MARKUS GABRIEL is the rising star of Germany’s new philosophical scene. In less than 20 years, he has read everything, learned everything (he’s fluent in some 10 languages), found his philosophical path
(“New Realism”), and managed like nobody else (at least this precociously) to reconcile a prestigious academic career with a large public success.
His recent book Why the World Does Not Exist is based on a paradox: “Our planet exists. My hopes and dreams, evolution, the toilet flush, hair loss. […] All of this exists except for the world.”
interview by MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM
portrait by OLIVIER AMSELLEM
artworks by AUREL SCHMIDT
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Could you tell us something about your life, your childhood and adolescence, your family, your social and cultural milieu, and so on? When did you start to feel a predilection for philosophy?
MARKUS GABRIEL — I grew up in a small town close to Bonn (Sinzig), which is located in the heart of the Rhineland. At the time, Bonn was still the capital of West Germany. The Rhineland is very close to Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, which is why the overall cultural atmosphere has been fairly cosmopolitan for a long time. It was part of my early education to be aware that the Rhineland used to be a part of the good old Roman Empire (my hometown has been in existence for circa 2,000 years). I started reading philosophy when I was 15. At the time, I broke my ankle while skateboarding and had to stay at home over the summer. Earlier, at a party, a friend had read out loud some passages from Schopenhauer with the familiar “How do we know that life is not a long dream?” motive. This immediately caught my attention, so I started reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard to figure out the meaning of existence. When I returned to school after the summer break, I had decided that I wanted to be a professional philosopher and hold a chair in philosophy before the age of 30, so that I would then have the prerequisites to work out an overall philosophical outlook (a philosophical system, as one used to say back in the day). Fortunately, the plan worked out.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — You’re often spoken of as a university prodigy. Could you recount your exploits in the matter, up to the present?
MARKUS GABRIEL — During my social service (when I was 18, in Germany one still had to choose between military and social service), I started studying part-time at the German Open University; this was the only course allowed by the military, which was responsible for organizing the social service. Before this, while still in high school, I took some philosophy seminars at the University of Bonn. All of this allowed me to fulfill the requirements for what would now be a BA degree before even entering the university. I then started studying at Bonn (for a couple of semesters) before I moved to Heidelberg. There I was allowed to get my doctorate without any foregoing official degree, which was still possible under the older academic system. This is why I could finish my doctorate at the age of 25 with a dissertation in which I reconstructed the very idea of a philosophy of mythology in Schelling’s late philosophy.
Afterward, I went for a postdoc at New York University where I worked with some of the major philosophers of our time (in particular, Crispin Wright, Thomas Nagel, and Paul Boghossian). In this context, I worked on the realism/antirealism debate and on contemporary solutions to the problems of skepticism, about which I published one of my first books. During this time, I also finished my habilitation thesis, a second dissertation required in the German system to be eligible for a tenured position as a professor. I was awarded my habilitation in 2008. Fortunately, on the very day of my oral habilitation defense, I was offered a tenure-track professorship at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which I accepted. While teaching there, after three months, the University of Bonn offered me the chair in epistemology, modern and contemporary philosophy, so I left the US to come back to Germany. In Bonn, among other things, I am a director of the International Center for Philosophy, and our goal is to practice philosophy in a global context, beyond the narrow ideological confines of national practices (like French, German, or Anglo-American philosophy). Philosophy does not have a nation — it is as universal as reason. When I was offered the chair at Bonn, I was 28, which as far as I know makes me the youngest chairholder in philosophy in Germany since Schelling.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Could you also recount your intellectual development, your “philosophical periods,” up to your “conversion” to speculative realism? How did you discover that current of thought? Why have you latched on to it?
MARKUS GABRIEL — I have never been converted to anything and certainly not to speculative realism! The overall title for the research program I am contributing to is “New Realism.” So-called speculative realism is a form of new realism in that it also reacts to postmodernism’s failure by insisting that we can know the absolute, or reality as it is in itself. However, so-called speculative realism remains tied to the idea that there is a distinction between analytical and continental philosophy, and it is located on the continental side. I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that there is such a distinction. There is just philosophy, and it can be done better or worse. The issue of realism is an age-old philosophical problem. What has changed over the last hundred years is that we have much better argumentative and conceptual tools and just much more freedom in thought in order to make major leaps in the discussion of the questions that hark back to Ancient Greece: how does reality as a whole hang together? Is life a dream/hallucination? What is the nature of perception, of knowledge, the mind?
My philosophical upbringing was very classical. At first, I studied Ancient Greek philosophy and German idealism, but always in light of contemporary philosophical questions. My teachers (in particular Wolfram Hogrebe) always insisted that the question in reading a text from the history of philosophy is whether what the author claims is true and how exactly it is justified. We can only figure this out if we try to work out the thoughts discussed in a text by ourselves. There is no authority in philosophy except reason, which also means that we have good reasons to study the best classics in the field.
Heidelberg, where I got my degrees, was a nice place to study philosophy from the standpoint of hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer was, of course, a major philosopher there), but also in the context of contemporary theoretical philosophy (when I was there, Crispin Wright taught two seminars at Heidelberg, which profoundly impressed me). In that sense, Heidelberg was already beyond any substantial divide between “continental” and “analytical,” which evidently does not really make sense in Germany anyway, given that Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, etc. and Gottlob Frege, Rudolf Carnap, etc. come from a German context. On the Continent, the very idea of “continental” philosophy is nonsense. However, there are differences in philosophical methodology among different philosophers, but in my philosophical upbringing, I always trained in different ways of solving and formulating philosophical problems.
After my time in Heidelberg, I went to New York, where Paul Boghossian was writing his book Fear of Knowledge and Thomas Nagel was working on his Mind and Cosmos. Constant engagement with them “converted” me, as it were, to a realistic outlook. I came to understand that there is no way of having any such thing as a justified theory unless one accepts that there is an objective layer of facts utterly dependent on theory, mind, and attitude, and that this does not mean that we cannot know anything about it. Also, talking to Thomas Nagel certainly changed my understanding of the mind’s and consciousness’s own reality. When I returned to New York for my first professorship, people were reading Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, which again excited my interest in the realism issue, as Quentin was basically rephrasing Schelling’s ontology, while giving it some interesting new twists. This is when I got in touch with Slavoj Žižek, whom I had invited to Heidelberg for a panel discussion about the death of God a couple of years earlier, in order to write a book with him, which came out as Mythology, Madness, and Laughter.
The sense in which realism for me is some kind of a name for what you call a “conversion” is simply that I had skeptical inclinations before. Skepticism argues that we can never really know anything in many of the areas we deem important. Epistemological realism, on the contrary, argues that we can precisely know how things really are by ordinary means (such as perception and science, but also by reading literature or watching a movie, I would add). I came to understand that we can really learn from a thorough engagement with skepticism that we can know all sorts of things and that nothing stands between us and the real, making it somehow very hard to grasp. The next major moment was when I understood that realism is not a claim to the effect that the world exists or that it is independent from our minds. Rather, realism only needs the real in its manifold shapes, but not a world encompassing everything that is real. Hence, the idea of what I call
“the no-world-view.” The world does not exist.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — In one of your interviews, you talk about collaborating with other philosophers, such as Žižek, Meillassoux, and Maurizio Ferraris. Could you explain what each of these collaborations brought to your work?
MARKUS GABRIEL — We need to add: Thomas Nagel, Paul Boghossian, and more recently John Searle to the mix here. From Žižek, I learned a lot about the ontology of the subject. He argues that the contradictions we experience are real features of what there is. It is not the case that there is a stable cosmos out there, which we distort with our minds. The distortion itself is real. Meillassoux made me aware of the fallacy he calls “correlationism” and how deeply it is entrenched in the contemporary intellectual culture. It seems as if we can never know things in themselves precisely because our conditions of accessing them put them at a distance. Yet, the underlying thought is simply misguided, as Meillassoux points out. Ferraris has connected me more with common-sense or so-called naive realism. He is interested in the causal relation underpinning perception and wants to insist that there is no sense in the idea that we somehow make the perceptual world up within our minds. Recently, I learned a lot from John Searle’s way of being entirely clear about everything. He has the remarkable ability to oversimplify the most complicated philosophical issue and thereby to demonstrate that we should always strive to make sense of the obvious claims in a given area. What is hard in philosophy is avoiding overly sophisticated theorizing, which sometimes gets in our way of seeing the truth, of Seeing Things as They Are, to borrow John’s new book title.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — How would you describe the innovation in your ontology with respect to traditional philosophy, insofar as such a thing exists? What do you mean by the shock-phrase “the world does not exist?” On what points does
“new realism” differ from other trends in “speculative realism?”
MARKUS GABRIEL — I think the claim that the world does not exist is indeed profoundly radical. Arguably, traditional philosophy is a theory of absolutely everything that exists. It consists in the idea that there is a reality out there to which everything that really exists belongs, a reality sometimes called the actual world and, in other contexts, the nature of the universe. Traditional philosophy (which includes most of contemporary philosophy) wants to figure out what the world is like. I call this “old realism.”
Since Kant, many philosophers have realized that there is no single point of view, no view from nowhere (as Thomas Nagel calls this), from which we could possibly observe the world in the sense of absolute totality. Hence, the prevalence of certain forms of skepticism: how can we ever know the real, given its infinite complexities? Instead of arguing that we cannot have a theory of everything because of some kind of human or scientific limitation, I point out that the world does not and cannot exist! It is a bit like the biggest natural number: once you know what a natural number is, you know there is no such thing as the biggest natural number — once you know what existence is and what the world is, you know that the world does not and cannot exist. In order to get there, I first came to the conclusion that to exist is for something to appear in a field of sense, as I put it. The idea is quite simple: Germany exists, the number three exists, nightmares exist, and unicorns exist (in movies, for instance). What this really means is: Germany appears in the history of Europe; the number three in the series of natural numbers; nightmares in our everyday lives or in psychoanalysis; unicorns in movies and our accounts of what happens in them. There is no single, general feature of existence that is shared by Germany, the number three, nightmares, and unicorns, yet they all exist! The world, had it existed, would have been a field of sense of all other fields of sense. But what notion of existence would be required for the world?
Let me put this basic idea I spell out in various ways a little bit more intuitively, with the help of a thought experiment I call “Google Universe.” Imagine you use Google Earth and first see your street. You push minus and then see your city, your country, your continent, and ultimately Earth. If you could continue this with “Google Universe,” you would see the Milky Way, then a galaxy cluster, then more galaxies and in the end, the universe. But where do you stand if you see the universe as a whole? Well, nowhere! This is why this is impossible. “Google Universe” cannot exist. But that just means that there is not absolute totality and not that we cannot know it. Giving up the existence of the world rather than giving up our knowledge of the real is the decisive new move. I define “new realism” as a twofold thesis: one, that we can know things as they are in themselves, and two, that the many real things we come to know do not all belong to a single domain (the world). This is my contribution to overcoming post-modernism.
Speculative realism, on the other hand, is precisely a set of metaphysical views about the nature of the world. It is a return to a very traditional understanding of philosophy. Another problem with it is that you can tell that it has not incorporated the most recent argumentative tools worked out in contemporary theoretical philosophy (in particular in the UK by people like P.F. Strawson, Michael Dummett, Gilbert Ryle, etc; and in the US by the A-team of American philosophy, including people like Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, David Lewis, Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Willard van Orman Quine, etc.) In many respects, it is not entirely up to date in theoretical philosophy, a lack that is compensated for to some extent by the creative and original frame of tackling the question of the real in a realistic way — that is to say, not as a mere question of semantics, language, or the reach of human thought.
What is great about speculative realism is the imaginative and creative original contribution it makes to many debates. Unfortunately, the systems of speculative realism do not defend themselves against rational criticism and therefore do not change in light of good objections. This is why nothing new has come from there after the original breakthrough in 2006-10. Meillassoux, for instance, has never replied to his critics or continued to work out his view on mind, nature, knowledge, perception, and modality, which he only sketches in his great essay from 2006. Speculative realism tends to be dogmatic metaphysics — that is, an attempt to describe an insight into the fundamental nature of reality without spelling this out in the dialogical context of objections and replies.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — Your ontology’s most captivating point — its most “joyful” point in a Spinozan sense, I’d add — is the notion of “fields of sense.” Could you encapsulate this idea for our readers? A related question: you reject the postulate that all philosophical discourse is self-serving interpretation and therefore stands apart from the Nietzschean gesture, but I seem to recognize in your notion of “fields of sense” something that, in a way partly comparable to the Nietzschean gesture, substitutes for and perhaps calls into question what in a more “classical” tradition — recently represented by philosophers like Heidegger, Lacan, and Alain Badiou — would be the notion of truth. Is “field of sense” your name for truth? Or is it, in fact, intended to take the place of truth?
MARKUS GABRIEL — A field of sense is a domain of objects individuated by what I call a sense. A sense is a structure, which — if you grasp it — tells you that things are thus-and-so. For instance, the sense in which natural numbers exist is characterized by the Peano axioms, or generally by basic arithmetic. The sense in which republics exist is tied to history, politics, social change, etc. The sense in which artworks exist is different, as it depends on art history, fashion, available material, art’s engagement with politics, ethics, ideology, the beautiful, etc. Numbers, republics, and artworks are not subject to the same laws or rules. However, this does not mean that we make the rules for all fields of sense. If I have cancer, then the sense in which the cancer exists is precisely one that I have not made (if I had the choice or any say in this, cancer would certainly not exist!). Fields of sense contain the truth-makers for true thoughts and statements. Truth, here, is not very spectacular. Against Badiou, I insist that truth is a minimalistic or deflationary structure. Truth is not hard to grasp or somehow rare. Badiou inflates the notion of truth and event in order to make it look as if we usually live in some kind of social or epistemological illusion, from which we only break free by some kind of radical change or revolution. I believe that this is false. Truth is a very ordinary thing that we need to figure out and not produce out of nothing.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The “new speculative realism” makes much of Meillassoux’s theses, which — and this relates to the earlier question about your collaborations — had a trigger-like effect on many of its adherents: Gilbert Harman, Tristan Garcia, Ray Brassier, etc. Did it have that effect on you? If so, to what extent? To delve a little deeper, it seems to me that, whatever formal recognition he’s received, there’s been a tendency within the movement to minimize a bit too much what I see as the decisive influence of an older philosopher, Alain Badiou, on practically all of these ontologies. Last but not least, you’ve said in an interview that only Wittgenstein — before you yourself, it goes without saying! — knew that “the world did not exist.” Here again, what struck me as I read your work was the influence of Badiou, whom you do not cite, even more than Wittgenstein. To say there’s no world is to say, as Badiou was the first to say, that there are only worlds, infinite worlds, without a collecting unity or totality. Here again, it seems to me that the adherents of the “new speculative realism,” yourself included, somewhat underestimate their debt to Badiou as their precursor.
MARKUS GABRIEL — In my recent book Fields of Sense: A New Realist Ontology, I have a whole chapter on Badiou and why my version of the claim that there is not totality is different from his. This gets somewhat technical, as it hinges on the concept of a set and on the question of whether sets and set-theoretical paradoxes have any bearing on ontological issues. I come to the conclusion that they do not and argue that Badiou has a metaphysical worldview, after all, because he believes that there is just one way of multiplying elements for a transfinite proliferation. But this is all very technical (and interesting for professional philosophers). Clearly, Badiou does not deny that there is exactly one discipline responsible for pure multiplicity — mathematics — and that this allows him to apply set-theoretical paradoxes to worlds in his sense, which in my reconstruction is still a metaphysical worldview committed to an all-encompassing principle of absolutely everything.
However, reading Badiou (but also Bertrand Russell, Georg Cantor, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Carnap, and Putnam!) has influenced me. Badiou is a crucial figure in contemporary philosophy, and I think that reading Being and Event (which I read after After Finitude) has indeed had a much deeper impact on my thinking than Meillassoux’s work. Meillassoux relies on an uncritical assumption of totality, which Badiou has successfully questioned. Having said that, one of the many differences between Badiou and me is that there is no room for the notion of a sense in Badiou (he thinks “sense” is a religious category, which hangs together with his critique of Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense). I doubt that Badiou denies the existence of the world in the sense in which I do. He, rather, multiplies it, which is why the follow-up to Being and Event is Logics of Worlds. Badiou’s exciting project in ontology, in my view, is incoherent because he defends mathematicism, the view that there is a single algorithm for multiplicities, namely transfinite set-theory. Remarkably, Cantor precisely denies this with his notion that there is a non-mathematizable absolute. Again, this is all very technical, but I want to emphasize that Badiou has influenced many details in my account and more so than Meillassoux, who is really more of an epistemologist than an ontologist. Another substantial difference is that Badiou talks about being, and my arguments draw on the property of existence. There are probably more differences than similarities between Badiou’s ontology and mine. The most substantial disagreement, I suspect, is that he after all has a worldview.
MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM — The striking thing about many adherents of the “new speculative realism” is that they seem to be sounding the death knell of what throughout the 20 th century was practically the structural taboo of the academic philosophical landscape: the hermetic and hostile divide between “continental philosophy” and “analytic philosophy.” I find it most striking in your case — and in Garcia’s, although in a different way. One can sense that you have considerable erudition in both tendencies and make virtuoso use of both types of conceptualization. Could you explain the “alchemy” with which you’ve made the two great feuding philosophical families compossible and, on that basis, laid down a path entirely distinct from either?
MARKUS GABRIEL — I think that this is the truly progressive aspect of new realism. Tristan Garcia here is indeed probably closest to my own methodological approach, as you aptly point out. I believe the right thing to do is to combine the imaginative, creative, unorthodox aspects of what Anglophone philosophers sometimes call “continental philosophy” with the care for argumentative details and countering objections associated with “analytical philosophy.” Analytical philosophy often gets lost in details and thought experiments that lead nowhere. In its bad shape, it turns into a meaningless nerd activity. Continental philosophy, on the other hand, sometimes has the tendency to turn into some kind of literary exercise where performance and style are more important than clarity and argument. The right and obvious thing to do is to have a radically open mind: come up with exciting views against the established mainstream of the time (which is often profoundly ideological) and then work out the radical view by spelling out the analytical details of the concepts employed. The distinction between continental and analytical philosophy is ideological and not philosophical. Overcoming it means simply not respecting it. But this also implies that contemporary philosophy does not get off the ground without recognizing and understanding the major contributions to philosophy worked out in Anglophone philosophy over the past 60 years.
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