In Reason, Truth and History, Hilary Putnam defines metaphysical realism as the belief that ‘the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects’ and that there is, in principle, one true complete description of that world. His critique of this position is that (a) there is no way for us to climb out of our systems of reference in order to check that they successfully refer to the world; (b) we cannot rule out the possibility that the world could be conceptually divided up by us in a number of incommensurable ways, all consistent with our experience.
Contemporary speculative realism comes in a variety of forms, including object-oriented ontology and the kind of transcendental realism practised by Meillassoux. Without wishing to collapse these together, I think it is fair to say that they share an absolutising of the real, in the etymological sense that reality/objects are absolved (i.e. severed from) any dependence upon epistemological structures. Our access to the world does not determine that world.
It seems that this contemporary realism is not committed to significant aspects of the position which Putnam critiques. It need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.
For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.
Is Putnam’s critique therefore no longer relevant? The problem, it seems to me, is that in a laudable attempt to dethrone an anthropocentric epistemology from philosophy, these contemporary versions of realism are still dependent upon theories of access to and translation of the real. For example, to characterise the absolute in terms of hyper-chaos, as Meillassoux does, implies a judgement whereby chaos and order can be distinguished. It further implies that the possibility of order is a legitimate product of chaos. But if this is the case – if order and our ability make sense of things are themselves possibilities produced by the absolute – then we are in no position to judge that the absolute is ‘ultimately’ chaotic. We do not advance beyond Kantianism, in which the absolute provides the supersensible basis for our knowing of the world, whilst remaining unknowable in itself. Attempts to give an ultimate characterisation of that absolute lead to antinomy. It would be interesting to construct such a Kantian contemporary antinomy, in which the absolute could be rationally proved to be both order and chaos.
In OOO, the concept of translation has been explicitly used by Graham Harman. Objects, he claims, relate to each other indirectly, via translation: taking up the sensual images of other objects, whilst remaining inaccessible to relation in their withdrawn interior. However, if such ‘translation’ is to result in new objects (parts fitted together to make a machine, for instance), we have to ask what is it that constitutes the inaccessible interior of the new object? The answer must be: a system of differences, of translations, of mutual interpretations. So, having dethroned human epistemology from philosophy, OOO has arguably displaced questions of access, translation and interpretation into the absolute ‘itself’.
All of which is to suggest that Putnam’s critique is still worth a look. Access to the world, consisting of translation between objects or the translation of the absolute itself into order and sense, constitutes an irreducible part of that world. The world does not offer itself as one mind-independent order of things.
This is not meant as a dismissal of speculative realisms, but an appeal to move beyond their initial self-definition, as simply radically opposed to anything that smacks of deconstruction or phenomenology, for instance. It is simply not the case that deconstruction is about irony and the prison house of language whereas realism is about seriousness and the great outdoors, any more than it is the case that realism is a stupid scientism. Perhaps issues of access and translation could provide the means for the varieties of continental and post-continental philosophy to begin to talk with, rather than at, one another.