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The question of the nature and plausibility of realism arises with respect to a large number of subject matters, including ethics, aesthetics, causation, modality, science, mathematics, semantics, and the everyday world of macroscopic material objects and their properties. Although it would be possible to accept (or reject) realism across the board, it is more common for philosophers to be selectively realist or non-realist about various topics: thus it would be perfectly possible to be a realist about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties, but a non-realist about aesthetic and moral value. In addition, it is misleading to think that there is a straightforward and clear-cut choice between being a realist and a non-realist about a particular subject matter. Rather, one can be more-or-less realist about a particular subject matter. Also, there are many different forms that realism and non-realism can take.

The question of the nature and plausibility of realism is so controversial that no brief account of it will satisfy all those with a stake in the debates between realists and non-realists. This article offers a broad brush characterization of realism, and then fills out some of the detail by looking at a few canonical examples of opposition to realism. The discussion of forms of opposition to realism is far from exhaustive and is designed only to illustrate a few paradigm examples of the form such opposition can take. Note that the point of this discussion is not to attack realism, but rather to give a sense of the options available for those who wish to oppose realism in a given case, and of the problems faced by those main forms of opposition to realism.

There are two general aspects to realism, illustrated by looking at realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties. First, there is a claim about existence . Tables, rocks, the moon, and so on, all exist, as do the following facts: the table’s being square, the rock’s being made of granite, and the moon’s being spherical and yellow. The second aspect of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects and their properties concerns independence . The fact that the moon exists and is spherical is independent of anything anyone happens to say or think about the matter. Likewise, although there is a clear sense in which the table’s being square is dependent on us (it was designed and constructed by human beings after all), this is not the type of dependence that the realist wishes to deny. The realist wishes to claim that apart from the mundane sort of empirical dependence of objects and their properties familiar to us from everyday life, there is no further (philosophically interesting) sense in which everyday objects and their properties can be said to be dependent on anyone’s linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, or whatever.

In general, where the distinctive objects of a subject-matter are a , b , c , … , and the distinctive properties are F-ness , G-ness , H-ness and so on, realism about that subject matter will typically take the form of a claim like the following:

Generic Realism : a , b , and c and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as F-ness , G-ness , and H-ness is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.

Non-realism can take many forms, depending on whether or not it is the existence or independence dimension of realism that is questioned or rejected. The forms of non-realism can vary dramatically from subject-matter to subject-matter, but error-theories, non-cognitivism, instrumentalism, nominalism,relativism, certain styles of reductionism, and eliminativism typically reject realism by rejecting the existence dimension, while idealism, subjectivism, and anti-realism typically concede the existence dimension but reject the independence dimension. Philosophers who subscribe to quietism deny that there can be such a thing as substantial metaphysical debate between realists and their non-realist opponents (because they either deny that there are substantial questions about existence or deny that there are substantial questions about independence).

1. Preliminaries

2. views opposing the existence dimension (i): error-theory and arithmetic, 3. views opposing the existence dimension (ii): error-theory and morality, 4. reductionism and non-reductionism, 5. views opposing the existence dimension (iii): expressivism about morals, 6. views opposing the independence dimension (i): semantic realism, 7. views opposing the independence dimension (ii): more forms of anti-realism, 8. views which undermine the debate: quietism, 9. concluding remarks and apologies, other internet resources, related entries.

Three preliminary comments are needed. Firstly, there has been a great deal of debate in recent philosophy about the relationship between realism, construed as a metaphysical doctrine, and doctrines in the theory of meaning and philosophy of language concerning the nature of truth and its role in accounts of linguistic understanding (see Dummett 1978 and Devitt 1991a for radically different views on the issue). Independent of the issue about the relationship between metaphysics and the theory of meaning, the well-known disquotational properties of the truth-predicate allow claims about objects, properties, and facts to be framed as claims about the truth of sentences. Since:

‘The moon is spherical’ is true if and only if the moon is spherical,

the claim that the moon exists and is spherical independently of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices and conceptual schemes, can be framed as the claim that the sentences ‘The moon exists’ and ‘The moon is spherical’ are true independently of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes and so on. As Devitt points out (1991b: 46) availing oneself of this way of talking does not entail that one sees the metaphysical issue of realism as ‘really’ a semantic issue about the nature of truth (if it did, any question about any subject matter would turn out to be ‘really’ a semantic issue).

Secondly, although in introducing the notion of realism above mention is made of objects, properties, and facts, no theoretical weight is attached to the notion of a ‘fact’, or the notions of ‘object’ and ‘property’. To say that it is a fact that the moon is spherical is just to say that the object, the moon, instantiates the property of being spherical, which is just to say that the moon is spherical. There are substantial metaphysical issues about the nature of facts, objects, and properties, and the relationships between them (see Mellor and Oliver 1997 and Lowe 2002, part IV), but these are not of concern here.

Thirdly, as stated above, Generic Realism about the mental or the intentional would strictly speaking appear to be ruled out ab initio , since clearly Jones’ believing that Cardiff is in Wales is not independent of facts about belief: trivially, it is dependent on the fact that Jones believes that Cardiff is in Wales. However, such trivial dependencies are not what are at issue in debates between realists and non-realists about the mental and the intentional. A non-realist who objected to the independence dimension of realism about the mental would claim that Jones’ believing that Cardiff is in Wales depends in some non-trivial sense on facts about beliefs, etc.

There are at least two distinct ways in which a non-realist can reject the existence dimension of realism about a particular subject matter. The first of these rejects the existence dimension by rejecting the claim that the distinctive objects of that subject-matter exist, while the second admits that those objects exist but denies that they instantiate any of the properties distinctive of that subject-matter. Non-realism of the first kind can be illustrated via Hartry Field’s error-theoretic account of arithmetic, and non-realism of the second kind via J.L. Mackie’s error-theoretic account of morals. This will show how realism about a subject-matter can be questioned on both epistemological and metaphysical grounds.

According to a platonist about arithmetic, the truth of the sentence ‘7 is prime’ entails the existence of an abstract object , the number 7. This object is abstract because it has no spatial or temporal location, and is causally inert. A platonic realist about arithmetic will say that the number 7 exists and instantiates the property of being prime independently of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on. A certain kind of nominalist rejects the existence claim which the platonic realist makes: there are no abstract objects, so sentences such as ‘7 is prime’ are false (hence the name ‘error-theory’). Platonists divide on their account of the epistemology of arithmetic: some claim that our knowledge of arithmetical fact proceeds by way of some quasi-perceptual encounter with the abstract realm (Gödel 1983), while others have attempted to resuscitate a qualified form of Frege’s logicist project of grounding knowledge of arithmetical fact in knowledge of logic (Wright 1983, Hale 1987, Hale and Wright 2001).

The main arguments against platonic realism turn on the idea that the platonist position precludes a satisfactory epistemology of arithmetic. For the classic exposition of the doubt that platonism can square its claims to accommodate knowledge of arithmetical truth with its conception of the subject matter of arithmetic as causally inert, see Benacerraf (1973). Benacerraf argued that platonism faces difficulties in squaring its conception of the subject-matter of arithmetic with a general causal constraint on knowledge (roughly, that a subject can be said to know that P only if she stands in some causal relation to the subject matter of P ). In response, platonists have attacked the idea that a plausible causal constraint on ascriptions of knowledge can be formulated (Wright 1983 Ch.2, Hale 1987 Ch.4). In response, Hartry Field, on the side of the anti-platonists, has developed a new variant of Benacerraf’s epistemological challenge which does not depend for its force on maintaining a generalised causal constraint on ascriptions of knowledge. Rather, Field argues that ‘we should view with suspicion any claim to know facts about a certain domain if we believe it impossible to explain the reliability of our beliefs about that domain’ (Field 1989: 232–3). Field’s challenge to the platonist is to offer an account of what such a platonist should regard as a datum—i.e. that when ‘ p ’ is replaced by a mathematical sentence, the following schema holds in most instances:

If mathematicians accept ‘ p ’ then p . (1989: 230)

Field’s point is not simply, echoing Benacerraf, that no causal account of reliability will be available to the platonist, and therefore to the platonic realist. Rather, Field suggests that not only has the platonic realist no recourse to any explanation of reliability that is causal in character, but that she has no recourse to any explanation that is non-causal in character either.

(T)here seems prima facie to be a difficulty in principle in explaining the regularity. The problem arises in part from the fact that mathematical entities as the [platonic realist] conceives them, do not causally interact with mathematicians, or indeed with anything else. This means we cannot explain the mathematicians beliefs and utterances on the basis of the mathematical facts being causally involved in the production of those beliefs and utterances; or on the basis of the beliefs or utterances causally producing the mathematical facts; or on the basis of some common cause producing both. Perhaps then some sort of non-causal explanation of the correlation is possible? Perhaps; but it is very hard to see what this supposed non-causal explanation could be. Recall that on the usual platonist picture [i.e. platonic realism], mathematical objects are supposed to be mind- and language-independent; they are supposed to bear no spatiotemporal relations to anything, etc. The problem is that the claims that the [platonic realist] makes about mathematical objects appears to rule out any reasonable strategy for explaining the systematic correlation in question. (1989: 230–1)

This suggests the following dilemma for the platonic realist:

  • Platonic realism is committed to the existence of acausal objects and to the claim that these objects, and facts about them, are independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on (in short to the claim that these objects, and facts about them, are language- and mind-independent).
  • Any causal explanation of reliability is incompatible with the acausality of mathematical objects.
  • Any non-causal explanation of reliability is incompatible with the language- and mind-independence of mathematical objects.
  • Any explanation of reliability must be causal or non-causal.
  • There is no explanation of reliability that is compatible with platonic realism.

Whether there is a version of platonic realism with the resources to see off Field’s epistemological challenge is very much a live issue (see Hale 1994, Divers and Miller 1999. For replies to Divers and Miller see Sosa 2002, Shapiro 2007 and Piazza 2011, Paseau 2012).

Field’s alternative proposal to platonic realism (1980, 1989) is that although mathematical sentences such as ‘7 is prime’ are false, the utility of mathematical theories can be explained otherwise than in terms of their truth. For Field, the utility of mathematical theories resides not in their truth but in their conservativeness , where a mathematical theory S is conservative if and only if for any nominalistically respectable statement A (i.e. a statement whose truth does not imply the existence of abstract objects) and any body of such statements N , A is not a consequence of the conjunction of N and S unless A is a consequence of N alone (Field 1989: 125). In short, mathematics is useful, not because it allows you to derive conclusions that you couldn’t have derived from nominalistically respectable premises alone, but rather because it makes the derivation of those (nominalistically respectable) conclusions easier than it might otherwise have been. Whether or not Field’s particular brand of error-theory about arithmetic is plausible is a topic of some debate, which unfortunately cannot be pursued further here (see Hale and Wright 2001).

According to Field’s error-theory of arithmetic, the objects distinctive of arithmetic do not exist, and it is this which leads to the rejection of the existence dimension of arithmetical realism, at least as platonistically conceived (for a non-platonistic view of arithmetic which is at least potentially realist, see Benacerraf 1965; for incisive discussion, see Wright 1983, Ch.3). J. L. Mackie, on the other hand, proposes an error-theoretic account of morals, not because there are no objects or entities that could form the subject matter of ethics (it is no part of Mackie’s brief to deny the existence of persons and their actions and so on), but because it is implausible to suppose that the sorts of properties that moral properties would have to be are ever instantiated in the world (Mackie 1977, Ch.1). Like Field on arithmetic, then, Mackie’s central claim about the atomic, declarative sentences of ethics (such as ‘Napoleon was evil’) is that they are systematically and uniformly false. How might one argue for such a radical-sounding thesis? The clearest way to view Mackie’s argument for the error-theory is as a conjunction of a conceptual claim with an ontological claim (following Smith 1994, pp. 63–66). The conceptual claim is that moral facts are objective and categorically prescriptive facts, or, equivalently, that our concept of a moral property is a concept of an objective and categorically prescriptive quality (what Mackie means by this is explained below). The ontological claim is simply that there are no objective and categorically prescriptive facts, that objective and categorically prescriptive properties are nowhere instantiated. The conclusion is that there is nothing in the world answering to our moral concepts, no facts or properties which render the judgements formed via those moral concepts true. Our moral (atomic) moral judgements are systematically false. We can thus construe the argument for the error-theory as follows:

  • Conceptual Claim: Moral facts are objective and categorically prescriptive facts.
  • If there are moral facts, then there are objective and categorically prescriptive facts (Definitional consequence of the Conceptual Claim)
  • If there are true, atomic, declarative moral sentences, then there are objective and categorically prescriptive facts.
  • Ontological Claim: there are no objectively and categorically prescriptive facts.
  • There are no moral facts.
  • Conclusion: There are no true, atomic, declarative moral sentences.

The conclusion of this argument clearly follows from its premises, so the question facing those who wish to defend at least the existence dimension of realism in the case of morals is whether the premises are true. (Note that strictly speaking what the argument purports to establish is that there are no moral facts as-we-conceive-of-them. Thus, it may be possible to block the argument by advocating a revisionary approach to our moral concepts; or by deploying a Ramsey-Carnap-Lewis conception of theoretical terms and arguing that there are moral facts, just ones that do not answer to our concept but which (coming closer than other candidates) would best deserve the “moral fact” label (see Smith 1994), section 2.10 for a good explanation of the application of the Ramsey-Lewis-Carnap conception in the moral case).

Mackie’s conceptual claim in effect amounts to the claim that our concept of a moral requirement is the concept of an objectively, categorically prescriptive requirement. What does this mean? To say that moral requirements are prescriptive is to say that they tell us how we ought to act, to say that they give us reasons for acting. Thus, to say that something is morally good is to say that we ought to pursue it, that we have reason to pursue it. To say that something is morally bad is to say that we ought not to pursue it, that we have reason not to pursue it. To say that moral requirements are categorically prescriptive is to say that these reasons are categorical in the sense of Kant’s categorical imperatives. The reasons for action that moral requirements furnish are not contingent upon the possession of any desires or wants on the part of the agent to whom they are addressed: I cannot release myself from the requirement imposed by the claim that torturing the innocent is wrong by citing some desire or inclination that I have. This contrasts, for example, with the requirement imposed by the claim that perpetual lateness at work is likely to result in one losing one’s job: I can release myself from the requirement imposed by this claim by citing my desire to lose my job (perhaps because I find it unfulfilling, or whatever). Reasons for action which are contingent in this way on desires and inclinations are furnished by what Kant called hypothetical imperatives.

So our concept of a moral requirement is a concept of a categorically prescriptive requirement. But Mackie claims further that our concept of a moral requirement is a concept of an objective and categorically prescriptive requirement. What does it mean to say that a requirement is objective? Mackie says a lot of different-sounding things about this, and the following (as outlined in Miller 2013a) is by no means a comprehensive list (references are to Ch. 1 of Mackie 1977). To call a requirement objective is to say that it can be an object of knowledge (24, 31, 33), that it can be true or false (26, 33), that it can be perceived (31, 33), that it can be recognised (42), that it is prior to and independent of our preferences and choices (30, 43), that it is a source of authority external to our preferences and choices (32, 34, 43), that it is part of the fabric of the world (12), that it backs up and validates some of our preferences and choices (22), that it is capable of being simply true (30) or valid as a matter of general logic (30), that it is not constituted by our choosing or deciding to think in a certain way (30), that it is extra-mental (23), that it is something of which we can be aware (38), that it is something that can be introspected (39), that it is something that can figure as a premise in an explanatory hypothesis or inference (39), and so on. Mackie plainly does not take these to be individually necessary: facts about subatomic particles, for example, may qualify as objective in virtue of figuring in explanatory hypotheses even though they cannot be objects of perceptual acquaintance. But his intention is plain enough: these are the sorts of conditions whose satisfaction by a fact renders it objective as opposed to subjective. Mackie’s conceptual claim about morality is thus that our concept of a moral requirement is a concept of a fact which is objective in at least some of the senses just listed, while his ontological claim will be that the world does not contain any facts which are both candidates for being moral facts and yet which play even some of the roles distinctive of objective facts.

How plausible is Mackie’s conceptual claim? This issue cannot be discussed in detail here, except to note that while it seems plausible to claim that if our concept of a moral fact is a concept of a reason for action then that concept must be a concept of a categorical reason for action, it is not so clear why we have to say that our concept of a moral fact is a concept of a reason for action at all. If we deny this, we can concede the conditional claim whilst resisting Mackie’s conceptual claim. One way to do this would be to question the assumption, implicit in the exposition of Mackie’s argument for the conceptual claim above, that an ‘ought’-statement that binds an agent A provides that agent with a reason for action. For an example of a version of moral realism that attempts to block Mackie’s conceptual claim in this way, see Railton (1986). For defence of Mackie’s conceptual claim, see Smith (1994), Ch.3 and Joyce (2001). For exposition and critical discussion, see Miller (2013a), Ch.9.

What is Mackie’s argument for his ontological claim? This is set out in his ‘argument from queerness’ (Mackie has another argument, the ‘argument from relativity’ (or ‘argument from disagreement’) (1977: 36–38), but this argument cannot be discussed here for reasons of space. For a useful discussion, see Brink (1984)).The argument from queerness has both metaphysical and epistemological components. The metaphysical problem with objective values concerns ‘the metaphysical peculiarity of the supposed objective values, in that they would have to be intrinsically action-guiding and motivating’ (49). The epistemological problem concerns ‘the difficulty of accounting for our knowledge of value entities or features and of their links with the features on which they would be consequential’ (49). Let’s look at each type of worry more closely in turn.

Expounding the metaphysical part of the argument from queerness, Mackie writes: “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” (38) What is so strange about them? Mackie says that Plato’s Forms (and for that matter, Moore’s non-natural qualities) give us a ‘dramatic picture’ of what objective values would be, if there were any:

The Form of the Good is such that knowledge of it provides the knower with both a direction and an overriding motive; something’s being good both tells the person who knows this to pursue it and makes him pursue it. An objective good would be sought by anyone who was acquainted with it, not because of any contingent fact that this person, or every person, is so constituted that he desires this end, but just because the end has to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it. Similarly, if there were objective principles of right and wrong, any wrong (possible) course of action would have not-to-be-doneness somehow built into it. Or we should have something like Clarke’s necessary relations of fitness between situations and actions, so that a situation would have a demand for such-and-such an action somehow built into it (40).

The obtaining of a moral state of affairs would be the obtaining of a situation ‘with a demand for such and such an action somehow built into it’; the states of affairs which we find in the world do not have such demands built into them, they are ‘normatively inert’, as it were. Thus, the world contains no moral states of affairs, situations which consist in the instantiation of a moral quality.

Mackie now backs up this metaphysical argument with an epistemological argument:

If we were aware [of objective values], it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ways of knowing everything else. These points were recognised by Moore when he spoke of non-natural qualities, and by the intuitionists in their talk about a faculty of moral intuition. Intuitionism has long been out of favour, and it is indeed easy to point out its implausibilities. What is not so often stressed, but is more important, is that the central thesis of intuitionism is one to which any objectivist view of values is in the end committed: intuitionism merely makes unpalatably plain what other forms of objectivism wrap up (38).

In short, our ordinary conceptions of how we might come into cognitive contact with states of affairs, and thereby acquire knowledge of them, cannot cope with the idea that the states of affairs are objective values. So we are forced to expand that ordinary conception to include forms of moral perception and intuition. But these are completely unexplanatory: they are really just placeholders for our capacity to form correct moral judgements (the reader should here hear an echo of the complaints Benacerraf and Field raise against arithmetical platonism).

Evaluating the argument from queerness is well outwith the scope of the present entry. While Railton’s version of moral realism attempts to block Mackie’s overall argument by conceding his ontological claim whilst rejecting his conceptual claim, other versions of moral realism agree with Mackie’s conceptual claim but reject his ontological claim. Examples of the latter version, and attempts to provide the owed response to the argument from queerness, can be found in Smith (1994), Ch.6, and McDowell (1998), Chs 4–10.“Companions in Guilt” style responses attempt to undermine Mackie’s argument by suggesting that if it were sound, it would undermine much more than moral realism. For an example of such a strategy, see Cuneo (2007). For a general discussion, see Lillehammer (2010).

There are two main ways in which one might respond to Mackie’s argument for the error-theory: directly, via contesting one of its premises or inferences, or indirectly, pointing to some internal tension within the error-theory itself. Some possible direct responses have already been mentioned, responses which reject either the conceptual or ontological claims that feature as premises in Mackie’s argument for the error-theory. An indirect argument against the error-theory has been developed in recent writings by Crispin Wright (this argument is intended to apply also to Field’s error-theory of arithmetic).

Mackie claims that the error-theory of moral judgement is a second-order theory, which does not necessarily have implications for the first order practice of making moral judgements (1977: 16). Wright’s argument against the error-theory begins by suggesting otherwise:

The great discomfort with [Mackie’s] view is that, unless more is said, it simply relegates moral discourse to bad faith. Whatever we may once have thought, as soon as philosophy has taught us that the world is unsuited to confer truth on any of our claims about what is right, or wrong, or obligatory, etc., the reasonable response ought surely to be to forgo the right to making any such claims …. If it is of the essence of moral judgement to aim at the truth, and if philosophy teaches us that there is no moral truth to hit, how are we supposed to take ourselves seriously in thinking the way we do about any issue which we regard as of major moral importance? (1996: 2; see also 1992: 9).

Wright realises that the error-theorist is likely to have a story to tell about the point of moral discourse, about “some norm of appraisal besides truth, at which its statements can be seen as aimed, and which they can satisfy.” (1996: 2) And Mackie has such a story: the point of moral discourse is—to simplify—to secure the benefits of social co-operation (1973: chapter 5 passim; note that this is the analogue in Mackie’s theory of Field’s notion of the conservativeness of mathematical theories). Suppose we can extract from this story some subsidiary norm distinct from truth, which governs the practice of forming moral judgements. Then, for example, ‘Honesty is good’ and ‘Dishonesty is good’, although both false, will not be on a par in point of their contribution to the satisfaction of the subsidiary norm: if accepted widely enough, the former will presumably facilitate the satisfaction of the subsidiary norm, while the latter, if accepted widely enough, will frustrate it. Wright questions whether Mackie’s moral sceptic can plausibly combine such a story about the benefits of the practice of moral judgement with the central negative claim of the error-theory:

[I]f, among the welter of falsehoods which we enunciate in moral discourse, there is a good distinction to be drawn between those which are acceptable in the light of some such subsidiary norm and those which are not—a distinction which actually informs ordinary discussion and criticism of moral claims—then why insist on construing truth for moral discourse in terms which motivate a charge of global error, rather than explicate it in terms of the satisfaction of the putative subsidiary norm, whatever it is? The question may have a good answer. The error-theorist may be able to argue that the superstition that he finds in ordinary moral thought goes too deep to permit of any construction of moral truth which avoids it to be acceptable as an account of moral truth. But I do not know of promising argument in that direction (1996: 3; see also 1992: 10).

Wright thus argues that even if we concede to the error-theorist that his original scepticism about moral truth is well-founded, the error-theorist’s own positive proposal will be inherently unstable. In recent years, inspired by error-theory, philosophers have developed forms of moral fictionalism, according to which moral claims either are or ought to be “useful fictions”. See Kalderon 2005 and Joyce 2001 for examples. For a book-length treatment of moral error-theory, see Olson 2014.

The error-theories proposed by Mackie and Field are non-eliminativist error-theories, and should be contrasted with the kind of eliminativist error-theory proposed by e.g. Paul Churchland concerning folk-psychological propositional attitudes (see Churchland 1981). Churchland argues that our everyday talk of propositional attitudes such as beliefs, desires and intentions should eventually be abandoned given developments in neuroscience. Mackie and Field make no analogous claims concerning morality and arithmetic: no claim, that is, to the effect that they will one day be in principle replaceable by philosophically hygienic counterparts. For some discussion of the contrast between eliminativist and non-eliminativist error theories, see Miller (2015).

Although some commentators (e.g. Pettit 1991) require that a realistic view of a subject matter be non-reductionist about the distinctive objects, properties, and facts of that subject matter, the reductionist/non-reductionist issue is really orthogonal to the various debates about realism. There are a number of reasons for this, with the reasons varying depending on the type of reduction proposed.

Suppose, first of all, that one wished to deny the existence claim which is a component of platonic realism about arithmetic. One way to do this would be to propose an analytic reduction of talk seemingly involving abstract entities to talk concerning only concrete entities. This can be illustrated by considering a language the truth of whose sentences seemingly entails the existence of a type of abstract object, directions. Suppose there is a first order language L, containing a range of proper names ‘ a ’, ‘ b ’, ‘ c ’, and so on, where these denote straight lines conceived as concrete inscriptions. There are also predicates and relations defined on straight lines, including ‘ … is parallel to …’. ‘ D ( )’ is a singular term forming operator on lines, so that inserting the name of a concrete line, as in ‘ D ( a )’, produces a singular term standing for an abstract object, the direction of a . A number of contextual definitions are now introduced:

  • ‘ D ( a ) = D ( b )’ is true if and only if a is parallel to b .
  • ‘Π D ( x )’ is true if and only if ‘ Fx ’ is true, where ‘… is parallel to …’ is a congruence for ‘ F ( )’.

(To say that ‘… is parallel to …’ is a congruence for ‘ F ( )’ is to say that if a is parallel to b and Fa , then it follows that Fb ).

  • ‘(∃ x )Π x ’ is true if and only if ‘(∃ x ) Fx ’ is true, where ‘Π’ and ‘ F ’ are as in (B).

According to a platonic realist, directions exist and have a nature which is independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on. But doesn’t the availability of (A), (B), and (C) undermine the existence claim at the heart of platonic realism? After all, (A), (B), and (C) allow us to paraphrase any sentence whose truth appears to entail the existence of abstract objects into a sentence whose truth involves only the existence of concrete inscriptions. Doesn’t this show that an analytic reduction can aid someone wishing to question the existence claim involved in a particular form of realism? There is a powerful argument, first developed by William Alston (1958), and convincingly resuscitated by Crispin Wright (1983, Ch.1), that suggests not. The analytic reductionist who wishes to wield the contextual definitions against the existence claim at the heart of platonic realism takes them to show that the apparent reference to abstract objects on the left-hand sides of the definitions is merely apparent: in fact, the truth of the relevant sentences entails only the existence of a range of concrete inscriptions. But the platonic realist can retort: what the contextual definitions show is that the apparent lack of reference to abstract objects on the right-hand sides is merely apparent. In fact, the platonic realist can say, the truth of the sentences figuring on the right-hand sides implicitly involves reference to abstract objects. If there is no way to break this deadlock the existence of the analytic reductive paraphrases will leave the existence claim at the heart of the relevant form of realism untouched. So the issue of this style of reductionism appears to be orthogonal to debates between realists and non-realists.

Can the same be said about non-analytic styles of reductionism? Again, there is no straightforward connection between the issue of reductionism and the issue of realism. The problem is that, to borrow some terminology and examples from Railton 1989, some reductions will be vindicative whilst others will be eliminativist . For example, the reduction of water to H 2 0 is vindicative: it vindicates our belief that there is such a thing as water, rather than overturning it. On the other hand:

… the reduction of ‘polywater’—a peculiar form of water thought to have been observed in laboratories in the 1960s—to ordinary-water-containing-some-impurities-from-improperly-washed-glassware contributed to the conclusion that there really is no such substance as polywater (1989: 161).

Thus, a non-analytic reduction may or may not have implications for the existence dimension of a realistic view of a particular subject matter. And even if the existence dimension is vindicated, there is still the further question whether the objects and properties vindicated are independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, and so on. Again, there is no straightforward relationship between the issue of reductionism and the issue of realism.

We saw above that for the subject-matter in question the error-theorist agrees with the realist that the truth of the atomic, declarative sentences of that area requires the existence of the relevant type of objects, or the instantiation of the relevant sorts of properties. Although the realist and the error-theorist agree on this much, they of course disagree on the question of whether the relevant type of objects exist, or on whether the relevant sorts of properties are instantiated: the error-theorist claims that they don’t, so that the atomic, declarative sentences of the area are systematically and uniformly false, the realist claims that at least in some instances the relevant objects exist or the relevant properties are instantiated, so that the atomic, declarative sentences of the area are at least in some instances true. We also saw that an error-theory about a particular area could be motivated by epistemological worries (Field) or by a combination of epistemological and metaphysical worries (Mackie).

Another way in which the existence dimension of realism can be resisted is via expressivism. Whereas the realist and the error-theorist agree that the sentences of the relevant area are truth-apt , apt to be assessed in terms of truth and falsity, the realist and the expressivist (alternatively non-cognitivist, projectivist) disagree about the truth-aptness of those sentences. It is a fact about English that sentences in the declarative mood (‘The beer is in the fridge’) are conventionally used for making assertions, and assertions are true or false depending on whether or not the fact that is asserted to obtain actually obtains. But there are other grammatical moods that are conventionally associated with different types of speech-act. For example, sentences in the imperatival mood (‘Put the beer in the fridge’) are conventionally used for giving orders, and sentences in the interrogative mood (‘Is the beer in the fridge?’) are conventionally used for asking questions. Note that we would not ordinarily think of orders or questions as even apt for assessment in terms of truth and falsity: they are not truth-apt. Now the conventions mentioned here are not exceptionless: for example, one can use sentences in the declarative mood (‘My favourite drink is Belhaven 60 shilling’) to give an order (for some Belhaven 60 shilling), one can use sentences in the interrogative mood (‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’) to make an assertion (of whatever fact was the subject of the discussion), and so on. The expressivist about a particular area will claim that the realist is misled by the syntax of the sentences of that area into thinking that they are truth-apt: she will say that this is a case where the conventional association of the declarative mood with assertoric force breaks down. In the moral case the expressivist can claim that ‘Stealing is wrong’ is no more truth-apt than ‘Put the beer in the fridge’: it is just that the lack of truth-aptness of the latter is worn on its sleeve, while the lack of truth-aptness of the former is veiled by its surface syntax.(There are some very important issues concerning the relationship between minimalism about truth-aptitude and expressivism that we cannot go into here. See Divers and Miller (1995)and Miller (2013b) for some pointers. There are also some important differences between e.g. Ayer’s emotivism and more modern forms of expressivism (such as those developed by Blackburn and Gibbard) that we gloss over here. For a useful account, see Schroeder 2009).

So, if moral sentences are not conventionally used for the making of assertions, what are they conventionally used for? According to one classical form of expressivism, emotivism , they are conventionally used for the expression of emotion, feeling, or sentiment. Thus, A.J. Ayer writes:

If I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money’, I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money’. In adding that this action is wrong, I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval about it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money’, in a peculiar tone of horror, or written with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker (Ayer 1946: 107, emphases added).

It follows from this that:

If I now generalise my previous statement and say, ‘Stealing money is wrong,’ I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition that can be either true or false (1946: 107).

Emotivism faces many problems, discussion of which is not possible here (for a survey, see Miller 2003a Ch.3). One problem that has been the bugbear of all expressivist versions of non-realism, the ‘Frege-Geach Problem’, is so-called because the classic modern formulation is by Peter Geach (1965), who attributes the original point to Frege.

According to emotivism, when I sincerely utter the sentence ‘Murder is wrong’ I am not expressing a belief or making an assertion, but rather expressing some non-cognitive sentiment or feeling, incapable of being true or false. Thus, the emotivist claims that in contexts where ‘is wrong’ is being applied to an action-type it is being used to express a sentiment or feeling of disapproval towards actions of that type. But what about contexts in which it is not being applied to an action type? An example of such a sentence would be ‘If murder is wrong, then getting little brother to murder people is wrong’. In the antecedent of this ‘is wrong’ is clearly not being applied to anything (compare: in uttering ‘If snow is black then it is not white’ I am not applying ‘is black’ to snow). So what account can the emotivist give of the use of ‘Murder is wrong’ within ‘unasserted contexts’, such as the antecedent of the conditional above? Since it is not there used to express disapproval of murder, the account of its semantic function must be different from that given for the apparently straightforward assertion expressed by ‘Murder is wrong’. But now there is a problem in accounting for the following valid inference:

  • Murder is wrong.
  • If Murder is wrong, then getting your little brother to murder people is wrong.
  • Getting your little brother to murder people is wrong.

If the semantic function of ‘is wrong’ as it occurs within an asserted context in (1) is different from its semantic function as it occurs within an unasserted context in (2), isn’t someone arguing in this way simply guilty of equivocation? In order for the argument to be valid, the occurrence of ‘Murder is wrong’ in (1) has to mean the same thing as the occurrence of ‘Murder is wrong’ in (2). But if ‘is wrong’ has a different semantic function in (1) and (2), then it certainly doesn’t mean the same thing in (1) and (2), and so neither do the sentences in which it appears. So the above argument is apparently no more valid than:

  • My beer has a head on it.
  • If my beer has a head on it, then it must have eyes and ears.
  • My beer must have eyes and ears.

This argument is obviously invalid, because it relies on an equivocation on two senses of ‘head’, in (4) and (5) respectively.

It is perhaps worth stressing why the Frege-Geach problem doesn’t afflict ethical theories which see ‘Murder is wrong’ as truth-apt, and sincere utterances of ‘Murder is wrong’ as capable of expressing straightforwardly truth-assessable beliefs. According to theories like these, moral modus ponens arguments such as the argument above from (1) and (2) to (3) are just like non-moral cases of modus ponens such as

  • Smith is in Glasgow;
  • If Smith is in Glasgow then Smith is in Scotland;
  • Smith is in Scotland.

Why is this non-moral case of modus ponens not similarly invalid in virtue of the fact that ‘Smith is in Glasgow’ is asserted in (7), but not in (8)? The answer is of course that the state of affairs asserted to obtain by ‘Smith is in Glasgow’ in (7) is the same as that whose obtaining is merely entertained in the antecedent of (8). In (7) ‘Smith is in Glasgow’ is used to assert that a state of affairs obtains (Smith’s being in Glasgow), and in (8) it is asserted that if that state of affairs obtains, so does another (Smith’s being in Scotland). Throughout, the semantic function of the sentences concerned is given in terms of the states of affairs asserted to obtain in simple assertoric contexts. And it is difficult to see how an emotivist can say anything analogous to this with respect to the argument from (1) and (2) to (3): it is difficult to see how the semantic function of ‘Murder is wrong’ in the antecedent of (2) could be given in terms of the sentiment it allegedly expresses in (1).

The Frege-Geach challenge to the emotivist is thus to answer the following question: how can you give an emotivist account of the occurrence of moral sentences in ‘unasserted contexts’—such as the antecedents of conditionals—without jeopardising the intuitively valid patterns of inference in which those sentences figure? Philosophers wishing to develop an expressivistic alternative to moral realism have expended a great deal of energy and ingenuity in devising responses to this challenge. See in particular Blackburn’s development of ‘quasi-realism’, in his (1984) Chs 5 and 6, (1993) Ch.10, (1998) Ch.3 and Gibbard’s ‘norm-expressivism’, in his (1990) Ch.5, and further refined in his (2003). For criticism see Hale (1993) and (2002), and Kölbel (2002) Ch.4. For an overview, see Schroeder (2008) and Miller (2013a), Chs 4 and 5. For very useful surveys of recent work on expressivism, see Schroeder (2009) and Sinclair (2009).

Examples of challenges to the existence dimension of realism have been described in previous sections. In this section some forms of non-realism that are neither error-theoretic nor expressivist will be briefly introduced. The forms of non-realism view the sentences of the relevant area as (against the expressivist) truth-apt, and (against the error-theorist) at least sometimes true. The existence dimension of realism is thus left intact. What is challenged is the independence dimension of realism, the claim that the objects distinctive of the area exist, or that the properties distinctive of the area are instantiated, independently of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.

Classically, opposition to the independence dimension of realism about the everyday world of macroscopic objects took the form of idealism , the view that the objects of the everyday world of macroscopic objects are in some sense mental . As Berkeley famously claimed, tables, chairs, cats, the moons of Jupiter and so on, are nothing but ideas in the minds of spirits:

All the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind (Berkeley 1710: §6).

Idealism has long been out of favour in contemporary philosophy (though see Goldschmidt & Pearce 2017 for some recent discussion), but those who doubt the independence dimension of realism have sought more sophisticated ways of opposing it. One such philosopher, Michael Dummett, has suggested that in some cases it may be appropriate to reject the independence dimension of realism via the rejection of semantic realism about the area in question (see Dummett 1978 and 1993). This section contains a brief explanation of semantic realism, as characterised by Dummett, Dummett’s views on the relationship between semantic realism and realism construed as a metaphysical thesis, and an outline of some of the arguments in the philosophy of language that Dummett has suggested might be wielded against semantic realism.

It is easiest to characterise semantic realism for a mathematical domain. It is a feature of arithmetic that there are some arithmetical sentences for which the following holds true: we know of no method that will guarantee us a proof of the sentence, and we know of no method that will guarantee us a disproof or a counterexample either. One such is Goldbach’s Conjecture:

(G) Every even number is the sum of two primes.

It is possible that we may come across a proof, or a counterexample, but the key point is that we do not know a method, or methods, the application of which is guaranteed to yield one or the other. A semantic realist, in Dummett’s sense, is one who holds that our understanding of a sentence like (G) consists in knowledge of its truth-condition, where the notion of truth involved is potentially recognition-transcendent or bivalent . To say that the notion of truth involved is potentially recognition-transcendent is to say that (G) may be true (or false) even though there is no guarantee that we will be able, in principle, to recognise that that is so. To say that the notion of truth involved is bivalent is to accept the unrestricted applicability of the law of bivalence, that every meaningful sentence is determinately either true or false. Thus the semantic realist is prepared to assert that (G) is determinately either true or false, regardless of the fact that we have no guaranteed method of ascertaining which. (Note that the precise relationship between the characterisation in terms of bivalence and that in terms of potentially recognition-transcendent truth is a delicate matter that will not concern us here. See the Introduction to Wright 1993 for some excellent discussion. It is also important to note that in introducing the idea that a speaker’s understanding of a sentence consists in her knowledge of its truth-condition, Dummett is packing more into the notion of truth than the disquotational properties made use of in §1 above. See Dummett’s essay ‘Truth’, in his 1978).

Dummett makes two main claims about semantic realism. First, there is what Devitt (1991a) has termed the metaphor thesis : This denies that we can even have a literal, austerely metaphysical characterisation of realism of the sort attempted above with Generic Realism. Dummett writes, of the attempt to give an austere metaphysical characterisation of realism about mathematics (platonic realism) and what stands opposed to it (intuitionism):

How [are] we to decide this dispute over the ontological status of mathematical objects[?] As I have remarked, we have here two metaphors: the platonist compares the mathematician with the astronomer, the geographer or the explorer, the intuitionist compares him with the sculptor or the imaginative writer; and neither comparison seems very apt. The disagreement evidently relates to the amount of freedom that the mathematician has. Put this way, however, both seem partly right and partly wrong: the mathematician has great freedom in devising the concepts he introduces and in delineating the structure he chooses to study, but he cannot prove just whatever he decides it would be attractive to prove. How are we to make the disagreement into a definite one, and how can we then resolve it? (1978: xxv).

According to the constitution thesis , the literal content of realism consists in the content of semantic realism. Thus, the literal content of realism about the external world is constituted by the claim that our understanding of at least some sentences concerning the external world consists in our grasp of their potentially recognition-transcendent truth-conditions. The spurious ‘debate’ in metaphysics between realism and non-realism can thus become a genuine debate within the theory of meaning: should we characterise speakers’ understanding in terms of grasp of potentially recognition-transcendent truth-conditions? As Dummett puts it:

The dispute [between realism and its opponents] concerns the notion of truth appropriate for statements of the disputed class; and this means that it is a dispute concerning the kind of meaning which these statements have (1978: 146).

Few have been convinced by either the metaphor thesis or the constitution thesis. Consider Generic Realism in the case of the world of everyday macroscopic objects and properties:

(GR1) Tables, rocks, mountains, seas, and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as mass, size, shape, colour, and so on, is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.

Dummett may well call for some non-metaphorical characterisation of the independence claim which this involves, but it is relatively easy to provide one such characterisation by utilising Dummett’s own notion of recognition-transcendence:

(GR2) Tables, rocks, mountains, seas, and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as mass, size, shape,colour, and so on, is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on. Tables, rocks, mountains, seas, and so on exist, and in general there is no guarantee that we will be able, even in principle, to recognise the fact that they exist and have properties such as mass, size, shape, colour, and so on.

On the face of it, there is nothing metaphorical in (GR2) or, at least if there is, some argument from Dummett to that effect is required. This throws some doubt on the metaphor thesis. Moreover there is nothing distinctively semantic about (GR2), and this throws some doubt on the constitution thesis. Whereas for Dummett, the essential realist thesis is the meaning-theoretic claim that our understanding of a sentence like (G) consists in knowledge of its potentially recognition-transcendent truth-condition, for Devitt:

What has truth to do with Realism? On the face of it, nothing at all. Indeed, Realism says nothing semantic at all beyond … making the negative point that our semantic capacities do not constitute the world. (1991a: 39)

Devitt’s main criticism of the constitution thesis is this: the literal content of realism about the external world is not given by semantic realism, since semantic realism is consistent with an idealist metaphysics of the external world. He writes:

Does [semantic realism] entail Realism? It does not. Realism … requires the objective independent existence of common-sense physical entities. Semantic Realism concerns physical statements and has no such requirement: it says nothing about the nature of the reality that makes those statements true or false , except that it is [at least in part potentially beyond the reach of our best investigative efforts]. An idealist who believed in the … existence of a purely mental realm of sense-data could subscribe to [semantic realism]. He could believe that physical statements are true or false according as they do or do not correspond to the realm of sense-data, whatever anyone’s opinion on the matter: we have no ‘incorrigible knowledge’ of sense-data. … In sum, mere talk of truth will not yield any particular ontology. (1983: 77)

Suppose that Dummett’s metaphor and constitution theses are both implausible. Would it follow that the arguments Dummett develops against semantic realism have no relevance to debates about the plausibility of realism about everyday macroscopic objects (say), construed as a purely metaphysical thesis as in (GR2)? It can be argued that Dummett’s arguments can retain their relevance to a metaphysical debate even if the metaphor and constitution theses are false, and, indeed, even if Dummett’s view (1973: 669) that the theory of meaning is the foundation of all philosophy is rejected. For a full development of this line of argument, see Miller 2003a and 2006.

Dummett’s main line of argument against semantic realism is the manifestation argument . Here is the argument (See Dummett 1978 and the summary in Miller 2018, chapter 9):

Suppose that we are considering region of discourse D . Then:

  • We understand the sentences of D .

Suppose, for reductio , that

  • The sentences of D have recognition-transcendent truth-conditions.
  • To understand a sentence is to know its truth-conditions (Frege 1892, cf. Miller 2018 chapters 1 and 2).

We can conclude

  • We know the (recognition-transcendent) truth-conditions of the sentences of D .

We then add the following premise, which stems from the Wittgensteinian insight that understanding does not consist in the possession of an inner state, but rather in the possession of some practical ability (see Wittgenstein 1958):

  • To understand a sentence is to manifest the practical abilities that constitute our understanding of that sentence

For example, in the case of a simple language consisting of demonstratives and taste predicates (such as “bitter” and “sweet”), applied to foodstuffs within reach of the speaker, a speaker’s understanding consists in his ability to determine whether “this is bitter” is true, by putting the relevant foodstuff in his mouth and tasting it (Wright 1993).

It now follows that:

  • To know the truth-conditions of a sentence is to manifest the practical abilities that constitute our understanding of that sentence.
  • Our knowledge of the (recognition-transcendent) truth-conditions of the sentences of D is manifested in our exercise of the practical abilities that constitute our understanding of the sentences of D .
  • Knowledge of recognition-transcendent truth-conditions is never manifested in the exercise of practical abilities

It follows that

  • Knowledge of the (recognition-transcendent) truth-conditions of the sentences of D is never manifested in the exercise of practical abilities.
  • We cannot exercise practical abilities that constitute our understanding of D .
  • (11) We do not understand the sentences of D .

This yields a contradiction with (1), whence, by reductio , we reject (2) to obtain:

  • The sentences of D do not have recognition-transcendent truth-conditions, so that semantic realism about the subject matter of D must be rejected.

The key claim here is (8). So far as an account of speakers’ understanding goes, the ascription of knowledge of recognition-transcendent truth-conditions is simply redundant : there is no good reason for ascribing it. Consider one of the sentences introduced earlier as a candidate for possessing recognition-transcendent truth-conditions ‘Every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes’. The semantic realist views our understanding of sentences like this as consisting in our knowledge of a potentially recognition-transcendent truth-condition. But:

How can that account be viewed as a description of any practical ability of use? No doubt someone who understands such a statement can be expected to have many relevant practical abilities. He will be able to appraise evidence for or against it, should any be available, or to recognize that no information in his possession bears on it. He will be able to recognize at least some of its logical consequences, and to identify beliefs from which commitment to it would follow. And he will, presumably, show himself sensitive to conditions under which it is appropriate to ascribe propositional attitudes embedding the statement to himself and to others, and sensitive to the explanatory significance of such ascriptions. In short: in these and perhaps other important respects, he will show himself competent to use the sentence. But the headings under which his practical abilities fall so far involve no mention of evidence-transcendent truth-conditions (Wright 1993: 17).

This establishes (8), and the conclusion (12) follows straightforwardly.

A detailed assessment of the plausibility of Dummett’s arguments is impossible here. For a full response to the manifestation argument, see Miller 2002. See also Byrne 2005. For Dummett’s other argument, the acquisition argument, see Miller 2003b. Wright develops a couple of additional arguments against semantic realism. For these—the argument from rule-following and the argument from normativity—see the Introduction to Wright 1993. For an excellent survey of the literature on Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism, see Hale 2017. For an excellent book-length introduction to Dummett’s philosophy, see Weiss 2002. For a robust defence of keeping issues in metaphysics sharply separate from issues about language, see Dyke (2008)

Suppose that one wished to develop a non-realist alternative to, say, moral realism. Suppose also that one is persuaded of the unattractiveness of both error-theoretic and expressivist forms of non-realism. That is to say, one accepts that moral sentences are truth-apt, and, at least in some cases, true. Then the only option available would be to deny the independence dimension of moral realism. But so far we have only seen one way of doing this: by admitting that the relevant sentences are truth-apt, sometimes true, and possessed of truth-conditions which are not potentially recognition-transcendent. But this seems weak: it seems implausible to suggest that a moral realist must be committed to the potential recognition-transcendence of moral truth. It therefore seems implausible to suggest that a non-expressivistic and non-error-theoretic form of opposition to realism must be committed to simply denying the potential recognition-transcendence of moral truth, since many who style themselves moral realists will deny this too. As Wright puts it:

There are, no doubt, kinds of moral realism which do have the consequence that moral reality may transcend all possibility of detection. But it is surely not essential to any view worth regarding as realist about morals that it incorporate a commitment to that idea. (1992: 9)

So, if the debate between a realist and a non-realist about the independence dimension doesn’t concern the plausibility of semantic realism as characterised by Dummett, what does it concern? (Henceforth a non-error-theoretic, non-expressivist style of non-realist is referred to as an anti-realist). Wright attempts to develop some points of contention, (or ‘realism-relevant cruces’ as he calls them) over which a realist and anti-realist could disagree. Wright’s development of this idea is subtle and sophisticated and only a crude exposition of a couple of his realism-relevant cruces can be given here.

The first of Wright’s realism-relevant cruces to be considered here concerns the capacity of states of affairs to figure ineliminably in the explanation of features of our experience. The idea that the explanatory efficacy of the states of affairs in some area has something to do with the plausibility of a realist view of that area is familiar from the debates in meta-ethics between philosophers such as Nicholas Sturgeon (1988), who believe that irreducibly moral states of affairs do figure ineliminably in the best explanation of certain aspects of experience, and opponents such as Gilbert Harman (1977), who believe that moral states of affairs have no such explanatory role. This suggests a ‘best explanation test’ which, crudely put, states that realism about a subject matter can be secured if its distinctive states of affairs figure ineliminably in the best explanation of aspects of experience. One could then be a non-expressivist, non-error-theoretic, anti-realist about a particular subject matter by denying that the distinctive states of affairs of that subject matter do have a genuine role in best explanations of aspects of our experience. And the debate between this style of anti-realist and his realist opponent could proceed independently of any questions concerning the capacity of sentences in the relevant area to have potentially recognition-transcendent truth values.

For reasons that needn’t detain us here, Wright suggests that this ‘best explanation test’ should be superseded by questions concerning what he calls width of cosmological role (1992, Ch.5). The states of affairs in a given area have narrow cosmological role if it is a priori that they do not contribute to the explanation of things other than our beliefs about that subject-matter (or other than via explaining our beliefs about that subject matter). This will be an anti-realist position. One style of realist about that subject matter will say that its states of affairs have wide cosmological role: they do contribute to the explanation of things other than our beliefs about the subject matter in question (or other than via explaining our beliefs about that subject matter). It is relatively easy to see why width of cosmological role could be a bone of contention between realist and anti-realist views of a given subject matter: it is precisely the width of cosmological role of a class of states of affairs—their capacity to explain things other than, or other than via, our beliefs, in which their independence from our beliefs, linguistic practices, and so on, consists. Again, the debate between someone attributing a narrow cosmological role to a class of states of affairs and someone attributing a wide cosmological role could proceed independently of any questions concerning the capacity of sentences in the relevant area to have potentially recognition-transcendent truth values.

Wright thinks that it is arguable that moral discourse does not satisfy width-of-cosmological role. Whereas a physical fact—such as a pond’s being frozen over—can contribute to the explanation of cognitive effects (someone’s believing that the pond is frozen over), effects on sentient, but non-conceptual creatures (the tendency of goldfish to cluster towards the bottom of the pond), effects on us as physically interactive agents (someone’s slipping on the ice), and effects on inanimate matter (the tendency of a thermometer to read zero when placed on the surface), moral facts can only to contribute to the explanation of the first sort of effect:

[I]t is hard to think of anything which is true of sentient but non-conceptual creatures, or of mobile organisms, or of inanimate matter, which is true because a … moral fact obtains and in whose explanation it is unnecessary to advert to anyone’s appreciation of that moral fact (1996: 16).

Thus, we have a version of anti-realism about morals that is non-expressivist and non-error-theoretic and can be framed independently of considerations about the potential of moral sentences to have recognition-transcendent truth-values: moral sentences are truth-apt, sometimes true, and moral states of affairs have narrow cosmological role.

The second of Wright’s realism-relevant cruces concerns judgement-dependence. Suppose that we are considering a region of discourse D in which P is a typical property. Consider the opinions formed by the participants in that discourse under cognitively ideal conditions: call such opinions best opinions , and the cognitively ideal conditions the C-conditions. Suppose that the best opinions covary with the facts about the instantiation of P . Then there are two ways in which we can explain this covariance. First, we might take best opinions to be playing at most a tracking role: best opinions are just extremely good at tracking independently constituted truth-conferring states of affairs. In this case, best opinion plays only an extension-reflecting role, merely reflecting the independently determined extensions of the relevant properties. Alternatively, rather than viewing best opinion as merely tracking the facts about the extensions of the relevant properties, we can view them as themselves determining those extensions. Best opinions, on this sort of view, do not just track independently constituted states of affairs which determine the extensions of the the properties that form the subject matter of D : rather, they determine those extensions and so to play an extension-determining role. When we have this latter sort of explanation of the covariance of best opinion and fact, we’ll say that the truth about the instantiation of the relevant properties is judgement-dependent ; when we have only the former sort of explanation, we’ll say that the truth about their instantiation is judgement-independent .

How do we determine whether the truth about the instantiation of the typical properties that form the subject matter of a region of discourse are judgement-dependent? Wright’s discussion proceeds by reference to what he terms provisional equations . These have the following form:

(PE) ∀ x [ C → (A suitable subject s judges that Px ↔ Px )]

where ‘ C ’ denotes the conditions (the C -conditions) which are cognitively ideal for forming the judgement that x is P . The property P is then said to be judgement-dependent if and only if the provisional equation meets the following four conditions:

The A Prioricity Condition: The provisional equation must be a priori true: there must be a priori covariance of best opinions and truth. (Justification: ‘the truth, if it is true, that the extensions of [a class of concept] are constrained by idealised human response—best opinion—ought to be available purely by analytic reflection on those concepts, and hence available as knowledge a priori ’ (Wright 1992: 117)). This is because the thesis of judgement-dependence is the claim that, for the region of discourse concerned, best opinion is the conceptual ground of truth).

The Substantiality Condition The C -conditions must be specifiable non-trivially : they cannot simply be described as conditions under which the subject has ‘whatever it takes’ to form the right opinion concerning the subject matter at hand.(Justification: without this condition, the truth about any property will turn out to be judgement-dependent, since for any property Q it is going to be an a priori truth that our judgements about whether x is Q , formed under conditions which have ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure their correctness, will covary with the facts about the instantiation of Q -ness. We thus require this condition on pain of losing the distinction between judgement-dependent and judgement-independent truth altogether).

The Independence Condition : The question as to whether the C -conditions obtain in a given instance must be logically independent of the class of truths for which we are attempting to give an extension-determining account: what makes an opinion best must not presuppose some logically prior determination of the extensions putatively determined by best opinions. (Justification: if we have to assume certain facts about the extension of P in the determination of the conditions under which opinions about P are best, then we cannot view best opinions as themselves constituting those facts, since whether a given opinion is best would then presuppose some logically prior determination of the very facts the judgement-dependent account wishes to view as constituted by best opinions).

The Extremal Condition : There must be no better way of accounting for the a priori covariance: no better account, other than according best opinion an extension-determining role, of which the satisfaction of the foregoing three conditions is a consequence. (Justification: without this condition, the satisfaction of the foregoing conditions would be consistent with the thought that certain states of affairs are judgement-independent even though infallibly detectable, “states of affairs in whose determination facts about the deliverances of best opinions are in no way implicated although there is, a priori, no possibility of their misrepresentation” (Wright 1992: 123).)

When all of the above conditions can be shown to be satisfied, we can accord best opinion an extension-determining role, and describe the truth about the subject matter as judgement-dependent. If these conditions cannot collectively be satisfied, best opinion can be assigned, at best, a merely extension-reflecting role.

Two points are worth making. First, it is again relatively easy to see why the question of judgement-dependence can mark a bone of contention between realism and anti-realism. If a subject matter is judgement-dependent we have a concrete sense in which the independence dimension of realism fails for that subject matter: there is a sense in which that subject matter is not entirely independent of our beliefs, linguistic practices, and so on. Second, the debate about the judgement-dependence of a subject matter is, on the face of it at least, independent of the debate about the possibility of recognition-transcendent truth in that area.

Wright argues (1989) that facts about colours and intentions are judgement-dependent, so that we can formulate a version of anti-realism about colours (intentions) that views ascriptions of colours (intentions) as truth-apt and sometimes true, and truth in those areas as judgement-dependent. In contrast to this, Wright argues (1988) that morals cannot plausibly be viewed as judgement-dependent, so that a thesis of judgement-dependence is not a suitable vehicle for the expression of a non-expressivistic, non-error-theoretic, version of anti-realism about morality.

For discussion of further allegedly realism-relevant cruces, such as cognitive command, see Wright 1992 and 2003. For critical discussion of Wright on cognitive command, see Shapiro and Taschek 1996. See also Miller 2004 and the papers in section III of Coliva (ed.) 2012.It is the availability of these various realism-relevant cruces that makes it possible to be more-or-less realist about a given area: at one end of the spectrum there will be areas that fall on the realist side of all of the cruces and at the opposite end areas that fall on the non-realist side of all of the cruces, but in between there will be a range of intermediate cases in which some-but-not-all of the cruces are satisfied on the realist side.

Some of the ways in which non-realist theses about a particular subject matter can be formulated and motivated have been described above. Quietism is the view that significant metaphysical debate between realism and non-realism is impossible. Gideon Rosen nicely articulates the basic quietist thought:

We sense that there is a heady metaphysical thesis at stake in these debates over realism— … But after a point, when every attempt to say just what the issue is has come up empty, we have no real choice but to conclude that despite all the wonderful,suggestive imagery, there is ultimately nothing in the neighborhood to discuss (1994: 279).

Quietism about the ‘debate’ between realists and their opponents can take a number of forms. One form might claim that the idea of a significant debate is generated by unsupported or unsupportable philosophical theses about the relationship of the experiencing and minded subject to their world, and that once these theses are exorcised the ‘debate’ will gradually wither away. This form of quietism is often associated with the work of the later Wittgenstein, and receives perhaps its most forceful development in the work of John McDowell (see in particular McDowell 1994 and 2009). Other forms of quietism may proceed in a more piecemeal fashion, taking constraints such as Wright’s realism-relevant Cruces and arguing on a case-by-case basis that their satisfaction or non-satisfaction is of no metaphysical consequence. This is in fact the strategy pursued in Rosen 1994. He makes the following points regarding the two realism-relevant Cruces considered in the previous section.

Suppose that:

(F) It is a priori that: x is funny if and only if we would judge x funny under conditions of full information about x s relevant extra-comedic features

and suppose that (F) satisfies (in addition to a prioricity) the various other constraints that Wright imposes on his provisional equations ((F) is actually not of the form of a provisional equation, but this is not relevant to our purposes here). Rosen questions whether this would be enough to establish that the facts about the funny are in some metaphysically interesting sense ‘less real’ or ‘less objective’ than facts (such as, arguably, facts about shape) for which a suitable equation cannot be constructed.

In a nutshell, Rosen’s argument proceeds by inviting us to assume the perspective of an anthropologist who is studying us and who ‘has gotten to the point where he can reliably determine which jokes we will judge funny under conditions of full relevant information’ (1994: 302). Rosen writes:

[T]he important point is that from [the anthropologist’s] point of view, the facts about the distribution of [the property denoted by our use of ‘funny’] are ‘mind-dependent’ only in the sense that they supervene directly on facts about our minds. But again, this has no tendency to undermine their objectivity … [since] we have been given no reason to think that the facts about what a certain group of people would think after a certain sort of investigation are anything but robustly objective (1994: composed from 300 and 302).

How plausible is this attempt to deflate the significance of the discovery that the subject matter of a particular area is, in Wright’s sense, judgement-dependent? Argument—as opposed to the trading of intuitions—at this level is difficult, but Rosen’s claim here is very implausible. Suppose we found out that facts about the distribution of gases on the moons of Jupiter supervened directly on facts about our minds. Would the threat we then felt to the objectivity of facts about the distribution of gases on the moons of Jupiter be at all assuaged by the reflection that facts about the mental might themselves be susceptible to realistic treatment? It seems doubtful. Fodor’s Psychosemantics would not offer much solace to realists in the world described in Berkeley’s Principles. Rosen’s claim derives some of its plausibility from the fact that he uses examples, such as the funny and the constitutional, where our pre-theoretical attachment to a realist view is very weak: it may be that the judgement-dependence of the funny doesn’t undermine our sense of the objectivity of humour simply because the level of objectivity we pretheoretically expect of comedy is quite low. So although there is no knock-down argument to Rosen’s claim, it is much more counterintuitive than he might be willing to admit.

Rosen also questions whether there is any intuitive connection between considerations of width of cosmological role and issues of realism and non-realism. Rosen doubts in particular that there is any tight connection between facts of a certain class having only narrow cosmological role and mind-dependence in any sense relevant to the plausibility of realism. He writes:

It is possible to imagine a subtle physical property Q which, though intuitively thoroughly objective, is nonetheless nomically connected in the first instance only with brain state B —where this happens to be the belief that things are Q . This peculiar discovery would not undermine our confidence that Q was an objective feature of things, as it should if [a feature of objects is less than fully objective if it has narrow cosmological role] (1994: 312).

However it seems that, at least in the first instance, Wright has a relatively quick response to this point at his disposal. Waiving the point that in any case the width of cosmological role constraint applies to classes of properties and facts, he can point out that in the example constructed by Rosen the narrowness of Q’s cosmological role is an a posteriori matter. Whereas what we want is that the narrowness of cosmological role is an a priori matter: one does not need to conduct an empirical investigation to convince oneself that facts about the funny fail to have wide cosmological role.

Wright thus has the beginnings of answers to Rosen’s quietist attack on his use of the notions of judgement-dependence and width of cosmological role. It is not possible to deal fully with these arguments here, let alone with the other quietist arguments in Rosen’s paper, or the arguments of other quietists such as McDowell, beyond giving a flavour of how quietism might be motivated and how those active in the debates between realists and their opponents might start to respond. For a further discussion of quietism by Wright, see Wright 2007.

This discussion of realism and of the forms that non-realist opposition may take is far from exhaustive, and aims only to give the reader a sense of what to expect if they delve deeper into the issues. In particular, nothing has been mentioned about the work of Hilary Putnam, his characterisation of ‘metaphysical realism’, and his so-called ‘model-theoretic’ argument against it. Putnam’s writings are extensive, but one could begin with Putnam 1981 and 1983. For critical discussion, see Hale and Wright 2017 and Wright 2001; see also the entries on scientific realism and challenges to metaphysical realism . Nor have issues about the metaphysics of modality and possible worlds been discussed. The locus classicus in this area is Lewis 1986. For commentary, see Divers 2002 and Melia 2003; see also the entries on David Lewis’s metaphysics and the epistemology of modality . And the very important topic of scientific realism has not been touched upon. For an introductory treatment and suggestions for further reading, see Bird 1998 Ch. 4; see also, the entries on scientific realism and structural realism . Finally, it has not been possible to include any discussion of realism about intentionality and meaning (but see the entries on intentionality and theories of meaning .) The locus classicus in recent philosophy is Kripke 1982. For a robustly realistic view of the intentional, see Fodor 1987. For a collection of some of the central secondary literature, see Miller and Wright 2002, and for a robust defence of Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, see Kusch (2006). For an entertaining defence of metaphysical realism, see Musgrave 2001 (exercise for the reader: do any of the forms of opposition to realism described in this entry rely on what Musgrave calls word-magic?). For an alternative approach to mapping the debates about realism involving conceptions of independence more distinctively metaphysical than those focussed on here, see Fine (2001) and the entry on metaphysical grounding . For good introductory book length treatments of realism, see Kirk 1999 and Brock and Mares 2006. Greenough and Lynch (2006) is a useful collection of papers by many of the leading lights in the various debates about realism.

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An Essay for Educators: Epistemological Realism Really is Common Sense

  • Published: 15 June 2007
  • volume  17 ,  pages 425–447 ( 2008 )
  • William W. Cobern 1 &
  • Cathleen C. Loving 2  

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“What is truth?” Pontius Pilot asked Jesus of Nazareth. For many educators today this question seems quaintly passé. Rejection of “truth” goes hand-in-hand with the rejection of epistemological realism. Educational thought over the last decade has instead been dominated by empiricist, anti-realist, instrumentalist epistemologies of two types: first by psychological constructivism and later by social constructivism. Social constructivism subsequently has been pressed to its logical conclusion in the form of relativistic multiculturalism. Proponents of both psychological constructivism and social constructivism value knowledge for its utility and eschew as irrelevant speculation any notion that knowledge is actually about reality. The arguments are largely grounded in the discourse of science and science education where science is “western” science; neither universal nor about what is really real. The authors defended the notion of science as universal in a previous article. The present purpose is to offer a commonsense argument in defense of critical realism as an epistemology and the epistemically distinguished position of science (rather than privileged) within a framework of epistemological pluralism. The paper begins with a brief cultural survey of events during the thirty-year period from 1960–1990 that brought many educators to break with epistemological realism and concludes with comments on the pedagogical importance of realism. Understanding the cultural milieu of the past forty years is critical to understanding why traditional philosophical attacks on social constructivist ideas have proved impotent defenders of scientific realism.

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Traditionally realism refers to ontology. However, especially in education circles, realism is taken as an epistemology. Few anti-realist in the education community are ontological anti-realists––the issue is epistemology.

Our cultural survey is of necessity very brief. First, our argument is meant as an hypothesis to stimulate further study and discussion. Second, a longer treatment would be beyond the scope of the journal. Third, our focus is limited to American culture. Other countries and societies would undoubtedly tell the story differently.

It should be noted that logical positivism , in its doctrinaire form, was never a realist position. Early positivists like Carnap and Ayer rejected the idea that science aims to describe an independent reality, not because they thought it was false, but because they saw no way to confirm or disconfirm it by experience. Later (long before the 1960s), many former positivists abandoned this position in favor of a form of realism known as logical empiricism . The two positions have significant similarities but should not be confused (Salmon 2000 ).

There were other reasons for reforming science education. See Rudolph ( 2002 ) for a thorough discussion of economic and political pressures for science education reform prominent in the early Cold War period.

For an excellent discussion of the difference between the interests of science and public interest in science, see Eger ( 1989 ).

For examples of socially relevant science curriculum ideas of the period, see Baird ( 1937 ) or Zechiel ( 1937 ).

One indication that the critics failed in their efforts is that the Kromhout and Good title reappears thirteen years later in Gross et al. ( 1996 ). Indeed, in the eyes of many in science, the situation had only worsened as indicated by the two-word addition in the Gross et al title, The Flight From Science and Reason .

See < > for a brief biographical sketch of Kuhn’s life and work. See also Science & Education vol.9 nos.1–2 for discussion of Kuhn’s impact on science educators.

We are not indicating a chronological order. For the most part, these were simultaneous events during the decade.

Although our focus is the United States, Kuhn’s book had more immediate impact in Great Britain during the late 1960s founding of the University of Edinburgh’s Strong Program in the sociology of science. This school of sociology was “in direct conflict with all philosophical theories that seek to distinguish logic or rationality from psychology or sociology” (Giere 1991 , p. 51). On the Continent, while no direct influence is claimed here between Kuhn’s science writings and the European literary “deconstructionists,” it is interesting to note some similar revolutionary writings. While Kuhn was revising the first edition of his magnum opus in an attempt to deal with criticisms of his myriad uses of “paradigms” in science communities, Jacque Derrida was, at about the same time, “deconstructing” literary texts in articles with titles like Ends of Man (Derrida 1969 ), The Purveyor of Truth (Derrida ( 1975 ), or his psychoanalysis of the “truth factor” ( 1975 ).

See (“a website devoted to the life and legacy of Rachel Carson”) at:

The education and social science literatures often overstate Kuhn’s influence in academic philosophy. As a counterbalance, consider that in Wesley Salmon's ( 1989 ) Four Decades of Scientific Explanation , Kuhn is mentioned only once in over 200 pages of meticulous historical survey.

The notion that Copernicus was an instrumentalist is an historical myth. “All of the evidence is that Copernicus was a robust realist and that it is Osiander, not Copernicus, who bears responsibility for the instrumentalism here. When Copernicus's disciple Georg Joachim Rheticus (author of the famous “Narratio Prima”) read the unsigned preface, he was furious and said that if he had positive proof that Osiander had inserted this he would personally give him such a thrashing that Osiander would never again interfere in the affairs of scientific men! Many good scientists who read further than the preface realized that Copernicus is an earnest realist: Maestlin and his famous pupil Kepler, Thomas Digges in England, etc.” (McGrew 2002 )

We quote Vico because Glasersfeld does; however, we do not necessarily agree with Glasersfeld’s interpretation of Vico’s work. For a different perspective on Vico, see Lilla ( 1993 ).

For a discussion on types of multiculturalism, see: Haack ( 1998 , Ch. 8).

It should be apparent that epistemological realism and ontological realism go hand in hand.

The inability to have direct access to reality is a key supposition for anti-realists. For an incisive rebuttal and defense of the theory of direct perception, see Nola ( 2003 ).

Along with the sociology of science, critical realism agrees that constructing goes on in science––that science is not about discovering “already categorized objects and relations.” The difference comes, however, in that scientists can legitimately claim “genuine similarities” between logical constructs and aspects of reality. Rather than “critical,” Giere ( 1999 ) refers to “perspectival” realism to emphasize that scientific theories never capture completely the “totality of reality” but provide us with only—perspectives “…science that is perspectival rather than absolute” (Giere 1999 , p. 79). Our use of “critical realism” is in this vein. For a philosophical introduction to critical realism, see Bhaskar ( 1989 ), Harré ( 1975 ), Putman ( 1987 ) or Salmon ( 1989 ). There are different varieties of critical realism such as Giere’s ( 1999 ) “constructive realism” but what they have in common is nicely described by Polkinghorne ( 1991 , p. 304): “epistemology models ontology.”

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Cobern, W.W., Loving, C.C. An Essay for Educators: Epistemological Realism Really is Common Sense. Sci & Educ 17 , 425–447 (2008).

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Received : 15 September 2006

Accepted : 26 May 2007

Published : 15 June 2007

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The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature

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The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature

Bernard Harrison currently holds an Emeritus Chair in Philosophy at the University of Utah. At the University of Sussex, where he taught from 1963 to 1992, he profited from the presence of a stellar group of colleagues in literary studies, including A. D. Nuttall, Stephen Medcalf, and Gabriel Josipovici. His interests include the interfaces between literature, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of language. His books include Fielding's Tom Jones: The Novelist as Moral Philosopher, Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory, and (with Patricia Hanna) Word and World: Practice and the Foundations of Language.

  • Published: 02 September 2009
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This article considers the relation between literature and philosophy during the period of realism. It explains that the notion of realism, in its development as a term of literary criticism, is in origin a genre concept and that discussions of realism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary criticism and polemic rapidly acquire a moral, political, and philosophical dimensions. It suggests that all questions of literary form and technique fall to the will of the writer to determine. However, the article states, it does not follow that literature is a free field for play in the sense of frivolity because the connection between literature and reality does not run by way of the truth or falsity of statements, but by way of deeper linkages, internal to language, between the meanings of words and the practices that constitute human worlds and form the outlook and personalities of their inhabitants.

For words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fooles —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind her. —Walt Whitman, The Over-Soul

The notion of realism, in its development as a term of literary criticism, is in origin a genre concept. “Realistic” writing is, in that sense, essentially writing that deals with “low” rather than “high” topics, with the doings of ordinary people leading everyday lives, rather than with the acts of gods, princes, or nobles; and deals with them in a “low” style, a style close to the plain language of daily life, and remote from the “high,” poetic diction considered appropriate to the latter. Erich Auerbach's great book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1957) deals exhaustively, through a multitude of examples, with the gradual emergence of such concerns and styles of writing in literature from late antiquity onward.

Discussions of realism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary criticism and polemic, however, rapidly acquire a moral and political dimension and, in consequence, a philosophical one. Realism in literature, for one thing, becomes associated with claims to “truth,” or at least to the truthful “representation of reality.” Edmond and Jules Goncourt, in the preface to their 1864 novel Germinie Lacerteux , a preface that constitutes inter alia a kind of manifesto on behalf of the French literary realism coming to birth in the period, assert bluntly, “Le public aime les romans faux: ce roman est un roman vrai” [“the public likes false novels: this novel is a true one”] (as cited in Auerbach 1957 : 435). A later passage in the preface both forges and explains the connection between an older realism, defined by “low” characters and style, and a newer realism, in France that of Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, for example, which adds to these purely stylistic concerns those of social justice and the revelation of otherwise hidden depths in society:

Vivant au XIXe siècle, dans un temps de suffrage universel, de democratie, de libéralisme, nous nous sommes demandés si ce qu'on appelle “les basses classes” n'avait pas droit au Roman; si ce monde sous un monde, le peuple, devait rester sous le coup de l'interdit littéraire et les dedains d'auteurs, qui ont fait jusqu'ici le silence sur l’âme et le coeur qu'il peut avoir.

[Living in the nineteenth century, in a time of universal suffrage, of democracy, of liberalism, we asked ourselves if what is called “the lower classes” did not have a right to the Novel; if that world beneath a world, the people, must remain under the literary interdict and the disdain of authors who have so far kept silent upon the soul and the heart which it may have.] (1957: 435)

From this point, the line of descent is unbroken to twentieth-century theorists of social realism such as György Lukács ( 1963 ) and to a host of writers who consider themselves to be in some sense informing their readers upon, or making present to them, real aspects of their lives and times that would otherwise remain unnoticed and unreflected upon.

Realism in this sense sets up, as realism considered purely as a genre concept does not, one of those linkages, or tensions, between literature and philosophy that it is the business of this volume to investigate. It opens the door, in other words, to a question of one of the standard kinds that professionally occupy philosophers: what could possibly justify claims of this sort? If literature is to be, in some sense, an exploration, an investigation, of reality, then some relationship must, presumably, subsist between it and reality. What relationship could that be? As we shall see, pursuing this question very soon involves a second, and perhaps more profound, set of inquiries: Why is literature valuable? Is its value intrinsic or extrinsic to it? To what extent does its value derive from its relationship to reality?

Two answers to the first question, of the precise nature of the presumed relationship between literature and reality, have long been available. According to the first, the relationship is a mimetic or representative one, and the value of literature consists in its power to represent to its readers, to bring before them, aspects of human life of which they would otherwise remain ignorant. According to the second, the relationship in question is simply truth . Great works of literature, on this view, are of value because they “embody” or “express” important general truths about human life and society. Both answers are, in their origins, comparatively ancient. The first, that the business of literature, as of all art, is mimesis derives ultimately from Plato. The best recent defense in English of that claim is to be found in A. D. Nuttall's A New Mimesis (1983). It swims against the prevailing current of thought, mainly of French origin, associated with the movement known as critical and cultural theory. The view dominant within critical and cultural theory is that the main social function of literature is the dissemination of ideologies—generally reactionary ones, whose function is to sustain one ruling group or another in power. The claim of literature to have any commerce with reality is baseless, since its function is precisely to disseminate an illusory representation of reality. As the following passage of Roland Barthes in “L'Effet du Réel” (1968) affirms, we are dealing, in the case of the purportedly “realistic” details that authors insert in their work, not with reality, but merely with verisimilitude:

[D]ans le moment même ou ces détails sont réputés dénoter directement le réel, its ne font rien d'autre, sans le dire, que le signifier; le barométre de Flaubert, la petite porte de Michelet ne disent finalement rien d'autre que ceci: “nous sommes le réel.”

[T]hey do not say so, but at the very moment at which these details reputedly directly denote reality, they in fact merely signify it; Flaubert's barometer, Michelet's little door, have in the end only this to say: “we are reality.”] (cited in Nuttall 1983 : 56)

The second general claim often advanced in favor of realism, that literature conveys valuable general truths, has found a great many modern adherents among writers and literary critics of the past two centuries, though fewer among philosophers. It emerged at least as long ago as the seventeenth century and was already familiar when, in the following century, Samuel Johnson, in Rasselas , famously put a version of it in the mouth of the poet Imlac:

“This business of a poet,” said Imlac, “is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest … He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age and country …; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same ” (1909: 48, emphasis original)

Many more recent forms and versions of it are described and critically evaluated in Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen's book Truth, Fiction, and Literature (1994), which offers an invaluable resource for this branch of the topic. But once again, any such view has long been under threat from philosophers and literary theorists generally. Lamarque and Olsen deploy arguments that leave one deeply skeptical of the idea that any version of realism so founded can be made to stand up to rational scrutiny. They opt themselves for what they call a “no truth” theory of the functions and value of literature, which I address further below.

It is nevertheless observable, despite the force of the academic arguments brought against it, that the conviction that great literature has cognitive gains to offer its readers, that it sheds light on “reality” in some sense of that complex and abused term, and that it does so both by “holding up a mirror to nature” and by opening access to otherwise inaccessible insights that it is hard to avoid describing as “truths,” retains a far greater hold at present over the minds of intelligent, educated general readers than it does over those of philosophers, literary theorists, and other professionally interested parties. It is open to us, as theorists, to conclude that those outside our charmed circle who cling to such views are simply poor deluded souls swept along in the current of their already outmoded times—times, indeed, that have mysteriously so far failed, as times sometimes will, to yield to the persuasions of currently fashionable versions of historicism, but no doubt will so yield in time. But, on the other hand, it may equally be the case that the deluded masses see something we do not. It is this second possibility that I explore here.

It is best to begin by examining some of the main arguments against the idea that literature has, or could have, any connection with reality. The most obvious, and potent, perhaps, spring from the evident fact that works of literature are created by an author who performs his or her creative task simply by arranging words on a page at the behest of his or her free choice. It can be objected that the production of literary works, at least of those realistic or naturalistic in intention, must to some degree be constrained by the nature of reality. But to this it can be retorted, as in Barthes passage quoted above, that such constraint as is exerted by reality on the creation of the literary text is brought to bear on it, not by the need to achieve truth, but merely by the need to secure verisimilitude : to produce, in other words, not so much a faithful depiction of reality as a work likely to be accepted by a majority of its readers as a faithful depiction of reality.

In modern philosophy, that simple point has been greatly refined and sharpened, like much else in philosophy, by the work of Gottlob Frege. Frege held that a statement cannot be assigned a truth-value unless the names that enter into its composition can be assigned referents, or Bedeutungen . And the names that occur in works of fiction, “Odysseus,” for instance, lack Bedeutungen precisely because the statements in which they occur—to take Frege's best-known example, “Odysseus was set ashore at Ithaca while fast asleep” (Geach and Black 1952 : 62)—are fictional. What follows is not that the statements that figure in works of fiction are false, but something rather worse, that these statements are, as it were, dummy statements, incapable of being assigned any truth-value, either true or false.

A further implication of Frege's point is that, along with the notions of truth and falsity, the notions of confirmation and disconfirmation find no foothold in fictional discourse. It would seem to follow that the entire apparatus of rational scrutiny, the kind of scrutiny to which we subject a statement with a view to determining its adequacy as a description of reality (or “the world,” or “the way things stand”), is automatically disabled the moment we pick up a work of literature.

The effect of these arguments is severely to weaken, if not entirely to invalidate, any claim to the effect that literary works might embody any sort of useful or enlightening reflection on the real world, as distinct from the “imagined worlds” that spring from the freedom enjoyed by authors of literary fiction to set, at will, one word after another on a blank sheet of paper. Their tendency is to reserve any actual commerce with reality to putatively factual discourse—the discourse of the sciences, or history. What role does this leave to literature? Plato, on the usual interpretation, at least, credits art with offering us a vision of reality, even if one as inferior to that offered by sensory experience as the latter is inferior to the apprehension of the eternal Forms offered by Reason. The verdict of the empiricist tradition—even less flattering to the poet than Plato's—has tended to be that the business of literature, as indeed of all art, is merely play.

Thomas Hobbes stands at the root of this Renaissance turn in the philosophical critique of literature. He distinguishes four uses of speech:

First, to Register, what by cogitation, we find to be the cause of any thing, present or past; and what we find things present or past may produce, or effect … Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained, which is, to Counsell, and Teach one another. Thirdly, to make known to others our wills and purposes, that we may have the mutuall help of one another. Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, and others, by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament, innocently. (1997: 34:)

Literature, presumably, falls for Hobbes into the fourth category, of “playing with words”: an innocent form of play, perhaps, but as Hobbes (followed later by Locke, and still later by the entire tradition of critical and cultural theory) at once goes on to say, one instinct with all the potential power of subjectively generated illusion to mislead and, in so doing, to alienate us from the sad actuality that we in fact inhabit.

The power of these arguments, issuing as they do from various philosophical traditions, some frankly antiliterary in character, might lead one to suppose that the main opposition to the idea that literature possesses the power to illuminate reality comes from outside literary studies. That would be a mistake. The idea that literature “holds up a mirror to humanity” and its affairs in any sense analogous to that in which a good geological map of the southwestern United States, say, might be said to “hold up a mirror” to the geological history of that region, comes under critical pressure also from arguments that, given that they question the ability of any such story to offer an adequate account of the value of great literature, might be taken to come from within the tradition of literary studies, that is to say, the tradition of reading and valuing great literature as a serious contribution to our culture.

A striking articulation of this problem has recently been provided by R. M. J. Dammann (forthcoming). Consider, to change genres for a moment, a painting by George Stubbs of a racehorse, Whistlejacket, let's say, and its subject, that very horse. Suppose we say that the painting's value as a work of art lies in the relationship of representation between painting and horse. On the one hand, we seem to have replaced one object, the work of art, with two objects, a horse, and some slabs of pigment adhering to a piece of canvas. Still worse, neither of these objects appears to possess any intrinsic aesthetic interest or value. Similarly, suppose we say that the literary value of Othello lies in part in the relationship of representation subsisting between the text of the play and a Venetian general of Moorish extraction. Which general, precisely? Shakespeare's Othello? Or some Othello counterpart presumed to occupy, like Stubbs's subject Whistlejacket, a place among the furniture of nature? If we say the second of these things we replace the single aesthetic object, the text, with two objects: on the one hand, a man; on the other, some words. Now we face again the problem that we faced with the dissolution of Stubbs's painting into a real horse, Whistlejacket, and some equally real patches of oil paint smeared on canvas: neither the words nor the man seem in themselves of any aesthetic interest. But if we take the first course, of saying that the general whose tragedy is represented in Othello is Shakespeare's Othello, then talking of representation has brought us no nearer, it seems, to connecting art and reality, since Shakespeare's Othello is a denizen, not of the (one) real world, but of the “world” of Shakespeare's play.

A closely related point to this one of Dammann's is developed by John Gibson. To the extent that we value literature for what it can teach us about the world, Gibson argues, we move the locus of literary value from the literary to the extraliterary:

We may of course take what we find in a literary text and ask whether it holds true in the real world, whether, if we apply it there, we can acquire a better understanding of worldly affairs. But as soon as we have done this we have left aside literary appreciation and stepped into something more like social science: we are now investigating the world and not the literary work. These questions may be infinitely important to us, …; but they ultimately say nothing about how we experience literary works, and thus they will fail to help us understand the ways in which we can read the literary work of art. (2004: 113)

A further point, common to both Dammann and Gibson, is that literary appreciation, the appreciation of the nature and value of great literature, is exercised entirely about the language of the work. Literature is after all, an art made , wholly and solely, out of language ; an art whose works are created merely by arranging words on a page. We seem, as a culture, to experience difficulty with this thought. A particularly fatuous index of the kind of difficulty we feel has lately been provided by the BBC, which put on a series of “modern versions of Shakespeare plays” that kept the plots and the names of the characters but dropped Shakespeare's language. The thought here—the thought that justifies continuing, absurdly, to call these amusing travesties versions of Shakespeare—seems to be that Shakespeare's language cannot be all his work amounts to, cannot be what constitutes his work, because language is—well, just language. And how can language , the mere deployment of words, considered just in itself, either be considered great —as distinct from, say, resonant, or clever—or for that matter reveal to us anything about anything?

One of the major merits of Lamarque and Olsen's treatment of the topic, also, is their insistence that both literary criticism and our apprehension of the value of literature are exercised about the language, the words, of the literary text, and not about things external to the text to which those words might give access. And I think, moreover, that they are right to see that fact as a further obstacle in the path of those who wish to represent the value of literature as residing in its power either to formulate truths or to “hold up a mirror” to human nature. In any statement that purports to communicate a truth or, to put it more generally, to inform us concerning how things stand in the real world, the language in which it is couched is of value only from the standpoint of communicative efficiency. A given message may be of very great value in that it informs those who read it, let's say, of the sinking of the Titanic . But the value of its language is relative solely to the efficiency with which it serves to communicate that fact. It would be absurd, in such a case, to suggest that intrinsic value resided in the choice of one form of words over another, or that the message would lose its value as a message if any word in it were to be altered. But those are precisely the sorts of things we do say about works of literature. And, since what makes quality of language no more than instrumentally relevant to truth-stating discourse is precisely the relationship in which truth-stating discourse stands to the representation of reality, this does rather suggest that literature lacks, precisely, that—or any analogous—relationship to reality, at least when reality is taken, as it appears we must take it, as something existing independently of, and externally to, language.

It is open to question, though, whether Lamarque and Olsen do not pay too heavy a price for the centrality of this—undoubtedly, at least up to a point, sound—insight to the development of their argument. Forcing too close an analogy between literature and informative, fact-stating discourse undoubtedly makes it difficult, for the reasons just given, to understand why we should ascribe intrinsic value to a literary work, and do so, moreover, in virtue of the quality of its language. It has to be said, however, that to deny literature any relationship whatsoever with reality, as Lamarque and Olsen's “no truth” account does, makes that even more difficult to understand. And that is the direction in which their argument now moves.

Lamarque and Olsen grant, in their chapter “The Mimetic Aspect of Literature,” that literature has such an aspect. It has an aspect of “aboutness.” And what it is “about” are themes . Thus (their example), the theme of Euripides’ Hippolytus is human weakness in the face of forces beyond our control, coupled with the lack of divine purpose. Euripides’ treatment of this theme is built around a number of thematic concepts, “through which the different features of the play are apprehended and related to each other: freedom, determinism, responsibility, weakness of will continence/incontinence, sympathy, guilt, human suffering, divine order, purity, pollution, forgiveness, charity, reconciliation” (1994: 401–2).

The thematic concepts that articulate a work of literature are, however, according to Lamarque and Olsen, “by themselves, vacuous. They cannot be separated from the way they are ‘anatomised’ in literature and other cultural discourses” (1994: 403). It becomes clear in context that a rather strong claim is being floated here, namely, that outside “cultural discourses,” including those of literature, such concepts find no application , find, as Wittgenstein would say, no foothold . Such concepts as “divine order,” “purity,” “forgiveness,” “charity,” say Lamarque and Olsen,

have received a significance over and above that which they have in everyday use through the role which they play in religious belief, ritual and in theological discourse … To point this out is not to suggest that perennial thematic concepts receive their definition in philosophical discourse or through the role they play in religious practice and are then borrowed by the reader of literature who wants to appreciate a work of art. On the contrary, these perennial thematic concepts achieve the importance they have within the culture, and receive their content, both from the role they play in philosophical discourse and religious practice, on the one hand, and, on the other, from the role they play in literary appreciation. (407, emphasis added)

In short, the thematic concepts that supply the content of literature not only are not, but also could not be made, the vehicle of any body of insights concerning the real world, because they have no application to anything “real” in the sense of external to literature and other “cultural practices” loosely associated with literature.

As radical a divorce as this between the concerns of literature and those of everyday life is, clearly, required of Lamarque and Olsen by the contention—central to their “no truth” account of literature—that “whatever the purpose of fiction and literature may be, it is not ‘truth-telling’ in any straightforward sense” (1994: 440). The difficulty it involves them in, however, becomes evident the moment we ask why literary activity, so understood, should be considered valuable. Why should we care about the allegedly “mortal” questions [Thomas Nagel's phrase, borrowed by Lamarque and Olsen] that provide the themes of great literature, or waste time worrying about the “thematic concepts” in terms of which such questions pose themselves, if the concepts in question “receive their content” only from the role they play in literature (and a few other, equally rarefied, “cultural practices”) and otherwise have no bearing on the prosaic fabric of life as it is actually lived outside the covers of books?

It can come as no surprise that Lamarque and Olsen have no answer to this question, except to say, in the penultimate sentences of their book: “These are simply things we care about and always seem to have cared about. And this is where the argument stops” (1994: 456).

It is time for a new start. Let us return to the simple thought that lies somewhere near the root of the philosophical critique, at least in its Renaissance and modern forms: that since authors create literary works simply by arranging words on a page at their own sweet wills, their works cannot teach us anything about reality. Why not?

The reason cannot be that reality is external to the mind of the writer, for that divorce plainly cannot, and does not, prevent the reality of things from being adequately captured in plain, descriptive prose. The problem is rather that reality is, or is held to be, in every sense, external to language . That thought is implicit in Hobbes's typically pregnant aphorism, “For words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon with them, but they are the money of fooles” (1997: 37). The gist of that remark is that words have no meaning that is not derived from correspondence with some item or aspect of extralinguistic reality. It follows that words can, by their arrangement into sentences, compose statements capable of capturing reality, only if their arrangement is dictated by reality , not if it is dictated by the will of the author. Truthful discourse is discourse transcribed from nature. To abandon the hard work of transcription from nature, and instead to arrange what are, after all, so used, mere “counters,” into sentences at will is therefore merely, as Hobbes says, to play with words, like a child, “for pleasure and ornament, innocently” (1997: 34).

On such a view of language, language has no grip on, no commerce with, reality, internal to itself. Its commerce with reality is a purely external commerce, conducted via the conventional association of basic terms or sentences with elements of the world; in recent philosophy, for example, Bertrand Russell's individuals, universals, and relations, or W. V. O. Quine's collections of “stimuli.”

Is that true? Has language really no inward, internal, commerce with reality? A very powerful and popular argument against saying that it has any such thing is that such talk must lead immediately to linguistic idealism, the thesis that the way we choose to speak has the power to create the reality of which we speak. Taking that route appears to sever all connection between the way we talk and the way things are. Nothing created more animus against the late Jacques Derrida, among English-speaking philosophers, than the latter's remark Il n'y a pas d'horstexte , interpreted, at least in the anglophone philosophical world, as conveying the proposition that there is no such thing as an extralinguistic world against which to measure the success of our attempts to convey its nature in language. Whether or not such an interpretation is fair to Derrida (see Harrison 1985 , 1991 : 123–43), which is quite another matter, there can be no doubt that the position with which it saddles him is a deeply unattractive one. After all, the connection with reality that language seems most paradigmatically to possess, at least in the sciences, runs precisely by way of procedures that are, in an obvious sense, external to itself: measurement of, and experimentation on, the materially real. I would not wish to go down any path of argument that terminated in a denial of the possibility of that type of entirely external, relationship between language and reality. But is there any other path down which one can go, starting from the thought that language has, or might have, an internal relationship to reality, instead of, or possibly as well as, a merely external one?

I think there is. It is the path hacked out by Patricia Hanna and me in Word and World: Practice and the Foundations of Language (2004).

One of the central arguments of that book goes, in brief, like this. Frege taught us, among much else, that meaning in a natural language is primarily to be understood in terms of the notions of truth and falsity, and that the prime locus of meaning is, therefore, the statement—in linguistic terms, the sentence. A grasp of the concept of meaning in a natural language therefore requires a grasp of the concept of the assertoric or, to put it less tersely, of what it is for a linguistic expression to assert something , to be the vehicle of an assertoric content —to be, in other words, a suitable candidate for the ascription of the predicates “ … is true” and “ … is false.”

How is the concept of the assertoric to be acquired, or taught? There is, clearly, nothing assertoric to be encountered in the natural world. Assertoricity, if one may speak in that way, is a property not of lakes, trees, or mountains but of linguistic expressions. What it is for such an expression to be assertoric in character has thus to be specified, to be stipulated, if the notion is to get off the ground.

How is that to be done? To explain what it is for a linguistic expression to assert something, to possess assertoric content, is, presumably, to explain its relationship to the conditions that make it true or false. It is tempting to suppose that we might do this, for the statement S expressed by a given sentence å, by listing, first, some things or circumstances of which S might be truly asserted and, second, some of which it would be false to assert S. This would be a mistake. Someone who grasps what assertoric content is expressed by a sentence å is capable, in virtue of that grasp, to extend indefinitely both the list of things or circumstances of which it would be true to assert the corresponding statement S (call this the T-list) and the list of those of which it would be false to assert S (call this the F-list). From a finite number of items on either list, however, no continuation of the list can be confidently inferred. If I am shown, for example, a finite array of objects of which I am told only that the statement expressed by an English sentence å of the form “X is three inches long” is true of each and every one of them, then I am plainly in no position to add a new object to the array, since I have as yet no idea what assertoric content, that is to say, what statement, S, is expressed by å, and hence no means of knowing which of the multifarious similarities exhibited by the objects in the array are to be treated as relevant to the truth of S, and which are not. And similarly for any finite array of items presented as exemplifying the class of objects of which it would be false to assert the statement expressed by å.

Plainly, there is something that the learner still needs to grasp and does not: something that, if he were to grasp it, would allow him to extend either array with confidence. What could that be? Rather evidently, I suggest, what the learner needs, somehow, to grasp is that the statement expressed by a sentence of the form of å is a statement of spatial dimension , to be precise, of length . If he were to grasp that, he would see how the T-list and the F-list are related to one another. He would grasp that an object belongs in the T-list if its greatest linear dimension has a certain value, but is to be transferred from the T-list to the F-list if its greatest linear dimension has any other value. Grasping that, he would grasp how to set about extending either list in a manner consistent with the principles on which it was constituted in the first place.

But how is the learner to be brought to grasp that the sentence expressed by a sentence of the form of å is a statement of linear dimension? We have already seen that there is no way in which we could bring him to that understanding by showing him how to relate sentences of that form directly to classes of natural objects. The only other possibility is that we show him how sentences of that form are related to a certain human practice, namely, the practice of measuring . He needs to learn that measurement institutes a standardized system for comparing objects with one another. Our systems of linear measurement, I take it, are built up from the basic idea of taking a small, straight-edged object, M, and seeing how many end-over-end applications of that object it takes to span one edge of a larger straight-edged object, O. The practical utilities of this idea are many. An obvious initial one is that it offers a way of finding out whether a heavy object will fit into a given space, without actually having to move it. The small object M may now become standard in such operations: people in the Musing community begin to ask questions like, “How many M's long must a stone be to fit this space?” Then some unusually astute Muser sees that the business of ascertaining the answers to such questions would be easier if one were to take a rod and mark it out in divisions, each a single iteration of M in length, by applying the object M successively to the rod. “Here”—he says—“I have made an M-stick: use that.” As M-stick use spreads and acquires other practical uses—in the measurement of plots of land, say, people begin to need words for what they are doing in measuring. First, they give a name to the length of M: they call it, let's say, “an inch.” Then they introduce a word that describes the way in which the object M functioned, and continues to function, in their practice of linear measurement. They begin to say that M served, and serves, them as a modulus of measurement .

How is the learner helped, by being thus taught, in practice, what measuring is, and how to set about measuring? The problem he faced, remember, was that of discerning any relationship between the items composing the T-list and those composing the F-list. He needed, somehow, to grasp that the true and the false are not different things , but rather different aspects of the same thing, namely, an assertion . He needed to see that it is precisely the assertoric content of a statement which makes it both true of some things and false of others.

This is the difficulty that is resolved for the learner when, as Wittgenstein puts it, he sees, through learning the practice and the point of measurement, “the post at which we station” (1958: 14e) a sentence like “This is three inches long” relative to the practice. The practice gives him access to a procedure, measuring, by appeal to which he can himself determine whether a given item is to be placed in the T-series or the F-series. He thus sees what it is for the expression “This is three inches long” to be assertoric in form, to convey an assertion, for the essence of what it is to be an assertion is precisely that an assertion can be either true or false.

The moral of this story is, of course, that if meaning in natural languages is, as Frege thought, essentially connected with truth and falsity, and thus with the concept of the assertoric, then the meaning of an expression cannot be explained merely by correlating it with some item or aspect of the sensible world. Words are not, as Hobbes thought, merely “counters” by means of which we represent to ourselves the things, “out there” in the world, for which they have been conventionally assigned to stand. On the contrary, the meanings of words are determined internally to language—or better, perhaps, internally to practice . Think, for instance, of the ways in which the terms “inch” and “modulus” acquire their meanings in the context of the simple system of linear measurement just discussed. “Inch” is just the name we use for the distance between each mark and the next on the yardstick we make by marking up a rod using the object M. “Modulus” is just the name we give to any object, such as M, used in this sort of way. There is clearly no way, for reasons we have already adduced, in which the meanings of these terms could be explained by ostensively associating the terms with any element of the extralinguistic world. Talk of their meanings is equivalent to, simply amounts to, talk of their relationship to the practice of measurement—to the socially devised and maintained device, the language game, as Wittgenstein would say, in which they find a use.

Does that mean that, since such concepts as “measurement,” “modulus of measurement,” “length” are not simply markers for prelinguistically existing features of extralinguistic reality (“counters,” as Hobbes put it), there can be no possibility of using the corresponding words to frame sentences capable of expressing true statements—statements correctly informing us about how things stand in the extralinguistic world? Plainly not. The statement expressed by the sentence “This book measures six inches by nine inches,” uttered with reference to a particular book, manifestly admits either of being true or of being false, and which it happens to be can be easily determined by measuring the book. For it to be possible to use language to say how things stand, or fail to stand, in the extralinguistic world, it is indeed necessary that some relationship should subsist between language and the extralinguistic. But (1) the relationship in question need not necessarily run between elements of language (words, sentences, e.g.), on the one hand, and elements of “reality” (individuals, universals, relations, collections of “stimuli”), on the other. On the contrary, it may, and does, run by way of the relationship between practices and the natural circumstances in which their operations find a foothold, or to put it another way, with which those operations engage. And (2) it need not be identified with the relationship or relationships that determine the meanings of linguistic expressions. On our account, that job is done by the relationships subsisting between linguistic expressions and the practices in the context of which they find a use. What Hanna and I are suggesting in Word and World , in effect, is that we should cease identifying what serves to establish the meanings of linguistic expressions with what connects language in general with extralinguistic references existing apart from human practices. Without language, we would still, in a certain sense, “possess concepts.” But since, as alinguistic beings, we would be restricted, like animals, to sensual and bodily interaction with the world, such concepts as would remain accessible to us would be concepts only in the rather limited sense of “concept” exemplified by psychological experiments on “concept formation,” which in effect concern merely the ability of animals to respond differentially to recurrent patterns of stimulation. The complex interactions, on the one hand, between linguistic expressions and the practices—measurement, for instance—in terms of which we interrogate reality and, on the other, between the latter and the natural features of the world that determine difference of outcome for their operations, equip us with the linked notions of “truth,” “falsity,” and “assertion,” and thus with concepts in the full, language-presupposing, sense of the term , that is to say, notions that cannot be entertained without ramifying instantly into a fan of possibilities of sentential occurrence, because to grasp the possibility of using a concept (in the full, language-presupposing sense) in the framing of assertions is (again, in that, full, sense) just what it is to grasp, to possess, a concept.

The utility for present purposes of the possibility just outlined of thinking about meaning, and about the relationship of language to the extralinguistic, is that it gives us a way of crediting language with a semantic, as well as a syntactic, “interior.” The semantic interior of language, on the present view, is constituted by the multifarious interactions of linguistic expressions with the practices in terms of which we interrogate extralinguistic reality.

What sent us down this path, however, was the hope that we might discover some sense in which language might be said to have an internal, as well as an external, relationship to reality. And the argument, which might seem to have left us as far from that goal as ever, states, in effect, that the relationship between language and the extralinguistic runs not by way of the connection of elements of language (words, sentences) with anything simply given , independently of practices, but rather by way of the establishment, through the operation of the practices in relationship to which elements of language take on meaning, of binary sets of options between which reality can be forced, as it were, to determine a choice, and thus a distinction between the true and the false. If this is right, the connection between language and the extralinguistic runs by way of assertion. And that, it seems, leaves the poet, who as Sir Philip Sidney put it, “nothing affirmeth” (2004: 34) and the writer of fiction, who characteristically makes no assertions about anything outside the “world” of his fiction, still lacking a grip on anything worth calling reality.

But wait—there is one more level of complexity to come. So far, I have been arguing that the involvement of words in practices is necessary to establish the nature of the connection between what is affirmed and what is denied in asserting the truth (or the falsehood) of a given statement. If the argument stands, the involvement of words in practices is what gives us access to the linked notions of truth, falsity, and the assertoric. Seen from that point of view, the function of the internal machinery of language—the machinery constituted by linguistic expressions taken together with their functional modes of insertion into practices of one sort and another—is to make it possible for us to capture, in terms of the truth or falsity of propositions, the nature of a world—the natural world—which is indeed wholly external to language.

There is, however, a second way in which the creation of practices that are in part linguistic in nature bears on our relationship to reality. In the very act of creating the varied practices that found the possibility of propositionally formulated knowledge of the world external to language, we also constitute a second, nonnatural world: the human world , a world as real as the natural world—the world wholly external to language—but this time a world partly internal to language. Consider, once more, the practice of linear measurement, with its associated notions of “modulus,” “length,” “measuring rod,” and so on. For a society to have access to a commonly understood practice of that kind renders accessible possibilities of social organization, and with them, patterns of feeling, interest, and self-description, that are not accessible to a society without such a practice. It becomes possible to measure land and goods accurately, for instance, and to make exact comparisons of the sizes of fields, or pieces of cloth, say, for purposes of sale, exchange, or inheritance. Such practices very rapidly acquire a moral dimension. Accuracy in measurement very soon becomes one of the parameters of honesty. The merchant or trader who gives good measure is an honest man; one whose instruments of measurement have been in some way corrupted or falsified in his own interest, the opposite. Many preindustrial societies have reached the point of having market officials whose duty is to check the accuracy of measuring implements used in commerce: scales, weights, measuring vessels, measuring rods, and so on. It is easy, too, for the connection between accuracy in measurement and honesty to take on a wider moral relevance, so that people begin to think of the moral life itself as, crucially, a matter of observing limits, and of moral intelligence as accuracy in the measurement of the points at which the free exercise of personal choice ends and moral license begins. Out of these ways of thinking are born further practices, including law, that are essentially moral in character: at one and the same time ways of conducting life and also resulting patterns of feeling and response to the events of life, which come to surround our original, purely utilitarian practices of measurement. Such moral practices give rise, in turn, to habits of response and corresponding traits of character of the sort immemorially honored with the name of virtues. One such, comparatively little honored among us nowadays, is the practice of refusing, and the corresponding capacity to refuse, an unmeasured response to the invitations of sexuality. Another is the practice of refusing, and the capacity to refuse, an unmeasured response, not only to appetite, but also to such essentially unmeasured emotions as anger, including righteous anger. New collections of terms define themselves through their relationships to these practices, for example, “chastity,” temperance,” “a short fuse,” and “self-control.” To these we may add also, since virtues have a tendency to mutate into vices, and vice versa, as circumstances present one or another aspect of themselves, such expressions as “spontaneity,” “decisiveness,” “strait-laced,” and “cold-blooded.”

Now for several general points about this situation. A society for which measure is a central moral notion, governing a whole family of subordinate moral notions, is a certain sort of society in which certain rather specific sorts of character will predominate and certain rather specific sorts of tension and dilemma be felt and experienced. That the society in question is this way is, I take it, a reality . That it is a society of that specific type, in other words, conducted by persons of a certain corresponding range of characters and personality types, has as much right to be regarded as a real feature of the world, as part of the “furniture of reality,” as some equally salient natural fact, as that the rate of acceleration for a body in free fall near the surface of the earth is approximately 32 feet per second per second. The facts about how a given sort of society works, what possibilities of choice (“living options,” as William James would say [1954: 89]) it offers its members, and what sort of people they become through having been brought up to inhabit it, are not natural facts, in the sense that the workings of the law of gravity or the structure and physiology of the human body are natural facts. Rather, they are facts brought into being through the invention and adoption by human beings of certain specific practices. The society dominated by those practices inhabits, I want to say, a certain human world or, to give a new sense to a term that both Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty use in related, though different senses, a Lebenswelt .

The relationship in which language stands to the reality constituted by a Lebenswelt is, I want to say, different from the relationship in which it stands to the nonhuman, the natural world. The natural world is in no sense constituted by the practices, of linear measurement, for instance, through which we gain access to the possibility of describing it in propositional terms. A given human world, a Lebenswelt , however, is constituted by the very practices in connection with which a range of associated terms and conceptual distinctions take on meaning. In the case of the human world, or worlds, therefore, the reality of how things stand, and the possibilities we possess of saying how things stand, possess a common root in the practices constitutive of that reality. We have what we were looking for: a department of reality that, because the practices that constitute it constitute simultaneously —as it were, in the very act of constituting it—a specific, associated body of language, of terms with specific meanings, enshrining specific conceptual distinctions, actually does stand in internal relationship to language.

But how, in practice, does that help, if it does, when it comes to the question of how, if at all, literature can, at times, offer its readers cognitive gains?

It will be best, I think, to arrive at the general answer I want to give to that question by way of a specific and concrete example. Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure suggests itself in that role, not least because its language connects it with the kind of examples we have just been discussing. The plot of Measure for Measure is simple enough. Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, wishes to restrain the increasing sexual license of the city, whose strict laws against such license have not for some time been enforced. But he does not himself wish to enforce those laws, since having himself allowed them to lapse, he fears to be accused of tyranny if he now has people punished for conduct that he himself allowed to become acceptable. He therefore announces that he will make a long journey, and leaves as his deputy Angelo, a man with a reputation for rigid moral rectitude and sexual purity. In his absence, Claudio, a young gentleman, is arrested for getting with child his betrothed, but as yet unespoused, sweetheart Julia. Claudio is duly sentenced to death by Angelo, that being the penalty for fornication strictly prescribed by the laws of Vienna. Lucio, Claudio's brothel-haunting friend, approaches Claudio's sister Isabella, a postulant nun whose chastity is as renowned as Angelo's, to appeal to the latter for Claudio's life. Her appeal fails, at least on its own terms, but produces the unintended result that Angelo is suddenly seized with desire for her and offers to spare her brother's life if she will sleep with him. She is appalled and refuses. Fortunately, however, the Duke, who set these events in motion, has not left Vienna but has remained there, disguised as a friar, supposedly traveling with a papal commission. The Duke turns the tables on Angelo, by arranging for Angelo's former betrothed Marianna, who has been rejected by Angelo for lack of a dowry, to take the place of Isabella in the sexual encounter with Angelo that Isabella has arranged. Angelo, supposing himself to have slept with Isabella, nevertheless reneges on the deal by ordering Claudio's execution. This plan, too, is thwarted by the Duke, who finally reappears and reestablishes order.

In one sense, the plot, thus baldly summarized, is an operatic farrago. The characters, similarly, are pure invention. It would seem, then, that the play can tell us nothing about what we are ordinarily inclined to term “the real world”—nothing about the sociology or politics of Renaissance Europe, for example; nothing, either, about “human nature,” in the sense of the subject matter of psychology. It may be that the character of Angelo is a rather well-drawn instance of a certain type of anal-obsessive puritan, but even if that were so, it is difficult to see, following Dammann and Gibson, how Shakespeare's success in “representing” a certain sort of puritan character could be relevant to the literary value of the play. But in that case, what is relevant to the literary value of the play? Shakespeare scholars, echoed by several centuries’ worth of common readers, will reply with one great voice: Shakespeare's language! But what exactly is that answer worth? What, for a start, is one saying when one says that it is the language of the play that constitutes its value? Is one saying more than that Shakespeare has the gift of creating highly decorative, though entirely uninformative, skeins of words?

It depends what one means by “uninformative.” In one sense, indeed, Frege is not mocked. No intelligent reader or hearer of Measure for Measure has ever, I suppose, been seriously tempted to assess for truth any of the sentences that occur in the text. Rather, readers or auditors of the play assess what they read, or hear spoken, for meaning . If the meaning of a word could be identified, as so many philosophers have supposed, with some aspect or feature of the natural world, that is to say, of a domain of reality altogether external to language, then assessment for meaning would be a pointless proceeding, unless its object were simply to determine what, if anything, a given statement asserts concerning that domain. But I have argued that this is not a viable account of language and proposed an alternative, broadly Wittgensteinian one, according to which to attend to what is written or uttered from the point of view of its meaning is to attend to it from the point of view of the foothold that specific words and sentences find in practices, practices that in turn determine in part the shape of a human world, which in turn determines in part the sort of beings we, the inhabitants of that world, have become through living in it, and the kind of dilemmas we face in consequence. When language is used in the ordinary, assertoric way, it neither invites nor allows us to pay much regard to the constitution of the human world our practices have created for us, because the functions of the apparatus of assertion, truth, and falsity, even when what is at issue are statements—historical or sociological ones—for instance, concerning the workings of one or another human world, can be brought into play only insofar as the subject matter of the statements addressed can be considered independently of any intrinsic relationship in which that subject matter may, at some level, stand to language. Therefore, to bring before us the consequences, in terms of our situation, of the ways in which our practices have devised for us a specific kind of world, the human world, whose nature determines the scope and boundaries of what for us counts as a human life, a tradition of using language nonassertorically is required. That tradition is what we call literature. The poet “nothing affirmeth,” as Sidney observed, because if he were to affirm anything he would not be a poet; he would be a deviser of versified philosophy, like Lucretius, or of versified sermons, like the Victorian poet Martin Tupper. It is only by speaking nonassertorically that he can perform his proper function of showing , rather than asserting, what the founding practices of the particular human world that we and he inhabit, have made, and make, of us, its inhabitants.

The title of Measure for Measure announces the central theme of the play: the balancing of moral debts. The words invoke not only the prosaic practices of linear and volumetric measurement and their uses in commerce, in which the various meanings of the term “measure” originates, but also the extension of that term into the description of morals: “measured response,” “measured words,” “just—or fair—measure” for instance. The play of meanings here equally immediately invokes the opposite of measure, the unmeasured, that which presses continually against socially contrived boundaries, in the present case, sexual appetite. What the play does, in effect, is explore a range of different responses to this conflict. It does so through the creation of characters. The characters of the play have, clearly, no reference outside the play. Shakespeare is plainly not concerned to offer us a “portrait” of a typical Viennese gentleman of the period, in the way that an Edwardian novelist like Arnold Bennett was concerned to offer his readers “portraits” of typical inhabitants of the Five Towns in, say, 1905. Shakespeare's characters are no more than the situation assigned to them by the plot plus the words Shakespeare puts in their mouths. Nevertheless, as a very long tradition of response, emanating from scholars and common readers alike, assures us, they “live,” they are “real.” What people who respond in that way are responding to , I want to suggest, is the manner in which the words Shakespeare gives his characters invoke features of a human world we share with them, which link our situation to theirs, allowing the emotions associated with the pressures of that common situation to flood from us into them, in such a way, that, viewed in them as in a glass (for the specular metaphor has always possessed a certain intuitive force, which it retains in this connection and to this extent), our own situation as inhabitants of, and as the bearers of natures formed by the pressures of, a certain human world becomes in certain respects clearer to us, because surveyable as a whole.

Thus, Claudius, ruefully reflecting to his friend Lucio on the errors that have led to his imprisonment, answers Lucio's question “whence comes this restraint” with the words,

From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty, As surfeit, is the father of much fast; So every scope, by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. (2001: I, 2, 11. 113–18)

As with the word “measure” in the title, the words of this brief speech carry with them their modes of insertion in one or more of the many patterns of practice that can frame a human life and, with that, the meanings of contrasting terms. We speak of “surfeit” because we need a word for eating carried to an extreme that produces illness. We need that word because it is in fact possible to make ourselves ill by gorging. The speech simply brings before us the evident possibility that giving unlimited scope to our appetites may result in the loss of our power to satisfy them. We are like rats, says Claudius, that rat poison has made ravenously thirsty but that has also ensured that to drink is death. In a sense, we learn nothing new from this—we knew already what “surfeit” and “ravin” mean: if we had not, we could not have understood the speech. What the speech and the bitter metaphor of the dying rat give the reader or auditor, however, is a sudden sharp sense of what, in another sense of “means,” it means to have destroyed one's life by giving one's appetites unlimited rein. By the mere force of the words Shakespeare has given him, their power, that is to say, to make familiar relationships rise up before us in a form made newly urgent by the terms of the plot, the nature of Claudio's situation becomes so sharply present that the emotions his words express, of bitter regret and self-blame, become suddenly real to the reader or auditor as well.

As with Claudius, so with the other characters. Each occupies a different situation with respect to the basic dilemma we—and not only Shakespeare's characters—face as beings of potentially unmeasured appetite who also live, and on the whole wish to live, by the light of practices, monogamous marriage, religious chastity, law itself, which all enshrine some concept of measure or boundary. The play offers no advice, no solution to the difficulties we encounter in attempting to square these moral circles. The moral rigorism of Angelo comes indeed to grief, the law he is committed to enforce turning in his hands into a tyranny that reflects the tyranny of his own sexual appetites. In a related way, the moral rigorism of Isabella's chastity stands compromised by its incompatibility with charity toward her brother. But the play's representatives of moral permissiveness, the “fantastick” Lucio and his entourage of pimps, whores, and bravos, fare no better. The Duke's restoration of order in the final scene amounts really to no more than the evasion of a series of impossible choices by means of ad hoc decisions. What, then, have we learned from the play? We have learned, by being given a certain sort of guided tour of certain aspects of a particular human world, a world that we, like Shakespeare's characters, in part continue to inhabit, that the topography of that world is more complex than we might have supposed. We have, in learning that, I suggest, learned something about reality—not, of course, the reality of the natural world, the world altogether outside language; rather, the reality of our world: the—or rather, one possible—human world.

Let me sum up by returning briefly to the questions with which the chapter began. Literature is not about the “real world” in the sense of the natural world, the world wholly external to language. But that does not mean that literature, including great literature, necessarily concerns fantasy worlds, worlds made up out of whole cloth, worlds conjured out of the fancy, the mere subjectivity, of one or another writer, in the interests, as Hobbes thought, of amusement or play. Fiction can work like that and serve those ends, but that doesn't have to be all there is to it. The “subjectivity” that characterizes the best literature is like the subjectivity that characterizes the work of the best scientists: a subjectivity of personal voice and style only. What, on the other hand, the best literary work, like the best scientific work, is actually concerned with is not the “subjectivity” of the writer or, for that matter, of the scientist, but rather reality, the “real world,” only, in the case of the former, the department of reality it addresses is not the natural world but the—or a—human world, and the latter considered rather from the standpoint of its constitution, of its roots in praxis , rather from the standpoint of its status as subject matter of contingent assertions, true or false.

It is possible to have an art of this kind, an art that is made simply by arranging words on a page, and yet that, at its occasional best, addresses realities, because the realities in question are accessible via the assessment of language for meaning, rather than for truth. They are accessible by this route because the meanings of words are determined by the relationships in which words stand to the practices that in part constitute the realities of a given human world.

Putting things in this way gives the present account, finally, a new grip on those questions of value that turn out, as we saw above, to be inseparable from the question of literary realism. We have come out, in the end, in agreement with the central tenet of Lamarque and Olsen's “no truth” account of literature: great literature asserts nothing , either false or true. But we can avoid the conclusion they draw from this thought, namely, that the concepts and themes deployed in literature and other “cultural practices” derive their content internally to such practices and therefore have no foothold in, or relevance to, the prosaic affairs of everyday life, by suggesting, in effect, that “cultural practices,” far from being something added on to the “everyday life” of human beings, an optional extra, as it were, are, on the contrary, main contributors to the constitution of the terms on which any such life is available to be led.

That explains why so many have rightly supposed great literature to be in intimate connection with other aspects of the life we lead. It explains, among other things, how it is that, through reading it, we may be led to all sorts of insights, including, as I have argued elsewhere (see Harrison 1975 , 1991 , 2001 , 2004 , 2006), philosophical insights that we are unlikely to have stumbled upon otherwise and that can perfectly well be expressed in indicative statements capable of being assigned a truth-value. That such possibilities exist goes far to explain, I think, why so many minds are so reluctant to abandon the idea that great literature can instruct, can be a source of truths, despite the evident force of the type of counterargument to that claim assembled by writers like Lamarque and Olsen.

Many of the concepts and conceptual distinctions whose ramifications are displayed by great writers—the sort that Lamarque and Olsen call “thematic concepts”—are moral concepts, and philosophers such as Richard Eldridge ( 1989 ) and Martha Nussbaum ( 1986 and 1990 ) have begun to take seriously the idea that some of the problems of moral philosophy might be more fruitfully addressed by making literature and literary studies active partners, as it were, in philosophical enquiry. At one point Lamarque and Olsen dismiss this tendency in the following terms:

[Eldridge] argues as if literature provided answers to serious questions that we have to address in our own lives, questions that exist for us independently of the existence of literary practice. The trouble with this type of defence from our point of view is that it demands a concept of what may be called “true-versions” of themes that we have argued in detail cannot be sustained in any substantive form. (1994: 451)

The view proposed here makes it clear, I think, why the programs of philosophers like Eldridge and Nussbaum require no such theoretical underpinning: because the “themes” dealt with in great literature are in fact deeply rooted in “our own lives,” not through the (admittedly nonexistent) possibility of assigning truth-values to the content of literary works, but through their roots in the practices and forms of life which simultaneously (1) determine the content of the concepts in question and (2) constitute the moral framework of whatever human world it is in which our everyday lives are led. In other words, there is simply no such breach as Lamarque and Olsen postulate between the concerns of everyday life and those of literature.

But it also follows, from the position set out here, that the value of great literature does not, as we found Gibson and Dammann rightly insisting, consist in the possibility of being guided by it to such truth-assessable insights as may be derived from reading and reflecting upon it. According to us the power, and the value, of great literature is, just as Gibson and Dammann argue, internal to it, because it resides in the power of its medium, language, to summon up and display—for here the metaphor of mimesis revives and recovers a good deal of the force ascribed to it by writers like Nuttall—through its deployment in the medium of a fiction, the nature of the human practices and choices that found the conceptual distinctions it enshrines, and that simultaneously found, along with them, a world, one that is not only the world in which we live, but a world, and its founding words, made flesh in us: the world that exists only in us, the world of whose values and assumptions we are the living bearers, and that is not, moreover, a static world, but a world constantly in a slow, glacier-like flux of change, one of the motivating forces of which, of course, is great literature. That is why great literature is, or should be, important to us.

That thought suggests a return to our starting point, in the notion of realism as a genre concept. Realism as a genre is, for many literary historians, conterminous with the brief reign of the nineteenth-century realist novel, and passes from the scene with the rise of literary modernism, in the work of such writers as Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, or Eliot.

The revolutionary character of modernism in literature, as in other arts, is often taken to consist in two main characteristics, both involving a crisis of authority. On the one hand, it is said, modernist writers are painfully aware that, since the book is “only a book and not the world” (Josipovici 1977 : 113), and since the claim to capture reality in a fiction is a grandiloquent pretense, the writer cannot rely on reality to authorize what he writes. On the other hand, the recognition by modernists that traditional literary forms and rules of composition are “man-made and not natural” (122), it is claimed, destroys the authority of past literary practice. That double lapse of authority leaves the modernist writer, when it comes to deciding what to write down upon the blank page confronting him, in that state of absolute freedom, at once liberating and angst ridden, that the existentialist tradition, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche onward, has made it its business to explore.

One way of responding to this situation is to argue, with Gabriel Josipovici (echoing Hobbes, in the passage from Leviathan cited above), that it gives to literature, as to art in general, “a greater sense of game, of playfulness, than ha[s] ever been known since the dawn of the Renaissance” (1977: 122). But—and here is the rub—such a stance leaves room for two darker responses: first, that it is a short step from playfulness to frivolity—to an art that no longer functions either as a transmitter or as a critic of cultural stances and values because it has subsided into the self-absorbed pursuit of purely formal “experiments”; and second, that of Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus , that modernism in art, in its surrender of all cultural authority in favor of the naked will of the artist, has a demonic side, a side not without connections, for Mann, with the rise of Nazism.

If the position I have outlined here stands, however, the latter two, pessimistic, responses have rather less to be said for them than might otherwise appear. On the view suggested here, the negative part of the case for modernism advanced by Josipovici and others is sound enough. It is indeed not the business of literature to “describe reality”—even human reality—in the sense in which a true, literal, indicative statement “describes reality.” No doubt, also, all questions of literary form and technique do indeed fall to the will of the writer to determine. But if we are right, it does not follow that literature is a free field for “play” in the sense of frivolity , for the connection between literature and reality does not run by way of the truth or falsity of statements, but by way of deeper linkages, internal to language, between the meanings of words and the practices that constitute human worlds and form the outlook and personalities of their inhabitants. To “play” with these connections, to bring them to consciousness, to criticize them, at times to transform them, is indeed the business of serious literature, including modernist literature. But the “play” in question is serious play, since it affords us one of the few means we have of rising above our habitual acquiescence in the vast fabric of historically accumulated practice, in and through which we live our lives, to a position from which we can, in principle at least, contemplate with a serious eye what that fabric has made, and continues to make, of us.

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Essay on Transcendental Realism

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The object of realist metaphysics is generally thought to be to describe the structure of the world as it is in itself, or, alternatively, to determine precisely what is real. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that, although there have been many attempts to achieve this goal, they all fall down, not simply because they have misconstrued the nature of the in-itself or precisely what is real, but because, more fundamentally, they are not clear about what it is to talk about the in-itself or the real. In short, contemporary realism, both continental and analytic, does not have an adequate concept of reality.

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This article attempts to read the Transcendental Dialectic through Meillassoux’s model of the absolute contingency of being in order to rethink some of its central difficulties. Specifically, this concerns better understanding the role played by the categories of relation and modality in the empirical use of the ideas of reason, which underlies their regulative use that is directed at an absolute unity of reason. It will be discussed which questions are implied in the central claim of Meillassoux’s ontology, i.e., that it is possible to derive from the necessity of contingency the existence and noncontradictory being of the thing in itself. First, I will retrace basic points of Meillassoux’s critique of “correlationism”, by means of which he reconfigures the divisions between metaphysics, physics, and ontology. Second, against the background of the Kantian concept of hope, I will examine a relation between the Transcendental Dialectic and ethics, as, respectively, conceived of in Ka...

Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics

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Does Kant’s restriction of knowledge to phenomena undermine objectivity? Jacobi argues that it does, daring the transcendental idealist to abandon the thing in itself and embrace the “strongest idealism”. According to Bruno, McDowell and Meillassoux adopt a similar critique of Kant’s conception of objectivity and, more significantly, echo Jacobi’s dare to profess the strongest idealism – what McDowell approvingly calls “consistent idealism” and Meillassoux disparagingly calls “extreme idealism”. After exposing the Cartesian projection on which Jacobi’s critique rests, Bruno shows that McDowell’s and Meillassoux’s critiques make the same projection. He argues that whereas McDowell offers an inconsistent alternative to Kant’s idealism, Meillassoux begs the question against it. Finally, Bruno sketches the account of objectivity that follows from Kant’s distinction between general and transcendental logic.

I make a critical exposition of Kant’s transcendental idealism and empirical realism about space and time: I see that while transcendental idealism, to Kant, warrants his distinction between mere appearances (mere presentations) and things-in-themselves pertaining to external objects, it necessitates empirical realism which demarcates it from the other ‘metaphysically erroneous’ versions of idealism. I argue that Kant’s distinction between these two “doctrinal systems” – or rather, the correlation between the two – serves to defend his conception of objectivity (of perceptual experiences and of judgments) as that which arises from subjectivity. Such relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, in turn, defends his contention of synthetic a priority, the possibility of which determines the plausibility of metaphysics as a science of pure reason. Furthermore, I argue that Kant’s treatment of objectivity goes against the Lockean construal of “secondary qualities” as the ‘powers of objects’; rather, to Kant, the cognitive powers lie in us. (Content word count 1,624)

Continental philosophy has recently been shaken by the so called “speculative realism” movement. What is actually at stake in this philosophical tendency is a “speculative turn”, trying to access the real as the condition of both our conditioned knowledge and the existence of subject-independent objects. Accordingly, speculative realism tries to provide a non-idealist solution to the typically post-Kantian problem of the genesis of the transcendental. In the first part of this paper I will show how Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant – three of the participants of the workshop that gave “Speculative Realism” its name on April 2007 at Goldsmith University of London – propose to overcome the circle of correlation, specifically in the form created by Fichte, so as to access the in-itself as a reality which is completely independent of thought, while being able to ground the possibility of its existence. In the second part I will compare their different strategies and consider some issues that, in my opinion, are problematical as non-correlationist solutions. Finally, in the last part, I will propose a rough account of the direction that I mean to take towards solving the problem of the genesis of the transcendental.


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Essay on realism.

realism essay pdf


Read this essay to learn about Realism. After reading this Essay you will learn about: 1. Introduction to Realism 2. Fundamental Philosophical Ideas of Realism 3. Forms 4. Realism in Education 5. Curriculum 6. Evaluation

  • Essay on the Evaluation

Essay # 1. Introduction to Realism:

Emerged as a strong movement against extreme idealistic view of the world around.

Realism changed the contour of education in a systematic way. It viewed external world as a real world; not a world of fantasy.

It is not based upon perception of the individuals but is an objective reality based on reason and science.

The Realist trend in philosophical spectrum can be traced back to Aristotle who was interested in particular facts of life as against Plato who was interested in abstractions and generalities. Therefore, Aristotle is rightly called as the father of Realism. Saint Thomas Aquinas and Comenius infused realistic spirit in religion.

John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Freiderich Herbart and William James affirmed that external world is a real world. In the 20th century, two sections of realist surfaced the area of philosophy. Six American professors led by Barton Perry and Montague are neo-realists. Another section spearheaded by Arthur Lovejoy, Johns Hopkins and George Santayana emerged are called as critical realists.

Essay # 2. Fundamental Philosophical Ideas of Realism :

(i) phenomenal world is true:.

Realists believe in the external world which is true as against the idealist world-a world d this life. It is a world of objects and not ideas. It is a pluralistic world. Ross has commented, “Realism simply affirms the existence of an external world and is therefore the antithesis of subjective idealism.”

There is an order and design of the external world in which man is a part and the world idealism by the laws of cause and effect relationships. As such there is no freedom of the will for man.

(ii) Opposes to Idealist Values :

In realism, there is no berth for imagination and speculation. Entities of God, soul and other world are nothing; they are mere figments of human imagination. Only objective world is real world which a man can know with the help of his mind. Realism does not believe in ideal values, would discover values in his immediate social life. The external world would provide the work for the discovery and realization of values.

(iii) Theory of Organism :

Realists believe that an organism is formed by conscious and unconscious things. Mind is regarded as the function of organism. Whitehead, a Neo-realist remarks “ The universe is a vibrating organism in the process of evolution. Change is the fundamental feature of this vibrating universe. The very essence of real actuality is process. Mind must be regarded as the function of the organism.”

(iv) Theory of Knowledge :

According to realists, the world around us is a reality; the real knowledge is the knowledge of the surrounding world. Senses are the gateways of knowledge of the external world. The impressions and sensations as a result of our communication with external world through our sense organs result in knowledge which is real.

The best method to acquire the knowledge of the external world is the experiment or the scientific method. One has to define the problem, observe all the facts and phenomena pertaining to the problem, formulate a hypothesis, test and verify it and accept the verified solution. Alfred North, Whitehead, and Bertrand Russel have stressed on the use of this scientific method.

(v) Stress on Present Applied Life :

According to realists, spiritual world is not real and cannot be realized. They believed in the present world-physical or material which can be realized. Man is a part and parcel of this material world. They put premium upon the molding and directing of human behaviour as conditioned by the physical and material facts of the present life, for this can promote happiness and welfare.

Therefore, metaphysics according to realism is that the external world is a reality-it is a world of objects and not ideas. Epistemology deals with the knowledge-knowledge of this external world through the senses and scientific method and enquiry. Axiology in it is that realists reject idealistic values, favour discovering values in the immediate social life.

Essay # 3. Forms of Realism :

There are four forms of realism, viz., humanistic realism, social realism, sense realism and neo-realism.

(i) Humanistic Realism :

The advocates of this form of realism are Irasmus, Rebelias and Milton. The supporters of the realism firmly believed that education should be realistic which can promote human welfare and success. They favoured the study of Greek & Roman literature for individual, social and spiritual development.

Irasmus (1446-1536) castigated narrow educational system and in its place. favoured broad and liberal education. Rebelias (1483-1553) also advocated liberal education, opposed theoretical knowledge and said that education should be such as to prepare the individual to face all the problems of life with courage and solve them successfully.

He suggested scientific and psychological methods and techniques. Milton (1608-1674) also stressed liberal and complete education. He, in this connection, writes, “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and public of peace and war.”

He opposed mere academic education and insisted that education should give knowledge of things and objects. He prescribed language, literature and moral education is main subjects of study; and physiology, agriculture and sculpture as subsidiary subjects of study for children.

(ii) Social Realism :

Social realists opposed academic and bookish knowledge and advocated that education should promote working efficiency of men and women in the society. Education aims at making human life happier and successful. They suggested that curriculum should include History, Geography. Law, Diplomacy, Warfare, Arithmetic’s, Dancing, Gymnastics etc. for the development of social qualities.

Further, with a view to making education practical and useful, the realists stressed upon Travelling, Tour, observation and direct experience. Lord Montaigne (1533-1552) condemned cramming and favored learning by experience through tours and travels. He opposed knowledge for the sake of knowledge and strongly advocated practical and useful knowledge.

John Locke (1635-1704) advocated education through the mother tongue and lively method of teaching which stimulates motivation and interest in the children. As an individualist, he believed that the mind of a child is a clean slate on which only experiences write. He prescribed those subjects which are individually and socially useful in the curriculum.

(iii) Sense Realism :

Developed in the Seventeenth century sense realism upholds the truth that real knowledge comes through our senses. Further, sense realists believed all forms of knowledge spring from the external world. They viewed that education should provide plethora of opportunities to the children to observe and study natural phenomena and come in contact with external objects through the senses.

Therefore, true knowledge is gained by the child about natural objects, natural phenomena and laws through the exercises of senses. They favoured observation, scientific subjects, inductive method and useful education. Mulcaster (1530—1611) advocated physical and mental development aims of education.

Reacted against any forced impressions upon the mind of the child, he upheld use of psychological methods of teaching for the promotion of mental faculties-intelligence, memory and judgement.

Francis Bacon (1562-1623) writes, “The object of all knowledge is to give man power over nature.” He, thus, advocated inductive method of teaching-the child is free to observe and experiment by means of his senses and limbs. He emphasised science and observation of nature as the real methods to gain knowledge.

Ratke (1571-1625) said that senses are the gateways of knowledge and advocated the following maxims:

a. One thing at a time,

b. Follow nature,

c. Repetition,

d. Importance on mother-tongue,

e. No rote learning,

f. Sensory knowledge,

g. Knowledge through experience and uniformity of all things.

Comenius (1592-1671) advocated universal education and natural method of education. He said that knowledge comes not only through the senses but through man’s intelligence and divine inspiration. He favoured continuous teaching till learning is achieved and advocated mother-tongue to precede other subjects.

(iv) Neo-Realism :

The positive contribution of neo-realism is its acceptance of the methods and results of modern development in physics. It believes that rules and procedures of science are changeable from time to time according to the conditions of prevailing circumstances.

Whitehead said that an organism is formed by the consciousness and the unconsciousness, the moveable and immovable thing. Education should give to child full-scale knowledge of an organism. Man should understand all values very clearly for getting full knowledge about organism. Bertrand Russell emphasized sensory development of the child.

He favoured analytical method and classification. He assigned no place to religion and supported physics to be included as one of the foremost subjects of study. Further, he opposed emotional strain in children as it leads to development of fatigue.

Essay # 4. Realism in Education :

Realism asserts that education is a preparation for life, for education equips the child by providing adequate training to face the crude realities of life with courage as he or she would perform various roles such as a citizen, a worker, a husband, a housewife, a member of the group, etc. As such, education concerns with problems of life of the child.

Chief Characteristics of Education :

The following are the chief characteristics of realistic education:

(i) Based on Science:

Realism emphasized scientific education. It favored the inclusion of scientific subjects in he curriculum and of natural education. Natural education is based on science which is real.

(ii) Thrust upon present Life of the Child :

The focal point of realistic education is the present life of the child. As it focuses upon the real and practical problems of the life, it aims at welfare and happiness of the child.

(iii) Emphasis on Experiment and Applied life :

It emphasizes experiments, experience and practical knowledge. Realistic education supports learning by doing and practical work for enabling the child to solve his or her immediate practical problems for leading a happy and successful life.

(iv) Opposes to Bookish Knowledge :

Realistic education strongly condemned all bookish knowledge, for it does not help the child to face the realities of life adequately. It does not enable the child to decipher the realities of external things and natural phenomena. The motto of realistic education is ”Not Words but Things.”

(v) Freedom of Child:

According to realists, child should be given full freedom to develop his self according to his innate tendencies. Further, they view that such freedom should promote self-discipline and self-control the foundation of self development.

(vi) Emphasis on Training of Senses:

Unlike idealists who impose knowledge from above, realists advocated self-learning through senses which need to be trained. Since, senses are the doors of knowledge, these needs to be adequately nurtured and trained.

(vii) Balance between Individuality and Sociability :

Realists give importance to individuality and sociability of the child equally. Bacon lucidly states that realistic education develops the individual on the one hand and tries to develop social trails on the other through the development of social consciousness and sense of service of the individual.

Aims of Education :

The following aims of education are articulated by the realists:

(i) Preparation for the Good life:

The chief aim of realistic education is to prepare the child to lead a happy and good life. Education enables the child to solve his problems of life adequately and successfully. Leading ‘good life’ takes four important things-self-preservation, self-determination, self-realization and self-integration.

(ii) Preparation for a Real Life of the Material World:

Realists believe that the external material world is the real world which one must know through the senses. The aim of education is to prepare a child for real life of material world.

(iii) Development of Physical and Mental Powers:

According to realists, another important aim of education is to enable the child to solve different life problems by using the faculty of mind: intelligence, discrimination and judgement.

(iv) Development of Senses:

Realists thought that development of senses is the sine-qua-non for realization of the material world. Therefore, the aim of education is to help the development of senses fully by providing varied experiences.

(v) Acquainting with External Nature and Social Environment:

It is an another aim of realistic education to help the child to know the nature and social environment for leading a successful life.

(vi) Imparting Vocational Knowledge and Skill :

According to realists, another important aim of education is to provide vocational knowledge, information, skill etc., to make the child vocationally efficient for meeting the problems of livelihood.

(vii) Development of Character :

Realistic education aims at development of character for leading a successful and balanced life.

(viii) Enabling the Child to Adjust with the Environment :

According to realists, education should aim at enabling the child to adapt adequately to the surroundings.

Essay # 5. Curriculum of Realism :

Realists wanted to include those subjects and activities which would prepare the children for actual day to day living. As such, they thought it proper to give primary place to nature, science and vocational subjects whereas secondary place to Arts, literature, biography, philosophy, psychology and morality.

Besides, they have laid stress upon teaching of mother- tongue as the foundation of all development. It is necessary for reading, writing and social interaction but not for literary purposes.

(i) Methods of Teaching :

Realists favoured principles of observation and experience as imparting knowledge of objects and external world can be given properly through the technique of observation and experience. Further, they encouraged use of audio-visual aids in education as they would develop sensory powers in the children.

Children would have “feel” of reality through them. Realists also encouraged the use of lectures, discussions and symposia. Socratic and inductive methods were also advocated. Memorization at early stage was also recommended.

Besides, learning by travelling was also suggested. The maxims of teaching are to proceed from easy to difficult, simple to complex, known to unknown, definite to indefinite, concrete to abstract and particular to general. In addition, realists give importance on the principle of correlation as they consider all knowledge as one unit.

(ii) Discipline :

Realists decry expressionistic discipline and advocate self-discipline to make good adjustment in the external environment. They, further, assert that virtues can be inculcated for withstanding realities of physical world. Children need to be disciplined to become a part of the world around in and to understand reality.

(iii) Teacher :

Under the realistic school, the teacher must be a scholar and his duty is to guide the children towards the hard core realities of life. He must expose them to the problems of life and the world around. The teacher should have full knowledge of the content and needs of the children.

He should present the content in a lucid and intelligible way by employing scientific and psychological methods is also the duty of the teacher to tell children about scientific discoveries, researches and inventions id he should inspire them to undertake close observation and experimentation for finding out new facts and principles.

Moreover, he himself should engage in research activities. Teachers, in order to be good and effective, should get training before making a foray into the field of teaching profession.

(iv) School :

Some realists’ view that school is essential as it looks like a mirror of society reflecting its real picture of state of affairs. It is the school which provides for the fullest development of the child in accordance with his needs and aspirations and it prepares the child for livelihood. According to Comenius, “The school should be like the lap of mother full of affection, love and sympathy. Schools are true foregoing places of men.”

Essay # 6. Evaluation of Realism :

Proper evaluation of realism can be made possible by throwing a light on its merits and demerits.

(i) Realism is a practical philosophy preaching one to come to term with reality. Education which is non-realistic cannot be useful to the humanity. Now, useless education has come to be considered as waste of time, energy and resources.

(ii) Scientific subjects have come to stay in our present curriculum due to the impact of realistic education.

(iii) In the domain of methods of teaching the impact of realistic education is ostensible. In modern education, inductive, heuristic, objective, experimentation and correlation methods have been fully acknowledged all over the globe.

(iv) In the area of discipline, realism is worth its name as it favours impressionistic and self-discipline which have been given emphasis in modern educational theory and practice in a number of countries in the globe.

(v) Realistic philosophy has changed the organisational climate of schools. Now, schools have been the centres of joyful activities, practical engagements and interesting experiments. Modern school is a vibrant school.

(i) Realism puts emphasis on facts and realities of life. It neglects ideals and values of life. Critics argue that denial of ideals and values often foments helplessness and pessimism which mar the growth and development of the individuals. This is really lop-sided philosophy.

(ii) Realism emphasizes scientific subjects at the cost of arts and literature. This affair also creates a state of imbalance in the curriculum. It hijacks ‘humanities’ as critics’ label.

(iii) Realism regards senses as the gateways of knowledge. But the question comes to us, how does illusion occur and how do we get faulty knowledge? It does not provide satisfactory answer.

(iv) Realism accepts the real needs and feelings of individual. It does not believe in imagination, emotion and sentiment which are parts and parcel of individual life.

(v) Although realism stresses upon physical world, it fails to provide answers to the following questions pertaining to physical world.

(i) Is the physical world absolute ?

(ii) Is there any limits of physical world ?

(iii) Is the physical world supreme or powerful?

(vi) Realism is often criticized for its undue emphasis on knowledge and it neglects the child. As the modern trend in education is paedocentric, realism is said to have put the clock behind the times by placing its supreme priority on knowledge.

In-spite of the criticisms, realism as a real philosophy stands to the tune of time and it permeates all aspects of education. It is recognized as one of the best philosophies which need to be browsed cautiously. It has its influence in modern educational theory and practice.

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Page 1: Realism Essay.pdf

Classic Realism and the Balance of Power Theory

Peter Toledo

The term "realism" was first used to formulate the philosophical doctrine that "universals

exist outside ofthe mind" (Freyberg-Inan, 1). Yet, in political theory, "realism" represents a

school of thought that analyzes the political process as it is or as it is disclosed by historical

forces " ... that the able political practitioner takes into account ... and incorporates ... into his

political conceptions and his political acts "(Ibid, 1-2). In the field of international relations,

realism became the dominant analytical paradigm mostly after the start of the Second World

War, when it displaced idealist doctrines, promising "to provide more accurate information,

more powerful, and more relevant answers" to the roots or causes of peace and war (Brecher &

Harvey, 54).

At the same time, many features of the current realist paradigm can be traced back to the

time of Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Among contemporary thinkers

recognized as major writers and contributors to the realist tradition are Hans Morgenthau,

Edward Carr and Kenneth Waltz (Freyberg-Inan, 8). What are then the basic tenets or common

features of a realist thinker? Machiavelli would acknowledge that to be a realist one has to look

at history as "a sequence of cause and effect whose course can be analysed and understood by

intellectual effort, but not directed by imagination" (Carr, 64). Hobbes would persist in the same

train of thought and insist that to be a realist thinker one must look at things as they are and not

as they should be (Warner, 37). Thus, both of these thinkers direct us to the idea that the creation

of the realist paradigm and theories are in fact an inductive process whereby "theory does not

create practice, but practice theory" (Carr, 64). Suggestive and provocative declarations such as

those of Machiavelli and Hobbes not only make the evaluation of the realist paradigm and its

Page 2: Realism Essay.pdf

theories very important to study, but they also lead to intense debate within the international

relations field (Brecher & Harvey, 52). This paper sets to explore and evaluate classic realism

and the balance of power theory's main assumptions about the international society.

The Nature ofMan Prior to making a fair assessment of classic realism's vision of the international system, it

is imperative to analyse what are its assumptions about the nature of man. Hobbes' Leviathan is

considered a major work that well-known contemporary realist and non-realist writers in the

field of international relations draw their insights from. According to Hobbes, men's lives are

full of "cruelty, brutish egotism and unconstrained passion that is directed by insecurity and fear

in the state of nature," an invented place where all societal constrains are taken away: "Hobbes

did not argue that such a state of nature had ever really existed. To him, the state of nature was

the result of a thought experiment-imagining what the world would be like without

governmental authority or any other social structure" (Kauppi & Viotti, 60). In other words, the

state of nature for Hobbes is a chaotic and anarchical place where every man feels insecure and

distrusts each other. Moreover, Hobbes assumes that man is continually fearful because men are

equal mentally and physically. Hobbes ultimately argues that men would want to hurt each other

because of this constant fear and because they naturally compete for wealth, limited supplies and

glory amidst the lack of any kind of authority (Klej, 1 0).

In the Scientific Man Morgenthau also refers to the nature of man in a negative fashion.

He criticises the notion that our modem age or the "age of science" mistakes the nature of man:

"science attributes to man's reason, in its relation to the social world, a power of knowledge and

control which reason does not have"(Morgenthau 168, 1946). Morgenthau also agrees with

Hobbes that man's feelings of insecurity are prevalent, adding that the "intellectual and moral

history of mankind is the story of inner insecurity" (Ibid, 1 ). Morgenthau presents two drives

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that characterize humans. The first can be deduced safely arising from the inner insecurity of

man, mainly man's "will to power" to overcome this insecurity. However, "conflict and

concomitant evil" can arise, according to Morgenthau, from the will to obtain power or from "the

desire to maintain the range [or power] of one's person with regard to others, to increase it or

demonstrate it" (Ibid, 192). In other words, war can be said to originate from the second drive,

which is more of an elementary selfishness "that arises from the competition" of scarce material

and "ideational goods" that allow man to stay alive (Freyberg-Inan, 68). Moreover, Morgenthau

views that the first drive or evil lust for power is an essential assumption to understand the nature

of politics, mainly because man's desire for power is indivisible from any society in which he

lives (Morgenthau 9, 1946).

Kenneth Waltz, even though a neo-realist now, in his book Man, the State and War,

considered a classical realism work, gives also an important account ofMorgenthau's view of

the nature of man. Waltz comments on the two drives that man possesses that make him resort

to the use of or the search of power. He views that man's first drive for power because of his lust

for it presents power as an end in itself. The second drive that motivates man to search for power

is instrumental. In other words, man's struggle for power "arises simply because men want

things, not because there is some evil in their desires" (Waltz 34-5, 1959). Critics have argued

that this realist view of the nature of man is problematic, something which will be elaborated

later on because it seems to posit different explanations of the behaviour of states strategically.

Yet, to Waltz this dual analysis of man's relation to power does not mean much to him:

In the one instance, power is a necessary means, then power inevitably takes on some of the qualities of an end. Whether one adopts the first or the second explanation, or mixes the two, may then make little difference in the policy conclusions reached. It may, however, confuse the analyst and flummox his critics (Ibid, 35-6).

Page 4: Realism Essay.pdf

The Nature of the State Apart from the general negative view of the nature of man from these realist thinkers,

classical realists writers provide extensive literature on the nature of the state. The state,

according to Hobbes, is the organization of men that can prevent civil war orwar among

individuals. The formation of the state is established through the consent to a social contract that

can be coercively enforced by the state to promote its inner stability and order (Klej, 11). The

other fundamental reason for the formation of the state is to protect the whole nation from other

states that may use force against it, since all states exist in the state of nature, which is the state

of war (lbid, 11 ).

Morgenthau's explanation of the nature of the state and its politics is similar to the one of

Hobbes. The nature of the state would ultimately be based on power. That is, states are power

seekers and thus engage in a constant struggle for the dominance of one another. The power

struggle that states experience is the result of the human nature to seek also for power: "It is a

characteristic aspect of all politics, domestic as well as international, that frequently its basic

manifestations do not appear as what they actually are-manifestations of a struggle for power"

(Morgenthau 101, 1985).

Edward Carr's explanation of the nature of the state is also very similar to Hobbes' as

well, although not so negative. Carr views the state made up of two differing elements of human

nature, mainly morality and power (Carr, 95). Carr also sustains that these two aspects of human

nature can be observed in any society or state for that matter:

Man in society reacts to his fellow men in two opposite ways. Sometimes he displays egoism, or the will to assert himself at the expense of others. At other times he displays sociability, or the desire to co-operate with others, to enter into reciprocal relations of good-will and friendship with them and even subordinate himself to them ... No society can exist unless a substantial proportion of its members exhibits in some degree the desire for co-operation and mutual good-will. But in every society

Page 5: Realism Essay.pdf

some sanction is required to produce the measure of solidarity requisite for its maintenance (Ibid, 95).

However, Carr, as Hobbes before him, also acknowledges that "consistent realism"(Ibid,

91) can defend the fact that moral principles of conduct are "suspended or overshadowed by the

greater concern for survival" (Klej, 10). In other words, Carr also acknowledges that the nature

of the state is such the goals of the state or its ends justify the means that the state uses to obtain

its goals. That is, Carr would acknowledge that "consistent realism" seems to advocate that the

use of force overrides any moral action when the security ofthe state is at stake, both internally

and externally:

Where one deliberates entirely on the safety of his fatherland, there ought no to enter any consideration of just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or ignominious; indeed every other concern put aside, one ought to follow entirely the policy that saves its life and maintains its liberty (Whelan, 203).

Nevertheless, Carr argues vehemently that "consistent realism" fails to grant "any

ground for purposive or meaningful action" (Carr, 92). That is, if the logic of cause and effect

that consistent realism posits to establish is inflexible enough to allow for the systematic

prediction of events, and "if our thought is irrevocably conditioned by our status and our

interests, then both action and thought become devoid of purpose" (Ibid, 92). Thus, Carr

ultimately views the rigid way of thinking of "consistent realism" as not compatible with

humanity (Ibid, 92). Thus, Carr complains that consistent realism assumes that man's thought

and action are hollow and automatic (Ibid, 93).

Kenneth Waltz seem to agree with Carr' s complaint as he further clarifies more about the

relationship between man, the state, the international system and war by sustaining that wars

would not exist if human nature would not be what it is. However, he also acknowledges the

important fact that men are sociable and participate in "Sunday School ... philanthropic

Page 6: Realism Essay.pdf

organizations and criminal gangs" (Waltz 81, 1959). Consequently, he argues that since

everything is related to mankind, the "events to be explained are so many and so varied that

human nature cannot possibly be the single determinant" of war (Ibid, 81 ). Thus, he proposes to

look at the international system because war takes place among states or to look at states

themselves as war are fought in their name:

War most often promotes the internal unity of each state involved. The state plagued by internal strife may then, instead of waiting for the accidental attack, seek war that will bring internal peace ... the best way of preserving a state, and guaranteeing it against sedition, rebellion, and civil war is to keep the subjects in amity one with another, and to this end, to find an enemy against whom they can make common cause (Ibid, 81 ).

Ultimately, Waltz also suggests three ideas already presented. First, war can be used by

men and the state as a method to accomplish the most basic needs that humans and states seek,

mainly security or survival as an independent entity (Freyberg-Inan, 3) and power. Second,

Waltz also suggests by the example he gives about war-arising from establishing internal

security inside the state-that states resort to one of the main tools that realism proposes for the

creation of domestic and international stability, mainly the balance of power. Third, he also hints

to the anarchical nature of the international system by stating that states might decide to wage

war even when there is not an external aggressor.

The Nature of the International System

Looking to the nature of man through the realist paradigm, the study of his evil nature

does not provide complete information on the main cause of war. That is, since human nature is

fixed, this assumption moves us away from the attention of man to that of the state "because

human nature, by the terms of the assumption, cannot be changed, whereas social-political

institutions can be" (Ibid, 41). Namely, it might be necessary that the state use more force than

admonishment to control "rapacious" men. Similarly, it must be clear that to understand the

Page 7: Realism Essay.pdf

behaviour of man one must also comprehend the nature of the state. The behaviour of the state,

as a collective group of individuals, its behaviour is identical to that of man because it coexists

among other states in anarchy. The state of anarchy is permanent in the international system:

"war lurks in the background of international politics just as revolution lurks in the background

of domestic politics" (Carr, 1 09). Therefore, is essential to understand the nature of the

international system in order to grasp why states resort to fight each other. Thus, since all these

three different levels of analysis are interdependent, it is not sufficient to look at each of them in

isolation. Hence, one must also look to these three levels of analysis in conjunction to have a

better understanding of the nature of the international system (Ibid, 12).

Furthermore, how international anarchy is defined by the realist paradigm is the next task to examine. To Hobbes the state of anarchy meant the inexistence of a supranational entity to establish order among states:

But though there have never been any times, wherein particular men were in condition of war against each other, yet in all times, kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their torts, garrisons and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbors; which is a posture of war (Kauppi & Viotti, 61).

Does the fact that the permanency or the constant nature of anarchy mean that warfare is ubiquitous in the international system? According to Vasquez (Brecher & Harvey, 57-9), a scholar of international relations, constant warfare is suggested strongly by Morgenthau in his book Politics Among Nations: "All history shows that nations active in international politics are continuously preparing for, actively involved in, or recovering from organized violence in the form ofwar" (Morgenthau 1973, 42). Hobbes and Waltz too suggest that war is constant in the international system since for them too war is the result of global anarchy and anarchy is seen as a constant (Brecher & Harvey, 57). Constant anarchy would logically "predict constant warfare, but this is not true, according to Vasquez (Ibid, 57).

Vasquez, therefore, offers three historical examples based on historical record to support his argument that war is not a constant in the international realm. The first example refers to the existence of non-violent periods, "especially among major states." The second example is the "presence of peaceful dyads." The third historical fact is the existence of "peaceful zones." What is more, Vasquez concludes that the realist paradigm does not offer any universal answer to the question of peace: "The fact that ... classical realism does not think a permanent peace is possible raises questions about how much their empirical theory can tell us about peace, and how it should be constructed" (Ibid, 63). Thus, ifVasquez' is right about

Page 8: Realism Essay.pdf

the irrelevance of the classic realist paradigm to solve the problem of war and peace, then why is still realism the dominant paradigm in international relations? Why states still use the realist view to formulate their foreign policies? Is classical realism truly relevant in our times? If yes, then what are the classical realist's proposals that would help prevent wars or diminish their destructiveness today? How reliable are classical realist's predictions? What form of analysis does classic realism offer about international regimes and institutions? (Klej, 12). Since these questions are very important to help evaluate the significance ofthe classical realist paradigm, they need to be answered. In order to answer these questions this paper will start first by analysing the theory ofbalance of power, which, according to realism, provides solutions to the problem of war. We will conclude by analysing the modem relevance of the theory of balance of power. The Balance of Power Theory

As it has been shown, realism observes that international politics or the behaviour of states towards each other is based on the constant struggle for power: "so long as the notion of self-help persists, the aim of maintaining the power position of the nation is paramount to all other considerations" (Waltz 160, 1959). In that sense, international politics as observed in reality is essentially power politics. In order to contain power and limits its potential abuse, the balance of power is therefore central to the realist perspective of international relations. To understand what is meant by the balance of power, we must first define power (Kauppi & Viotti, 64). Since it is commonly acknowledged that Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations has transformed the field of international relations from "idealist advocacy to realist analysis," (Brecher & Harvey, 55) we will rely mainly on his explanation of power and the balance of power.

Morgenthau defines power basically as man's control over the minds and actions of other men or the ability to convince people to behave in a certain way. In military terms, he sees power as either the threat of the use of force or the actual use of force in war. He also believes that the use of power can be legitimate or illegitimate, depending on the existence or not of moral and legal justifications (Morgenthau, 32-4). More importantly, he understands power as relative, that is: the power of one state is evaluated in "terms of its capabilities relative to the capabilities of other states" (Kauppi & Viotti, 64). Yet, despite Morgenthau's efforts to clarify the concept of power, there is no agreement on the definition of power among realists. Some realists view power as absolute, others as relative (Kauppi & Viotti, 64). Thus, in the absence of a common definition of power, we can safely assume that realists would also have problems defining what the balance of power is. But once again, let us turn to Morgenthau's interpretation ofthe balance of power.

According to Morgenthau, the balance of power can be understood as a situation or as a policy. As a situation, the balance of power could be in equilibrium or disequilibrium. A balance of power in equilibrium refers to conditions whereby the power of one state or set of states is literally "balanced" by the equivalent power of another state or set of states (Inis, 13), as it may have been the case during the Cold War between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union or NATO and the Warsaw Pact. A balance of power in disequilibrium describes a condition in which the distribution of power among the contending states is not balanced (Ibid, 14). This condition clearly favours the leading hegemon and may result in the abuse of power by the strongest state, "which neutralizes other states" and may feel "free to be the deciding force and the deciding voice" (Ibid, 14-5). This seems to be the case with the U.S.A., after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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The balance of power as a policy often refers to actual efforts to encourage the preservation of equilibrium (Ibid, 17). This policy to reach equilibrium would be most commonly found in a system that acknowledges that unbalanced power is unsafe (Ibid, 18). On the other hand, the balance of power as a policy could also promote disequilibrium: "Morgenthau ... asserts that it has been standard American policy to maintain 'unchallengeable supremacy' in the Western Hemisphere" (Ibid, 19). For Morgenthau and others classical realists, however, a policy of equilibrium is essential to preserve the sovereignty of nations and the pluralistic nature of the international system. In this sense, they believe that the balance of power can be created by "statesmen" (Kauppi & Viotti, 73) and that it may well be not only the best, but also the only choice:

[T]he balance of power and policies aiming at [the] preservation [of] the international balance of power are not only inevitable but are essential stabilizing factor in a society of sovereign nations; and that the instability of the international balance of power is due not to the faultiness of the principle but to the particular conditions under which the principle must operate in as society of sovereign nations (Morgenthau 187, 1985).

Morgenthau further argues that "[t]he balancing process can be carried on either by diminishing the weight of the heavier scale or by increasing the weight of the lighter one" (Ibid, 198) In this case, the balance of power would have to signify a policy aimed at changing the status quo or at preserving it. He offers four ways in which this balancing of power can be done. The first form make a hostile state weak by dividing it or keeping it divided. For example, "the Soviet Union, from the 1920s to the present, has consistently opposed all plans for the unification of Western Europe" (Ibid, 198). The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and Irak could perhaps be seen in the same light..

The second manner to change, maintain or re-establish the balance is through territorial compensation. During the "later part of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the principle of compensation was again deliberately applied to the distribution of colonial territories and the delimitation of colonial or semi-colonial sphere of influence" (Ibid, 199). Although this particular form of maintaining the balance among European powers (and their dominance in the world) worked for a while, it soon led to the First World War, because offundamental conflict of interests among European powers. One could even argue that a similar attempt to re-establish the balance, after the First World War, actually led to the Second World War.

The third way, in which a policy can change, maintain or re-establish the balance, is through arm races or disarmament. However, Morgenthau maintains that the arms race is unstable, because it increases "the burden of military preparations devouring and ever greater portion of the national budget and making for ever deepening fears, suspicions, and insecurity"(Ibid, 200). On the other hand, disarmament could be a form of re-establishing the balance, "if not to establish permanent peace" (Ibid, 201 ). Although disarmament may reduce military confrontations, Morgenthau and other realists argue that it is difficult to control disarmament among competing nations (Inis, 7). Moreover, recently some feared that if the U.S and Canada participated jointly in building a missiles defence, this may have triggered an arms race, perhaps with China and Russia, mainly.

Lastly, alliances are "historically the most important manifestation of the balance of power." In this case, alliances can be either a policy aimed at changing, maintaining or re-

Page 10: Realism Essay.pdf

establishing the balance. For example, "[n]ations A and B, competing with each other ... to maintain and improve their relative power positions ... can add to their own power the power of other nations, or they can withhold the power of other nations from the adversary" (Morgenthau 201, 1985). Although, the Allied Powers during the Second World War helped to stop the imperial threats from world domination by the Axis Powers, many realists do not recommend the formation of permanent alliances. They argue that alliances can also destabilize a peaceful situation at least in five ways:

1) Alliances would enable aggressive states to combine military capabilities for aggression.

2) Alliances threaten enemies and provoke them to form counter-alliances, which reduce the security for both nations.

3) Alliance formation may draw otherwise neutral parties into opposed coalitions.

4) Once states join forces, they must control the behaviour of their own allies to discourage each member from reckless aggression against its enemies, which would undermine the security of the alliances' other members.

5) The possibility always exists that today's ally might become tomorrow's enemy (Kegley & Wittkopf, 534).

As it seems, the balance of power or the policy of states to maintain, change or re­establish a preferred situation can be a very unstable process, since to do so states might often resort to war. For example, some realists argue that a multipolar system is more complex and unstable. On the other hand, they view a bipolar system as being more "simple and predictable": in such a system, "direct conflicts between superpowers" can be more easily circumvented (Kauppi & Viotti, 75-6). Although the policy ofbalance of power seems to be unstable, one must also argue that the sovereignty of the state is important and the balance of power could be used to maintain a pluralist international system, even at the cost of war (Inis, 52). Morgenthau agrees with this view, but he also denies that the balance of power is the sole basis for securing the sovereignty of states:

The clouding picture begins when we find Morgenthau saying that "Small nations have always owed their independence either to the balance of power ... or to the preponderance of one protecting power... or to their lack of attractiveness for imperialistic aspirations. This would seem to indicate that the preservation of weak states depends upon an equilibrium, the absence of an equilibrium, or sheer luck (Ibid, 67-8).

According to Inis Claude, the picture becomes even more confused when some scholars assert that classical realism shows that a "preventive war" is a "natural outgrowth of balance of power" and that "most of the wars that have been fought since the beginning of the modem state system have their origin in the balance of power" (Ibid, 52). This idea leads them to raise the question of whether the balance of power views war as a means to an end or an "evil" that is supposed to be suppressed or both (Ibid, 53). Despite the criticisms that realism and the balance of power theory receive from scholars, including realist scholars themselves, we cannot easily discard the realist paradigm and replace it with completely new ones. It should rather be accepted that "a paradigm does not provide all answers, it may only provide scholars with the promise of some answers" (Brecher & Harvey, 55).

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In conclusion, classical realism and the balance of power theory offer fundamental propositions about the international system. It gives us an understanding of the nature of man, the state and the international system, and why war occurs and how it could be avoided. Although explanations of various issues and situations are clearly ambiguous, classical realism and the balance of power theory help to understand our system better. For instance, Carr states that where "utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham, which serves merely as a disguise for the interests of the privileged, the realist performs an indispensable service in unmasking [this sham, which is even a product of realism itself]" (Carr, 93). Thus, as realism remains a leading paradigm of our times, it is certainly worth deepening our understanding of its potential contributions to the creation of a more stable future.

Works Cited

Brecher, Michael & Harvey, P., Frank. Realism & Institutionalism in International Studies. (eds). Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Carr Hallet, Edward. The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919-1939. New York: St Martin's Press Inc., 1946.

Freyberg-Inan. Annette. What Moves Man: The Realist Theory of International Relations and its Judgment or Human Nature. Albany: State University ofNew York Press., 2004.

George H. Quester. Power, Action, and Interaction: Readings on International Politics. (eds). Boston: Little, Brown and Company., 1971.

Ian, Clark. & Iver, B., Neumann. Classical Theories oflnternational Relations. (eds). London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996.

Inis, L. Claude. Jr. Power and International Relations. New York: Random House Inc., 1962.

Kauppi, Paul, and Viotti, Mark. International Relations Theory: Realism, Pluralism, Globalism and

Beyond. New York: Macmillan, 1999.

Kegley, Jr., and Wittkopf, Eugene. World Politics: Trends & Transformation. Belmont: Wadsworth

and Thomson Learning Inc, 2004.

Klej, Dominika. "Hobbes' Theory oflnternational Society" Glendon Papers. 2003:9-18.

Michael, W. Doyle. & G., John, Ikenberry. New Thinking in International Relations Theory. (eds). Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.

Morgenthau. J., Hans. Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press., 1946.

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Morgenthau. J., Hans. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1985.

Niebuhr. Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation. New York: Charles

Scribner's Sons., 1941.

Waltz, Kenneth, Neal. Man, the state and war: a theoretical analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. (Cold War)

Warner, Daniel. An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Whelan. G. Frederick. Hume and Machiavelli: Political Realism and Liberal Thought. Lanham: Lexington Books., 2004.



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    Realism and International Relations provides students with a critical yet sympathetic survey of political realism in international theory. Using six paradigmatic theories - Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, the Prisoners' Dilemma, Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes - the book examines realist accounts of human nature and state motivation, international anarchy, system structure and the ...

  5. PDF Realism in Practice

    Realism in Practice: An Appraisal is a free PDF book that explores how realist theory can help us understand and respond to the challenges of political realism and cyber security in the 21st century. The book covers topics such as the role of states, non-state actors, and international law in a changing world order, as well as the implications of cyberwarfare for realism. Download the book and ...

  6. PDF An Essay for Educators: Epistemological Realism Really Is ...

    impotent defenders of scientific realism for most educators including science educators. 1 Traditionally realism refers to ontology. However, especially in education circles, realism is taken as an epistemology. Few anti-realist in the education community are ontological anti-realists--the issue is epis-temology.


    Article Full-text available Meta-Analysis on the Effects of Teaching Methods on Academic Performance in Chemistry April 2020 · International Journal of Instruction Edna Nabua Shalom Grace Sugano

  8. (PDF) The Theoretical Foundation of Realism

    The UN was founded on a state-centric approach reflecting realism (Falode, 2009). The Charter openly specifies that all member states should respect the sovereignty of other members (Article 2, 1 ...

  9. (PDF) What is Scientific Realism?

    Show abstract. Article. The nature of scientific progress and the rationality of scientific change lie at the centre of Karl Popper's and Thomas Kuhn's thought. This paper provides an analysis of ...

  10. Realism

    Abstract. This article considers the relation between literature and philosophy during the period of realism. It explains that the notion of realism, in its development as a term of literary criticism, is in origin a genre concept and that discussions of realism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary criticism and polemic rapidly acquire ...

  11. PDF The Development of Realism in American Literature

    in an essay entitled "The Scandinavian Destiny", attributed the earliest discovery of Realism in literature to the Northman in the Icelandic Sagas, although it was soon lost by them along with the continent of North America. LITERATURE REVIEW "Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most

  12. Realism

    Realism, in philosophy, the view that accords to things that are known or perceived an existence or nature that is independent of whether anyone is thinking about or perceiving them. Realist positions have been defended in ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of science, ethics, and the theory of truth.

  13. (PDF) Essay on Transcendental Realism

    For transcendental realism, the structure of the world is sense-dependent upon the structure of thought, but the dependence is not reciprocal. This looks strange, until one realises that understanding the structure of thought is a necessary but not sufficient condition of understanding the structure of the world.

  14. Realism Critical Essays

    Essays and criticism on Realism - Critical Essays. Select an area of the website to search ... Premium PDF. Download the entire Realism study guide as a printable PDF! Download

  15. Realism

    Essays and criticism on Realism - Realism. Select an area of the website to search. Search this site Go Start an essay Ask a ... PDF Cite Share SOURCE: Stone, Donald D. "Trollope as a Short ...

  16. (PDF) Political Realism in International Relations

    Abstract. In the discipline of international relations there are contending general theories or theoretical perspectives. Realism, also known as political realism, is a view of international ...

  17. A beginner's guide to Realism (article)

    Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 314 x 663 cm (Musee d'Orsay, Paris) Gustave Courbet, a young fellow from the Franche-Comté, a province outside of Paris, came to the "big city" with a large ego and a sense of mission. He met Baudelaire and other progressive thinkers within the first years of making Paris his home.


    This paper studies the realist theory of International Relations and attempts an explanation of how it illuminates our understanding of interstate relations.

  19. Realism Essay PDF

    of 12 52 Classic Realism and the Balance of Power Theory Peter Toledo The term "realism" was first used to formulate the philosophical doctrine that "universals exist outside ofthe mind" (Freyberg-Inan, 1).

  20. Essay on Realism

    Essay # 1. Introduction to Realism: Emerged as a strong movement against extreme idealistic view of the world around. ADVERTISEMENTS: Realism changed the contour of education in a systematic way. It viewed external world as a real world; not a world of fantasy. It is not based upon perception of the individuals but is an objective reality based ...

  21. Realism Essay

    according to realists, they hold that moral facts are independent of any beliefs or thoughts we. might have about them. What is right is not determined by what I or anybody else thinks is right. It is not even determined by what we all think is right, even if we could agree. I see realism as a.

  22. Realism vs Liberalism Essay

    Download The comparison between Realism and Liberalism Introduction When considering realism and liberalism in terms of international relations both these theories can be regarded as useful. However, these two theories can be used as tools for exploring and explaining what are the subjects.

  23. (PDF) Realism Essay.pdf

    of 12 52 Classic Realism and the Balance of Power Theory Peter Toledo The term "realism" was first used to formulate the philosophical doctrine that "universals exist outside ofthe mind" (Freyberg-Inan, 1).