Metaphysics or the study of pure concepts above the realm of physical reality has been the foundation of Western philosophy and more specifically of Aristotle’s thinking as Plato’s pupil dedicated a whole treaty to the subject: what is Being? and just as importantly for the Stagirite, what are its sources and how does it manifest itself? Metaphysics is to Philosophy what God is to Theology: its very origin and foundation. Modern philosophy has, since Kant, questioned the validity as well as the actual purpose of metaphysics in an age of changing perceptions of physical reality informed by new scientific discoveries. Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, firmly believed in the eventual triumph of Science over all previous religious creeds and philosophical theories. In the early twentieth-century, Edmund Husserl announced the advent of a philosophical revolution with his ‘phenomenological’ method giving access to ‘the very essence of things’. His brilliant student, Martin Heidegger, rejected his mentor’s contentions and attempted, instead, to reclaim the central place of Being at the heart of the philosophical discourse. However, his commitment to the Nazi ideology tarnished his intellectual legacy and incited post-war generations of German philosophers to shy away from the dangerous lure of metaphysical disquisitions.
‘New Realism’ is the name given to a recent trend, led by thirty-four year-old Markus Gabriel, author of a much acclaimed book, Why the World does not exist, still to be published in English. How can the precocious German thinker support such a claim against centuries of metaphysical tradition? Quite simply, by inviting his readers to reject the concept of ‘Totality’ and its manifold avatars such as the notions of Being, Nature or Cosmos. All philosophical problems stem, in his view, from the unnecessary intrusion of the concept of ‘Totality’ in any description of reality. Overlooking the influence of contemporary relativism and nihilistic Post-Modernism, Gabriel contends that concepts, in general, estrange us from our immediate perception and interpretation of reality. They impose their values onto our essentially spatiotemporal frame of reference. We may, for instance, judge a stone bigger than another despite the fact that the concept of ‘size’ is, itself, outside our experience and also inexhaustible insofar as we could never finalise a list containing all possible things in some kind of ‘sizeable’ order. Plato would resort to the Pure Idea of ‘Size’ as a concept inherent in the mind of the philosopher capable of apprehending the geometrical and mathematical implications of the comparison between a big and a smaller stone or finger (See the problem with particulars in The Republic,.Book VII, 523a-525c). Gabriel’s position is to deny the possibility of using ‘totalising’ concepts as they only confuse our judgement and make the ‘World’ the unwarranted depository of all possible concepts instead of being considered as an empty receptacle, just as elusive as the concepts of ‘Size’ or ‘Number’. So where does that leave us? Well, according to this new understanding of ‘reality’, to ‘exist’ is to be part of a context or ‘field of sense’ out of which ‘meaning’ takes place. In this sense, witches or unicorns do not require any physical properties as they obtain their ‘reality’ within their medieval or fantasy situation … or both!
The ‘World’ as such has been disposed with, to be replaced by a myriad of ever-changing ‘realities’, appearing and disappearing as an infinity of facts, attached to shifting contexts. There is nothing fundamentally ’new’ in this approach as it could be argued that Gabriel reintroduces another form of ‘relativism’ and that his craving for a return to a new form of common sense realism can be traced back to eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers such as Dougald Stewart and Thomas Reid, not to mention William James Pragmatism or Giles Deleuze and his theory of multilayered rhizomes to account for an evanescent and intangible reality.