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Nature

Whatever happened to reality?

I’m reading After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux, with a view to bringing the thinking of the pragmatic philosopher C.S. Peirce (1839-1914) up to date — or at least, this is an opportunity to compare and contrast Peirce’s pragmatic realism with some thinking now about reality (100 years later).

Meillassoux’s contention is that the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy can’t keep up with advances in science — the explosion of knowledge and data, and the vastness of time and space with which it deals. Meillassoux is opposed to the view that everything known and knowable about the universe is mediated and constructed by human intellect — in language. This latter anthropocentrism he labels “correlationism.”

“By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (5).

The great outdoors

Meillassoux wants to allow the possibility of thinking and talking about a reality that doesn’t depend on us humans. As correlationists, this is what we have given up:

“For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere” (7).

I think the trick is to develop such a philosophy without resorting to old-fashioned naïve realism. I tackled naïve realism in the context of claims people were making about virtual reality back in the 1990s. Meillassoux thinks that “every philosophy which disavows naïve realism has become a variant of correlationism” (5). That means that the following excerpt from my book Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real would be construed by Meillassoux as “correlationist,” though I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up yet.

Pragmatically real

Excerpt from Coyne, Richard. 1999. Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp 113-115.

Language features prominently in narratives of the real. Sociologist Peter Winch takes the pragmatic view of language, specifically that of the later Wittgenstein, to construct a pragmatic view of cognition and community. He provides the example of G. E. Moore’s informal “proof of the external world”: “He held up each of his hands in succession, saying, ‘Here is one hand and here is another; therefore at least two external objects exist; therefore the external world exists’” (3). But according to Winch, Moore was not so much enacting an experiment as: “reminding his audience of the way in which the expression ‘external object’ is in fact used. And his reminder indicated that the issue in philosophy is not to prove or disprove the existence of a world of external objects but rather to elucidate the concept of externality” (10).

Winch’s view captures the tenor of pragmatism, that we use words. Words have currency and use value. They make things so by the utterance of them. To appeal to external objects (the real world and an independent reality) through statements in language, makes those entities, not for all time in a metaphysical sense, but for a purpose and in a context of use. In other words, the real is contingent. This is not to separate language from the world, as if there is a real world imperfectly understood, and language that makes the world for us. The strong point of pragmatism is that language is our world, including the concept of reality itself.

This pragmatic narrative may appear familiar. It seems to accord with aspects of positivist views of language as expounded by the early Wittgenstein, but it goes beyond positivism. According to the later (post-positivist) Wittgenstein:

“We cannot say . . . that the problems of philosophy arise out of language rather than out of the world, because in discussing language philosophically we are in fact discussing what counts as belonging to the world. Our idea of what belongs to the realm of reality is given for us in the language that we use” (15).

The pragmatic position is that in our use of language we are more situated that we can ever imagine. Even the discussion of the real is a contextual language game.

How do these concepts of language impinge on the questions of the real posed through modern physics, which purports to have the last word on the constitution of the real? In his book Inventing Reality: Physics as Language, Gregory provides a detailed account of the development of modern physics from Newton to Einstein to quantum electrodynamics and quarks, as rendered formulaic by Davies, Hawking, Penrose, Bohm, Peat, Gell-Mann, and others, but in a way that clearly brings out the dependence of science on language, indeed, its construction in language. He calls on speech act theory to do so, describing the history of science as a series of changes in the language of science. In this light:

“The word real does not seem to be a descriptive term. It seems to be an honorific term that we bestow on our most cherished beliefs—our most treasured ways of speaking” (184).

… According to the physicist Werner Heisenberg, “what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (46), and Niels Bohr noted that for observations and calculations about sub-atomic particles “no sharp distinction can be made between the behavior of the objects themselves and their interaction with the measuring instruments” (139). Bohr (reported by Petersen) considered the implication and meaning of quantum mechanics assuming physics as a way of talking about the world:

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature” (305).

Bibliography

  • Bohr, Niels. 1985. The Bohr-Einstein dialogue. In A. French, and P. Kennedy (eds.), Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume: 121-140. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Coyne, Richard. 1999. Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
  • Gregory, Bruce. 1988. Inventing Reality: Physics as Language. New York: Wiley
  • Heisenberg, Werner. 1958. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science.
  • Hickman, Larry A. 1992. John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
  • Meillassoux, Quentin. 2009. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Continuum
  • Peterson, Aage. 1985. The philosophy of Niels Bohr. In A. French, and P. Kennedy (eds.), Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume: 299-310. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Winch, Peter. 1988. The Idea of a Social Science: and Its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge. First published in 1958.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell

Note

  • I’m grateful to Asad Khan for introducing me to the work of Quentin Meillassoux.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

One thought on “Whatever happened to reality?

  1. Peirce’s take on reality must be distinguished from the views of half-reformed positivists like Wittgenstein and latter day neo-pragmatists.

    See for example the oft-cited passage I re-cited here:

    https://inquiryintoinquiry.com/2015/09/21/you-say-reseau-•-i-say-rousseau-•-3/

    Posted by Jon Awbrey | May 12, 2018, 8:20 pm

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