“Realism” is a word that gets tossed around the university like a koosh ball. This concept — if there is a concept — is used with varying degrees of plausibility. We’re told that we are obliged to believe in moral realism (unlikely), realism in theology (unstable and speculative), realism about the external world and the people in it (yes), realism about social institutions (I don’t know), and realism in international relations (in Hans Morgenthau’s sense, almost certainly not). In each case, we’re meant to target some area of interest for discussion: the moral, the theological, and so on.
Faced with this onslaught of realisms, it is tempting to think that the word, “realism”, represents different concepts depending on different contexts of use. Echoing Ian Hacking’s question to the social constructionists, we might ask from the outset: “Realism about what? When you say that so-and-so is real, what point are you trying to make?” Maybe there isn’t a single sort of argument that runs through the list. Maybe it’s all just a bunch of language-games.
Still, some hope that we can find various sites of heated controversy that characterize all forms of realism. For them, it is tempting to think that, beneath the mosaic of disparate arguments, there is some kind of general, substantive, and tractable dispute. Maybe, we sigh in relief, the whole thing is more than just the fever-dreams of bored scholars.
Over the next week, I am going to post a multi-part series about realism and idealism. By the end of it, I want to convince you that any debate over Realism is a safari with small game. The history of the debate is a history of verbal clashes and equivocations, whose ultimate legacy appears to be persistent confusion on The Guardian’s editorial pages.
Crispin Wright is going to be our guide on this safari. Wright blesses us with a wealth of useful distinctions in his Truth and Objectivity, which I’ll be using here. As he has it, doctrines of realism are characterized by the features of modesty and presumption. Realism is modest in the sense that it acknowledges that there is an objective world that is independent of our mind, and presumptuous in the sense that it claims that we have epistemic access to that world. Anti-realists are those unhappy thinkers that deny some features of realism.
Anti-realists come in roughly three sorts. There are those thinkers that are immodest, in that they deny that the world is mind-independent; and if anyone is immodest, the metaphysical idealists are. There are those that only deny presumption, and who fall into the same camp as the skeptics. And denial of both modesty and presumption would require a person to belong to the ranks of the nihilists.
Sounds good so far, right? Well, it elegantly captures the spirit of the discussion.
But no — at the end of the day, I doubt that this can’t be the right way of looking at things. Idealists can be, and are, modest. In fact, the arch-idealist George Berkeley was modest after a fashion. For, surprisingly, there is a sense in which Berkeley would — and explicitly did — endorse the notion that objects are independent of the mind. If idealists can be modest, and they are held to be the prototypical sort of anti-realist that denies modesty, we are left to ask whether or not the realism/anti-realism debate is a general dispute at all.
Alright, that’s enough front-matter. Let’s get down to business. What’s the point of the realism/anti-realism talk, in general? Obviously, we conduct conversations using the language of realism and anti-realism in order to help us distinguish between properties of the world and properties of our thoughts. Realists want to preserve an intuition about the authenticity of the external world. Planets and stars and quarks and rabbits and tigers and other junk would all be there, even if we weren’t around to see them. The antirealist wants to avoid justifying their pre-philosophical gambit using notions that are beyond our ken.
One reason why the debate over realism have been difficult to resolve is that, even if all hands agree to speak of a general debate concerning objectivity, the object of the debate remains unclear.
For Wright, there are at least three different objects of study: truth, meaning, and judgment. We think our notion of truth is objective when our description of it transcends the evidence and is independent of our concrete understanding. (Hence, “God is the way, the truth, and the light”, while admittedly having mysterious ways and possessing a dark sense of humor.) We believe that our notion of meaning is objective insofar as the right verdict about the truth-value of a statement is independent of our considered opinions. (My considered opinion might be that I have arthritis in my thigh; and this might make sense in light of the weird concept that informs my use of the term “arthritis”; but then that wouldn’t be a concept of arthritis, would it?) And we think our judgments are objective when they somehow denote “real” features in the world that are discernible by anyone with the right faculties. (Blue is a real property, “American Beauty” really is a good film, etc.)
Wright thinks it is hard to say which of these are necessary features of a realist’s account. But it seems clear enough that the last point of discussion – the objectivity of judgment — is the least impressive. Wright explains: “Objective judgements [sic] are those with a ‘genuinely factual’ subject matter. Once again, this is a largely unhelpful characterization, notoriously diffcult to improve on. But all over philosophy there has been a repeated urge to attempt to draw some such distinction”. (6) If it were to turn out that no substantial disagreement could be found over objectivity of truth and meaning, and all that is left to discuss is objectivity of judgment, then the debate between realism and anti-realism would seem to rest on very thin ice.
Don’t put on your skates just yet. In the next post, we’ll be turning to Berkeley.