Last year Polity Press published Why the World Does Not Exist, an English translation by Gregory S. Moss of a 2013 book by German philosopher Markus Gabriel. In the book, Gabriel presents an argument for a philosophical stance he terms “New Realism,” which he frames as a kind of third way between old school metaphysics on the one hand and Kantian constructivism on the other. Central to Gabriel’s argument is his claim that the world does not exist.
The English edition has a unicorn on the cover and back cover blurbs with praise along the lines of: “A majestic thought experiment” (Slavoj Žižek) or “Gabriel has written a gripping thriller, which is of course what all good philosophy should be” (Die Literarische Welt). The goofily genial quality of Gabriel’s style encourages such feel-good presentation. But this shouldn’t distract from the fact that Why the World Does Not Exist is not merely an occasion for Gabriel to elaborate a novel school of thought for a lay readership. In fact, the philosophy serves a broader role, as Gabriel offers a brilliant polemic directed against a scientific worldview given undue authority in contemporary discourse. His arguments provide a welcome corrective to the welter of foolishness that dominates any discussion of public policy today.
To understand why this is the case, it’s first necessary to summarize Gabriel’s arguments. A big caveat lector here at the start that what Gabriel lays out methodically over several chapters, addressing counterarguments along the way, I’m going to try to present in simplified form over just a few paragraphs. A further note that Gregory S. Moss deserves credit for a translation that if nothing else must have required a lot of legwork — making sure his translation of philosophical terms is consistent with prior translations, for example. German has a rap for being “the language of philosophy” in part because it allows for figurative concepts to be conveyed in more literal terms. Moss does a good job of providing notes where necessary to help get this across. He does fail to point out a pun Gabriel makes on the homophonic similarity of the German term Sinnfeld to the name of the TV show Seinfeld, but this is forgivable.
There are two main aspects of Gabriel’s argument: the claim that the world does not exist and the philosophical stance of New Realism. Let’s take the latter first, noting, again, that Gabriel elaborates his stance by countering metaphysics and constructivism. So, imagine you and I are in the kitchen, looking at an apple. Metaphysics asserts that the only object in this situation is the apple, which exists in itself independently of you and me looking at it. Constructivism, on the other hand, asserts that two objects exist: your view of the apple, and my (slightly different) view of the apple. The apple doesn’t exist as an object in itself because “all objects which we can know anything about are supposed to be constructed by us.”
New Realism asserts that three objects exist: your view of the apple, my view of the apple, and the apple in itself. That is to say, our perceptions have as much claim to existence as the objects we perceive. But how does this work? When we think of the apple existing, we might think of it existing in the world, or more broadly, the universe. Since everything in the universe is made of matter (or energy, or strings, or whatever), and the apple is made of matter, then it exists. But Gabriel isn’t saying, for example, that our perceptions are matter. And since our thoughts aren’t matter, they don’t exist in the universe. And yet, Gabriel says, they do exist.
Here it pays to quote Gabriel at length on the subject:
The universe signifies not merely a thing but also a particular kind of perspective. It is no self-evident and alternative-less location, no axiomatic name for the whole in which we find ourselves, but the result of a complex operation of thought. The universe, as large as it is, is only a part of the whole, a part to which we have access by the specific methods linked with modern science.
Our thoughts don’t need to exist in the universe in order to exist, because the universe does not comprise the whole of existence. To better understand this it helps to clarify what Gabriel means by existence. Where, he says, we might previously have defined existence as “being found in the world”—or universe—his claim is that existence is “appearing in a field of sense.” “Field of sense” is his necessary substitute for “world,” since the world does not exist. In the example of the apple, the apple does indeed appear in the field of sense called “universe” as understood by modern science. But the universe is only one of an infinite number of fields of sense. Our thoughts about the apple appear in a separate field of sense that might overlap with the universe but is not subordinate to it.
The concept of fields of sense is essential to Gabriel’s assertion that the world does not exist. The world could be defined as the place where everything exists, and since everything that exists necessarily appears in a field of sense, then “the world is the field of sense in which all fields of sense appear.” (Gabriel also references Heidegger’s notion of “the domain of all domains”). But in order to exist, the world would itself have to appear in a field of sense. This doesn’t work, since the field of sense in which the world appears would also have to appear within the world; the world would have to appear in itself.
Again, this is all horribly oversimplified, but Gabriel’s project in asserting that the world does not exist is destructive in order to serve creative ends: “With this main thesis, not only should the illusion that there is a world, to which humanity quite obstinately adheres, be destroyed, but at the same time I wish to use this in order to win positive knowledge from it. For I claim not only that the world does not exist but also that everything exists except the world.” Gabriel’s stance does indeed yield positive results. It allows for a pluralism more robust than the infinitely relative claims of postmodernism, while at the same time defending against the totalitarian impulse which continues to pop up wherever we allow one perspective, such as natural science, to dominate all others.
* * *
To take one instance that serves as an example of such domination: Two years ago this month, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was published in English. The book launched a flurry of reviews, hit the bestseller list, then prompted even more printed inquiry as to just why it was getting such fanfare. In Capital, Piketty draws on a heretofore unavailable breadth of data to argue, among other things, that rising income inequality is an inherent feature of capitalism. The left generally reacted to the book’s argument with a breathless collective I Told You So, while the right cried Marx redux. Both responses were predictable, but the response on the left was especially disheartening.
Disheartening why? Rather than parse the specific responses, it suffices to emphasize that Piketty’s book prompted an unusually vigorous public discussion of income inequality. Clearly that is a good thing, but still, it was hard not to feel a little uneasy about the greater context. Why were we having this discussion now? Only, it seemed, because someone working in the authoritative field of economics had garnered enough objective data to argue scientifically for the injustice of unchecked capitalism. That was the depressing part. Clearly Piketty had tapped into sentiments that were already latent. That these were treated with this level of seriousness in national media only with the publication of Capital — and not, say, in the wake of the Occupy movement — suggests that we cannot muster the indignity to question an injustice that we all already perceive unless we have the sanction of an expert.
Gabriel directs a polemic against this very phenomenon. In a section titled “The Worldview of Natural Science,” Gabriel points out that “in the age of science, the world of the human being is looked upon with suspicion as the domain of illusion, while the world of science, the universe, is advanced as the measure of objectivity. The question is no longer how the world appears to us, but how it is in itself.” It’s clear to see how this played out in the example of Capital. Piketty’s data was trotted out as an instance of supposed objective truth. Commentators on the left concerned with income inequality essentially dropped the book on the table and said, “See?,” assuming they’d made their argument.
This is not only a poor rhetorical strategy — though it is, and I’ll show how poor in just a moment — but also one that ignores people’s attitudes and lived experience in favor of a statistical assessment of natural phenomena. In fact it does worse than ignore them, it actually discredits them. Recall the apple example. Here Piketty’s objective assessment of economic phenomena over the past century is seen as the one extant object; our observations of those phenomena, because subjective, are literally immaterial.
Never mind that our observations of economic phenomena are tied to concepts and thought that lie outside the realm of what can be studied by economics — ethics, for example. Alienation is to the best of my knowledge not reducible to a statistical model, unless all you want to do is measure the effect of worker alienation on rate of production. And yet that seems to be exactly what those arguing the point want to do.
I can sense the potential objection here that it’s not a question of discounting subjective experience, rather it’s simply the case that making use of objective data is the most rhetorically persuasive way of arguing the point. To counter that objection I would turn to David Foster Wallace, who addresses the debate over wealth-redistribution in an aside in his essay “Authority and American Usage.” Wallace writes:
As long as redistribution is conceived as a form of charity or compassion (and the Bleeding Left appears to buy this conception every bit as much as the Heartless Right), then the whole debate centers on utility . . . and both camps have their arguments and preferred statistics, and the whole thing goes around and around. . .
Opinion: The mistake here lies in both sides’ assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. . . No one ever seems willing to acknowledge aloud the thoroughgoing self-interest that underlies all impulses toward economic equality—especially not US progressives, who seem so invested in an image of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate and Not Like Those Selfish Conservatives Over There that they allow the conservatives to frame the debate in terms of charity and utility, terms under which redistribution seems far less obviously a good thing.
Understood in Wallace’s terms, the left’s response to Piketty’s book was to continue conducting the argument over income inequality in terms of utility. The only difference is that they saw Piketty’s data as a kind of silver bullet with which they could win the debate once and for all. Even as rhetorical strategy, this argument — “Income inequality is real and an inevitable result of unchecked capitalism — and I have data that proves it!” — fails. The other side can always respond with, “Well, our experts see the data differently,” “We’d like to see more evidence,” etc. — people who deny global warming use a similar gambit — or even trot out their own whiz kid economist to argue the converse. As Wallace says, the whole thing goes around around. It’s a bit like Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book, each side develops increasingly absurd weapons, only to find that their opponent has come up with an even greater absurdity.
Wallace sees the left’s failure as the result of disingenuousness — those in favor of wealth-redistribution wish to preserve their sense of themselves as morally superior. I would argue that things are even worse than that. We choose to frame the argument as an objective question of data analysis not because we covertly want to highlight our own ethical purity, but rather because we see the ethical argument as subjective, and thus not valid.
We simply don’t trust any discourse that doesn’t allow the unquantifiable to play a role. As a result of this, you can find countless instances of people going through all sorts of contortions to find a scientific basis for their argument rather than make that argument on ethical grounds. Let’s take a random example: stress. A quick search of the New York Times reveals headlines like, “How Stressful Work Environments Hurt Workers’ Health” and “Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?” The former declares that stressful workplaces are as health-endangering as secondhand smoke, the latter laments a rise in depression, anxiety, and even physical symptoms among busy schoolchildren. To be clear, I’m not decrying the importance of the science. If stress makes us sick, all the more reason for us to avoid it; having medical evidence to back this up helps to bolster that argument. But surely we are not so neurotic as a society, so distrustful of our own subjective experience, that we need the supposedly objective ratification of an outside authority to make it seem valid?
Again, I think the truth is more insidious. It’s not a question of people viewing their subjective experience as invalid; rather it is seen as invalid as a basis for public policy — or put less cagily, as the basis for those in power to yield to petitions from those not in power. In the stress example, one imagines a group of dissatisfied employees or concerned parents rallying to demand a change in stressful conditions, only to be told, in essence, that they need to get a doctor’s note. Deference to this supposedly objective outside authority becomes another form of control. Confronted with such disregard for your lived experience, you have no choice but to appeal to the authority of the quantifiable, and reframe the issue accordingly. Never mind that this at best narrows the issue, at worst distorts it.
* * *
At times Why the World Does Not Exist can feel like a salvo in a turf war within academia, with Gabriel defending the humanities’ domains against the territorial encroach of the natural sciences. Part of this might be a function of the translation, as Moss’s occasional interpolated clarifications can at times enhance the polemic tone of Gabriel’s argument in both directions, anti-metaphysics and anti-constructivism. This can have the unfortunate effect of diminishing the book’s stature as a stand-alone argument — unfortunate because Why the World Does Not Exist is above all an attempt to articulate a new stance, not merely an occasion to address pre-existing schools of thought.
Still, that Gabriel is aware of the real-world stakes of his argument is apparent in his new book, Ich ist nicht Gehirn, where he decries attempts by neuroscience and other disciplines to reduce the self to a function of the brain’s impulses. It doesn’t diminish Gabriel’s arguments to point out that, as a philosopher working at a university, he has more than a purely intellectual stake in this fight. Recall that he rejects constructivism. He’s not out to disprove science by saying it’s only one of many constructed world views; he merely attempts to show the limits of such a world view — indeed, to show that it is infeasible as an all-encompassing world view, as all world views are, because, as Gabriel says, “they want to be pictures of something that does not exist. In the best-case scenario, one has only ever taken a picture of a part of the world, which typically leads to a one-sided representation that is prematurely generalized.”
Gabriel’s New Realism offers a way out from the over-reliance on the objective — which is, in essence, a false metaphysics, a way of explaining the world that in actuality reduces it. As Gabriel puts it: “We must defend ourselves against the unreasonable demand of having to explain everything, an unreasonable demand which nothing and no one can fulfill.” Gabriel is not suggesting that objective truth does not exist. His claim is that we ask too much of it — and in so doing, we do our own subjective truths a disservice.
Marshall Yarbrough is assistant music editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He has written for Electric Literature and Tiny Mix Tapes, and his translations from German have appeared in n+1 and InTranslation.org.
This post may contain affiliate links.