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New Realism

Maurizio Ferraris

Manuel Carta talks with Prof. Maurizio Ferraris of the University of Turin, another leading exponent of New Realism.

Professor Ferraris, are there any keywords you’d like to give our readers to help them understand New Realism?

I’ll give you seven, one for each day of the week:

Individuals. Ontology (what there is) is only made up of individuals: this interview; a summer storm; the ant that runs across my table. Obviously, epistemology (what we know about what there is) speaks of ‘interviews’, ‘storms’, ‘ants’, using words and concepts that designate classes of things; but the classes to which these words refer do not exist except in thought.

Unamendability. The fact that individuals exist independently of thought is proven by the fact that they cannot be amended or corrected with the power of thought. This is in distinct contrast to notions and concepts, that is, to what we know, which obviously can be corrected through thought. Individuals do not change through our thinking about them; but the knowledge that we have of them has changed many times, and it is far from certain that the knowledge we have today is definitive – although it is probably closer to the inner nature of individuals than it was in the past.

Invitation. Unamendability describes the negative side of realism, but what’s more interesting is the positive side. Precisely because they have unamendable internal properties, individuals offer invitations or directions for use, or, to use a philosophical term, affordances. I cannot use a screwdriver to clean my ears (except at great risk); but as well as screwing screws in or out, I can usefully use it to open a package, or to kill a family member. Each of these actions which are, so to speak, embedded in the individual screwdriver, opens up a possible world, and, in the last case, even serious moral and legal consequences.

Maurizio Ferraris
Maurizio Ferraris by Gail Campbell (2016)

Interaction. Individuals interact in an environment, and this interaction, made possible by the properties of the individuals, their unamendability and their invitations, began long before the emergence of human consciousness. Objects were there before people, and interacting too. This is proven by the fact that we can interact with individuals endowed with conceptual schemes different from our own – for example, I can play with my cat Cleo – and that these individuals, in turn, interact with individuals with conceptual schemes different from theirs, or completely devoid of conceptual schemes altogether. Cleo tries to catch a wasp and the wasp tries to escape, or Cleo plays alone with a ball of string… these are interactions between different beings that do not depend on human consciousness.

Recording. Interactions leave traces: on matter – the glass of my watch was slightly scratched against the wall – and in the specialized form of matter that we call memory. Usually nothing happens as a result. Sometimes something unpleasant happens – the glass of my watch is broken. Sometimes a good thing occurs – an alteration of the DNA results in the evolution of the species, or two memories meet accidentally and create a passion or an idea. In any case, these things are recorded, and the importance of recorded traces is possibly more manifest today than ever before. Think of the amount of permanently-recorded data online.

Emergence. Recording, or the trace of an event, determines the birth of something new; if the Big Bang itself had left no trace, the universe would have returned to nothingness. Then there’s the birth of life and the evolution of species, of meaning, of society – in short, all the objects that decorate our world – our ontology. From ontology, or the existence of individual things, emerged epistemology, or our knowledge of the world. The process is exactly the opposite of that proposed by constructivists, which is that a consciousness somehow fallen as if from heaven determines the genesis of individuals, that is, that epistemology constructs ontology.

Revolution. Realism is not the thesis – as claimed by fools, those essential products of evolution – that there are tables and chairs. Anti-realists know this too, even though they insist that they are not tables and chairs in themselves, but tables and chairs for us. But least of all does verifying reality mean accepting it as it is, giving up the transformation wished for by Marx. Realism is exactly the opposite of this. The transformation of reality, or more precisely, revolution, is possible and necessary; but it requires real action and not mere thoughts. Realism is the rejection of revolutions made only in thought – the Armchair Revolutions, revolutions made in speculation, in the comfort of one’s own head.

Despite your wish to overcome deconstruction, Jacques Derrida is one of the thinkers who have influenced you the most. Can you tell us more about your relationship to that French philosopher?

Certainly. If I had to summarize my own philosophy, I’d say it is an attempt to reconstruct deconstruction. Let me give a few examples. Derrida, especially at the beginning of his work, used to resort to obscure expressions – partly for political reasons, or as he wrote in an interview, to escape the Stalinist censure dominant in the Ecole Normale Supérieure. By contrast, I have tried to write as clearly as possible. Derrida had dazzling insights, for example that writing has a transcendental role, but then he compromised the originality of this discovery by saying that “there is nothing outside the text”, which went along with the mainstream of the time (“Language is the house of being” [Heidegger] and so forth). I have narrowed the scope of his claim about writing to its own space, arguing instead that there is nothing social outside the text. I’ve developed a social ontology based on documents – written and otherwise recorded, as Derrida had anticipated. Derrida based all his later philosophy on the role of otherness – of what resists the subject and his thought, and surprises the subject. I have formulated realism as the doctrine that ‘to exist is to resist’, with an appeal to individuality that is very Derridean. It is also linked to the thinking of an author by whom Derrida was secretly much affected: the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard.

How do you reply to those who argue New Realism has misinterpreted Nietzsche’s saying that “there are no facts, only interpretations”?

The accusation is a worrying sign of confusion. If there are no facts, only interpretations, I don’t see how I can be accused of having misunderstood anything! Conversely, if one believes that I really have misinterpreted this assumption, then it is not true that there are no facts, only interpretations, and once again it is not clear to me what I’m being accused of.

In the section on ‘Negativity’ in your book Introduction to New Realism, you sum up the problem of power in relation to knowledge in the imaginary figure of Foukant, who is Foucault+Kant [see Fintan Neylan’ article for a further elucidation of this. Ed.]. What do you think was Foucault’s mistake?

Foucault insisted on a true fact: that knowledge is a tool of domination, and so can be a form of power. Unfortunately, in doing so he overshadowed another true fact, which was actually the presupposition of his own work as a politically-engaged philosopher: that knowledge can also be a form of liberation – the greatest one there is – as well as being the anti-authoritarian principle par excellence.

New Realism is a global philosophy, in that it involves the cooperation of thinkers from different countries. Is this a new phenome non in the cultural landscape, or can you identify similar cases in the history of thought?

Plotinus was born in Egypt, wrote in Greek and lived in Italy; Thomas Aquinas was born in Italy and studied and taught in France and Germany; Leibniz was born in Germany and wrote in French. It is only from the nineteenth century that philosophers thought of themselves as national thinkers who wrote in a national language, speaking to their countrymen. That was, I believe, a phenomenon of involution, which also took place precisely at the time when science was going more global. On the other hand, it was a transitory phenomenon, which fortunately is coming to an end.

Is New Realism an exclusively academic trend, or is it relevant outside of university?

I hope it is also relevant outside of academia, as was the case with postmodernism, hermeneutics and deconstruction. I’d be very happy if this trend got even wider than it already is – not because of any megalomaniac drives I have, but simply because I agree with Kant that in the end the practical side is what matters. If philosophy is useless outside of school, then what’s the point of it? This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. There are philosophers – quite a few, to be honest – who are proud of the fact that their views are only spread among specialists and academics. I don’t understand why. Philosophy has a public dimension to it: it’s part of its essence. If you want to do specialized research in a truly useful way, choose oncology over ontology. On the other hand, if you want to do specialized research that is not useful, that to me is rather a perversion.

Does today’s philosophy need a specific language as a lingua franca?

The fact that Conrad, Kafka or Nabokov originally spoke languages other than those in which they wrote hasn’t lessened the effectiveness of their work… Conversely, imagine what would happen to medicine if the research got fragmented into languages and dialects. It is not clear why philosophy should be an exception. But there is no one language for philosophy – this idea was claimed by the Nazi Heidegger, who argued that philosophy only speaks German. The philosophical language is not English either; of course I use it, badly, expressing myself in stammering pidgin, because it is the most widely spoken; but on occasion I use Italian and French, and also – as I have no shame – Spanish and German. I need to make myself understood, not to show that I speak a language well. This multiplicity of languages is a variety of resources – quite the opposite of the ‘single thought’ that fools wrongly attribute to globalization.

Manuel Carta has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Pisa, and is a freelance editor/writer.

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