There’s No Such Thing as Reality (And It’s a Good Thing, Too)

TODAY, THE VERY CONCEPT of reality seems to be at risk. According to the great Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, that may not be such a bad thing. Like much of Vattimo’s thought, his recent Of Reality: The Purposes of Philosophy is essentially an extended interpretation and advocacy of Martin Heidegger, but its philosophical leitmotif comes from Nietzsche’s dictum that, “There are no facts, only interpretations; and this too is an interpretation.”

This embrace of interpretation over facts would seem to play into many popular — and misguided — characterizations of continental “postmodern” philosophers. To cite an example, in a typically trenchant and funny moment in her recent review of Michael P. Lynch’s book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, Harvard historian and The New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore cites an unidentified voice striving to be heard above the melee in one of the 2016 Republican presidential debates: “I tell the truth, I tell the truth.” To which Lepore dryly intones, “Eat your heart out, Samuel Beckett.”

Lepore’s overall point in the review is to historicize Lynch’s philosophical argument about the decline of standards of truth in the age of the internet, by claiming, essentially, that a modern culture of empiricism — of basing truth claims on demonstrable evidence — arose out of a medieval culture of trial by ordeal, into which we may once again be devolving. As she puts it: “For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine, or there is no truth. For both, empiricism is an error.”

My admiration for Lepore’s wit and writing skills notwithstanding, here I find she is rehearsing what has become an all-too-common misunderstanding: that an academic left, under the banner of postmodernism, has given up on truth and thus on any legitimate means of resisting or criticizing the “fact-free zone” of a resurgent, fundamentalist right. On the contrary, there is and can be no epistemological equivalence between postmodernism and fundamentalism. The latter is a growth industry spurred on by the social fragmentation of modern life; the former — or at least those proponents of it with whom I find myself most often in agreement — is a coherent philosophical position born of a thoroughgoing confrontation with the conditions of knowledge-production over time. The continued demonization of “postmodernism” by a secular educated public is largely due to a failure to grasp the nuances of what is, admittedly, a set of positions that is decidedly difficult to articulate, but which do not, it bears repeating, boil down to “anything goes.”

At first glance, of course, Vattimo’s evocation of Nietzsche is exactly the kind of assertion that would seem to support Lepore’s and so many others’ characterization of the academic left’s denial of truth. But this is only, as Vattimo argues, because we approach the problem from a pre-interpretation based on a metaphysical model, namely the assumption that what we call “reality” is external, independent of observation and interpretation. Only on the basis of this assumption can Nietzsche’s assertion be reduced to “anything goes,” for only on the basis of this assumption can truth be understood unproblematically as, in Thomas Aquinas’s formulation, adaequatio rei et intellectus, the firm relation of an independent intellect to the discrete elements of “reality.”

One problem with this assumption, however, is that it itself is easily shown to be a highly specific and historical interpretation. Different cultures and ages have had very different notions of reality. In western culture, Plato’s reality of ideal forms was significantly modified by his student Aristotle, whose own interpretation was transformed by Arabic translators and their Christian interpreters in the Middle Ages. Our modern notion of reality only dates from the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the concept entered the majority of vernacular European languages.

So while it is indeed common sense to assume that there is such a thing as reality, independent of our interpretations — that’s precisely what it is: a common sense, an interpretation, shared uncritically by a majority, but neither necessary nor, it turns out, particularly useful to those who have some interest in changing the state of the world.

Let’s call the mode of thinking and talking about the world that assumes an interpretation-independent reality “reality-talk.” Coming back to Lepore’s appraisal of the current messy state of “truth” in political discourse, we find an almost constant chatter in the mode of “reality-talk,” often coming from those who advocate change, and who believe they are staving off the advance of fundamentalisms noxious to individual and collective freedoms. As Lepore writes, “Also newish is the rhetoric of unreality, the insistence, chiefly by Democrats, that some politicians are incapable of perceiving the truth because they have an epistemological deficit; they no longer believe in evidence, or even in objective reality.” As she goes on to show, this stance is part of candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which has put out an ad titled “Stand for Reality.”

The smoking gun for the Democrats in American politics was journalist Ron Suskind now infamous 2004 interview of a then unidentified advisor to President George W. Bush, whom we now know was Karl Rove. In the interview, Rove ridiculed Suskind for belonging to the “reality-based community,” whose members “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality,” whereas he and other members of the Bush administration were always a step ahead, defining what that reality looked like. Democrats have embraced this “reality-based” identity, but it’s unclear whether reality-talk gives them any advantage. It’s quite possible that Rove was in fact right in his assessment: discernable reality is rather easy to manufacture, which is why it is hardly safe ground on which to build one’s political message. The comedian Stephen Colbert seemed to get this when he had his right-wing pundit character utter the now classic line, “reality has a well known liberal bias.”

One particularly nefarious aspect of reality-talk is that it plays into the hands of the fundamentalists. Today, everyone always claims their views are reality-based. Reality-talk creates an implicit moral equivalency between political positions that is effectively the very kind of relativism that it purports to oppose.

To make this clear let me take the example of a recent opinion piece I published in the New York Times, with which I managed to incur the wrath both of liberals and the European anti-immigrant Right. In the piece I discussed a minor legal case in Austria in which a female schoolteacher is suing a Muslim man for refusing to shake her hand. Some commentators, believing that my piece was a defense of the man’s actions (it was not), lambasted me for my inconsistency in expecting westerners to adopt to Muslim cultural norms when in a Muslim country, and yet supporting Muslims’ right to flout them when in a non-Muslim country. What these critics fail to realize, however, is that it is precisely their position that depends on a kind of moral equivalency that I explicitly refuse. If I were to adhere to fundamentalist norms while visiting a different country, I might do so out of fear of bodily harm, but I would never claim or believe that my western, liberal, ethical commitment — to the equality of women, the inalienable nature of basic human rights, the freedom of political expression — are in any way interchangeable with a culture that refuses or actively represses those rights.

My argument to expand, rather than contract, the sphere of tolerance around certain behaviors, even if they are offensive to western liberal commitments, was based on the passionately held belief that the toleration inherent in the liberal philosophical tradition is not simply one among many positions that one can choose from, but is better than its fundamentalist alternatives. This position is fully ethnocentric in Richard Rorty’s sense — namely, that one’s beliefs are unavoidably ethnocentric, and one can either be aware of that or ignore it; doing the latter blinds one to the effects of that ethnocentrism on the world. My argument to be tolerant of the visitor’s expression of his belief system is thus not based on an to-each-his-own, “anything goes” mentality, but rather on a profoundly ethical commitment to the notions of freedom that underlie my own political and philosophical tradition. In contrast, my criticism of societies that try to defend the liberal tradition by limiting the expression of illiberal beliefs is precisely a criticism of a blind ethnocentrism, in which we import into our model of liberal freedoms a very specific ethnic model of what those freedoms look like.

This position is a solid illustration, I think, of why Gianni Vattimo’s consistent adherence to Nietzsche’s dictum that “There are no facts, only interpretations; and this too is an interpretation,” is not only not a statement of “anything goes” relativism, but rather a critique of the relativism that currently goes under the name of realism. To live by this motto is to renounce the crutch of objective reality when justifying our arguments and political positions. It is a call to examine the place of enunciation of ours and our opponents’ positions. Vattimo’s “nihilism,” which has accepted fully the consequences of “and this too is an interpretation,” thus corresponds to the position that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the not-all — the position from which no totalizing statements of truth can be made, but which does not surreptitiously except itself from the truth judgments that it does make. As Lacan once insisted playfully, “I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth. No one can do that.”

Lepore ends her piece by delimiting two options “for people who care about civil society”: “find some epistemic principles other than empiricism on which everyone can agree or else find some method other than reason with which to defend empiricism.” Agreeing with Lynch that the former is likely impossible, she paraphrases his argument that the “best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment,” which she interprets as popular sovereignty.

As Vattimo’s book shows us, though, this defense of reason is already inherent in the hermeneutic model that Lepore and others associate with postmodernism. The academic left was never really at odds with empiricism, and certainly not in the way the academic middle has tended to characterize it. A good chunk of Of Reality is dedicated to demonstrating that empiricism and the scientific method (as it is practiced, rather than theorized) are in no way opposed to Vattimo’s “weak thought,” and are in many ways illustrative of it. Indeed, to a certain extent, hermeneutics — at least a thoroughgoing hermeneutics of the sort advocated and practiced by Vattimo — is nothing other then a highly self-aware empiricism.

Just as reality-talk is strikingly useless for political progress, it also has no conceivable use for science, whose interest is (or should be) in advancing knowledge, not defending something called reality. In fact, the very notion can get in the way of science’s drive to solve problems and answer tricky questions. As the famous quantum physicist John Wheeler once put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”

Vattimo’s point, of course, it that it isn’t useful — at least not for him or anyone else committed to a philosophy that strives to improve the world and its social relations, rather than simply supporting it in its present form. To make this point, let me turn finally to a concept Vattimo again draws from Heidegger, and which has been at the core of both his and Santiago Zabala’s recent interventions: Notlosigkeit, or the lack of emergency.

According to Vattimo, the lack of emergency is as much a condition of our current times as what he calls the hermeneutic koinè, whereby everyone is entitled to his or her own reality, a common sense that emerges from a failure to grasp the essentially historical nature of how each and every one of us is pro-jected into a certain culture and tradition — of how we are thrown into existence and caught up in the project of our life, the contours of which are only understandable within the set of values, expectations, and meanings of a given community at a given moment in time. Ignorance of this insight is what generates the conflation of the academic left and the fundamentalist right, the illusion that we are all awash in the same epistemic quandary. In fact, the fragmentation of worldviews by the media and the diminution of any sense of common ground has fueled the rise of fundamentalism; but the philosophical positions often labeled as postmodernist are not a symptom of this, but rather a tool to combat it.

Opposing these positions are a flattened and flattening hermeneutic koinè and the reality-talk that promotes moral equivalencies between my ethical commitments and noxious strains of fundamentalism; and both contribute to the implicit quietism of the lack of emergency. As Vattimo argues, it’s not that we lack events. The world is full of events. Indeed, our 24-hour news cycle perpetuates a near constant vigilance toward the next event, crisis, emergency, etc. As much as I like to think I’m aware of the world, I’m put to shame by my 16-year-old son’s immediate knowledge of the most recent event in world politics, clued in as he is by his iPhone’s instant and apparently urgent updates. But this constant stream of updates masks a profound “resignation […] one that remains undisturbed even when there is an economic crisis like the one that we are experiencing.”

Here is Vattimo:

The absence of emergency is perhaps the most complete form of the forgetting of Being that belongs to metaphysics. That today nothing might happen seems difficult to believe. And yet even the big crises that we have lived through and that we continue to live through do not give rise to a “paradigmatic” novelty in the sociopolitical sense. September 11? It only gave the United States more reason to intensify its various forms of control, but it did not give the country reasons for any transformation of “regime.”

So, in the end, the purposes of philosophy Vattimo refers to in the subtitle of his book, a book which so neatly sums up a half-century of thought, can perhaps be summed up by the title of the last chapter in the book’s main section: the ethical dissolution of reality. For if fidelity to reality offers nothing to progress, scientific knowledge, or the political improvement of our world, but instead acts only as a force for quietism, for repressing or discouraging active participation, then perhaps its time has passed. Could it be, then, that the real calling of philosophy, like that of science, is not the depiction or representation of reality but its dissolution? Philosophy — like science, like politics — should always strive for something other than what presents itself as already the case. It should be driven by the imagination of the possible, not the assumption of the real.


William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at the Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).