The recent book by Jocelyn Benoist, Professor of Contemporary Philosophy at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, in line with his previous monographs, particularly Sens et sensibilité. L’intentionalité en context (2009), Éléments de Philosophie Réaliste. Réflexions sur ce que l’on a (2011) and Le Bruit du Sensible (2013), constitutes the next step in the development of his work in reestablishing and rethinking realist philosophy. His method rests on one of building his system in confrontation with classical contemporary philosophers. In that way, the book offers both an original speculative contribution to systematic philosophy (primarily, ontology and epistemology, secondly, moral philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind) and a thorough new reading in the history of philosophy with the leading figures of Frege, Husserl and Wittgenstein.
The pretext for this newest contribution is the emergence of so-called New Realism in the continental philosophy of the first decade of the 21st century. The author asks in what sense anything could possibly be new about rightly conceived realism. The critical analysis of the positions of two eminent representatives of the movement, Markus Gabriel and Maurizio Ferraris, leads the author to postulate rather than refurbish and correct the ‘old’ realism as a proper way towards a rightful account of reality. However, to accomplish the double task of the criticism of the defective realisms and positive realist model for ontology and epistemology, Benoist must begin with formulating what criteria the sought realism should meet.
The point of the departure is taking a proper distance from the two extremities that has marked contemporary philosophy: the idealism that surrenders reality to the thought (the cognition) and the metaphysical idol of an access to the being that would be independent from the context of thinking. This double confrontation leads Benoist to the central distinction governing his subsequent considerations: the one between ‘real’ and ‘true’ that corresponds to the further distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘normative’. That approach enables him to reconcile the objectivism of knowledge with its contextuality. Epistemic realism does not have to imply a form of absolutism. Quite to the contrary, context-dependence is the necessary foundation of realism. In that line, the de-contextualisation of reference constitutes an ontological error twinned with semantic idealism, common in the analytic philosophy of the 20th century but criticized already by Aristotle. The semantic relativity (contextuality) becomes an objective point for establishing the discourse in reality. The referred thing is precisely the one as it is described but it is always given in the determined circumstances. The contextuality becomes the fundamental ontological and epistemological property of reality. The lack of ‘contextual immunity’ does not speak against realism but is its only guarantee.
Having defined preliminary of what kind of realism the author shall speak, it becomes comprehensible why he is rejecting the two programs of New Realism. The first, by Markus Gabriel, proposes an ultra-intensional (and ultra-intentional, as Benoist remarks) ontology expressed in a paradoxical slogan: ‘Everything exists apart from the world’. The phrase is not only provocative. The author proceeds to shed some light on its hidden consequences. First, he comments on the exclusion of the world from the kingdom of existence. Gabriel, following the line drawn by Kant, Husserl and Wittgenstein, remarks that if everything that exists exists within the world, there is no point in speaking about the existence of the very world. So the world does not exist in consequence. Does he not go too far? Indeed, as Benoist remarks, if that is the case, it would be equally erroneous to talk about the non-existence of the world as about its existence. One would do better pointing out just the error of category. Also, the ‘existence of everything’ is problematic. Does this not lead to the conclusion that finally nothing exists? The notion of existence excessively extended is made extremely fragile. That is in line with what Benoist criticizes further, the theory of semantic fields of Gabriel to which the German philosopher attributes illegitimately a strong ontological status. According to Benoist, we need no special intentional entities to strengthen our realism. Quite to the contrary, they would cut us from reality. What we do need is the intentionality oriented towards the reality. And that is something different from what Gabriel intends to do.
The philosophy of the second representative of New Realism, Maurizio Ferraris, can be read as a reaction to postmodern ‘culturalism’. The Italian philosopher is drawing a sharp opposition between natural and social reality, the second being constructed. Benoist notices, against him, that the social world is as immediately real as the natural one. I cannot decide whether the man I see is a policeman or not. Even if the institution concerned has been created by humans, from the perceptual point of view, it is as real as natural properties. According to Benoist, the reasoning of Ferraris is rooted in a confused notion of reality, the one that treats it as ascribed to one kind of being against another one. In contrast, reality is a categorial concept. It says nothing more nor less than that the thing concerned is the thing it is. The case of Ferraris is yet another example of the misconception of the normative aspect of knowledge that has to be corrected in the following part of the book. It should be noted that it is the very aspect of traditional realism that needs some amendment as well. Here, conversely, the norms were given a strong ontological dimension while they were treated as parts of the objects. The distinction between truth and reality is coming back. The independence of reality should be understood exactly in light of the categorial difference between reality and the norm. If renewed realism has a program, that should be it, according to the author.
The first two chapters of the book consecrated to the primordial sketch of the discussion’s ground, the next four are devoted to the commentaries on the three contemporary masters in rethinking realism: Frege, Wittgenstein and Husserl. As mentioned before, they should be of great interest for historians of philosophy as well. The Fregean distinction of sense and reference is explained and reestablished in the polemic with Markus Gabriel. The latter one, in the last chapter of Sinn und Existenz, has questioned the very distinction as well as the one between sense and representation. As a result, sense becomes a property of reference. As Benoist warns, that leads to the risk of psychologism. However, he shares the concern that the second distinction has impoverished the notion of sense. The radical antisubjectivism of Gabriel’s account on semantics is missing the intermediary position in the sense that original Fregean thought corresponded to its epistemic function. In Gabriel, the Fragean senses become a dimension of reality. Not only are they objective, but real as well. Yet again, Benoist remarks the grammatical error of confusing determination with property. It corresponds to the fundamental distinction between the normative and the factual. Sense has ontological implications but no ontological dimension. Just to note, Benoist stresses that the distinction he is defending is not an opposition. An opposition would require that its components belong to the same category. In our case, we rest always on two different categorial grounds. The real does not need the normative. It is we who need it, on the other hand, to conceive the structures within reality.
The primordial confusion of Gabriel has its further implications that fall in line with what Benoist calls, ‘phenomenological fallacy’. To exist means to him to appear in the field of sense. The project of de-subjectivization leads to the ontologization of appearances. This is however another grammatical error. Gabriel confounds two determinations of reality: the structuralization of the being itself and the notion of appearance. The second one requires its subject: the one to whom an object is to appear. The ontologization Gabriel is desperately seeking cuts off that subject. Once again, he seems to pass from the grammar of facts to the grammar of norms. As Benoist points out, the object belongs to the second one. He compares the appearance to an actor who cannot enter the stage before the rule of play has been determined. There is no objective, context-immune sense of being. We cannot apprehend the being but for the given norms.
The notion of the grammar, which enters regularly into discussion, requires a separate analysis. This one is furnished in the fourth chapter. The lesson one can learn from the late Wittgenstein is the recognition of the profound realist-orientation of language. To speak is to act, and one cannot act if not within the world. Even the language games that presuppose taking the world in brackets are played in the world. That is why, according to Benoist, a study of language games is the privileged way towards realism. Some questions however should be raised. Grammar constitutes order in itself, independent from reality. Is language-orientation not so much an escape from reality? The author maintains the thesis of the double independence of reality and grammar that are nonetheless coupled by the usage of language. A fragment of reality never has its linguistic meaning – the latter belongs to grammar (that, following Wittgenstein, contains semantics). This leads to the commentary on the §371 of the Philosophical Investigations where Wittgenstein states that essence is expressed by grammar. The passage was widely commented in the literature. It was considered as the anti-essentialist declaration of the Austrian philosopher. Anscombe, on the other hand, has proposed an essentialist lecture. Benoist revises both interpretations. He focuses on the anti-nominalist dimension of the §371. Essentialism is understood here as nominalism about the ideal. The error of the essentialist lecture of Wittgenstein consists in falling into descriptivist illusion. This Wittgenstein reminded us that grammar does not describe the facts. Anscombe confounds the naming by words with expressing by grammar. The essence should not be understood as the thing I am referring to but by what I am thinking or understanding. It stands on the side of the norm. And the norm is the norm of usage. Finally, that is the usage that determines and guarantees the realist dimension of grammar.
The fifth chapter concerns the status of impossibility. Traditionally, it was presented as the most external of the concentric circles, beginning from the ‘actual’. Benoist distinguishes two notions of impossibility: empirical (real) and logical (absolute). The negation in the first case supposes a virtual possibility. The negation in the second case seems to be of some special kind: it does not concern lack of a reference, but lack of a sense that would have a reference. Benoist stands against the ontological interpretation of the logical impossibility. He rectifies a false opinion on Husserl that would have admitted an ontological consistency to impossibilia. On the contrary, phenomenology treats the impossible a priori as empirical, but of the higher order, mediatized by the mathematical notion of the limit. Benoist’s own answer turns to the usage of norms. Squaring the circle would require changing the norms. The sought circle would not be a circle in standard meaning. Impossibility a priori has a logical signification. There is no impossibility in itself. The myth of the absolute impossibility results from the pseudo-theoretical position that would like to be both inside and outside some activity. The realism defended by the author does not need that notion. To say that there is no absolute impossibility does not mean that everything is allowed. It means rather that where anything goes, one really does nothing.
In the next chapter, Benoist continues his commentary on Husserl and revises the notion of epoché in the context of his own realist project. The theoretical epoché is seen as the anti-hermeneutical turn. Husserl absolutizes the describing that constitutes a part of the form of our life. He wants to focus on what is seen independently of any particular norm. He passes from a particular to an absolute language game. Is that possible though, given the contextual embeddedness defended by Benoist? More light is casted on the phenomenological epoché. Benoist points out that the thesis of the existence of the world is not a thesis properly speaking. Any doubt is local. As an activity, it is still in the world. (Here Benoist follows the grammar of the doubt by Peirce and Wittgenstein.) No one can question it. And Husserl does respect it. He does not invite us to abandon the thesis of the existence of the world, but only not to use it. Too often has the German philosopher been confused with sceptics. Epoché is not intended to liberate us from judgments, but their world-orientation. What epoché discovers seems not to be an independent aspect of reality, but quite to the contrary, our own activity. The methodological side of the epoché can help us to highlight the normative nature of objects. An object is not given, but is a measure of the given. And, finally, any norm can be understood only in reference to reality. This orientation, as it has already been remarked, is inscribed in grammar. In addition, Benoist presents the notion of the acousmatic sound by Pierre Schaeffer in light of epoché. He notices that even in the case of that radical reduction, we rest always within the real. The given does not precede reality. It refers to the fact that it is perceived according to a norm that has its real conditions.
The next two chapters continue the reflection towards the philosophy of perception. The first one, particularly of interest, concerns the reality of appearances and gives some comments on the use of hallucinations in the argumentation for disjunctivism and conjunctivism about perception. Benoist refers to the works by Juan Gonzalez and Katalin Farkas. In the first point, he remarks that the hallucinations used in philosophy are generally philosophical fictions. The natural hallucinations aren’t as perfect as the philosophers maintain and a less-than-perfect cognition is sufficient to recognize them from a standard perception. Nonetheless, he accepts the answer of Michel Martin who agrees that he is not speaking about empirical hallucinations, but about some hypothetical entity defined as a mental state indistinguishable from perception. Benoist leaves hallucinations for a while and proceeds to illusions. Following Austin, he maintains that illusions are perceptions. They are not deceptive as far as one can properly interpret them. Once again, what returns is the conviction of the author that apprehension cannot be abstracted from its context. Perception cannot be taken as detached from its conditions. Nor are illusions false perceptions. That approach would ignore the diversity of what perception is. Thus, against conjuctivism, perceptual illusions are not evidence for the existence of a layer of pre-perceptual appearances within perception and independent from perception. At the same time, against disjunctivism, illusions are not something radically different from perception. What can be said about illusions is that they are problematic perceptions but sensual reality is present within them on the same level as in the case of other perceptions.
Then, Benoist asks in what respect we can distinguish hallucinations from illusions. The visual hallucinations (eg. those provoked by LSD) are rather visual deformations and because of that they can be treated together with visual illusions. Austin would point out the subjective cause of the first and objective of the other, but the comparison with myopia shows that what is essential to the hallucinations is not that they come from me, but that the hallucinating ‘me’ is ‘me’ transformed. This should solve the question of deformational hallucinations. However, real hallucinations, that is those without a real object, still pose a problem. Thus, Benoist questions the indistinguishability of hallucinations. Quoting Gonzales, the author remarks that it is not the phenomenology but the etiology that provokes confusions about hallucinations. Notably, hallucinations are clinically described as extremely realistic – ‘too real to be true’. For that reason, they are phenomenologically distinguishable as surreal. Hallucinations operate on the ground of reality and not on truth. They are not false beliefs about reality, but pure experience (without belief) of reality. That experience-orientation enables Benoist to reject as well the hypothetical (philosophical) notion of hallucinations held up by Martin. The latter maintains that perceptions and hallucinations share the appearance of perception. They both appear to be perceptions. However, appearance refers to the grammar of an object. The experience (that hallucination is) has no appearance. The notion of indistinguishability results from the illegitimate absolutizing of phenomenal conscience.
The next chapter goes on to study the structure of intuition. The dispute on the conceptual/non-conceptual content of perception is reduced to the question whether perception has its content. That leads to another question: Is perception an experience? Benoist points out that perceptual vocabulary is primarily epistemic. The object is not given. It is a norm that identifies what is given. Thus, it is reality-oriented, but belongs to normative grammar. That normativity guarantees the conceptual character of any perception. That is a grammatical point (the grammar being taken in light of what has been said in the previous chapters). The perceptual syntax requires an object. The myth of the given consists in taking the object as though it was not a logical form. As if it was possible to identify anything without implying any norm. Following McDowell, Benoist makes some important distinctions. The concept cannot be non-conceptual, whereas reality cannot be conceptual. The difference between ‘conceptual’ and ‘non-conceptual’ is the difference of category and corresponds to the fundamental difference between truth and reality. Reality cannot be conceptual because it cannot be true nor false. It could not be not-itself. The distinction between reality and intentionality is fundamentally onto-logical. The first operates within the grammar of being, the second – within the grammar of truth/falsity.
One can continue and ask whether there is anything real in perception. That leads Benoist to turn to Gestalt Theory and correct some common errors around it. First, he distinguishes Gestalt from the object of perception. The latter being epistemic, the former is not. Thus, it should be treated rather as the matter of perception. Second, Gestalt is not a primitive, purely perceptual meaning. That would be an error in category. Gestalt is not corrigible since the correction concerns the grammar of validity. On the contrary, it is modifiable by belonging to the grammar of reality. Finally, the philosopher refutes any interpretation that would treat Gestalt as a sort of entity screening the perception of reality. Normally, I do not perceive Gestalt (the exceptions concern some special uses as the one of a painter). I perceive directly the object of perception. Gestalt, being a part of reality, ‘incarnates’ the perception.
The last two chapters indicate some consequences of the proposed realism for aesthetics and moral philosophy. The first one develops some ideas already presented in Bruit du Sensible. Benoist postulates to substitute aesthetics for poetics. The latter highlights the role of revelation in exploring the sensible as opposed to manifestation. The sensible has to be revealed. It does not manifest itself spontaneously. Modern aesthetics had taken the point of view of the spectator. Poetics recognizes the perspective of the artist. Benoist remarks the way how the Kantian paradigm of aesthetics has overstressed the formal priority in defining art – corresponding to his rejection of ‘pleasant’ in favor of ‘beautiful’, and of color in favor of sketch. That has led to a paradoxical de-sensualization of aesthetics. That is why the author invites us to de-epistemologize sensuality so that it could be taken in its reality and not as a mere sign of some external sense. That is what contemporary art has meant to do. Benoist focuses on the concrete music and program of Giacomo Scelsi. The avant-garde composers have negated the primacy of tones and scales as definitive to music. Reducing their scope, eg. by the effects of repetition, they have shed light on other aspects of sound. Above all, they helped to see the matter of sound that cannot be reduced to any form. That is for Benoist an excellent illustration of poiesis in action that helps philosophers to reveal the sensible as sensible.
The final chapter treats the moral implications of realism. The return to reality is drawn not only as an intellectual but as well a moral obligation. In the approach of Benoist, moral realism is not a particularization of general realism but rather its test. Thus, the question arises of what kind of moral realism corresponds to the realism presented in the work. The author takes an indirect methodology and evokes two examples of a failure of realism in morality: empirism and transcendental absolutism. The first one is represented by Buck Mulligan from Joyce’s Ulysses. The empirism of the protagonist consists in absolutizing the given and words. However, the contextual indifferentism makes the words meaningless. The death is a death in general, but never a concreate one. While commenting on the passage about the death of the mother of Stephen Dedalus, Benoist highlight that the guilt of Mulligan is not the one of reducing people to beasts, but of refusing any importance to the word used in the given context. The lack of intentionality is coupled with a contextual immunity. The immorality resides in the indifference.
On the other hand, realism can fail because of its absolutism. In fact, the contextual blindness is shared by both positions, although their ontological engagements do not seem to be more opposed than they are. Benoist quotes the Diaries of Marta Hillers from Berlin of 1945. Here the words become of greatest importance. Reality appears to be much more complicated than any fixed moral valuation would say. The narrator gives herself to a Soviet officer to earn the basic goods for living and to be protected against the private soldiers. Neither can she classify it as rape nor as prostitution. Obviously, rape is not a matter of any subjective feelings. Nonetheless, the evoked example points out that the moral reflection cannot put aside the point of view of the moral agents. Hiller’s own distinctions are inscribed in some particular context and, though they have no universal range, they are significant in that context and that signification can be apprehended from an outside point of view. As in the case of impossibility, Benoist does not maintain that the complexity of the situation given to prevent us from making a moral judgment. We are indeed justified to judge, but never independently from the context. The de-intentionalization of empirism becomes a symmetrical phantasm to the one of the de-contextualization of transcendental idealism.
The work of Jocelyn Benoist represents the best tradition of the philosophical enterprise that sees hermeneutics as its method (although, to my best knowledge, the author is far from accepting hermeneutics as a doctrine). A critical analysis of the philosophical tradition becomes the point of departure for an original speculation. Both historians and theoretical philosophers gain. Especially, because the erudition and methodological lack of prejudices of the author enable him to correct some widespread misinterpretations of the classics of contemporary philosophy. One can be skeptical whether the New Realism really is a movement important and original enough to merit a broad study. However, doubtlessly, for the sake of the realism proposed by Benoist, to which it plays a role of a departure point, it seems totally justified. The grammatical point of view, pointing out consequently the categorial distinctions ignored by not so few philosophers is one of the most important and inspiring contributions of the work that I would like to stress once more at the conclusion.