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By Maurizio Ferraris
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Maurizio Ferraris
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The first essential principle of positive realism is that the world does not merely say "no": it does not only resist us. It is also the greatest ontological positivity. In order to illustrate this point I would like to consider the debate that took place roughly twenty years ago between a constructivist, Richard Rorty, and a negative realist, Umberto Eco. With the aim of demonstrating the world's plasticity with regards to our vital objectives, Rorty affirmed that "one can clean one's ear with a screwdriver". This was denied by Eco, who posited that you cannot clean your ears with a screwdriver because it is too long and pointy, but you could very well use it as a weapon instead (Eco referred to the "screwdriver murders" on Italian streets in the Sixties). It is as simple as that: the constructionist claims that reality is docile in respect of our purposes, while the negative realist objects that it can also say "no" to us. Upon closer inspection however, the situation is more complex and promising than that: this very simple example is enough for us to notice that the small portion of reality we call "screwdriver" does not merely say 'no' to us but, at the same time, it offers us an invite (or rather, many invites).
Children in a pre-linguistic age are already able to segment linguistic reality into objects – which for Kant, strictly speaking, would not be possible, given that, presumably, they do not possess the scheme of substance as permanence in time. These objects, in turn, have properties that constitute a set of 'invites'. By this term I mean a notion that was widely used in the twentieth century, in a timeframe that goes from phenomenology to Gestalt psychology up to Heidegger's existential analytics. The idea is that, at least to some extent, meanings are in the world, embodied in objects which offer us affordances – to use Gibson's term, which has a significant precedent in Fichte's 'Aufforderungskaracter'.
In short, every negation entails a determination, and every determination is a revelation. The impossibility of using a screwdriver as a glass, a needle or a cotton bud hides just as many possibilities: you can use a screwdriver as a dagger, a lever, a skewer ... If this holds for an object as simple as a screwdriver, it's not hard to imagine what possibilities rest in ontologically 'richer' realities, both in the sphere of natural objects and in the sphere of social objects. Ecosystems, state organizations, interpersonal relationships: every one of these structures, infinitely more complex than a screwdriver, feature the dynamic of negation and invite. One might object that these objects are nothing without a subject able to give them some meaning, but this is precisely the point we should be most careful about: what do we mean by 'subject', to begin with? Can this notion be tolerant enough to include a superorganism like a termite mound? And, if it isn't, how do we explain that a termite mound is a structure so powerful and evolutionarily successful?
This positivity of the real goes against the constructivist mainstream of modern philosophy. According to this view, we cannot access reality through immediate experience but only through knowledge, so that natural light is replaced by the sovereign enlightenment of reason, and the world, reduced to mere negativity, is conceived of as the non-I as opposed to the I – the alienation of the spirit into something that is not thought. Of course, constructivists claim that the world's dependence on conceptual schemes is not causal, but merely representational: we are not the creators of the universe, but we shape it starting from an amorphous hyle, a cookie dough modelled by the subjects with the stamps of concepts.Thus, the existence of the world is granted, but at the cost of losing the world's structural and morphological autonomy.
The 'representational dependence' of the world means that: 1) there is no world if not for a spectator (correlationism) and 2) the spectator is actually the constructor of that world (constructivism). However, if we try to give concrete shape to representational dependence, we will notice that the technical term hides conceptual confusion. Following this thesis, you take a being (say, the Tyrannosaurus Rex as a physical entity) and treat it as if it were a linguistic or zoological notion, concluding that – since without humans the term 'Tyrannosaurus Rex' wouldn't exist – the Tyrannosaurus Rex 'representationally' depends on humans. Which is either a truism (if by 'representationally' we mean something like 'linguistically') or a perfect absurdity (if by 'representationally' we mean something – even slightly – more than that). In fact, this would imply that the being of the Tyrannosaurus Rex depends on us; but then, given that when the Tyrannosaurus Rex existed we did not, it would paradoxically follow that the Tyrannosaurus Rex both did and did not exist. Ontology (what there is) is systematically resolved in epistemology (what we know, or think we know), just like the Tyrannosaurus Rex is systematically confused with the word 'Tyrannosaurus Rex'.
This is a consequence of what I propose to call 'transcendental fallacy', namely, the Kantian proposal to found experience through science. To achieve this, we need a change of perspective: we have to start from the subjects rather than the objects, and ask ourselves not how things are in themselves, but how they should be made in order to be known by us, following the model of physicists who question nature not as scholars, but as judges, using schemes and theorems. Kant then adopts an a priori epistemology, i.e. mathematics, to found ontology: the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments allows us to fixate an otherwise fluid reality through certain knowledge. In this way, transcendental philosophy moves constructionism from the sphere of mathematics to that of ontology. The laws of physics and mathematics are applied to reality and, in Kant's hypothesis, they are not the contrivance of a group of scientists, but they are the way in which our minds and senses actually work.
If we take ontology and epistemology to be at one, our knowledge will no longer be threatened by the unreliability of the senses and the uncertainty of induction, but the price we have to pay is that there is no longer any difference between the fact that there is an object X and the fact that we know the object X. And since for Kant – just like for Descartes and postmodern thinkers – knowledge is inherently construction, there is no difference in principle between the fact that we know the object X and the fact that we construct it – just as in mathematics, where knowing 7 + 5 = 12 is equivalent to constructing the addition 7 + 5 = 12. Of course, Kant invites us to think that behind the phenomenal object X there is a noumenal object Y, a thing-in-itself inaccessible to us; but the fact remains that the sphere of being coincides to a very large extent with that of the knowable, and that the knowable is essentially equivalent to the constructible.
3. Positive Philosophy.
This fallacy was clearly stigmatized by the 'second' Schelling. All modern philosophy – from Descartes to Kant and Fichte, to Schelling himself in the first phase of his thought, up to Hegel – is negative philosophy. 'Ego cogito ergo sum', 'intuitions without concepts are blind', 'what is rational is real': all these expressions mean that certainty is to be sought in epistemology, in what we know and think, and not in ontology (what there is). For the later Schelling however, the opposite direction is the one to follow. Being is not something constructed by thought: it is given before thought comes to be. Not only because we know of interminable periods in which there was the world, but there were no people, but also because what initially appears as thought actually comes from outside of us: the words of our mother, the myths and rules, the totems and taboos that we encounter in everyday life are merely found by us, just as in Mecca one comes across a meteorite.
Under the theoretical profile, ontological necessity can be articulated through the argument from facticity. We build cars, use them, sell them, and this undoubtedly depends on us. Yet the fact that we build cars, that there were things before us and that there will be things after us does not depend on us. There cannot be a generalised constructivism with regard to facts, and this is because, banally, there are facts that precede us: we could all say, like Erik Satie, "I have come into the world very young into an era very old". In this world that is given to us, "we follow the rule blindly", as suggested by Wittgenstein: that is – translating this formula into our terms – we rely on an ontology that precedes epistemology, or on a competence that precedes understanding.
We encounter objects that have an ontological consistence independently from our knowledge and that then, either suddenly or through a slow process, are known by us. We find out parts of ourselves (for instance, that we are envious or that we have fear of mice) just like we discover pieces of nature. We notice elements of society (for instance, enslavement, exploitation, women's subordination and then, with a greater sensitivity, also mobbing or political incorrectness) that turn out to be unbearable and were previously hidden, namely assumed as obvious by a political or social unconscious. This encounter does not amount to acceptance. The moment of awareness will hopefully come, but it will be a matter of acknowledging what we are and what the world is. In the psychological and social world, the motto could be 'I am therefore I (sometimes) think'. And what I think is not the result of an absolute, constitutive and independent intentionality, but of a documentality made of traditions, languages and influences that draw the psychic world no less than the social.
Under the historical profile, if we were to trace a genealogy of positive realism we would not only find Schelling (and the whole of Christian philosophy related to the theme of revelation), but also a tradition in which revelation is far from religious, referring to the fact that the world is given. In this perspective, we also find the origin of thought as emerging from reality. So, to clarify the position of positive realism by means of formulas, we should notice what follows.
Metaphysical realism (if we grant that such a position ever really existed as it is represented by antirealists) supposes a full mirroring of thought and reality:
(1) Thought < - > Reality
Constructivism, finding this relation between two distinct realities incomprehensible, suggests a constitutive role of thought with respect to reality:
(2) Thought > Reality
Positive realism, instead, sees thought as an emerging datum of reality, just like gravity, photosynthesis and digestion.
(3) Thought < Reality
This is why sense 'is given': it is not at our complete disposal, just like the possibilities and impossibilities of the screwdriver. Sense is a mode of organization for which something presents itself in some way. This, however, does not depend on the subjects: it is not the production of some transcendental self with its categories. Here there is rather something like Husserl's passive synthesis or the 'synopsis of sense' enigmatically mentioned by Kant in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason: The world has its own order before the subject appears. There is something on the background that can become a figure. Thus, we need to show how thought emerges from being. Thanks to Darwin, this process can be conceived of as the development of an (intelligent) epistemology on the basis of a non-intelligent ontology. It is not necessary to think of a spirit determining the passage from ontology to epistemology. One can very well propose an 'upward' perspective, for which the organic is the outcome of the inorganic, conscience emerges from non-conscious elements and epistemology emerges from ontology.
At this point, we have everything we need for a fully articulated system. There is a first level – that of an ontology of the natural world – where the inorganic becomes organic and, eventually, conscious. Then begins a second level: the construction of the social world, in which the role of epistemology is not simply reconstructive, but constructive. This double articulation overturns the setting of negative philosophy: sense is produced by non-sense, possibilities arise from the clash against reality, and philosophy does not have to become a fragmentary view that gives up finding a comprehensive sense to the real. The mind emerges from the world, and in particular from that piece of world that regards it the most: the body and the brain. Then it faces the environment (both natural and social) and itself. In this encounter – which is a reconstruction and a revelation, but not a construction – the mind elaborates (both individually and collectively) an epistemology that takes being as its object. The successful encounter between mind and world, like that between ontology and epistemology, is not guaranteed – error is always possible. But when the mind manages to find accord with the world it comes from (which, I repeat, does not at all amount to providing an exact photograph, also because the world is in perennial motion and is hard to picture), then we have truth.
One might bring Thomas Nagel's view as an objection. The scholar, in fact, has recently claimed that the debate between Darwinians and supporters of the 'intelligent plan' has not proved the latter right, but rather shown the former's weakness – in fact, Darwin's hypothesis cannot explain phenomena like conscience, knowledge and values. Indeed, what is the advantage of having a conscience that, as Hamlet put it, 'does make cowards of us'? And how can we explain the emergence of intelligence out of mere matter? As I said, in Darwinian terms one can claim that – just like life is composed of inorganic elements, to which it shall return, in a non-miraculous way – intelligence can very well (or rather, necessarily must) arise from nonintelligent elements. All the same, Nagel sees this conception as a reductionist bias that seems all the more evident when consciousness and intelligence reach very high levels of abstraction, which seem to exclude the very necessity of a mankind capable of thought. As he wrote in 1974: "after all, there would have been transfinite numbers even if everyone had been wiped out by the Black Death before Cantor discovered them." Now, what would the evolutional advantage of transfinite numbers be?
A neo-Darwinian like Stephen Jay Gloud would have claimed that it is a collateral effect of a more developed central nervous system (which is an evolutional advantage per se). Nagel, instead, asserts that this is one of the many aspects of the world that Darwinism cannot explain. Nagel's real objective though is not to criticize Darwinism but rather, in positive, to propose the right and ambitious idea of a vaster science, almost a reborn speculative knowledge à la German idealism. The fundamental trait of this enlarged science consists in resorting not only to causal explanations (A causes B) but also to final explanations – it is what, in philosophical jargon, is called 'teleology': A causes B because B's purpose was C. For instance, Man developed a cerebral mass superior to that of other primates because s/he was part of a finalised project, whose end was to produce a consciousness. As Dante, a great supporter of teleology, put it: "you were not made to live as brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge".
Nagel refers to Aristotle in his claim, but his real predecessor is rather Leibniz in the Discourse of Metaphysics (1686): in it, the philosopher is critical of the 'nouveaux philosophes" of his time, who wanted to ban final causes from physics. According to Leibniz, a physicist who wished to explain nature only through efficient causes would be limited no less than a historian who tried to explain the conquest of a stronghold without taking into account the objectives of the general who led the battle, merely saying that the particles of powder in the cannon managed to push a hard solid body against the walls of the place, so that it crumbled down. Now, as for the exigency of a teleological science, we could note that natural science (and not only social science, where the recourse to final causes is ever-present) is intrinsically teleological, without nature being itself teleological. Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, saw this very clearly: when we observe nature through the lens of a scientist, we consider it as a whole and hypothesise its ends. Epistemology, namely what we know or believe to know, is intrinsically teleological: if they show us the section of an eye we won't manage to understand much until we hypothesise that the eye is made for seeing; then the function of the pupil, the crystalline lens and the retina will become clear. But ontology, what there is, is not necessarily teleological. It is so in the social world, not in the natural world that Darwin refers to.
Excerpted from Positive Realism by Maurizio Ferraris. Copyright © 2014 Maurizio Ferraris. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
1 Invite 1
2 Resistance 11
3 Objects 19
4 Realisms 27
5 Fiction 37
6 Possibility 49