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Reviewed by:
  • The Non-Existence of the Real World by Jan Westerhoff
  • Ricki Bliss (bio)
The Non-Existence of the Real World. By Jan Westerhoff. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xxxiii + 341. Hardcover $85.00, ISBN 978-0-19-884791-5.

Commitment to the idea that there is something real can be found in a variety of different places, perhaps the most obvious expressions of which are in the ideas that there is a real world outside our heads, an external world, and that we ourselves are surely real. In addition to these somewhat quotidian commitments, philosophers also find homes for the real in more abstract, theoretical locations--chief amongst them being that the world contains something fundamental, the reals, and that there will be an ultimate theory of everything. In The Non-Existence of The Real World, Jan Westerhoff develops a variety of different arguments aimed at showing that any attempt at finding a safe place for the real is hopeless. The conclusion, as the title of the volume suggests, is that the real world doesn't exist after all.

We are not to understand Westerhoff, however, as endorsing various forms of nihilism. On the contrary. The denial of the existence of the external and internal worlds is not the assertion of the non-existence of trumpets, hyacinths, solar systems, and selves. Nor is the suggestion that there is nothing fundamental supposed to encourage us to believe that the whole great edifice piled on top of it mustn't exist either. Instead, Westerhoff arrives at the more palatable but no less striking conclusions that nothing, including trumpets, hyacinths, solar systems, and selves exist out there utterly independently of human interests, that in spite of there being nothing fundamental, things still exist nonetheless, and that big theories are OK, so long as we don't expect them to be populated by truths that serve as the absolute and final end of the theoretical line.

The chapters of this volume are relatively self-contained, with perhaps the exception of the last two. In chapter 1, Westerhoff argues against the existence of the external world. In chapter 2, he argues against the existence of the self. In chapters 3 and 4, he takes on metaphysical foundationalism, arguing against the possibility of a theory of everything. The conclusions of the first two [End Page 1] chapters seem to have no bearing on the conclusions of the last two, so the book can be read almost as one would a series of papers.

Although Westerhoff is best known for his work on Indian thought, and in particular the work of Buddhist thinker Nāgārjuna, this book is not a work in Buddhist metaphysics. For anyone familiar with Madhyamaka thought, however, it will be immediately obvious just how Madhyamaka in flavour so many of the ideas developed in this volume really are. Indeed, in the Prologue, Westerhoff himself draws the reader's attention to the etiology of the overarching ideas that illuminate the intellectual adventure that unfolds over subsequent pages (only to then remain utterly silent on Buddhist thought for what remains of the volume). It is not uncommon to encounter contemporary analytic philosophers who engage with various of the Buddhist traditions as analytic philosophers. The Non-Existence of the Real World is somewhat unusual in offering a reversal of this trend. In order to focus this review, then, I will centre, first, on the second half of the book--chapters 3 and 4--and, second, on what might be considered some of Westerhoff's novel contributions to what are, in fact, very active contemporary debates.

There are three positions available regarding the overarching structure of reality: metaphysical foundationalism, metaphysical infinitism and metaphysical coherentism. The metaphysical foundationalist thinks that chains of entities ordered by metaphysical dependence relations are hierarchically arranged and ultimately tethered to something fundamental--something that is independently existent. The metaphysical infinitist concurs with the hierarchy thesis, but denies there is anything fundamental. And the coherentist disagrees with the foundationalist on both fronts. Minimally, the coherentist admits that the ordering relation may, in some instances, be symmetric--delivering loops. In its strongest form, coherentism says that everything is grounded in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 1-7
Launched on MUSE
2021-07-09
Open Access
No
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