Interview with Maurizio Ferraris

© Maurizio Ferraris and Figure/Ground
Dr. Ferraris was interviewed by Laureano Ralón and Mario Teorodo Ramírez. May 12th, 2016.

Maurizio Ferraris is full Professor of Philosophy at the University of Turin, where he is also the Director of the LabOnt (Laboratory for Ontology) and of the Centre for Theoretical and Applied Ontology (CTAO). He was a Fellow of Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Recht als Kultur” (Bonn) and a Honorary Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies of South East Europe (Rijeka) and of the Internationales Zentrum Für Philosophie NRW. He has been Fellow of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America and of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung. He has also been Directeur d’études of the Collège International de Philosophie and a Visiting Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris) as well as other European and American Universities. He is a columnist for ‘La Repubblica’, the Director of ‘Rivista di Estetica’, of ‘Critique’ and of ‘Círculo Hermenéutico editorial’ and of the ‘Revue francophone d’esthétique’. He wrote almost fifty books that have been translated into several languages. Ferraris has worked in the field of aesthetics, hermeneutics, and social ontology, attaching his name to the theory of Documentality and contemporary New Realism.

What attracted you to philosophy? How did it shape your view of the world?

It was mainly the idea of an encyclopaedic knowledge, something that would account for the totality of existence: history, literature, science. I guess philosophy was in line with my megalomania.

Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what did you learn from them?

I’ve had two great masters: Gianni Vattimo and Jacques Derrida. From Vattimo I learned to be as clear and lucid as possible, while looking at the world with irony; Derrida inspired me to be brave enough to take original and philosophically risky views.

Before the so-called “realist turn”, your philosophy was committed to the hermeneutic project. What caused the change?

Hermeneutics was politically insufficient, as it presented itself as a way to change the world for better, emancipating it, but in fact it was just a way to create mass illusions governed by power – as media populism has demonstrated. “There are no facts, but only interpretations” has ended up meaning “The reason of the strongest is always the best.”

Your own brand of realism seems less speculative than those of other representatives of the movement, such as Meillassoux’s. Do you feel closer to some kind of phenomenology or scientific empiricism, perhaps?

I feel very close to emergentism, that is, the idea that thought emerges from reality. This view makes it pointless to wonder whether thought refers to reality, while it makes it very interesting to look at the characters through which reality comes to us – our “being in the world”, if you will. Furthermore, I am especially interested in social objects (documents, monuments, history, technology), which are extremely relevant to our life.

Like Harman’s, your philosophy considers objects as the basic unit of analysis for a realist ontology. How does your definition of object differ from his?

For me an object is a minimal entity that resists us (negative realism) but also offers us affordances (positive realism). In this sense, rather than a definition I can provide an infinite list: Napoleon was an object (he died in St. Helena and not Manhattan, which is his resistance, and is the subject of novels and poems, which is his affordance); a screwdriver is an object (you cannot use it to drink, which is its resistance, but you can use it to screw or even kill, which is an affordance); and so forth.

You have recently pointed out that the notion of “fields of sense”, a central concept in Markus Gabriel’s ontology, runs the risk of relapsing into hermeneutics. What did you mean by that?

I simply meant that sense is not a requirement of existence. Making ontology (what there is) depend on sense (what we think about what there is, i.e. epistemology) is idealism and not realism. Nevertheless, Markus’ work is surely animated by realist intentions. What can I say? It’s probably a matter of nationality: a German is always a bit of an idealist, and an Italian like myself is always particularly interested in history and politics.

A distinct feature of your philosophy is a casual, laid-back style. What role does irony and jokes play in your conception of the philosophical text?

To prove that what they are talking about is serious, philosophers often use a pompous or at least very academic style. But we all know that the most important things in life (and death) are best dealt with through irony, and can be put in simple terms. Of course, this is not always possible, but it’s the idea I’m going for.

What’s the future of philosophical thinking? Is there a realist renaissance of “strong thinking”? If so, what happened to “weak thinking”?

I don’t think “strength” and “weakness” should be used to describe thought. There is no opposition between, say, Marines and Dandies: neither are thinkers, as far as I know. The opposition is rather between a thought aimed at deconstruction, and a thought that uses deconstruction as a means for reconstruction. This is my idea of philosophy, and I believe I’m not the only one who supports this view. In fact, a few decades ago people spoke of the “death of philosophy”, but I’d say things are much better now!

You seem interested in reaching a wide audience. What is, in your view, the public role of philosophy nowadays?

I can justify a great degree of specialism in oncology, because what’s at stake is to cure cancer. Ontology cannot offer as much, and therefore I think it should be much more accessible. The task of ontology, but also aesthetics, logic, ethics and so on, is to make people think about and understand our world and, if possible, make it better by then interacting with more specialised forms of knowledge.

What are you currently working on?

I have just finished a short book entitled Emergenza (Emergence), which illustrates my concept of reality as the origin of thought. I am also about to finish a little divertissement on stupidity and, with a few friends, I am writing a history of philosophy – which is taking me quite a lot of time because, unlike Russell when he wrote his own, I’m not in jail and get easily distracted.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Maurizio Ferraris
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. & Ramírez, M. (2016). “Interview with Maurizio Ferraris,” Figure/Ground. May 12th.
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