Against Foukant

Maurizio Ferraris, trans. Sarah De Sanctis, Introduction to New Realism

Bloomsbury, 168pp, , ISBN £14.99

reviewed by Paul Ennis

Introduction to New Realism is an interesting text for a number of reasons. It is a short, but fruitful introduction into the English-speaking world of the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris. Ferraris is a proponent of the philosophical position of new realism. What makes his thinking distinct is that Ferraris emerged as a thinker from a postmodern culture wherein antirealism was long considered the default position. The book is structured as follows: it begins with a detailed Foreword by Iain Hamilton Grant, then turns to the long essay entitled Introduction to New Realism by Ferraris, and an Afterword written by Sarah De Sanctis and Vincenzo Santarcangelo. The book will be indispensable to anyone seeking to understand this relatively unknown, continental realist philosopher, to the speculative realist community with whom Ferraris’ thinking has many affinities, and of strong interest to those curious about the realist turn in continental philosophy in general. To the latter audience I would add that, like Graham Harman, Ferraris is a good stylist and hence, as an introduction to the realist turn more broadly, the book serves as a gentle guide.

Iain Hamilton Grant, in the extensive Foreword, discusses the three dogmas of idealism. To many Grant is known as one of the four original ‘speculative realists,’ but here he correctly notes the realist turn in philosophy is perhaps better characterised as a collection of critiques of certain ‘transcendental dogmas.’ Here I will briefly cover them because they neatly help explain the motivation behind Ferraris’ new realism. The first of these that Grant introduces, epistemological in nature, is that ‘Only what is conceptually reconstructed can be and be known to be’ and this leads to the linguistic turn and constructivism. The second transcendental dogma is the ‘primacy of the practical’ wherein the epistemological is slowly overshadowed by practical reason and purposiveness. In both cases, subjectivity, in either epistemological or practical form, is overriding ontology. Finally, we have: ‘because there is thinking that there is being.' This final dogma blends the prior two, so that human purpose as such becomes the cause of actual objects.

In what follows Grant provides excellent introductions to both Quentin Meillassoux’s and Markus Gabriel’s positions and helpfully contextualises Ferraris against the background of German idealism. However, this is a book about Ferraris’ new realism and for reasons of economy I turn directly to it now. Ferraris notes that whilst many in the English-speaking world are familiar with ‘speculative realism’ few have been aware of its correlate, so to speak, in his own two-decade long story of continental realism. For Ferraris, the switch to realism was motivated by a question and an insight: the former concerning ‘why should we reduce being to understanding?’ and the latter that ‘there can be ontology without transparency: indeed, a certain opacity seems to be the fundamental nature of all that exists.’ The question is clearly the one facing all constructivists confronted with an ontological reality that refuses its own reduction to discourse. Remaining with constructivism, Ferraris is content to accept that there areas, specifically social ones, that can be read as constructed. Nonetheless, on the corollary, there are those that are clearly not, ‘natural objects’, for instance. The end of constructivism is, as Ferraris notes, acutely tied to the end of the linguistic turn, the increased emphasis on perception, and the ontological turn. However, as he crucially notes, new realism is not naïve realism, but a return to a less fractured philosophical scene that builds upon the insights of the past.

The true import of new realism comes in its ontological component which has three guiding theses: negativity qua critique of constructivism, positivity qua the existence of mind independent reality, and normativity qua sociality: ‘The Hegelian character of this triad is quite manifest: from the pure negativity of thought that attempts to construct the real, to the positivity of reality that feeds the mind, up until the forms of reality created by thought that become capable of making rules, and thus also negativity and prohibitions.’ Let us begin, then, with the first step of this dialectical triad, negativity. For Ferraris negativity began positively as a critique of oppressive social constructions, but evolved into a belief that there is nothing that is not ‘socially constructed.’ In its postmodern form it results in a process of derealisation or ‘realitism’ where it becomes impossible to distinguish between what is real and what is not. The villains of the piece soon come into the picture: Foucault and Kant. They are merged into Foukant: ‘Foukant’s thesis ultimately consists in the following syllogism: reality is constructed by knowledge, knowledge is constructed by power, and ergo reality is constructed by power.’

Foukant’s thesis is shown to be fallacious because (a) there is a mind independent reality and so knowledge does not construct reality, (b) realism allows for critique and transformation and is not bound to the knowledge-power dyad and (c) linking knowledge of reality with power tends towards a fear of knowledge, i.e. ignorance. Foukant’s first thesis, essentially constructivism, is then relayed through the character of Deskant (Descartes and Kant) as the origin of the philosophical desire to build reality from the side of the subject. Ultimately, Deskant and Foukant are presented with a simple retort concerning what to make of reality being a construction when there was a time prior to us as conceptual constructors. Despite a long discussion of the historical issues surrounding mind-independence Ferraris is, to my mind, more interesting when he switches to the positivity part of his dialectical triad that he calls the ‘the metaphysical core of new realism.’ More interesting because Ferraris turns constructivism on its head by stressing how perceptual experience, with its many modalities of unexpected manifestation, reveals a reality that is non-constructed. This ‘unamendability’ of reality is crucial because it renders us ‘receptors of meaning’ rather constructors of it.

In fact, Ferraris’ concern with resistant nature of reality eventually opens out into an account of a form of imbrication wherein we find ourselves immersed in a reality that can surprise us, but nonetheless as social beings involves a significant normative dimension. For instance, our age is one clearly marked by a high number of technical devices (especially those that record) and these are the ‘foundation of the social world.’ However, these foundations for social life, documents, recording devices, and so on, are given an important normative dimension in their usage. In Ferraris’ language, what is ‘dead’ (the document for example) is given ‘life’ by a community. A further advantage of this ‘documentality’ is that the simple existence of social objects is evidence of an intersubjective community. The persistence of social objects, including abstract ones, is also secured by the normativity of a social body since all that is required to sustain them is documentation (even if it is just ‘human memory’). What is crucial to Ferraris here is that ‘intentionality’ (in the sense of intersubjective normativity) ‘derives from documentality.’ That there are documents is the evidence, simple but direct, that there is operative intentionality in social terms, but the material, so to speak, is prior.

In turn, we find that, on the same basis, ‘normativity’ also ‘derives from documentality.’ Documentality allows us to ‘keep traces’ (recordings) and it is upon these that we begin to find the basis for being responsible agents. The proliferation of social objects that record holds us tight to our ‘obligations’. In other words, the spread of recording and inscription can be seen as increasing our normative commitments and, inverting the usual fear of the proliferation of traceability, Ferraris grants it a positive aspect in rendering us more responsible than ever before. There are some important points I wish to emphasise before turning to the book’s Afterword. First: new realism neatly rescues for continental realists the core insights concerning trace, documentality and textuality found in figures such as Foucault and Derrida and thus builds a bridge back to this tradition which, to be frank, has been under heavy assault by speculative realism specifically. Second: I have not placed a heavy emphasis on Ferraris’ accounts of contemporary social phenomena, such as the internet, but his willingness to dive into discussions of these entities as a realist is refreshing since so much realism remains locked in the critical phase of the debate. Finally: one must note that the translation, undertaken by Sarah De Sanctis, deserves special mention since she has managed to capture, unobtrusively, Ferraris’ easy-going and engaging style.

This brings me to the Afterword written by De Sanctis and Vincenzo Santarcangelo. This is a relatively long essay in its own right and provides a detailed account of realist turn in continental philosophy. Limiting themselves to ‘speculative realism’ and ‘commonsense realism’ the turn is marked first and foremost, the authors argue, by their commitment to mind-independent reality. The first thinker engaged with is Graham Harman whose position of object-oriented ontology is depicted as notable for its nuanced engagement with Kant: Harman accepts human finitude, but nonetheless, through his famous reading of Heidegger’s tool-analysis, refuses to limit relations to the ‘human-world relation’. Ferraris is also discussed, but granting we have covered his arguments already let us turn to the next thinker, namely Quentin Meillassoux and his critique of correlationism. Meillassoux’s critique of antirealism hinges on ancestral time or a time when there was no human-world relation (or co-relation between human and world) such that one is reminded that the real was ‘there first’. The authors then turn to a uniting feature of common-sense realism: perception and how it is, as they claim Ferraris argues, often downplayed by correlationism. Here the stress is on Ferraris’ unamendability thesis that, as we saw earlier, leads to his own brand of new realism (Hilary Putnam is also included in this category).

Turning to speculative realism the authors return to Harman’s object-oriented ontology and here the authors provide a precise account of his undermining-overmining dyad whereby objects are to be understood as either ‘deeper’ (undermined) or ‘given a structure by the human mind’ (overmined). The point, of course, is that what is missed in either process are the objects themselves. Harman builds a vision of objects that blends the insights of phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and proceeds to radicalise them. From Husserl we gain unified objects that nonetheless have ‘accidental qualities’. From Heidegger we gain a version of unamendability wherein objects withdraw from complete human access. For Harman our own inability to completely relate to objects, he deduces, must hold for all objects such that relationality is flattened as a concept, no longer simply about how the human relates to the world. Alongside Harman is a treatment of Quentin Meillassoux and his anti-correlationist attempt to think the ‘absolute’. Meillassoux’s signature move is to take a core assumption of correlationism, that one cannot speak about the absolute, and then turn this into a form of absolute knowledge: ‘we know that all options are possible and that is it’ (i.e. absolute contingency). A further gloss on Meillassoux is provided, but let us turn to the words of the conclusion since, as the authors note, whilst we have here many divergent and oftentimes incompatible positions there is a clear desire, ‘the wish to break out of correlation and to reach the thing-in-itself,’ that unites these figures.

What is at stake in new realism and, by extension, the return to realism more broadly, is a profound philosophical shift. It entails a rejection against not just a central figure of the tradition, Immanuel Kant, but a postmodern culture that has, one might say, led us down a blind alley where reality has receded into mere construction. Therefore, I would contend it is not entirely important that an antirealist agrees with the arguments of new realism and speculative realism, but it is absolutely important that this convergence around realism is occurring and cannot be simply ignored. Continental realism may be disparate – diffuse even – but it indicates a trend and trends do not emerge haphazardly. It is now increasingly clear that correlationism (antirealism) is, at least, prone to anthropocentrism. If philosophy is to a more complete science, then restricting ourselves to the domain of the human-world relation is a limiting exercise and, as continental realists in various ways have shown, there are arguments that allow you to override this limit. Knowing this the impetus to ‘grow’ the reach of one’s thinking is opened and, at least to my mind, this constitutes sufficient motivation to explore these exciting new forms of continental realism. This is the ideal text for new readers of the realist turn to begin that journey.