Realism’s Many Returns

Here’s a question regarding the return of (mostly metaphysical) realisms in a variety of fields and how they hang together. It seems that, for a while now, everyone has been a realist again after an early to mid-20th century heyday of antirealism.

The histories of analytic and continental philosophy run somewhat parallel here, I believe. Both start as reactions against the Neo-Kantianism dominant around the turn of the century.

Husserl, and then more decisively Heidegger, break with neo-Kantianism on the Continental side. By the 1930s, Heidegger has turned hard against metaphysics, whether realist or neo-idealist, and then in his wake you get the French post-structuralists (reacting also against structuralists and existentialists): Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, and elsewhere people like Rorty and, in his own way, Gadamer. Painting in very broad brush strokes, but you get a strong focus on language, cultural-historical situatedness; Platonist, Cartesian, and Hegelian are terms of insult; the subject is either dead or at least very weak.

On the analytic side, it’s logical positivism first, then, in the wake of the later Wittgenstein, ordinary language philosophy, Quine and Davidson — until Lewis and Kripke bring back analytic metaphysics in the 80s. Around that time, on the Continental side, you get Badiou — proud Platonist, Hegelian, and theorist of the subject–and, in his footsteps Meillassoux, you get the Ljubljana School of psychoanalysis, and then, closer to the turn of the millennium or thereafter, a wave of new materialism, speculative realism, etc.

In ethics and politics there might be parallels, too, though ‘realism’ has a different meaning there and is opposed to different things. Everyone’s a metaethicist in the early 20th cent. analytic ethics and, within that field, a non-cognitivist until… ca. Rawls? On the Continental side, Habermas ist a turning point. From one point of view, he’s more ‘idealist’ than his more pessimistic/realist precursors in critical theory, but in another sense he initiates a return to cognitivist and universalist positions.

On the one hand, I’m interested in complications of this narrative that sees a swing from anti-realist to realism in many fields of philosophy with perhaps a turning point in the 80s. They should be easy to come by: different chronologies in different (sub)fields; strong countercurrents on the margins (e.g. analytic Thomism and (Catholic) phenomenology); more complicated intellectual trajectories (Foucault on the subject, Gadamer on Plato and Hegel)

But it would equally interesting to go the other way and see if the narrative could be broadened to include other fields. In anthropology, is the ontological turn (Descola, Latour) a neo-structuralist turn against post-modernism? In theology, I recently saw a video advertising a conference on New Trinitarian theologies that assembled all the radical orthodoxy people to talk about a return to metaphysics. Has there been a shift from liberalism to realism in international relations theory since the end of the cold war?

Of course, the obvious response is that there’s no common meaning to the term ‘realism’ that spans analytic and continental, theoretical and practical philosophy — much less also anthro, theology, IR and others… Then again, if there was a real parallel in intellectual shifts here we might also miss such parallels because few people look at the history of several of these fields simultaneously, and perhaps also because we’re still in the midst of it.

Here’s one hypothesis: if there is a common denominator to a postulated renewed realist sensibility, it might be a negative one: a reaction against the (perceived) domination of post-modernism across much of the humanities and social sciences. If that is so, then different fields might show different, if related reactions. Perhaps in some fields it’s a kind of “counter-revolutionary” turn against post-modern excesses, in others a more “determinate” negation, a measured correction that preserves what was valuable in the mid-20th cent. critiques of realism, metaphysical or other. That’s were disciplines could learn from another.

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