about?
What’s new is that I define New Realism as a combination of two tenets. Tenet one: we can grasp things in themselves. That’s the sense that philosophers have attached to the word ‘realism’ – as a theory of our access to how things really are, so I hold on to that. My more radical approach is shown in tenet two:, things in themselves do not belong to a single domain, ‘the world’. So what I mean by New Realism is realism without the world. Many philosophers would say that realism means we have immediate access to the world [as it really is]; but I deny the existence of ‘the world’ in this particular sense. So it’s realism without a single reality. That’s what I think is new about this particular approach. In a certain sense I’ve learnt a lot from the anti-realist philosophers who popped up all over the place after the earlier New Realism movement, in which people like Roy Wood Sellars, the father of Wilfrid Sellars, were involved. I think the earlier movement was not yet able to fully formulate the theories needed because anti-realism had not yet been developed in the relevant ways by Michael Dummett and Hilary Putnam.
But now the time is right?
Now the time is right because now we know why anti-realism doesn’t work. Before we hadn’t even really tried it. Of course there were all these anti-realist ideas out there in the history of philosophy, but no one had really penetrated to the logical core of anti-realism in the way that Dummett did.
So philosophy is also kind of a historical process. Why is it so important to you to claim that the world doesn’t exist? You seem to be saying that at no time can we actually grasp the world, but we can grasp smaller entities of meaning. But why deny the existence of the world? Why can’t we accommodate all those entities of meaning within one world, which after all is something we can conceptualise?
Well I doubt that we can actually conceptualise it. I think what we can achieve are local unifications. Of course I can depart from an investigation into where I am right now: we are sitting in a hotel… somewhere in London; London is part of the UK, which in some sense is part of Europe, et cetera. You widen your horizon and try to encompass everything from a given starting position. But when you’re almost done with it – when you’ve zoomed out, as it were, into the universe and you are moving farther and farther away, you can never get to a final point. You’re almost done, and then someone says, “You forgot the numbers!” – “Oh damn, I have to go back, I forgot that the numbers 1,2,3 and all the other finite numbers also exist!” So you have to add them to the mix. Then someone else might say: “What about the past?” – “Oh yeah, I forgot the past…” Very soon you will realize that you have always been reducing entities whilst you were trying to construct a coherent single world picture. There’s always a different category that you’ve missed. I think that this difficulty cannot be overcome even in principle. Why? Not because we are feeble and finite and stupid and human, but because there is no unified picture available. That which the picture aims to describe can’t exist in principle.
But even if we can’t give a full account of the world, does that mean it doesn’t exist?
Well it does precisely not exist – which is why I start the book with a certain analysis of the concept of existence: So what do we mean when we say ‘existence’? There is some linguistic evidence that when we attribute existence to something, it means that certain restrictions are in place: we think things exist somewhere. In the series of natural integers, the number 3 will be a number between 2 and 4, say. Many statements of existence work in such a way that they define a location. If you look at the history, the very word ‘existence’ – which comes by the way from Plato, and then was picked up by the Romans – means ‘to stand out’. ‘Existere’ just means that. And in many languages you have the idea that existence has something to do with a location, as in Italian and French, and, in a certain sense, even in Chinese we can talk about that. So the idea of existence comes with the idea of a location. But now you think ‘Wow, so there must be a location for everything.’ But what is the location? Some people would say the universe. But what’s the universe? By ‘universe’ I refer to the object domain under investigation by our best natural scientific practices. But science doesn’t investigate why Van Gogh was a better painter than me, or why Goethe is a better writer than Heidegger. Those are just not objects of science.
Let’s talk more about metaphysics. You address both monism and dualism, and you align yourself with pluralism, which is a position that’s not really taken by many, and hasn’t been since its great champion Leibniz [1646-1716]. So tell us more about how that works. First, could you just say what pluralism is?
Okay, here is how I think about this. By ‘metaphysics’, I tend to refer to the theory of absolutely everything that exists. I deny that this works. So metaphysics strictly speaking is impossible – it has no object. By ‘ontology’, I mean the systematic investigation into existence: What are we saying when we claim something exists? What is existence? Those are the questions of ontology for me, and if you are a ‘monist’, what you are saying is that everything which exists shares a feature – existence! Maybe you have a substantial account of what existence is: to be spatial-temporal, to be thought of by someone, whatever. So that would be a form of monism: to exist is to be a substance. That of course is Spinoza’s idea, and Descartes’ idea of substance too, maybe. A dualist such as Descartes would further say, “Well, yes, what exists is substance, but there are two kinds of substances.” That’s usually what is meant by ‘dualism’ in this context. I’m a pluralist. That means that you cannot unify everything that exists by giving a substantial account of existence. So existence itself is not a unifying feature of things. Things exist in indefinitely many domains. What it is for the number 2 to exist, is for it to be part of the series of natural numbers. What it is for Angela Merkel to exist as the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, is for her to be subject to the German constitution, et cetera. And you cannot unify these entities under one domain. So the pluralist has a radical commitment to the existence of indefinitely many domains of existence.
Is this the Moon?
And a ‘domain’ would be defined as…?
Well that can be tricky. But certainly I don’t think that all domains are sets. That’s a technical issue, but roughly, elements of sets in the mathematically precise sense are not artworks or chancellors. They turn into elements for sets only if we abstract away from their specific features. That’s why sets have no ontological importance. If we say ‘domain’, that’s pretty vague; we just mean whatever domain. So this term, although often used by philosophers and logicians, is usually not well defined. So I replace it with a more clearly defined notion, which I call a ‘field of sense’. By a field of sense I mean objects appearing under conditions that we can make exclusive through rules. For instance, physical objects are subject to those rules uncovered by [physical] science. The sense under which these things appear is the sense of the laws of physics. The sense under which an object appears in the series of natural numbers is defined by, for example, the Peano axioms. So that’s my idea. What distinguishes a domain from other domains are the rules that make the object available in domains to a true thought.
So coming back to your example of Angela Merkel, what are the implications for personal identity?
That’s a wonderful question! I think one of the implications is that the question of personal identity is not the question of the identity of a certain body over time. It’s also not the question of the identity of a narrative over time. I think that the traditional spectrum under investigation here is too limited, because, for example, Angela Merkel’s role as a chancellor is constitutive of who she is. So the question is, “How can Angela Merkel continue to be what she is?” Part of the answer is that she falls under the relevant concepts that turn someone into the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. If she plays that role, she’s going to be Angela Merkel. But then there are other roles that she plays under other concepts. So to me the question of personal identity is ultimately the question of which concepts something falls under, and not so much the question of under which concept is the same body the same person.
So there isn’t really a unified self?
Oh no, there is definitely not a unified self, if by that we mean something like an essence of Markus Gabriel somehow floating around and contingently instantiated right now by me raising my left hand. This is what is usually meant by ‘self’. In that sense there really is no self.
Does that put you closer to a kind of postmodernism, perhaps? You know, the idea of fragmentation, and the leaving behind of absolutes and commitments to unified ideas?
There are very many similarities between what some thinkers who are called ‘postmodern’ worked out in the 1960s, 70s and 80s in Paris and what I am saying. But you know, when it comes to the details, there are very many differences too. In particular their take on fragmentation tends to come with a rejection of the method that I employ in philosophy, rational argumentation. I don’t think that reason is fragmented in the way that they suspect it to be. I think reason is exactly homogeneous. That’s a huge, major difference.
That’s kind of the red thread that runs through everything?
Absolutely. That runs through everything philosophy says. So there is a red thread – but you know, that red thread doesn’t cover everything there is. I’m not saying something Hegelian – that reason is spread out over things, and things are mysteriously dreamt up in such a way that reason can grasp them, and so reason and things cooperate. I reject that picture; it seems to me overgeneralized. Reason is not that central to what there is. But there is only one form of reason. That doesn’t make reason less central or more central.
In your book you argue that sense experience is not subjective. This is kind of surprising because it always seems that my senses aremysenses. You also state that our idea of sense experience is restricted, is that right?
One way of looking at sense experience is of course as something that pushes experience into your head in a number of steps. So it may be that in the end you even believe that there is a veil of perception [that obscures reality]. But how does sense experience enter our heads? Let me redescribe the situation. If you were to be sitting where I am, things would roughly look to you the way they look to me. Many things would be different because we are different –
Well, we don’t know.
Well, I think we do know. I think there are objective optical facts about how things look. Perspectives per se for instance, are objective – we can describe the laws. That’s why we have glasses! So the very fact that we have glasses and 3D movie theatres tells us that there are objective facts about sense experience. Sense experience is not like a fleeting thing nowhere to be found, like an after-image. Many philosophers and neuroscientists construe sense experience as if we were constantly looking through after-images onto a material world. But I think after-images are incredibly rare. Even though after-images do take place, most of what I see right now is there, in exactly the way it looks seen from here. I want to say that things seen, or heard, or smelled from a given perspective, are no less real than things unobserved. We tend to think that there’s a furniture to the world out there, literally like there is in this room, and that if no one is around then the furniture’s arranged in non-perspectival ways, as if Euclidean geometry defined how things are really related in this room; but then your subjective experience enters the room and that distorts things. But in themselves things are Euclidean. Well, first, we know they are not exactly Euclidean; and second, I think that this is a completely weird metaphysical picture. Nevertheless, I have to pay a price for my theory of sense experience, and here’s the price: I have to say that perspectives onto things are features of the things themselves. It is a property of this [thing] to look that way from here, it is not a property of me. I don’t bring perspectives into a world that doesn’t have perspectives, I sample perspectives that are already there. As the philosopher Mark Johnston has put it, “We are not producers of presence but samplers of presence.”
But we can see how sense experience can go wrong, and we try to correct it if we think it doesn’t work the way it ought – so hearing aids, glasses and so on. So in that sense clearly there is something about my subjective sense apparatus that contributes, right?
I wouldn’t call this subjective. The contribution that I make to the way things look is a completely objective contribution. You can tell how it’s been done. It’s not ‘unsayable’, in that sense of subjective… It’s not like I see something that you don’t see, and I can’t even describe to you what it is – the ‘inexpressible’ green. And so in that sense I also don’t believe that there are qualia [subjective qualities of sense experience]. Let me give another example that might be helpful to understand how I want to look at sense perception. Think of the Moon. How close do you have to be to the Moon in order to be sure that you see the Moon itself? You might say, “Well, look, that’s not the Moon, I can cover it up with my hand. It can’t be the Moon because I cannot cover up the Moon with my hand.” So this is how people start thinking, “So it must be a sensation of the Moon! I’m not covering up the Moon, I’m covering up a sensation of it.” But how close do you have to be to the Moon so that it really is the Moon? So you can see that there is something confused about the idea. I think what we need to say is that, well, the Moon seen from here is such that I can cover it up with my hand – and now you tell an objective story, also a physiological story, of how this works – because photons from it arrive here under certain conditions, my optical instruments detect them, et cetera. So it is the Moon that I can cover up, but it’s only part of the Moon that I can cover up – namely, the part of the Moon that arrives here in the form of photons.
That’s an interesting twist you introduce here, although I’m not convinced it’s the only possible account, or if it’s specific enough. We could frame this another way. I think the problem with saying “I’m covering up the Moon” is that perhaps we’re not specific enough about what is exactly meant by ‘covering up’.
Definitely. It’s just that people often think that you can get at the contribution that we make if we look at us in a certain way. Let me give you an example. There’s this wonderful discussion between Quassim Cassam and John Campbell in their book Berkeley’s Puzzle  where many points that are relevant for my account pop up. In this book Campbell defends something very close to what I want to defend, namely, what he calls a ‘relational view’ of experience. Here a sense experience, say of this table, is a relation between me, the table and the perspective. So there are three entities involved here – me, the table, and the perspective – and the way that we are related is the experience. Cassam objects: What about eye doctors? Some people can see the letter ‘A’ on an eye chart better than others, meaning the others have worse vision, so there must be some kind of subjective contribution. What I’m saying is that what is here called ‘subjective’ is actually super-objective. So I give up the idea that there is the real ‘A’ in the eye test case, because no one can tell you what it is: my ‘A’ might be less or more distorted than someone else’s ‘A’. If anything is subjective about my ‘A’, there will be something subjective about anybody’s ‘A’. Hence we lose the idea of an objective ‘A’ on that construal. This is why I think that my account is better, because the relational account can only give the idea that any ‘A’ in itself would be an ‘A’ that is absolutely clear, as it were.
That’s presumably got interesting consequences for various areas. An obvious one is art. Aesthetics, of course, literally has to do with the Greek aisthetikos, meaning, ‘to be perceived by the senses’, and on the whole we think of that as meaning that aesthetics is very subjective. You have a whole chapter on art in your book. Would you like to tell us a little more about what you think?
Definitely. I am one of those who say that Kant’s aesthetics is utterly confused to the degree to which he makes statements about the beautiful and the sublime. Those are his own examples, of course. He doesn’t really go into artworks, and probably never went to a museum, so I don’t think he’s a great art expert. Kant walks through the woods, and oh, there’s a form! For him that’s as good as Picasso. That could tell us something about his philosophy of art.
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But of course he’s not interested in art, he’s interested in aesthetics.
Exactly! He’s interested in the beautiful and the sublime because he thinks that judgments which contain ‘It’s beautiful’ or ‘It’s sublime’ are somehow special: they tell us both something about ourselves and something about the objects; and then his analysis starts. But I think that this is not at all helpful. I think he’s talking about tastes there. So this would be gastronomic philosophy rather than philosophy of art. I think that artworks show us that they are things in themselves. They display the fact that they’re constituted in such a way that perspectives on them are already integrated into the thing. Artworks are there to be seen, to be heard, to be eaten etc. I happen to think of good restaurants as museums. I think that artworks have exactly those features that I ascribe to objects in general. So in my view, artworks show us what objects are. But they always go beyond themselves and tell us what objects essentially are. Artworks paradigmatically speak in favour of the kind of ontology I’m laying out. The very fact that artworks can then start talking amongst each other – “No, this is what objects are”; ‘No, that is what objects are” – that disagreement among artworks I think is pretty compatible with the philosophical picture I’m trying to defend. But of course, now you might argue, “Well, look, you’re just projecting this on to the artworks. The real action will take place in the actual interpretation of the object.” So come to a museum with me, and then the question will be who convinces whom.
Coming out of your philosophical position is a sense that all perspectives are in a way equally legitimate. Is that right? There’s a sort of relativism there?
I don’t think so at all. I think that all perspectives equally exist, if you like, but I’m not saying that they’re all equally legitimate. Recognising that something exists is not tantamount to saying that it’s good. It’s very easy to refute the traditional philosophical premise that existence is itself good: a non-existing dictator is better than an existing dictator. In general, existence is not better than non-existence. So I don’t see any tie between what exists and whether what exists is legitimate. On the contrary, lots of things exist that ought not to exist, such as dictators.
Fair enough. Where does this leave truth?
Truth is quite central here, I think that I’m a minimalist about truth in various senses. I don’t think that truth is a feature of propositions or statements or assertions et cetera. Truth is not primarily linguistic. I think that when we say something is true, what we are saying is that something holds good of something objectively. Or, if we say that something holds good of something, then we say that it is true – but what we say has already been true, we just hadn’t said it. It holds good of me that I have two hands, whether someone has ever said so or not. So I think that truth means that something holds good of something and is an objective feature of how things really are.
What do you mean ‘it holds good’? In what sense?
Well, at the very least, it means that something has a certain property. But I think that there are objective relations. So the many perspectival realities – fields of sense – have objective structures that are pretty much like those structures we uncover when we make true statements. So reality has various logical forms. There’s nothing mysterious about this. Philosophers have thought for a long time that this is mysterious, but why? Because they were Kantians, in my view – they thought that behind the logical form of things, there might be something that does not have that form. I think a lot of philosophy has been under the grip of the idea that “But what if all our statements were false? Then reality would not have the form at all that we ascribe to it!” But I think that the very idea of “But what if all statements were false” is so misguided. We shouldn’t model our philosophy along the lines of how things would be if everything we believed was false, because we cannot even make sense of the idea that everything we believe is false.
• Dr Anja Steinbauer teaches at the London School of Philosophy and is an Editor of PN.