In Social Life, We Know Truth through Human Relationships

Objective truth is fine if we want to know the weather conditions, but to live as a human in a human society, a more nuanced approach is needed to knowledge and understanding.

According to certain journals, series, and blogs, there is a new philosophical movement called “speculative” or “new realism.” The main players are young European philosophers such as Quentin Meillassoux and Markus Gabriel, among others. They claim, against idealism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics, that we can have access to primary qualities of the world as it is in itself without being dependent upon language or interpretation. They call for a return to “the Great Outdoors” (“le Grand Dehors”), which is constituted of independent objects — that is, of “a reality never exhausted by any relation to it by humans or other entities,” as Graham Harman explains. According to these thinkers, we have been imprisoned for too long by the linguistic turn and the conflict of interpretations, which holds that everything that exists is only the correlate of a subject that conceives it. Linguistic-turn philosophy has denied thought any rational access to things in themselves, allowing unfounded discourses on works of art, religious beliefs, and even animals to gain prominence. Against these aesthetic, theological, and animal studies, the “new realists” think we ought to return to the absolute, which they understand as physical reality. They call for, in other words, a “reality” independent of us, one that only mathematics can explain, even though, as Slavoj Zizek says, every "field of 'reality' (every 'world') is always already enframed, seen through an invisible frame.” Although this return to reality is useful when it comes to telling us whether it’s raining or snowing — something we can know without the aid of mathematics — can it also guide our individual or social existence?

We are not interested in evaluating whether these philosophers are actually doing something new, which in philosophy is always suspicious, but rather, we want to know what lies behind their theoretical approach. It is curious, as Simon Critchley rightly pointed out, that just “when a certain strand of Anglo-American philosophy (think of John McDowell or Robert Brandom) is making domestic the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and even allowing philosophers to flirt with forms of idealism, the latest development in Continental philosophy is seeking to return to a Cartesian realism that was believed to be dead and buried.” Although these “new” philosophers justify their theoretical beliefs in different ways, often from a mathematical point of view so as to demonstrate — despite Thomas Kuhn — the supposed stability of a scientific (in particular physics) understanding of the world, we believe their work is part of a global call to order and to behave accordingly. All this is not very different, as Arthur C. Danto recalls, from “what in France was called after World War I rappel à l’ordre — a call to order — in which avant-garde artists were enjoined to put aside their experiments and represent the world in ways reassuring to those whose worlds had been torn apart by war.” But what does this order refer to in the 21st century after the end of communism, ideology, and also history?

This order, contrary to what we might expect at first, does not refer to a reality that must be respected or imposed, but rather to the absence of events and emergencies which seems to constitute the condition of our globalized world. Although everyday life and newspapers are full of “events” and “emergencies,” the dominant impression of citizens in industrialized countries, whether at their centers or in their post-colonial slums, is that nothing new happens anymore: Reality is fixed and stable. Unlike Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben’s "state of exception," in which a sovereign decides everything, the absence of emergency is a consequence of a world, in which politics, finance, and culture have been framed within previously established parameters. The problem is not simply that these parameters have been previously agreed upon, but rather that they are meant to rescue us from emergencies, from whatever emerges as different. This excluded difference includes alternative political initiatives such as the Occupy movement, global financial reforms like the ones Thomas Piketty demands, or the survival of humanities programs in colleges and universities. Perhaps citizens’ participation in democratic elections, governments’ calls to end ECB austerity policies, or intellectuals' involvement in the public sphere, are all declining throughout Europe because a general resignation dominates, one that remains undisturbed even when there is an economic crisis like the one that we are experiencing now. But how should we respond to this condition if not by emphasizing reality?

The new realist “object-oriented ontology” asks us to accept and behave accordingly to this absence of emergency. After all, once we accept that the world as it is in itself is the same as the world should be for us, then we will grant mathematics and physics the task of providing a correct ontology of nature. In this way, whoever does not submit to the ongoing absence of emergency is mistaken, or worse, on the wrong side of reality — maybe even the wrong side of the border. This would not simply include philosophy, but also other disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and economics, which only began and are dependent upon its observers, interpreters, and communities. And it is precisely these communities which are lost as soon as we return and submit to reality. This is why, instead of tightening the social order that accompanies reality’s absence of emergencies, it is necessary to weaken this order further because “the only emergency,” as Heidegger once said, “is the absence of emergency.”

Photo © Izabela Habur

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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