Philosophical Moods

On Realism and Anti-Realism


One of the most heated philosophical debates of our time revolves around questions of the real and the access to it – that is, truth. Phenomena in the public sphere such as the so-called “post-truth” give the debate an apparently current appearance. What is certain, however, is that this is a question that lies at the origin of philosophy itself, that to some extent defines the framework of theoretical philosophy, and that lays the foundation for any discussion in the field of practical philosophy.

In recent years, first through my studies of the work of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, and then through my efforts to understand the so-called “new realists” (Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Maurizio Ferraris, and Markus Gabriel) and their critiques of postmodernism, I have become increasingly inclined to present my philosophical speculations in “realist” terms. This is particularly significant given that my philosophical training is not only Western but also Eastern (I have spent the last thirty years of my life familiarizing myself with the tradition inaugurated by the Indian pandit Nāgārjuna and his Tibetan followers). In this context, I have come to interpret Nāgārjuna, against a vast academic and popular literature, as an “accomplished realist,” in contrast to many authors who tend to read him as an anti-realist.

The Framework and the Debate

The first thing I want to say in this note is that my approach to the problem at hand is not partisan. It is true that on the surface such debates are often presented as such, as a sporting (or even warlike) contest, but my circumstantial defense of realists or anti-realists is not intended to legitimize one school over another, or to assert the intellectual authority of a “church”. It is fair to acknowledge that philosophical debates are generally framed in this way, or take on this appearance, but this is a far cry from the philosophical ideal embodied by Socrates and his disciples. In my view, the “agonistic” character of philosophical discussion has more to do with the connection between theoretical philosophy and practical philosophy (to which I will return below), i.e., with the possible consequences for ethics and politics in any given historical circumstance of adopting a realist or anti-realist position, than with the theoretical question itself.

In Buddhist philosophy, as we have pointed out, there are close parallels and similarities in the positions defended to those we define in our academic latitudes within the framework of the realism vs. anti-realism debate. In the case of the tradition inaugurated by Nāgārjuna, as I have pointed out, the entire scaffolding of his argument is organized in terms of responding to the anti-realist positions of those who preceded him in the debate, within the framework of a primary rejection of any form of essentialist realism. Unlike other interpreters, I judge Nāgārjuna’s work as that of an accomplished realist who was able to “recover realism” by integrating the anti-realist objections and insights of his opponents into the debate within his own tradition.

Similarly, in contemporary Western philosophy we should read the realist turn of recent decades as a corrective. I do not think, therefore, that we should discard the anti-realist discoveries of postmodernism, nor those of those who inspired the anti-realist turn in the history of ideas. On the contrary, our task is to deepen these discoveries and to lead them to their ultimate consequences. For my part, as I will argue in a future paper, I believe that anti-realist arguments, if one is afraid to err, as Hegel said, lead to a radical realism, which is the opposite of specialist realism, but also of the nihilistic anti-realism to which we are accustomed.

If we think about it, we immediately realize that the labels “realism” and “anti-realism” are mere conventions. We know (because modern and contemporary natural sciences prove it, and social sciences have shown it as well) that there is no solid reality “out there” that can be grasped once and for all. Not only because our perceptual-cognitive apparatus is limited, but also because reality itself is a kind of complex, dialectically, processually unfolding and interdependently constituted “substance”. This, in a nutshell, is the problem we have to solve: (1) on the one hand, we are certain that there is no “solid, concrete, objective reality” to which we can have access once and for all; (2) on the other hand, we are to a large extent co-participants in the construction of what we call “reality” through our own activity as living, cognizing beings. But do (1) and (2) mean that (3) there is no reality at all, that everything is “mere” human, cultural, individual construction, and that therefore (4) even if there were a non-human reality, we could never have access to it because all access is inescapably mediated through our representations?

Perhaps what we have done in adopting anti-realist arguments is to refute certain inadequate views of reality without in any way refuting the real de suyo.

On the other hand, we have argued against the possibility of direct, unmediated access through representational knowledge to the real de suyo, but we have left intact, and for future exploration, the possibility of “non-representational” access.

What “non-representational access” to the real de suyo might mean is something we will have to explore in detail in the future. For now, suffice it to recall that the alternative is not merely a critique of subjectivity, but requires the affirmation of an embodied subjectivity for which all representation emerges a posteriori from direct contact with the real, or, more radically, the eye and what the eye sees are both part of the real de suyo, even in cases where, through the use of a sophisticated cognitive device, we are able to view the world from the third person.

“The Coming Community”

This is only one aspect of the problem we face, and it relates exclusively to the theoretical dimension of the problem. But this dimension is inescapably intertwined in our human lives with the practical aspect of the problem. By this I mean, ultimately, the inescapable link between epistemology and politics.

An admirable Marxist historian explained this connection as follows When, in reading the classics of modern political philosophy (especially), we come across an obscure passage that requires clarification, the answer to our doubts may be found not in the author’s political texts themselves, but in the kind of positions he defends in the field of epistemology, the philosophy of mind, or in his theory of identity. Similarly, if we find an obscure passage in a theoretical text, the best explanation may be found in his practical theory, his ethics, or his political philosophy.

This says something not only about the way in which these positions are linked or embedded in a particular philosophical system, but also about reality itself. The objects that epistemology, ontology, ethics, and politics study are constitutively intertwined, and so the soundness of an argument is tested not only by the way it is deployed in its particular field, but also by the consequences and implications it has for other disciplinary fields. For reality, it bears repeating, is not segmented along the lines imposed by academic research.

My definitions of realism and anti-realism therefore do not claim to be, and cannot be, absolute. Realist and anti-realist positions are relative simply because they exist in a field of relations in which the extremes are (1) any form of naive, non-dialectical realism that enthrones immutable essences; and (2) any nihilistic version that flatly denies reality itself in order to defend that everything is an illusion based on the will to dominate or the will to power.

An illustration may help to understand what I mean when I refer to realism and anti-realism as nominalities, and thus both positions can only be relative. As in the sphere of politics, where the so-called “left” and “right” are defined exclusively in terms of relative positions in a field of disputes and antagonisms, the question we must ask ourselves is this:

In the face of which arguments am I inclined to treat the subject as a realist, and in the face of which others must I argue as an anti-realist?” As Nāgārjuna would say, we need to find a “middle way” between eternity and nothingness. Therefore, I will be a realist in the face of all nihilistic claims, and I will be an anti-realist in the face of all essentialism.

However, there is a way in which one is either a realist or an anti-realist “by temperament.

At the beginning of any philosophical inquiry, we choose the subject we wish to study and the method we wish to use. In the case we are analyzing, we discover that, depending on our disposition, we can adopt two alternative starting points: (1) either we go in search of reality and, in our search for it, discover that it is much more complex and indefinable than we thought; or (2) we set ourselves the task of demonstrating the unreality of everything around us. Both projects are undoubtedly fruitful.

In the first case, however, reality is always one step ahead of us, and the best we can hope for is to find provisional truths, which are always debatable, but we can move toward a “better explanation” by integrating more and more aspects or dimensions of it and eliminating misunderstandings. In the second case, on the other hand, our haste to conclude the discussion, even if only with an unrealistic judgment, leaves us empty-handed.

Madhyamika philosophy, Aristotelianism, Marxism, and Latin American liberation philosophy, the four central sources of inspiration that I cultivate as a philosopher, have taught me that the latter alternative, despite its advantages for our project of personal liberation or freedom, is incompatible with, and may even end up being an obstacle to, the building of a virtuous community.

In other words, in the present circumstances, if the goal is to create “another possible world” (an ecological, post-patriarchal, post-capitalist, and transmodern community), that is, if we really want substantive change or to overcome the existing order altogether, anti-realism will not serve our purposes.

Anti-realist arguments are valuable in deconstructive, critical terms, but none of them will be of any use in creating, in the words of Giorgio Agamben, “the community to come.