Philosophical realism

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In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

Metaphysics branch of philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among the [study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of the universe, known and unknown. Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real, whether reality is fundamentally immaterial, whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.

Concept mental representation or an abstract object or an ability

Concepts are mental representations, abstract objects or abilities that make up the fundamental building blocks of thoughts and beliefs. They play an important role in all aspects of cognition.


Realism can be applied to many philosophically interesting objects and phenomena: other minds, the past or the future, universals, mathematical entities (such as natural numbers), moral categories, the physical world, and thought.

Past subdivision of time

The past is the set of all events that occurred before a given point in time. The past is contrasted with and defined by the present and the future. The concept of the past is derived from the linear fashion in which human observers experience time, and is accessed through memory and recollection. In addition, human beings have recorded the past since the advent of written language. The first known use of the word "past" was in the fourteenth century; it developed as the past participle of the middle english verb passen meaning "to pass."

Future time which has yet to occur

The future is what will happen in the time after the present. Its arrival is considered inevitable due to the existence of time and the laws of physics. Due to the apparent nature of reality and the unavoidability of the future, everything that currently exists and will exist can be categorized as either permanent, meaning that it will exist forever, or temporary, meaning that it will end. In the Occidental view, which uses a linear conception of time, the future is the portion of the projected time line that is anticipated to occur. In special relativity, the future is considered absolute future, or the future light cone.

In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. For example, suppose there are two chairs in a room, each of which is green. These two chairs both share the quality of "chairness", as well as greenness or the quality of being green; in other words, they share a "universal". There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds, properties, and relations. These are all different types of universals.

Realism can also be a view about the nature of reality in general, where it claims that the world exists independent of the mind, as opposed to non-realist views (like some forms of skepticism and solipsism, which question our ability to assert the world is independent of our mind). Philosophers who profess realism often claim that truth consists in a correspondence between cognitive representations and reality. [1]

Philosophical skepticism is a philosophical school of thought that questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge. Skeptic philosophers from different historical periods adopted different principles and arguments, but their ideology can be generalized as either (1) the denial of possibility of all knowledge or (2) the suspension of judgement due to the inadequacy of evidence.

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind. As a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist. This extreme position is claimed to be irrefutable, as the solipsist believes themself to be the only true authority, all others being creations of their own mind.

Truth philosophical concept

Truth is most often used to mean being in accord with fact or reality, or fidelity to an original or standard. Truth is also sometimes defined in modern contexts as an idea of "truth to self", or authenticity.

Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality but that the accuracy and fullness of understanding can be improved. [2] In some contexts, realism is contrasted with idealism. Today it is more usually contrasted with anti-realism, for example in the philosophy of science.

In philosophy, Idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, Idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to Materialism, Idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth.

The oldest use of the term "realism" appears in medieval scholastic interpretations and adaptations of ancient Greek philosophy.

Medieval philosophy

Medieval philosophy is a term used to refer to the philosophy that existed through the Middle Ages, the period roughly extending from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Renaissance in the 15th century. Medieval philosophy, understood as a project of independent philosophical inquiry, began in Baghdad, in the middle of the 8th century, and in France, in the itinerant court of Charlemagne, in the last quarter of the 8th century. It is defined partly by the process of rediscovering the ancient culture developed in Greece and Rome during the Classical period, and partly by the need to address theological problems and to integrate sacred doctrine with secular learning.


Scholasticism is a method of critical thought which dominated teaching by the academics of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700, and a program of employing that method in articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context. It originated as an outgrowth of and a departure from Christian theology within the monastic schools at the earliest European universities. The rise of scholasticism was closely associated with the rise of the 12th and 13th century schools that developed into the earliest modern universities, including those in Italy, France, Spain and England.

Ancient Greek philosophy

Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC and continued throughout the Hellenistic period and the period in which Ancient Greece was part of the Roman Empire. Philosophy was used to make sense out of the world in a non-religious way. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.


Metaphysical realism

Metaphysical realism maintains that "whatever exists does so, and has the properties and relations it does, independently of deriving its existence or nature from being thought of or experienced." [3]

Naive or direct realism

Naive realism, also known as direct realism, is a philosophy of mind rooted in a common sense theory of perception that claims that the senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world. In contrast, some forms of idealism assert that no world exists apart from mind-dependent ideas and some forms of skepticism say we cannot trust our senses. The naive realist view is that objects have properties, such as texture, smell, taste and colour, that are usually perceived absolutely correctly. We perceive them as they really are.

Scientific realism

Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be. Within philosophy of science, it is often framed as an answer to the question "how is the success of science to be explained?" The debate over what the success of science involves centers primarily on the status of unobservable entities apparently talked about by scientific theories. Generally, those who are scientific realists assert that one can make reliable claims about unobservables (viz., that they have the same ontological status) as observables. Analytic philosophers generally have a commitment to scientific realism, in the sense of regarding the scientific method as a reliable guide to the nature of reality. The main alternative to scientific realism is instrumentalism. [4]

Realism in physics

Realism in physics (especially quantum mechanics) is the claim that the world is in some sense mind-independent: that even if the results of a possible measurement do not pre-exist the act of measurement, that does not require that they are the creation of the observer (contrary to the "consciousness causes collapse" interpretation of quantum mechanics). That interpretation of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, states that the wave function is already the full description of reality. The different possible realities described by the wave function are equally true. The observer collapses the wave function into their own reality. One's reality can be mind-dependent under this interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Moral realism

Moral realism is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world.

Aesthetic realism

Aesthetic realism (not to be confused with the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, the philosophy that sees reality as the making one of opposites) may mean the claim that there are mind-independent aesthetic facts, [5] [6] but in general discussions about art "realism" is a complex term that may have a number of different meanings.

History of metaphysical realism

Ancient Greek philosophy

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. In Plato's metaphysics, ever unchanging Forms, or Ideas, exist apart from particular things, and are related to them as their prototype or exemplar. Aristotle's philosophy of reality also aims at the universal. Aristotle finds the universal, which he calls essence, in the commonalities of particular things. Sanzio 01 Plato Aristotle.jpg
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens , a fresco by Raphael. In Plato's metaphysics, ever unchanging Forms, or Ideas, exist apart from particular things, and are related to them as their prototype or exemplar. Aristotle's philosophy of reality also aims at the universal. Aristotle finds the universal, which he calls essence, in the commonalities of particular things.

In ancient Greek philosophy, realist doctrines about universals were proposed by Plato and Aristotle. [7]

Platonic realism is realism regarding the existence of universals or abstract objects. As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is confusingly also called Platonic idealism. This should not be confused with Idealism, as presented by philosophers such as George Berkeley: as Platonic abstractions are not spatial, temporal, or mental, they are not compatible with the latter Idealism's emphasis on mental existence. Plato's Forms include numbers and geometrical figures, making them a theory of mathematical realism; they also include the Form of the Good, making them in addition a theory of ethical realism.

Aristotelian realism is the view that the existence of universals is dependent on the particulars that exemplify them.

Medieval philosophy

Medieval realism developed out of debates over the problem of universals. [8] Universals are terms or properties that can be applied to many things, such as "red", "beauty", "five", or "dog". Realism (also known as exaggerated realism) in this context, contrasted with conceptualism and nominalism, holds that such universals really exist, independently and somehow prior to the world. Moderate realism holds that they exist, but only insofar as they are instantiated in specific things; they do not exist separately from the specific thing. Conceptualism holds that they exist, but only in the mind, while nominalism holds that universals do not "exist" at all but are no more than words ( flatus vocis ) that describe specific objects.

Proponents of moderate realism included Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus (cf. Scotist realism). [9]

Early modern philosophy

In early modern philosophy, Scottish Common Sense Realism was a school of philosophy that sought to defend naive realism against philosophical paradox and scepticism, arguing that matters of common sense are within the reach of common understanding and that common-sense beliefs even govern the lives and thoughts of those who hold non-commonsensical beliefs. It originated in the ideas of the most prominent members of the Scottish School of Common Sense, Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson and Dugald Stewart, during the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment and flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Scotland and America.

The roots of Scottish Common Sense Realism can be found in responses to such philosophers as John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. The approach was a response to the "ideal system" that began with Descartes' concept of the limitations of sense experience and led Locke and Hume to a skepticism that called religion and the evidence of the senses equally into question. The common sense realists found skepticism to be absurd and so contrary to common experience that it had to be rejected. They taught that ordinary experiences provide intuitively certain assurance of the existence of the self, of real objects that could be seen and felt and of certain "first principles" upon which sound morality and religious beliefs could be established. Its basic principle was enunciated by its founder and greatest figure, Thomas Reid: [10]

If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them—these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.

Late modern philosophy

In late modern philosophy, a notable school of thought advocating metaphysical realism was Austrian realism. Its members included Franz Brentano, [11] Alexius Meinong, [11] Vittorio Benussi, [11] Ernst Mally, [12] and early Edmund Husserl. [11] These thinkers stressed the objectivity of truth and its independence of the nature of those who judge it. [13] (See also Graz School .)

Dialectical materialism, a philosophy of nature based on the writings of late modern philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, is interpreted to be a form of ontological realism. [14]

According to Michael Resnik, Gottlob Frege's work after 1891 can be interpreted as a contribution to realism. [15]

Contemporary philosophy

In contemporary analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell, [16] Ludwig Wittgenstein, [17] J. L. Austin, [18] Karl Popper, [19] [20] and Gustav Bergmann [21] espoused metaphysical realism. Hilary Putnam initially espoused metaphysical realism, [22] but he later embraced a form of anti-realism that he termed "internal realism." [23] Conceptualist realism (a view put forward by David Wiggins) is a form of realism, according to which our conceptual framework maps reality. [24]

Speculative realism is a movement in contemporary Continental-inspired philosophy [25] that defines itself loosely in its stance of metaphysical realism against the dominant forms of post-Kantian philosophy. [26]

See also


  1. The statement veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus ("truth is the adequation of thought and thing") was defended by Thomas Aquinas.
  2. Blackburn p. 188
  3. Laird Addis, Greg Jesson, Erwin Tegtmeier (eds.), Ontology and Analysis: Essays and Recollections about Gustav Bergmann, Walter de Gruyter, 2007, p. 107.
  4. Scientific Realism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  5. Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty, Cornell University Press, 2001, p. 3.
  6. Gavin McIntosh (2004). "Review: The Metaphysics of Beauty". Mind . 113 (449): 221–226. doi:10.1093/mind/113.449.221.(subscription required)
  7. Realism – philosophy –
  8. John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 72.
  9. Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism – Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)
  10. Cuneo and Woudenberg, eds. The Cambridge companion to Thomas Reid (2004) p 85
  11. 1 2 3 4 Gestalt Theory: Official Journal of the Society for Gestalt Theory and Its Applications (GTA), 22, Steinkopff, 2000, p. 94: "Attention has varied between Continental Phenomenology (late Husserl, Merleau-Ponty) and Austrian Realism (Brentano, Meinong, Benussi, early Husserl)".
  12. Liliana Albertazzi, Dale Jacquette, The School of Alexius Meinong, Routledge, 2017, p. 191.
  13. Mark Textor, The Austrian Contribution to Analytic Philosophy, Routledge, 2006, pp. 170–1:
    "[Husserl argues in the Logical Investigations that the rightness of a judgement or proposition] shows itself in our experience of self-evidence (Evidenz), which term Husserl takes from Brentano, but makes criterial not of truth per se but of our most secure awareness that things are as we take them to be, when the object of judgement, the state of affairs, is given most fully or adequately. ... In his struggle to overcome relativism, especially psychologism, Husserl stressed the objectivity of truth and its independence of the nature of those who judge it ... A proposition is true not because of some fact about a thinker but because of an objectively existing abstract proposition's relation to something that is not a proposition, namely a state of affairs."
  14. Sean Creaven, Marxism and Realism: A Materialistic Application of Realism in the Social Sciences, Routledge, 2012, p. 33.
  15. Michael Resnik, "II. Frege as Idealist and then Realist," Inquiry 22 (1–4):350–357 (1979).
  16. Bertrand Russell, Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Open Court, 1998 [1918].
  17. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge 2001 [1921].
  18. Austin, J. L., 1950, "Truth", reprinted in Philosophical Papers, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press 1979, 117–33.
  19. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963.
  20. Thornton, Stephen (2015-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. Karl Popper (Winter 2015 ed.). ("Popper professes to be anti-conventionalist, and his commitment to the correspondence theory of truth places him firmly within the realist's camp.")
  21. Gustav Bergmann, Logic and Reality, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964; Gustav Bergmann, Realism: A Critique of Brentano and Meinong, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.
  22. Putnam, H., Realism and Reason. Philosophical Papers, vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  23. Putnam, H. Realism with a Human Face. Edited by James Conant. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. vii.
  24. A. M. Ferner, Organisms and Personal Identity: Individuation and the Work of David Wiggins, Routledge, 2016, p. 28.
  25. Paul John Ennis, Post-continental Voices: Selected Interviews, John Hunt Publishing, 2010, p. 18.
  26. Mackay, Robin (March 2007). "Editorial Introduction". Collapse. 2 (1): 3–13.

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