Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


The death of realism

How philosophers create their own realities

realism part 1

The various schools of contemporary philosophy have a fundamental similarity: realism. It is also their fatal flaw. Despite the defences of philosophers such as Timothy Williamson, the problem of self reference is inescapable when making statements about ‘the world.’ For this reason, realism has no future in philosophy argues Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel.


What exactly is philosophy in 2021 and what is its future? In trying to answer this question one loses oneself in the diversity of positions that each school claims are the most promising. Among all the philosophical currents in force today, should we privilege the most recent? For example, analytic metaphysics (Lowe, Tiercelin, etc.) which under the name of "ontological turn" has sought in recent years to perpetuate the supposedly analytic way of philosophizing, or speculative realism (Meillassoux, Brassier, etc.) which passes for being the continental version of the ontological renewal, and has itself produced different movements or subsets, such as flat ontology (Harman, Garcia) and neo-realism (Gabriel, Ferraris)? Or should we continue to rely on the great currents that marked the twentieth century, as contemporary supporters of phenomenology (Marion, Romano) and Wittgenstein's inveterate followers (Travis, Diamond) are wont to do?

But to choose between these currents would be to ignore a new fact: all of these philosophers, beyond their apparent opposition, claim the same position: realism. Faced with this quasi mass-phenomenon, a question arises: can this realism really be the future of philosophy, as so many recent philosophers of all stripes wish?

The desire to make realism the “unsurpassable horizon” of our philosophical time runs up against many objections.

Three common theses lie behind these different realist currents. Firstly, an ontological thesis: the real is everything that is independent because it is external and anterior to my representations, aims or cognitive schemas.  Secondly, an epistemological thesis: we can have an exact knowledge of this independent real. The skeptical or relativist suspicion (so common in the 1970s), that we cannot claim to have access to a real in itself, is discarded. Finally, a philosophical thesis about the definition of truth.  Truth is defined by the correspondence of my proposition to an external thing (facts, states of affairs or world posited as independent of my judgment). The reality outside me is what makes the truth of my proposition (the real is “truth-maker”).

But, the reader may ask, if these different currents agree on both what is real (independent and knowable) and what is the definition of truth (subordinated to an independent real), why do they fight on a bitter war? If they agree on what is real (by definition), they do not agree on what sorts of things are real - on the cases or individuals to which the concept applies. The real is that which is perceived (according to Austin’s heirs), or its is the material thing or the state of physical facts (for the physicalists, materialists, naturalists), or the famous “given” of the phenomenologists, the “forms of life” of the wittgensteinians, the essences of certain analytic metaphysicians or any object including the unicorn as the partisans of the flat ontology claim? These differences, however, do not alter the profound unanimity which, through their three shared theses, has made the independent, knowable and “truth-making” real the new Eldorado of philosophy.

Yet this desire to make realism the “unsurpassable horizon” of our philosophical time runs up against many objections.

 1) If philosophers are defined as having the "real" as their exclusive field of investigation, what are other disciplines (physics, sociology, etc.) about, and what is specific to the philosophical approach?

 2) The definition of truth as conformity to an independent thing risks dragging us into an inextricable circle. Indeed, to say that an independent real fact makes true our proposition supposes that we first determine what this fact consists of. It would thus be necessary for us to already identify this fact at first. Nevertheless, to determine this real fact supposes that we determine it in a true manner; but to do so, we must already have determined the external fact, since it is what makes our statement true, etc. This circularity can be found in the works of a great number of contemporary realists who first elect or postulate the reference which will be the guarantor of our propositions’ truth, and then define truth as subordinate to this previously elected "fact".

 3) Contemporary realism has kept widening the sphere of what is real to the sensible, but also to the unobservable of physics, the mathematical entities or the essences, the forms of life or the facts of culture in general and even to neo-realists’ unicorn. Because they believe the real being must remain the maker of truth, it becomes necessary for them to first define the field of the real being (ontology) by extending it always more. But, in doing so, the word "real" ends up no longer having an opposite. It becomes a vague and empty word, a watchword that cannot hide the essential, that the realists have sometimes absurdly multiplied the "realities" but have omitted to pluralize the notion of truth.

By declaring that there is no truth, I am in fact presupposing that there is at least one truth, namely that “there is no truth”.

 Indeed, there are several ways for a proposition to be true or false. A factual synthetic proposition like "the cat is on the mat" is exact by virtue of its correspondence to an empirically verifiable fact; an analytical proposition like "no bachelor is married" is necessary because of the definition of the initial term, its opposite is therefore impossible; likewise a proposition like "If all A's are B’s and all B's are C’s then all A's are C’s" is correct by virtue of the laws of formal logic. These last two types of true propositions come under a definition of truth as coherence and not as correspondence.

But what about propositions of the type: "there is no truth"? They are false because the act of enunciation (the act of saying) cancels the content of the utterance (what is said). Indeed, by declaring that there is no truth, I am in fact presupposing that there is at least one truth, namely that “there is no truth”. The contradiction here is performative. Neither the definition of truth as mere conformity to an external fact (truth/reality) nor its definition as the application of simple rules of formal logic (truth/coherence) can be maintained here.

But what do we do when we analyze such propositions? We come back to the proposition itself and become aware that the enunciation cancels the content of our judgment. Thought here reflects upon the act of saying or thinking X. It is a movement of reflection in which we ask ourselves whether the act of saying X does not expose what is said as false, as in the trivial statement "I am not speaking", or in a more complex way in the classical liar’s paradox. Thought does not go outwards, that is, towards the thing or the content of what is said, but returns upon the act of saying. It is this reflexivity that contemporary realists undertake to deny by reducing all propositions susceptible of truth or falsehood to statements directed towards an independent, external and therefore, in their eyes, real reference.

Philosophers are not just there to point at reality, they must also become builders of possibilities, architects of the universal.

As a corollary, they conceal another possible dimension of truth. In the history of philosophy, defining truth is not always referring to a reality = X but can mean accessing a demonstrable universality. In this framework, universality is not a domain that would be there in itself, outside of us and without us. Universality is a norm or requirement to be aimed at, and not a fact or a state of affairs. Truth = reality is in no way incompatible with truth=universality, as can be attested, at the very least, by mathematics whose propositions do not need to refer to an outside being “in itself” in order to be truth-compatible.

These definitions of truth are simply on another level: accepting the one should not lead to ignoring the other. And yet, this is what contemporary realists do. By absolutizing their definition and taking the risk of endlessly multiplying the number of real entities, they refuse to allow that truth may be “said in many ways” and that this does not necessarily drive us into some kind of relativist corner. In short, by renouncing reflection—the general question of self-referentiality—and universality, contemporary realists take two risks: firstly, since everything can become real and every single philosopher can exhibit his or her own “real”—nature, forms of life, but also the unicorn—, they may lose the real; secondly, they may also surrender the specificity of philosophy (see objection 1).

So to the question “can realism be the future of philosophy” we must answer: no. The philosopher has other instruments than the mere reference to a fact, for example reflection. He or she has other aims than just to say what is punctually the case, for example the search for the universal, which is not a given but an aim. Philosophers are not just there to point at reality, they must also become builders of possibilities, architects of the universal.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation

David Morey 1 March 2021

A strong case.