Some arguments for irrealism

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[1]: 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
  • etc.

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.

A confused mass; a jumble; turmoil or confusion.

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.

[1] I haven’t read Nelson Goodman, so I apologize if I’m going against the grain of his conception of ‘irrealism’.

17 thoughts on “Some arguments for irrealism

  1. “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.”

    One might even say that, absent being, the Gordian knot of subject-object is cut- for, strictly speaking, *there is no longer an object*. Rather, mass, volume, etc. would be defined in terms of practical instrumentation and procedures whose validation is that they yield uniform results every time they’re used. Reality becomes a non-issue, since the goal of science would be to *produce results*, not study reality. In short, radical pragmatism- which dovetails very nicely with radical ontological and ethical relativism.



  2. That is hardcore…I guess they don’t call you “the practical theorist” for nothing. I suppose the other question about natural right has already been answered: if you oust the “existentia”, I guess the ouster of the “essentia” is an already-done deal.

    My usual $0.02: Operationalism seems best suited for engineers and people like that who have the luxury of working in the shade of “settled science” and need not busy themselves with the ontologico-epistemic, since the science they make use of has already done that for them.They can simply take it as given, and it’s none of their business anyways. E.g. my friends in engineering, although excellent scientists, tend to be unable to define just what exactly science is. That’s OK for them; they don’t *have* to know. “Engineers get results”, they say. And when their operations don’t get results, it’s a fairly straightforward of changing a value in an equation, controlling for this or that variable, etc.

    Again, these pragmatists don’t solve the problem of Being or pretend to (notwithstanding their arch-pragmatist ethos, the engineers I know are all arch-positivist realists who don’t doubt for a second that their instrumentation both discloses and exhausts the essential). They simply take the authority of the “settled science” as *given*.

    By way of analogy to politics: Moral relativism tends to flourish where the power of the State is so far advanced that the norm of legal obedience is given beneath the threshold of everyday reflection, in what Bourdieu would might call “doxa”. Everybody argues about everything with anybody; at the end of the day, everybody does whatever it is Parliament or an officer of the court tells them to do. Few can say exactly why, and if pressed will simply shrug and say, well, I’m not a philosopher- which is the same answer the typical engineer will give if pressed on questions of epistemology. Like the engineer, the man on the street is a pragmatist and interested above all in results: in the case of law, the certainty, severity, and celerity of legal pains that result from non-compliance.

    The theorist in the yet-nascent human sciences can’t afford the luxury of the given, and the ethicist doesn’t want to. They can’t proceed as though there is nothing in front of them other than their hands and their gadgets; they must embrace Being.


    • Yes, this seems plausible. But why would this be the case? I have a theory about this.

      It strikes me that the concept of Being has powerful social function: it acts to designate the undiscussable, to mark a point where inquiry and debate can proceed no further. In a sense, it designates the sacred.

      For instance, if I say that a certain tool or a concept or an explanation of something “works”, rhetorically I leave open the possibility (a) that something else might work better, or (b) that the listener might prefer that that work not get done. Either way, it makes the claim more vulnerable to challenge than essentializing claims like “this is real” or “this is true”.

      For me one of the merits of relativism is that it provides a way of taking responsibility for one’s own implication in the construction of the world. Claiming the status of truth for a proposition only in relation to certain assumptions or certain purposes suggests a role for choice in the institutionalization of that truth. However, this implies that someone else could make a different choice, or, more alarmingly, that they could try to do away with the truth in question by destroying those whose epistemic choices give that truth its validity. By removing human agency from our accounts of truth-making, essentializing claims work to depoliticize truth claims: “it is not we, natural scientists, who have made this truth about X; the truth of X comes from Nature itself, beyond all human agency, and therefore no human agency can destroy it”.

      In a confrontation where one side is willing to make this move and the other is not, or where the truth-claim in question threatens the social order in some way, essentialism would seem too useful a tool or weapon not to use.

      Where a plurality of discourses or metanarratives encounter one another, each party has an incentive to essentialize their own claims and to try to de-essentialize the others’. But perhaps this is effectively a kind of warfare, with the same costs to the whole that warfare has.


  3. “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?”

    For a lame stab at reconciling Being with radical pragmatism/operationalism: Being is the *ontological condition of possibility* of the scientific operation. One does not measure being-at-large, or being as such; one measures diverse variables that can be measured and operated upon, because they have the property of being, viz. they are existents. The scientific activity, unlike mathematics and logic, cannot take place in the mind alone. Nor can scientific operations be carried out in an ontological void; they have to articulate with *something* outside pure thought. “Being”, to be sure, contributes *exactly nothing* to the scientific analysis and results, because it is a theoretical constant; it constitutes the field of measurable-operable variables.


  4. “By removing human agency from our accounts of truth-making, essentializing claims work to depoliticize truth claims: “it is not we, natural scientists, who have made this truth about X; the truth of X comes from Nature itself, beyond all human agency, and therefore no human agency can destroy it”.

    Without intending to evangelize for anything, you don’t need to throw out the essentialist baby with the positivist bathwater. The positivism you describe there is derelict even with respect to the standard model of science, which formally insists that empirical science can never arrive at certain and immutable truth, since:

    a) scientific evidence in support of a proposition is not “proof”, since by definition of the logical relationship between hypothesis and empirical demonstration, there would be an illegal logical move involved (i.e. affirming the consequent)

    b) there is always a statistical margin of error (p cannot =0)

    c) for all anyone knows, as trolly old Hume points out, the laws of your science might stop working next year or next week (cf. point a).

    d) the scientific proposition is always supposed to be provisional and revisable.

    I think positivism as we know it is an artifact of cultural materialism and atheism. E.g. the Scholastics distinguished between Divine law (passively given in Revelation, and beyond human scrutiny) and Natural law (the object of the sciences, knowledge of which can only be arrived at through an active and deliberate process of cognition). Today, revelation and the results of intellectual inquiry get slurred into one another, especially in the natural sciences.

    This state of affairs arises out of sociological necessity. Every society has ideas that it does not permit to be held to scrutiny, or seen as merely man-made. Even in the USA, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, it is unlawful to suggest, in a State-operated school, that Darwinian evolution can be held up to critical scrutiny.

    But “essentialism” doesn’t *necessarily* imply that knowledge is to be regarded as an infallible emanation of Nature to be backed up by State-monopolized force (even though its validity is supposed to be “obvious” to any thinking subject). One can set out to arrive at knowledge of the essential in a self-consciously active, accountable, and contestable way (as did the Scholastics with their methodology of disputation and dialogue). This need involve no more than the usual qualifications that any scientific study is supposed to make anyways.

    “what measurable or observable property is *not* an existent? What is added to saying “I can measure this” by saying “I can measure this because it is an existent”?

    a) none, and b) nothing. It’s more a matter of tying up ontological loose ends, so that they don’t cause trouble later. For example, it is very hard to critique Procrusteanism in the social sciences without saying something like “such-and-such does violence to to the real”- in short, without invoking Being.


    • Not evangelizing: noted. It’s interesting to explore possibilities.

      I agree with your portrait of fallibilist science. But for me the question still remains, what does essentialism add? You mention “tying up ontological loose ends”, but I’m not sure I understand what that means. What is the loose end? Could it be, simply, a sensation arising from the deeply embedded habit of assigning an ontological status to everything?


  5. P.S. Hey, do you know the work of Oswald Spengler? That guy was one hard-ass epistemological relativist, going as far as to relativize and historicize mathematics and physics where even Foucault didn’t dare. And he makes really compelling and vivid case for why there can be no such thing as timeless scientific truth, unlike the dry-as-dust theorizing of Foucault and the pettifoggery of Derrida.


  6. “You mention “tying up ontological loose ends”, but I’m not sure I understand what that means. What is the loose end?”

    Disclaimer: It’s hard to articulate clear and distinct ideas at this level, and to do so with brevity; please bear with me. Also, the following remarks concern epistemic questions exclusively, not any particular political or religious programme, and in any case aren’t sufficient for the latter purpose.

    I contend, in the shade of others, that it is of utmost importance to rigorously distinguish between knowledge and the object of knowledge. To fail to do so incurs the risk of a painful slide down either side of a pole into a world of grief and error in the form of either positivism or mysticism-idealism, depending which end of the pole one slides into. The distinction between knowledge and its object is a two-way street. Positivists, notoriously, fail to acknowledge the independent role of knowledge (above all, analytical abstraction) in the knowledge process; knowledge, to the positivist, is the pure phenomenon and unmediated direct emanation of Nature. But it is also possible to come to grief by failing to recognize that the object of knowledge, too, has a sui generis independence all its own, and is not just the pure phenomenon of cognition.

    The aforementioned Spengler, who slid into the mystical-idealist end of the pole, made just the latter mistake in his radical relativism. He contends that there can be no universal scientific truth, since each culture, at any given phase of its growth, has its own unique scientific style, and what seems like self-evident and necessary truth to the science of one culture seems preposterous and profoundly unscientific to another. This is an epic boon for the ends of the sociology of knowledge. Epistemically, though, it leaves a lot to be desired, since it must assume, after Bishop Berkeley, that “to be is to be perceived”, and a fortiori (for Spengler, anyways) if the perceptions of two cultures disagree, then there is no being- more precisely, and at least, none that is knowable. But I contend that, say, the laws of thermodynamics *do* in fact rigorously correspond to certain aspects of being, no matter that those laws may strike a Classical intellect as irrational gibberish. I contend, as a corollary, that those aspects of being to which the laws of thermo correspond work the way the laws of thermo say they do, and in any case will continue to do so irrespectively of any particular human cognition or perception of their workings.

    By the same token: It is undeniably true, after Spengler, that one reason why alchemy strikes us as ludicrous is that the “Magian” cultural style that underwrites alchemy is radically incommensurate with the presuppositions of our own, “Faustian” style. Certainly, nobody should assess any cultural production only negatively, in terms of ignorance and error; we need a positive account of its internal architecture and so on. But it would be epistemically remiss to pretend not to notice the welter of error in alchemy (e.g. that you can strip something of its attributes, and still have something left behind- yeah that’s just not happening bro, not in our cultural milieu or any other).

    This scratches the surface of what I mean by “tying up loose ontological ends”.


    • That’s interesting. I agree that we can and often should distinguish among various kinds of objects; a textbook on agriculture is not a plowed field. But distinguishing is not separating. I think that if we perceive the subject and object of knowledge as two connected but distinct moments in a relational process, we can comprehend both their non-identity with each other and their inseparability.

      Admittedly this can seem like a pretty abstract position to take. But can we plow a field without socially acquired knowledge about how (and why) to plow a field? Can we write about agriculture without some connection, through however many degrees of separation, to the actualities of plowed fields? (Unlike Baudrillard, I still think that all representations do connect back to some originary, even if the authors of those representations have no consciousness of this.)

      About “there can be no universal scientific truth, since each culture, at any given phase of its growth, has its own unique scientific style” – to say this in a properly relativist way, one must exercise care. If, by truth, we mean “that which is instituted as true”, then empirically truth does vary culturally just as does etiquette. But, outside of the scientific study of knowledge, scientists generally do not mean this when they speak or write the word “truth”; by “truth” they mean truth-claims validated by the most contemporary standards of scientific practice. In this sense, truth tautologically is not culturally variable. I think that the appearance or anti-realism and idealism arises from conflating these, as it were, “detached” and “involved” senses of the word “truth”.

      I like science; in fact, I love it. I grew up reading science books. These books fired my imagination, and that fire is still burning. Much of my relativism comes from a passionate desire to apply science to science itself. I like it aesthetically, and I like it because it works. For me that’s enough. The more I think about it, the less I see what is gained by saying “it works because the objects it describes are (objectively) real”.

      I can see how, for a dualist, the ontological loose end is exigent. One must establish that one’s subjective thoughts have some connection with objective reality. A version of this problem exists for the relational monist (a text is not a plowed field; a scientific theory may or may not provide the cure for a deadly disease; etc.) but it is a problem of the relations among practices, not a problem of the relation between two orders of being.

      Perhaps the ontological loose end you describe is exigent for dualists but not for monists?


    • It has just occurred to me: if for the realist, objective phenomena are real but subjective phenomena are not real, or their reality is less important, what does this imply for the relationship each of us has with our self? If the coffee table has Being but the monster in my dream does not have Being, what does this imply for my valuation of my own ‘inner’ experience?

      Or to put it another way, is the divide between the subjective and the objective a kind of code for the divide between the individual and the collective?

      Has that been obvious all along?


  7. “Perhaps the ontological loose end you describe is exigent for dualists but not for monists?”

    I think that this is a very important and cogent formulation- one that you seriously ought to hold onto.

    In my own defense, I am as much a materialist as the next guy, and a fairly greedy one at that. Certainly, the monster in one’s nightmares has a material existence; it not only has a definite neurological substrate, but reciprocal effects on that very substrate (activation of fight-or-flight response, social effects on parents, etc.). I do not propose the existence of ghosts within machines and so on. I caution only that the M in “monism” (potentially) stands for mysticism. IMO pluralism is the key.


    • “I think that this is a very important and cogent formulation- one that you seriously ought to hold onto.” – Thanks! That’s very useful to know. I like finding these key points which, once understood, render otherwise incommensurate positions mutually intelligible.


  8. P.S. re: “for the realist, objective phenomena are real but subjective phenomena are not real”

    This sort of realist (which, to be sure, makes up the majority tendency of realism) makes a category mistake.To say that “there’s no such thing as monsters” has to be qualified with respect to what exact type of thing one means. The monster in one’s nightmare is only subjective, in the sense of imaginary or lacking objective Being, as a *zoological* phenomenon. As a *psychological* phenomenon (the nightmare) and *sociological* phenomenon (the cultural trope of the monstrous), it is as real as anything else.


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