From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
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In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein confidently pronounced that “the world is all that is the case”. Not many philosophers today would share Wittgenstein’s certainty, let alone his confidence (admittedly, neither did the later Wittgenstein). Over the course of the 20th century, reality achieved a bit of a bad press. It was considered passé, oppressive, nonexistent, or at least not the kind of thing one could have a useful or interesting theory about. Yet, by the 21st, it was back with a vengeance.
Probably the greatest impetus for the comeback of reality was climate change, the “wicked problem” that suggested some things were real no matter what we called them, or whether we called them at all. But climate change is not the only issue in the new “reality wars”. Recent debates around gender, race, and self-identification, for instance, entail a version of the old “real-vs.-constructed” argument, with real taken to mean “not constructed” and thus, presumably, “unchangeable”. This not only reduces the world to a dualist ontology where constructed means “in our heads” means unreal, and real means “kickable” – otherwise known as idealism vs. physicalism; it also strips reality of its most interesting features, including our own role in producing it.
Our ontological commitments are not only theoretical but also political: what we believe to be true has implications for how reality will be.
Yet, to accept the “reality” of climate change does not mean to deny the role of humans in creating it; ordinarily, it is quite the contrary. Seemingly simple statements such as “tell the truth” do not necessarily reflect a belief in naturalism or correspondence theory of truth as much as the belief that nothing short of appeal to external reality can shake people out of complacency. Our ontological commitments, in other words, are not only theoretical but also political: what we believe to be true has implications for how reality will be. This makes the stakes in what Marilyn Frye dubbed in 1983 “the politics of reality” increasingly high.
Reality seems to be one of those concepts that avoid our grasp. We know a lot about what reality isn’t; far less about what it is. Even worse, reality seems immune to Karl Popper’s falsification approach, insofar as the more we know about what it is not, the less we know about what it is.
Heidegger suggested that this slipperiness, or “withdrawnness”, is the nature of reality itself. According to Heidegger, we only experience reality when it breaks down: the weather seems weird, floods destroy our crops, heat becomes unbearable. This concept of “withdrawnness” is taken further in object-oriented ontology (OOO). Because objects only present one side to us at any time, we have difficulty in thinking them. This, in particular, is the case with “hyperobjects”, Timothy Morton’s expression for entities whose complexity exceeds our capacity for understanding.
Climate change is one such hyperobject. As Maximilian Hepach suggested in a previous issue of The Philosopher (“Is Climate Real?”, Summer 2021), this might explain why we grapple to see climate change as “real” despite experiencing its manifestations with increasing frequency and severity. But reality is also a hyperobject; this may explain why, though we struggle to define it, reality consistently evades our grasp.
Of course, the idea of reality as not accessible to us in pure form is at least as old as Plato’s parable of the cave. People assembled in the cave only see shadows of real objects, that is, of objects in the world outside the cave. Scepticism about being able to see the true nature of Being appears throughout the history of philosophy, from Zen to Pyrrhonism. Elizabeth Anscombe would spend hours staring at her table, thinking: “I see a packet of cigarettes. But what do I really see?”. In OOO, however, it truly doesn’t matter how and if we see reality, as reality is not dependent on humans’ relation to it. Perhaps this inaccessibility – or better, hostility – of reality explains why we prefer to talk around it, rather than look it in the eye.
For most of the history of philosophy, the possibility that we may never know reality was no excuse to stop trying.
For most of the history of philosophy, the possibility that we may never know reality was no excuse to stop trying. In fact, a large part of modern history is the history of how Western societies built enormous knowledge systems predicated on the assumption that it is possible to accurately access, measure, and capture reality. Experiments were a popular way of evidencing the existence and nature of reality. As Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer argued in their 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump, in the early modern period these experiments were often performed in public, and thus served to establish the reality not only of the natural but also of the social, and political, order. Science slowly replaced religion as the discipline with privileged access to reality, and measurements and experiments – objective, repeatable, and comparable – slowly replaced cogitation or divine inspiration as the technique for accessing reality. For anyone with vestigial doubt about the power of science to not only access but also intervene in the world, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have provided sufficient evidence.
As the precision of our instruments for both capturing and preserving reality grew, so did our awareness that perhaps we were doing more than just accurately reflecting what’s already “out there”. Maybe we were constructing it?
In Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Bruno Latour tells of the occasion on which a scientist friend asked him: “Do you believe in reality?” “But of course!”, Latour responded. Directed at the proponents of Actor-Network Theory, however, the question was not without foundation. Actor-Network Theory drew attention to the degree to which what we thought of as the “natural” world was a product of our own construction – from germs to gravity. Feminist theorists and philosophers had already highlighted that this applied to other seemingly natural categories, like gender and race. However, strong constructionism proposed by Actor-Network Theory seemed to suggest that science, as the process of discovering and verifying reality through test, experiments, and demonstrations, was little more than a public performance of what we held to be the best available description. Was reality being “cancelled”?
Actor-Network Theory was not the sole theoretical paradigm to bear the accusation of anti-realism in the 20th century. Pragmatism, both in its American and French versions, similarly argued that instead of asking what Reality was (“really”) like, we should be asking how reality is produced. Despite occasional rhetorical disdain for hard-core or “naïve” realism, however, many – if not all – “anti-realists” were willing to admit that some things existed even in the conventional sense of the term. In this sense, Latour’s response had as much to do with ontological commitments as with the growing realisation that constructivism can be twisted to support ideologies like climate denialism. Like the elephant in the room, reality was not willing to go away, no matter how much we avoided talking about it.
Critical realism aimed to offer a “middle road” between scientific realism and social constructivism. Critical realists agreed that knowledge of reality was possible, though fallible; we can access reality, but we can – always – get it wrong. They also recognized that social institutions were constructed, but that once constructed, they had real power. In this, critical realism offered the possibility of a bridge between natural and social sciences, something that – pace Latour’s good intentions – had not been possible for strong constructionism. This re-unification, however, came at a price: natural sciences could go on exploring the natural world, while philosophy and human sciences took on things in the social world – that is, social ontology.
This division of domains is not as easy and as elegant as it may first appear. Many things belong to both the natural and the social world: think, for instance, about plants on the balcony, Christmas trees, or pets. Plants are part of nature, but balcony plants are an artefact of human existence; Christmas trees are only Christmas trees in places that celebrate Christmas; and cats and dogs, to take the most obvious examples, have co-evolved in relationship with and next to humans. The most interesting questions in social ontology arguably occur at the intersection of these domains – what Donna Haraway dubbed “natureculture”. Consider the cases of gender and race. Most people today would probably agree that there is something socially constructed about gender and race. But does this mean that these constructs are only “in people’s heads”? As Sally Haslanger has argued, this would mean to trivialize both historical and contemporary experiences of violence and oppression. Social structures have power: the fact that we cannot point to an object and say “look, here is a racism” the way we can say “look, here is an elephant” – in other words, the fact that not all social objects pass the “kickability” test – does not mean that they do not exist.
Reality is not in people’s heads, as much as it is created through the interaction of specific groups of people, in specific times and places.
This brings us to an important insight about the nature of social reality: it is relational. You cannot be a parent unless there is another (usually human) being in relation to you as a child. What makes these positions “real” is not biological, but a social relation: you can be a parent to a child you did not give birth to, just as you can be a parent to a child who is not your genetic offspring. This does not make your existence as a parent any less real. The privileging of certain kinds of relations (for instance, arguing that because a child is your genetic offspring that makes you their “real” parent, or arguing that someone born with female genital characteristics cannot “really” be a man) is a social process of negotiation of power, not an effect of reality itself.
In this sense, reality is not in people’s heads, as much as it is created through the interaction of specific groups of people, in specific times and places. But does that mean there are as many realities as there are social groups?
Perspectivism in anthropology takes this idea seriously. Of course, the idea that different people see the world differently has long been a fundamental tenet of cultural anthropology. Precisely because of this, however, anthropology had an innate distaste for reality: questions of whether voodoo really worked or whether Mary really was a virgin were not only ethically Verboten, but methodologically meaningless.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, as part of what is usually referred to as the “ontological turn”, anthropology started asking if it is possible that people in different societies were literally inhabiting different worlds. For a belief, statement, or practice X of a given group of people Y, instead of asking “what would Y need to believe about reality in order for X to hold true”, they asked: “what would reality need to be like in order for X to hold true?” Enter worlds where things can act at a distance, elements remain entangled long after physical proximity between them had ceased, and even ordinary spacetime does not apply. Of course, these are not only the worlds of telekinesis, voodoo, or Dreamtime. They are also the worlds of quantum physics.
The idea of multiple universes, or many worlds, is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that states that each probability branches off into multiple universes. This means that there are as many realities as there are possible quantum states. Schrödinger’s cat, then, is both dead and alive – dead in one universe, but alive in another. Yet, most physicists would agree this does not apply to the world we inhabit. When it comes to the social world, multiple realities not only intersect, but can also conflict. This puts into sharper relief the implications of disagreement on what is “real”.
In this sense, we can ask whether oil can really be a cause of global warming unless left in the ground (as most people concerned about climate change would argue), a vital source of energy for global supply chains (as most fossil fuel corporations would argue), and “kin” (in the sense of dead relatives, as some Native groups see it) – all at the same time. We can also ask whether saying a woman is “a person born with a uterus” or “a person who identifies as a woman, regardless of their anatomy” are mutually compatible ontological commitments. This does not mean that it is impossible to conceive a world in which they could be, but that creating that world might render one – or several – of these impossible. The difficulty of establishing an “out there” that is more real, and thus more important, than others reminds us of the relevance of politics, that is, of processes by which some realities are rendered more real than others.
The collapse of possible futures into one reality is the essence of what Mark Fisher dubbed “capitalist realism”. This is the last and present stage of capitalism, characterized by a widespread sense that, as Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “there is no alternative”.
If we are not able to imagine, let alone bring about, alternative realities, in what way can they be said to exist?
This absence of possibility to imagine alternative futures partly had to do with the collapse of communist regimes in 1989, which came as a surprise to thinkers on both sides of the former “Iron Curtain”. As anthropologist Alexei Yurchak framed it, “everything was forever, until it was no more”. This might suggest that there are, in fact, alternatives to the present, but that we are not able to conceive them – yet. However, this poses some serious challenges for our ideas of reality. If alternatives exist, where are they? If we are not able to imagine, let alone bring about, alternative realities, in what way can they be said to exist? Perhaps alternatives present to us as “ghosts” – spectral presences of the futures that failed to materialize. In a capitalist-realist world, might-have-beens and could-bes are simultaneously present and unattainable.
To think about “failures”, however, is to invoke another kind of politics of reality, one that stretches simultaneously into the past and into future. To admit to “failure” (a failure of social democracy, a failure of Communism, a failure of the Paris Agreement) is to render futures present as memory, but no longer as possibility. Deferring the political horizon into an always-already-past also limits the space for intervention. This is not necessarily because nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym argued, is fundamentally apolitical. It is also because it renders some futures performatively impossible, and thus also un-real.
In this sense, we are heirs to two equally strong and equally important lessons: that reality is what we make of it, but that this does not mean we have ownership or control over it. At a time when capitalism is rapidly combining with climate change to make the world even less habitable for even more (and not only human) beings, this is perhaps the most important message from reality: the world we make is not ours to keep.
Jana Bacevic is Assistant Professor at Durham University and contributing editor at The Philosopher. She works on social theory, philosophy of science, and the politics of knowledge production, with particular emphasis on the relationship between epistemological, moral, and political elements.
From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.