Is New Realism all that new?

Markus Gabriel is the new rising star of German Philosophy with the success of his book ‘Why the World does not Exist’, first published in 2013, a year after Maurizio Ferraris’s ‘Manifesto for a New Realism’. The thirty-nine year old Professor invites his reader to reconsider the question already raised in 1986 by Thomas Nagel in his stimulating ‘Views From Nowhere’: ‘How to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and the viewpoint included.’

The suggestion that we cannot encompass and even less explain the totality of our human experience is as old as Philosophy itself and it has given rise to semi-theological theories of knowledge such as the ones developed in Leibniz and Descartes’ works. Modern theorists like Michael Dummett and Hilary Putnam also explored this hazardous territory and came up with their own interpretation of reality. Putnam went as far as defending an Aristotelian model called ‘the cryptographer model of the mind’ where every linguistic sign would correspond to an actual reference in nature. John Searle probably best summarised the dilemma opened in twentieth-century philosophy by pointing out its ‘obsession with language and meaning’ when ‘earlier centuries were obsessed with experience and knowledge’. Searle himself did not pretend to have solved the problem by adopting a ‘realist position’ holding that ‘there is a way that things are that is logically independent of all human representation. Realism does not say how things are but only that there is a way that they are.’ 

Does New Realism bring a radically new contribution and understanding to our present epistemological knowledge? Isn’t it an old shibboleth to present old ideas in a slightly new guise? Is ‘pop philosophy’ inaugurated by Slavoj Zizek, the best possible approach of highly complex contemporary issues? Unlike Kant, Gabriel contends that we are capable of knowing things in themselves and denying Nietzsche’s famous statement: There aren’t facts, only interpretations’, he rejects modern phenomenology and proclaims the existence of ‘facts in themselves’. Such a direct connection with the physical and mental world remains a puzzling proposition. 

When Gabriel takes the example of Mount Vesuvius perceived differently and therefore interpreted differently by an observer situated in Naples and another one, looking at it from across the Bay of Sorrento, he is only reaffirming Russell’s observation that ‘what the senses immediately tell us is not the truth about the object, it is merely appearance recognised as reality.’ As an empiricist, Hume also denied the universal dimension of individual perceptions and appealed to the ability of the mind to associate original impressions and give them a semblance of order and sense.

By reducing ‘thoughts’ to the status of random mental impressions, emanating directly from some indefinite world of mountains, vegetables or history, brings nothing new to the philosophical ‘table’, already convincingly ‘dissected’ by Russell in ‘The Problems of Philosophy’ (1912). New Realism candidly assumes the existence of an infinitely fragmented world, given without any further consideration as to its ultimate degree of veracity. Belief is no longer at the heart of any judgment about the validity of our perceived information and consequently, problems of knowledge become entirely redundant. There is something naïve and overambitious in a theory brushing aside centuries of serious philosophical investigations into the nature of the ‘real’ without proposing a seriously groundbreaking and cohesive ‘Weltanshauung’ (or ‘worldview’). 

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