The obvious and the self-evident are also the hallmarks of prejudice and danger. And what could be more obvious than that our maps, theories and histories of the world help us understand the world because they reflect reality. Science works because it is uncovering how the world really is.
Self-evident common sense it may be – and one that Michaela Massimi and Simon Blackburn endorsed in their debate with me in After Relativism – but it is a mistake, and a dangerous mistake to boot. The name of this philosophical mistake is realism.
What is dangerous about realism is that it encourages those who believe they have uncovered the truth to dismiss other accounts and sometimes to describe these alternative perspectives with derision or worse. From suicide bombers and terrorists to dictatorial governments and fanatical cults, the most ardent and violent supporters are typically realists. In the name of truth and in the name of having uncovered how the world ultimately is, it is possible to sanction almost any crime. So let us not think this seemingly arcane philosophical argument about metaphysics does not bite where it matters.
When James Frazer published The Golden Bough in 1890, a comparative study listing hundreds of religions and magical beliefs side by side, it sent shock waves through a culture that was still largely realist about such matters. For it was widely assumed that religious and moral beliefs were supported by the objective and independent character of reality. Ten years later, an updated edition caused further outrage by including Christianity as merely one alongside many other religious and magical belief systems. It was not long, however, before the plethora of perspectives turned outrage into the forced retreat of religious and moral realism.
The attack on realism gathered momentum in the early twentieth century as language ceased to be seen as a neutral conveyor of thought, and philosophy caught the bug in the so-called “linguistic turn”. With an indefinite number of possible languages each with their own concepts and perspective, the puzzle of what was ultimately out there became more perplexing. If each language carried its own unique account of the world how could we from our Indo-European perspective hope to describe an independent reality? The subsequent failure of the project to describe how language is hooked onto the world led Wittgenstein to abandon realism and remains perhaps the core evidence that realism is an error.
In the wake of a religious, moral, cultural, historical and linguistic relativism, the last remaining bastion of realism post-war was science. Science is, of course, itself a language, but scientific realists wish to ring-fence this particular vocabulary and methodology to retain a notion of “the real” that is independent of thought and language. Thomas Kuhn's demonstration of the manner in which scientific paradigms could be maintained in the face of contrary evidence was a threat to this remaining haven of realism. Paul Feyerabend in his historical examination of the church's response to Galileo, and his demonstration that the Aristotelian view of the heavens was quite capable of accounting for the evidence, left scientific realism in disrepair.
It is surely implausible to suppose that there is rather magically one form of language and description that is somehow able to reach through the perspectival character of thought and say how things really are. Of course it can look like that to us, just as many in the late 19th century thought Christian and moral beliefs were objectively true. Science is our dominant cultural frame for understanding the world just as once it was Christianity. So it can look to us as if “atoms” and “forces” and “quarks” are not the particular concepts of a particular set of cultures in a particular historical epoch, but have somehow stepped outside of the limitations of language and thought to reach through to the world as it is. But there is not a going viable explanation about how such a thing could be possible, let alone be actually the case. Moreover the history of science and the competing and sometimes contradictory models of our current framework demonstrate the implausibility of such a notion.
Many of the major philosophers of the last century or so, both in the English speaking and European traditions, have been critics of realism. These philosophers would include the dominant figures of Wittgenstein and Derrida, the founder of logical analysis Bertrand Russell, as well as the seminal philosophers Nietzsche and Heidegger. In the pantheon of great philosophers, out and out realists are rather hard to find. Yet the everyday commonsense view is for realism.
So why the divide? Realists often present themselves as being sensible and down to earth and critics of realism as being somehow romantic and airy-fairy. Yet the inverse applies. Realism is maintained in the face of intellectual challenge often without any real attempt to provide a response. It is held as a faith, as a ‘commonsense’ position, as if this is enough to sustain it. As a result, realism is often held out of emotional conviction rather than intellectual rigour. This is perhaps understandable. To give up the notion that our theories are effective because they describe the world is, seemingly, to leave ourselves adrift in a universe that we cannot comprehend. Russell, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Derrida did not question realism because their heads were in the clouds, but because they were ardent rationalists seeking to make sense of what it is to be alive. In pursuit of that goal they were not prepared to dodge or evade difficult issues that threatened everyday beliefs and assumptions.
At its most prosaic, we have to find an alternative to realism because we do not have a decent theory which makes realism plausible. And its apparent alternative, relativism, is also not a possibility because relativism relies on an implicit realism to be expressed. If “there is no truth” is that not itself an example of a truth? If “we operate in a world of competing perspectives”, is not that description an ultimate and realist account of how things are?
This is the predicament that contemporary thought is facing and it is a predicament that has to be addressed. The Enlightenment story that has driven intellectual and economic progress for the last few hundred years has been undermined. Nor is it completely implausible to say that the contemporary relative weakness of the West and the uncertainties that beset its populace are linked to this theoretical malaise.
In the face of this insistent and critical puzzle, I have had my own stab at a response in the theory “Closure” which argues that the world is open and it is we who create particularity through the process of closure. You won’t be surprised to hear that I think this account has value and potential to help us out of the conundrum. But I do not of course claim to have uncovered how things ultimately are. There will be others with different and perhaps more powerful accounts. Instead of seeking the answer to the world we should be seeking to create effective tools to enable us to intervene more successfully. There is no one correct tool, but many different tools with different strengths and weaknesses.
The alternative to realism is not relativism, but non-realism or what might be called postrealism. In answer to the question, “what is out there?” the postrealist says the world is out there but it does not have the character of language or thought. It is not divided into bits and things, objects, qualities and relations. We can hold it as these things through our senses and our thought and we can as a result intervene successfully in the world. The world provides a constraint on which closures we are able to realise and which are successful. But closures do not map or describe how things are. Instead they are implements and tools to enable us to change the world.
So it is that the postrealist gives up the fantasy that we will find the answer. Be it through a guru, a philosopher or a cosmologist. Yet is this so much to abandon? Millennia of human endeavour have not enabled us to arrive so far. Shouldn’t we conclude that it’s just not going to happen? Imagine, after all, if a theory of everything was uncovered. Would we close down our research establishments and vacate our churches? Simply to propose such an outcome is to identify its implausibility. We are never going to come to the end. We are never going to uncover how the world is. Science, philosophy, religion are equally limited. They provide ways of holding the world but they are not going to enable us to uncover the world itself.
While postrealism has to give up the Enlightenment dream that we will uncover how the world ultimately is or what is “really out there”, it has a more viable and potentially more exciting dream to replace it. Namely that there is no potential limit to the ways we can close the world, and therefore no limit to the ways we can intervene. Not all of these will be successful, not all will be desirable, but there is also no limit on what we can do and what we may be able to achieve.
Hilary Lawson is author of Closure: a story of everything, a post Derridian return to metaphysics, and Reflexivity: the post-modern predicament. Lawson is Director of the IAI and Vice-Chair of the Forum for European Philosophy.