As a relativist, I don’t say “the world is not real” or what have you; I say, “let’s not use this word ‘real’; let’s find other words for the distinctions and qualifications we want to make”.
This gesture is not anti-realist but irrealist: where a realist says, “some things are real” and an anti-realist says “nothing is real”, I prefer to say, “the binary opposition real/not real is problematic; let’s displace it altogether”.
Why do this? I have three general reasons to offer.
1. ‘Real’ has too many different meanings
We use the concept ‘real’, as opposed to ‘not real’, to mean many things:
- sensual (tangible, visible, etc.), as opposed to mental
- material, as opposed to ideal
- concrete, as opposed to abstract
- actual, as opposed to illusory
- ontologically objective (mind-independent), as opposed to ontologically subjective (mind-dependent)
- epistemologically objective (shared by all observers), as opposed to epistemologically subjective (idiosyncratic)
- exigent, as opposed to ephemeral
- causative, as opposed to epiphenomenal
- important, as opposed to unimportant
- underlying, as opposed to superficial
- normative, as opposed to deviant
- essential, as opposed to inessential
I’m sure there are other uses. Those are all the ones I could think of in about sixty seconds.
Notice that these meanings are quite distinct, and some of them contradict each other.
For instance, scientists have no trouble telling us that objects we cannot perceive with our unmediated senses but can only perceive with the aid of abstractions (e.g. photons, capitalism) are the real forces behind the things we do immediately perceive (a bright light, a shitty job). But sometimes we use the word real in precisely the opposite way, to refer to tangible, concrete things as opposed to abstractions, e.g. “men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions”.
So in my own speech and writing I prefer to use more specific terms than ‘real’. If I mean ‘concrete’ I say ‘concrete’. If I mean ‘exigent’ (my personal favourite meaning of the word ‘real’) then I say ‘exigent’. And so on.
2. Subjects and objects depend on each other
Look up the word “real” in the Oxford English Dictionary, choose the meaning that is neither about currency nor monarchy, and the first definition you find is “having an objective existence”.
For many realists I’ve spoken to or read, perhaps all of them, real means precisely this: objective, in the sense of ‘mind-independent’ or ‘external to the mind’.
In this sense, realism seems to assume subject-object dualism: the drawing of an ontological distinction between two categories of phenomena, subjective phenomena belonging to the mind and objective phenomena belonging to the material world.
If we assume subject-object dualism, then one reasonable implication is to worry about the connection between these two types of reality. How can we know that the contents of our minds correspond to a reality outside of our minds? That sort of thing.
I’ve already written about how I perceive the world in terms of monist materialism, which doesn’t distinguish ideational from material phenomena but treats all phenomena as material. Let me add to that a few words about relational theory as a rejection of subject-object dualism.
Norbert Elias argued against subject-object dualism on the grounds that it presupposed a notion of human beings as fundamentally separate and disconnected from the world around them. He called this notion of the human “homo clausus” and the worldview it implies “egocentrism”. Empirically speaking, he says, human beings always live in a state of interdependence with each other, so that the ‘objective’ world of the social is not concretely separate from the ‘subjective’ world of the individual.
In my own work I extend this line of thinking to the relations between human beings and nonhumans (animals, plants, inanimate objects and forces). Empirically and concretely, human beings never live separately from the material world but always depend on their relationships with nonhuman others. These relationships constitute us, make us what and who we are.
This applies even to our perceptions. As I have argued in a previous post, when I look at my table and see a banana, my perception of the banana as a banana happens through the operation of a complex ensemble of physical, physiological, and neurological relationships. (This relationship actively involves both parties; the banana does something and I do something; at the same time it constitutes both parties, the banana as an object of perception and myself as a knower-of-bananas) Therefore, every time I speak or write or think about bananas, I speak or write or think about the experience of bananas as produced through the relationship between myself and the banana. I can never possibly think or write or speak about bananas independently of the relationship between me and them, because there is no theoretically possible way for me to access the banana except through a relationship.
But at the same time, I myself can live and think and speak only by virtue of my relationships with others, both human and nonhuman. Although I can imagine myself as separate from the material world, it is not practically possible for me to think separately from the material world because I myself am a material process enmeshed in countless relationships of interdependency with other material processes. Although I can imagine (that is, pretend) my mind acts independently of my body, in practice my mind is part of my body, and my body needs to eat, and so on.
In this view, the problem philosophical skepticism appears as a byproduct of one culturally specific conception of what it means to be human, i.e. egocentric thought, and the terms of that problem dissolve with the shift to relational thought.
So, too, the opposition between realism and anti-realism, understood as an opposition between objectivism and subjectivism, disappears when we dispense with the opposition between objectivity and subjectivity.
3. ‘Being’ seems like a mystical concept
In my list of the meanings of the word ‘real’, I purposefully left out what might be the most important of all the meanings: exists, as opposed to does not exist; or, in other words, has being, as opposed to having no being.
As a materialist, I say that every phenomenon has physical properties. Each of these properties involves an actual or potential relationship between myself and some object: a banana has colour inasmuch as photons bouncing off the banana trigger a neurological response in my body; it has weight inasmuch as I could lift it or move it onto a scale or somesuch; and so on. Observation happens through relationships, and all of our words for talking about objects invoke these relationships. Except, says the realist (even a critical realist like Roy Bhaskar), there is a quality of objects not exhausted by our observation: the thing exists, it has a nature, it has being.
To me, this is where realism seems straightforwardly a kind of idealism that depends on a mystical concept.
As a materialist, I can say that an object has mass, volume, heat, velocity, vector, that it goes through various transformations, and so on. All of my concepts for these properties refer to actual or potential relationships between myself and that object. As a materialist these relational observations suffice to talk about the world in a non-egocentric way: by observing, that is, enacting a relationship of observation between myself an some other, I can get a feel for, or even construct an account of, how the object behaves when I’m not observing it – but always in relation to some potential future observation. I observe the flight of a bird, I look away, I look back and the bird has moved, but I’m not surprised because my relationship with the bird allowed me to cognitively construct an understanding for which the expression “what the bird does independently of me” is the commonsensical although inadequate articulation. And, of course, I do this not as an isolated individual but as a member of human social networks, through which I learn categories like “bird” and “objectivity” in the first place.
But this is not enough for the realist. Bhaskar, for instance, insists that the world “has a nature”. That is, the world has some properties belonging to it, not just independently of my particular individual observation, but independently of all possible observations. The world has being.
I find this puzzling to no end. Being seems like a metaphysical essence, something beyond time and space. It seems to violate scientific empiricism and parsimony. How can I empirically observe being, even indirectly? How can I measure it? How can anyone isolate being as an independent variable? What does the conceptual pair “has being/does not have being” add to my explanations of things?
Of course there are times when we want to know if our knowledge is reliable, useful, consistent with others’ knowledge, etc., or not, but we can express these distinctions without recourse to this language of ‘reality’, ‘being’, and so on. I recognize that this kind of linguistic conversion takes work. The concept of ‘being’ is embedded deeply in our language. I myself invoke it every time I use the word “is”, which I use out of sheer laziness and in deference to the habits of my readers. But the ubiquity and convenience of a tool, whether that tool is conceptual or concrete, does not make it necessary or beneficial. Plastics are ubiquitous and convenient but we need to cut down on their use and might one day have to give them up entirely. Realism, like smoking, is a hard habit to break.
I’ve presented all these reasons in “apolitical” terms, but always for me is the political question of dealing with difference – specifically, radical ontological and epistemological difference – and of radical socialist politics. But this post has gotten long enough already.
 I haven’t read Nelson Goodman, so I apologize if I’m going against the grain of his conception of ‘irrealism’.