Perceiving Perception?: A Review of Ferraris’ Positive Realism



Maurizo Ferraris’ recent short text Positive Realism (Zer0, Dec 2015) attempts to define what his form of New Realism is against, and what it builds off of, engaging a wide range of philosophical positions (metaphysical realism, internal realism, scientific realism, Markus Gabriel’s New Realism, Harman’s ontology and others) while making a general claim to a philosophy informed by common sense.

Ferraris is critical of both transcendental philosophy and the linguistic turn, of what he generally names constructivism and the ‘transcendental fallacy’ (3). These moves follow from a general anti-epistemological stance that is shared with Harman, Garcia, Gabriel, and others. Essentially these realists wish to claim that we are already in touch with the world, with objects, with things of themselves, and thus focusing on the question of access (of epistemology in particular) buries the ontological lead. Ferraris, along with these other thinkers, thus want to claim that the world is there before us, but not for us, and that this is should be appreciated as a positive philosophical feature.

Broadly put, Ferraris argues that constructivism and transcendental philosophy not only over-estimate the power of the thinking subject but also overlook the positive aspects of the world, the way in which the world, and objects of the world, invite us to act and interact with them (referencing J.J. Gibson) as well as make it difficult to determine the degrees of reality.

Along similar lines, Ferraris endorses the general focus on objects arguing that objects present themselves to us in such a way that to deny their existence, or to deny that their specificity is independent of our investment in/of them, or are construction of them, seems deeply problematic (19). However, in saying that societies, governments, sub-atomic particles et cetera are objects, then what is it about objects that purportedly makes them self-standing if object-hood is a classification with little to no ontological heft?

Ferraris attempts to hedge his bets here while discussing fictions. While fictions and aesthetics are important, Ferraris distances himself from Gabriel and from other new realists who would claim that realness is determined by sense (a la Gabriel) or that all things are equally real (this references the Popeye debates from many years back). Yet, at the same time, Ferraris wants to defend perception as a field for thought in many ways similar to how Harman wishes to defend object-hood.

This in turn ties to Ferrari’s claim that certain objects are more dependent on human existence (social objects such as governments, cults, etc) while still maintaining there is something real to perception but not downwards determining, i.e., perception does not constitute the objects on which perception is built. He discusses this in terms of a “graduated realism” (xi).

As he puts it quite directly in the introduction:

“the coexistence and interaction of different beings in the world depend primarily on the properties of the latter, and not on the conceptual schemes of the ‘I think’, (which, in Kant’s perspective, seems charged with hyperbolic responsibility)” (vii).

Yet,despite Ferraris’ clear style and generally straight-forward goal, there is a sense that he is constantly minimizing the role of epistemology without being able to articulate why, partially, sense to do so would sound a lot like epistemology.


While Ferraris wants to say, and this perhaps also distances him from Harman, Garcia (though maybe not Gabriel) is that we have absorbed the lessons of Kant, and that re-deploying realism after him is not naive but merely a re-educated form. However, while Ferraris will admit that Kant did upset common sense, philosophical and otherwise, he still relies upon a certain form of style and attitude which is generally an appeal to common sense about the world, but about a world we are now set on the margins of.

This can be somewhat generalized, I think, in terms of how the new realists/flat ontologists (who are not the same of course but I think share this particular commitment) approach what they see as a transcendental triplicity, namely, that the philosophical state of affairs is one of mind, world, and representation. In essence, Ferraris and company want to eliminate representation especially in its more constructive form. Yet, in so doing, the elimination of representation (with representation being claiming as something that replaces the world, that becomes the world for us) removes cautious frameworks dear to transcendental philosophy which they saw as necessary to do what Ferraris, in a more general sense, wishes to do, namely, realism, or maybe better put, ontology after Kant.

Representation was not that which uncritically could even functionally replace the world, but something which reminds about the limits of human (or even potentially non-human) perception and interaction with the world. Simply, representation can be taken as the fact that any form of perception cannot take the world all in at once, but rather, has to provide a foreshortened image of it but one that, given our non-cognitive movements actions in the world, coupled with different kinds of cognitive activity, can allow us more access to it. Thus when Ferraris says Kantian schemas are “merely cognitive” (viii) it is difficult to ascertain how they could be parsed from perception which is not merely cognitive, without asserting an ontological transparency to our own form of perception. How can Ferraris non-epistemologically account for a ‘successful’ encounter between mind and world that is not merely solipsistic? (7).


It is possible that the issue merely lies in Ferraris’ attempt to respond simultaneously to post-modern social constructivism, and transcendental philosophy. I think this complicates the triplicity which Gabriel is attempting to simplify in the name of pragmatics, that of object, subject, and domain. Ferrari’s wants to reduce, and almost eliminate the question of domain (contra Gabriel) while negatively portray subject in terms of access/epistemology, but positively as perception. Objects in the world then are negatively portrayed as resistances and positively as affordances.

It seems clear to me that if much of Speculative Realism, New Materialism, OOO/OOP and, more recently, the various micro-endeavors which have emerged out of the non-cohesion of SR in particular, shared an antipathy for correlationism, or social constructivism, the linguistic turn and the like, then it may be that  a new field of contention has been found, one that keeps this problems in mind but attempts the positive move that Ferraris endorses. This field is, potentially, the relation between sense-perception-experience. That is, the question of how the given or not-given is used by the mind (human or not) to navigate the world without supplanting it seems central. This is something which is important to externalist views of cognitive science (though the field, as far as I’ve investigated, seems terribly disorganized and non-internally communicative beyond being anti-Cartesian) as well as affect-theory, the relation of formalism to empiricism, as well as the relation of idealism, to materialism, to realism as Brassier importantly highlighted in his recent interview in Realism, Materialism, Art.

It is also telling that, despite the violent break between some factions of SR and various recent realisms and materialisms, that their fleeing paths have lead back to a new emphasis on aesthetics. Aesthetics is, as I hope to look into very soon, one diagonal means of attempting to map the relations and blockages amidst the constellation of sense, perception, and experience. I think the most important aspect of Ferraris’ text is his attempt to argue that the category of sense, especially in its pragmatic or functional character, requires reevaluation (12). But, rather than laying much of the blame at the feet of Hegel, I would rather argue that transcendental philosophy attempted to determine how conceptual the seemingly non-conceptual was, and vice-versa, rather than claim that we inject the world with all its features.


One Response to “Perceiving Perception?: A Review of Ferraris’ Positive Realism”

  1. 1 ¿Percibindo a percepción?, por Ben Woodard | Euseino? Editores

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