Realisms: a polemic (Part 1)

“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.

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  1. Benjamin,
    Who are you?

  2. Blogging philosophy - Butterflies and Wheels - pingback on July 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm
  3. Why put ‘sic’ after Wright’s spelling of ‘judgement?’

    This spelling is acceptable in British English, and Wright is British.

  4. I am intolerant of free-loading vowels.

  5. Ben: When you publish your collected wisdom, be sure to include that phrase about “free-loading” vowels.

  6. But then I would be denied entry into Wales. That’s no fun.

  7. Benjamin, you have set yourself a challenging goal in attempting to convince readers that “any debate over Realism is a safari with small game”. I suggest there is some big game to seek.

    In the coming posts, you might include comments on why you believe the normal methods of science are incapable of teasing out any underlying, necessary characteristics of past and present cultural moral standards.

    Perhaps you think past and present moral standards are too diverse and contradictory to have any underlying necessary characteristics. Fair enough, that is an empirical question. Or perhaps there is some more fundamental reason science is unable to tell us what any underlying necessary characteristics cultural moral standards ‘are’? (Note a hypothesis about such necessary characteristics can imply no claims about what moral behavior ‘ought’ to be, and cannot provide justification for accepting the burdens of acting morally.)

    The large game I am interested is the possibility of a hypothesis about the necessary characteristics of past and present cultural moral standards becoming generally accepted as provisionally true. As a part of science, it would be as ‘real’ as the rest of science. That acceptance as being provisionally true could be based on the hypothesis’ ability to meet normal criteria for scientific utility.

    For example, criteria for scientific utility of such a hypothesis might include 1) explanatory power for how virtually all practiced cultural moral standards demonstrate these necessary characteristics, 2) explanatory power for the origins of diverse and contradictory moral standards, 3) predictive power for moral intuitions that have been important for defining cultural moral standards, 4) simplicity, 5) universality, and 6) consistency with the rest of science.

    Of course, good science is culturally independent. That means that any hypothesis that best meets these criteria can imply only an undetermined definition of morality. That is, an undetermined definition cannot tell us which contradictory cultural moral standards are the ones we ‘ought’ to accept the burdens of.

    On the brighter side, this provides justification for keeping moral philosophers employed even if science is able to reveal what the core necessary characteristics of moral standards ‘are’.

  8. michael reidy

    No arguement there Ben. Looking at some papers of Wright I seem to notice that his approach is purely epistemological. Is that correct?

  9. Mark, thanks for the suggestion. I might add something on moral realism in a separate post. However, my intent for the time-being is to concentrate on the term “realism” as it is used in a general, unqualified sense. Moral realism, or any of the “x realisms”, are what I meant by “small game”.

    Moral realism is immensely interesting, and I have some sympathies with it, though I ultimately think it’s the wrong way of looking at things.

    I have a provisional worry about trying to say something about the necessary conditions of a view without articulating what kind of necessary conditions we’re interested in. For instance, unless we specify what type of thing we’re going on about when we use the phrase “independent of the mind”, we’re going to lose the sense that we’re tracking some kind of interesting ontological issues.

    Michael, there’s no argument there because I haven’t made the argument yet. It’s a series, this is the introduction!

    Wright’s work is both in epistemology and philosophy of language. His view of truth is pluralistic: once certain constraints are satisfied, truth can be used in various ways that depend on the discourse.

  10. Hi Ben,
    My little quip about the floating e. (arguement) Look forward to your exegesis.

  11. Ah, I see it now! — hilarieous.

  12. Talking Philosophy | Realisms: truth and Berkeley (part 2) - pingback on July 21, 2010 at 1:26 pm
  13. “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.”

    Wouldn’t that be idealism – the presumption that something exists independently of us, which is ideal (i.e. epistemically accessible). For something to be epistemically accessible, it must be knowable, i.e. must have some “idea” or “form” to it. Alternatively, “epistemic accessibility” would need to mean a kind of human ability to abstract from particulars – in which the “knowledge” of the objective is only on the subject side. But while that would be genuinely “anti-idealist”, it would not be realist, because nothing stable could be said to exist (existence=stable presenting?) outside a knower.

    And why is it “modest” to assert the existence of an objective world? If modesty means “unassuming”, then a modest person should not assert nor deny the existence of an “objective world”. The only truly modest philosopher would be a phenomenologist – who asserts that within the bracket my experience contains experience of objects. Or Descartes (at least in the first two meditations)), when he considers the content of his experience independently of the truth of his experience.

  14. Hey Tristan,

    Idealism (in Wright’s taxonomy) certainly is presumptuous. The thin tissue that separates idealism from realism is the claim about modesty, or independence of the mind. I’ve been implicitly focusing on that, though I should’ve been clearer.

    You’re certainly right to point out that the doctrine of abstract ideas is not something Berkeley would endorse. Though it’s interesting to think about how his nominalism works without abstraction — actually, it ends up being important to my argument in the third part. And you’re also right to connect that to the notion of presumption. But as you point out, realism demands both presumption and modesty.

    The idea behind calling the criterion of mind-independence “modest” is effectively, I think, to make a jab at solipsism. “Look at me, the world is here as I made it, whooooo” is not a terribly modest comment! But anyway, keep in mind that it’s just a shorthand to talk about “mind-independence” and not really about meekness or what have you.

  15. ““Look at me, the world is here as I made it, whooooo” is not a terribly modest comment!”

    “World” is here as I make it. Neutral with respect to an interpretive scheme, nothing is intelligible. The real is chaos, non-being. World is “world for me”, “world as a possible appearance”. You can call that realism, idealism, whatever.

    You’re just straw manning – no idealists (except maybe Berkley) think the mind “produces” the world with no outside help.

    Read real idealists like Hegel and Kant.

  16. It’s just a label, Tristan. If you don’t like it, choose another one.

    It’s extremely important that you understand the point that’s being made. To be 100% crystal clear: nobody is calling anyone a solipsist. That was just my attempt at making sense of why Wright was inspired to coin the term.

  17. “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.”

    The only problem with your “fine distinction” here is
    that this does not actually distinguish between realism and idealism. Idealists acknowledge there is an objective world independent of our mind (in the sense that there is “something” over against the mind, otherwise they would be solipsistic), and idealists are “presumptuous” in the sense that they claim to have some (not perfect) epistemic access to this “objective ” stuff.

    If you want to say that idealists do not have epistemic access to the objective stuff because it only becomes “worldly” when it is worked on by cognition, then realism – understood as the presumption that you could know about something outside your cognition – is trivially false.

  18. 1. This is Crispin Wright’s distinction, not mine.

    2. On modesty: you’re predicting my argument. I think matters become much clearer once we specify the knowing subject. Have you read things the whole way through yet?

    3. On presumptuousness: nobody denies that idealists have presumption. The relevant paragraph reads: “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.” What I thought was obvious, but in retrospect should have made explicit, was that idealists are (on the standard account) presumptuous without being modest.

    4. Realism is not just presumptuousness, on Wright’s account — it is both modesty and presumptuousness. So your conclusions don’t follow.

  19. Idealism, in Kant and Hegel, is “realism” by Wright’s definition – because they both believe the world is objective, and they both believe we can have genuine knowledge about it. And neither of them take this on faith – they both argue from a position of extreme skepticism, unlike analytic philosophy, which just asserts a position which Guardian readers hopefully find in accord with their metaphysical prejudices.

  20. These debates are silly anyway. What we ought to be working on is crushing capitalism:

  21. Ya but where’s the marketplace for anti-realists and what’s the cash-value of idealist, skepticism or nihilism, eh?

    My point is that there seems to be a profound disconnect between how these people talk and (to be brief) how they walk?

    Or maybe you know a modern day Diogenes who is happy and willing to masturbate as-is where-is.

  22. Ripis, the first is an interesting question. It will depend on who you ask. For now, I’ll give a broadly realist sort of answer.

    The cash value of idealism is that it makes bland self-assertion easier. This is especially true when it comes to matters of theology. However, each thinker has had a different level of forcefulness. For Berkeley, we should be comparatively modest in our claims about knowing the mind of God. This was supposedly in contrast to Malebranche and the Occasionalists, for whom we see things “in his essence”.

    The cash value of (the relevant kind of) skepticism is that you get to live in a peaceful sort of disengagement. It can be used to withdraw from the world.

    The cash value of realism is that it protects you from the pathos and narcissism of the idealists, while admitting that knowledge is possible and worth discovering. Hence, it expects us to find a measure of responsibility.

  23. Talking Philosophy | Realisms: collective realism (part 3) - pingback on July 26, 2010 at 12:35 pm
  24. Talking Philosophy | Realisms: meaning and atheism (Part 4) - pingback on August 5, 2010 at 6:25 pm
  25. Talking Philosophy | Morality, whether you want it or not - pingback on August 25, 2010 at 7:12 pm

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