Maurizio Ferraris is one of the best-known and most important Italian philosophers writing today. A former student of Gianni Vattimo and collaborator with Jacques Derrida—he is perhaps best known to Anglophone audiences for their co-edited Taste for the Secret (Il gusto del segreto, first published in Italian in 1997)—Ferraris has been a longstanding professor of philosophy in the Department of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Turin. His work for some thirty years, dating to the early 1980s, developed through important interventions and reinterpretations of hermeneutics and then poststructuralist philosophy. (See a list of his dozens of works here.)
The focus of the relatively short interview below is to introduce the controversial turn in Ferraris’ work to what he dubs a “new realism,” which finds him a kindred spirit to the speculative realists (Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman have written forwards to the two English translations of his works this past year), as well as Markus Gabriel, whose realist theory of fields of sense has already made a mark in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere (though Ferraris’s turn to realism predated these movements). Over the last two years and early into the next, five books are set to have appeared in rapid order in English that develop this project: Documentality: Why It Is Necessary to Leave Traces, translated by Richard Davies (Fordham University Press, 2012), which argues that any ontology must come to terms with thinking the social through the texts it leaves behind, thus developing a positive ontology from Derrida’s grammatology; Goodbye, Kant!, translated by Richard Davies (SUNY Press, 2013), which provides a critical rereading of the Critique of Pure Reason, while also setting out the vice in which Kantianism caught subsequent philosophy regarding the real; Where Are You?: An Ontology of the Cell Phone, translated by Sarah De Sanctis and with a forward by Umberto Eco (Fordham University Press, 2014), which follows on from Documentality to think the ontology of the traces left by cell phone technology; Manifesto of New Realism (chapter one is open access here), translated by Sarah De Sanctis and with a forward by Graham Harman (SUNY Press, 2014); and Introduction to New Realism (Bloomsbury, 2015), translated by Sarah De Sanctis and with a forward by Iain Hamilton Grant, who will join Paul J. Ennis (see his review of the book here) and Ferraris for the book’s launch this month in London. Thanks to Sarah De Sanctis for translating his answers below.
Peter Gratton: Both the Manifesto and Introduction are clearly written and often humorous expositions of your “new realism” (you are also well served by an able translator), but for readers who have not had the chance to find these works yet, I thought I’d first ask you to summarize what you mean by your “new realism” and how it would be differentiated by previous realisms.
Maurizio Ferraris: My realism differs from previous ones only because it specifically reacts to postmodernism. Other forms of realism reacted to other forms of antirealism: to name one, for example, the 1912 American new realism criticized neo-Kantianism. Each realism has its own anti-realism and responds to specific historical circumstances. As per my new realism, it reacts against the indiscriminate constructivism typical of postmodernism. There was a time when, so to speak, everything, including lakes and mountains, was taken to be socially constructed. Now, I have no difficulty in admitting that, say, an invoice is socially constructed; perhaps in some ways (not all) things like charisma or beauty are socially constructed, too. However, lakes and mountains certainly aren’t: it makes no sense, and to say (or even just suggest) this is to deprive philosophy of all seriousness, turning it into a futile fairy tale.
PG: The publication of these works in Italian and other European languages gave rise to some controversy, not least, I think, because those in hermeneutics and deconstruction thought you would not be among the first to be citing Habermas to the effect that these movements were counter-Enlightenment, or lead to relativism. Is this just an old guard breathing its last gasp, or do you think that a certain realism will always be controversial?
MF: I think realism will always be controversial for the simple reason that reality is controversial and often unpleasant—as usual, fiction always looks much better. As per the Enlightenment, hermeneutics has often explicitly taken a stand against it (I am thinking of Gadamer and Heidegger), but the same cannot be said of deconstruction. The later Derrida said he was in favour of an enlightenment to come, of a new enlightenment, and this is the same direction followed by new realism. In this sense, I would say that the real deconstruction is indeed new realism, that is, the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct outside of the “school schemes” that have characterized recent philosophy.
PG: I think for readers of Society and Space, who are those not just engaged in the new materialisms and realisms, but providing the work of teasing out archival sources for rethinking different political spaces, your work on documentality as the very writing in which social occurs may be of specific interest. Some might see a tension here. On the hand, you are dismissive of forms of post-structuralism and hermeneutics that cut us off from the positivity of the real, and yet here you rely on Derrida’s notion of the trace, for example, to describe the reality of given legal systems and so forth. So it would seem, to cite the ironic title of your Goodbye Kant! (a riff on the German movie Goodbye Lenin!) that you are not ready to say quite an adieu to deconstruction.
MF: No, I am not ready to say quite an adieu to deconstruction. Or, at least, my adieu is very much reminiscent of the famous scene in Hamlet where the ghost says “Adieu, Adieu, Adieu, Remember me,” and Hamlet promises he will. Basically, all I’ve done is keep the memory of deconstruction and rework it. Derrida insisted on the importance of leaving traces, and I have tried to give this insight a positive and more concrete dimension by elaborating the category of social objects, which, in my theory, result from the recording (i.e., a trace) of social acts (this is also based on Derrida’s reflection on speech acts, which is at the center of the conflict with Searle). Derrida said, “there is nothing outside the text.” I, as a realist, say that natural objects like tables and ideal objects like numbers do exist outside the text, while it is literally true that nothing social exists outside the text, as evidenced by the boom of writing and the Internet in the past few decades.
PG: How should this notion of documentality help us redescribe the workings of the social?
MF: The prevailing interpretation of social reality, which can be found for example in Searle, Tuomela, or Gilbert, sees it as the manifestation of a so-called collective intentionality. I do not think this is a sufficient answer, in fact, I think it is a revival of the social contract theory: we get around a table and decide that money will be used to buy goods and the laws to reward or punish people. Obviously that’s not the way things work. We are born very young, so to speak, in a very old world full of rules, regulations, laws, and documents we barely understand, but to which we obey.
It may be that at some point (indeed, it is desirable) we will realize that some of those rules are wrong and that some of those rules are unfair. However, that’s a stage that comes later, involving the attempt to politically sensitize others so as to create a collective intentionality aimed at criticism and transformation. Intentionality is always a reaction, a change that is subject to documentality and doesn’t cause it, as the former is, in my view, the essential element of the social world.
PG: How would you differ your approach from your friend Markus Gabriel, or the speculative realists?
MF: Compared to Markus, I’d say I am an ontologist rather than an epistemologist. Markus says that to exist is to exist in a field of meaning. I say that to exist is to resist, and that this resistance may not even have a meaning: it is simply there, even if it makes no sense and we cannot understand it. In fact, as I tried to explain through my notion of unamendability, the first and most intuitive way to recognize something as real is to realize that we cannot change it at will: reality is what it is and more often than not it resists our conceptual schemes rather than docilely adjusting to them. The fact that ontology is opaque and often meaningless is just a fact, we cannot help it, that’s life.
Of course, as philosophers, we can and must try to understand ontology and get to know what there is, but to do so we must always be careful not to confuse what there is with what we know about what there is. This, perhaps, is also what differentiates me from speculative realists. Mine is not a speculative philosophy: it is a positive philosophy à la Schelling, very attentive to what happens in the world and to what these events reveal of the world.
PG: What’s up next in your work?
MF: I am currently working on the notion of “emergence.” Over the past two centuries philosophy has thought of reality as the result of construction: that is, of a motion that goes from the I to the world. What I’m working on now is the reverse process: the emergence for which reality starts from the world and then comes to thought, which is also part of reality.