REALISM WAS NEVER ABANDONED: reply to Crispin Sartwell

The New York Times has published a very bad article by Crispin Sartwell accrediting the fairytale idea that the eighties was a time of flight from realism into relativism and linguistic idealism, and that now we are witnessing a realist turn, a veritable return to the world.

The intellectual history on which this fairytale is based is a pure fabrication and it is supported in Sartwell’s case by trivial anecdotes rather than by any analysis of the works and doctrines of the philosophers cited or alluded to.We see Stanley Fish dogmatising at a baseball game, and constructing his views from a reading of Jacques Derrida construed as a post-modern textual idealist.

In fact the eighties, like the seventies, saw the blooming of a thousand realist philosophies. Crispin Sartwell did not notice this as he cannot even distinguish between “truth” and “reality” (speaking of Stanley Fish, Sartwell writes:

And by developing the view that truth was a matter of linguistic practice rather than referring to a reality outside of language, he had become one of the spearheads of “postmodernism.”

Sartwell’s notion of “French post -structuralism” is not based on any acquaintance with the texts, but on vague rumours of what Derrida is supposed to have thought. All the most well-known French post-structuralists were materialists and realists: Althusser, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, Bourdieu, and Serres. All of them believed in the omnipresence of interpretation, but thought this was no hindrance to realism. All of them emphasised the importance of the “event” as non-linguistic occurence. Popperian and post-Popperian philosophy of science developped the demands of testability as integral to the requirements of realism.

Bruno Latour, cited by Sartwell, is a perfect example of a synthesis of these two traditions from his very first book LABORATORY LIFE, published in 1979, up to his most recent book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. One of the key ideas of the latter are that a certain number of incommensurable modes of enunciation are also modes of existence. Latour considers himself a realist, but he rejects the idea of a real existing outside the modes.

Sartwell seems to have no idea of the actual content of Latour’s ideas, but throws him in the grab-bag of new realists to create the false impression of a “realist turn”. Realism was never abandoned, and is still going strong in those thinkers who trace their ideas back to the influence of the realist current of the seventies and eighties. Badiou, Latour, Laruelle, and Stiegler are all realists.

Particularly ludicrous is Sartwell’s favorable mention of Graham Harman’s philosophy as participating in the general movement of a return to the world. Does Sartwell even know that Harman’s real objects are declared by him to be “withdrawn”, and to be invisible, untouchable, inaudible, and “unknowable”. Another sign of Sartwell’s feigned or real ignorance of earlier realisms is his treatment of them as philosophies of consciousness (“I ran out of interest in my own consciousness around 1990, but there’s no reason ever to run out of interest in the world”). All of these philosophies were built around a critique of the centrality of the conscious subject (example, Popper’s “Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject” was published in 1968).

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4 Responses to REALISM WAS NEVER ABANDONED: reply to Crispin Sartwell

  1. dmf says:

    ah well he obviously didn’t understand what Rorty was saying in person so can’t expect him to have understood authors via texts…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Philip says:

    It’s what I’ve been coming to realise more and more in current philosophical circles: simple sells.


  3. Philip says:

    I do like this reader comment though:

    “”The next day in class he expanded the ball and strike example into a theory of literary interpretation, and finally of reality: what’s true or false in these areas is what authoritative interpretive communities approve. Law is a practice like this, he said. Philosophy is. Science is.” This cognitive behavior can only occur among humans who have gone to long without being stalked by leopards.”


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