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Contemporary philosophical realism is the belief in a reality that is completely ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc. Philosophers who profess realism also typically believe that truth consists in a belief's correspondence to reality. We may speak of realism with respect to other minds, the past, the future, universals, mathematical entities (such as natural numbers), moral categories, the material world, or even thought.
Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality and that every new observation brings us closer to understanding reality. In its Kantian sense, realism is contrasted with idealism. In a contemporary sense, realism is contrasted with anti-realism, primarily in the philosophy of science.
Debates about realism
Despite the seeming straightforwardness of the realist position, in the history of philosophy there has been continuous debate about what is real. In addition, there has been significant evolution in what is meant by the term "real".
The oldest use of the term comes from medieval interpretations and adaptations of Greek philosophy. In this medieval scholastic philosophy, however, "realism" meant something different -- indeed, in some ways almost opposite -- from what it means today. In medieval philosophy, realism is contrasted with "conceptualism" and "nominalism". The opposition of realism and nominalism developed out of debates over the problem of universals. Universals are terms or properties that can be applied to many things, rather than denoting a single specific individual--for example, red, beauty, five, or dog, as opposed to "Socrates" or "Athens". Realism in this context holds that universals really exist, independently and somehow prior to the world; it is associated with Plato. Conceptualism holds that they exist, but only in the mind, Moderate Realism holds that they exist, but only insofar as they are instantiated in specific things; they do not exist separately from the specific thing. Nominalism holds that universals do not "exist" at all; they are no more than words we use to describe specific objects, they do not name anything. This particular dispute over realism is largely moot in contemporary philosophy, and has been for centuries.
Platonic realism is a philosophical term usually used to refer to the idea of realism regarding the existence of universals or abstract objects after the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427–c. 347 BC), a student of Socrates. As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is confusingly also called Platonic idealism. This should not be confused with Idealism, as presented by philosophers such as George Berkeley: as Platonic abstractions are not spatial, temporal, or mental, they are not compatible with the latter Idealism's emphasis on mental existence. Plato's Forms include numbers and geometrical figures, making them a theory of mathematical realism; they also include the Form of the Good, making them in addition a theory of ethical realism.
The Scottish School of Common Sense Realism
- Main article: Common Sense Realism
Scottish Common Sense Realism is a school of philosophy that sought to defend naive realism against philosophical paradox and scepticism, arguing that matters of common sense are within the reach of common understanding and that common-sense beliefs even govern the lives and thoughts of those who hold non-commonsensical beliefs. It originated in the ideas of the most prominent members of the Scottish School of Common Sense, Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson and Dugald Stewart, during the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment and flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Scotland and America.
Its roots can be found in responses to such philosophers as John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. The approach was a response to the "ideal system" that began with Descartes' concept of the limitations of sense experience and led Locke and Hume to a skepticism that called religion and the evidence of the senses equally into question. The common sense realists found skepticism to be absurd and so contrary to common experience that it had to be rejected. They taught that ordinary experiences provide intuitively certain assurance of the existence of the self, of real objects that could be seen and felt and of certain "first principles" upon which sound morality and religious beliefs could be established. Its basic principle was enunciated by its founder and greatest figure, Thomas Reid:
- "If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them--these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.".
Naïve realism, also known as direct realism, is a philosophy of mind rooted in a common sense theory of perception that claims that the senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world. In contrast, some forms of idealism assert that no world exists apart from mind-dependent ideas and some forms of skepticism say we cannot trust our senses. The realist view is that objects are composed of matter, occupy space and have properties, such as size, shape, texture, smell, taste and colour, that are usually perceived correctly. We perceive them as they really are. Objects obey the laws of physics and retain all their properties whether or not there is anyone to observe them.
Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be. Within philosophy of science, it is often framed as an answer to the question "how is the success of science to be explained?" The debate over what the success of science involves centers primarily on the status of unobservable entities apparently talked about by scientific theories. Generally, those who are scientific realists assert that one can make reliable claims about unobservables (viz., that they have the same ontological status) as observables. Analytical philosophers generally have a commitment to scientific realism, in the sense of regarding the scientific method as a reliable guide to the nature of reality. The main alternative to scientific realism is instrumentalism.
Aesthetic realism may mean the claim that there are mind-independent aesthetic facts, but in general discussions about art "Realism" and "realism" are complex terms that may have a number of different meanings.
- Aesthetic Realism, a philosophy founded by the American poet and critic Eli Siegel
- Australian realism or Australian materialism, a 20th Century school of philosophy in Australia
- Constructive realism, a philosophy of science
- Cornell realism, a view in meta-ethics associated with the work of Richard Boyd and others
- Critical realism, a philosophy of perception concerned with the accuracy of human sense-data
- Depressive realism
- Direct realism, a theory of perception
- Entity realism, a philosophical position within scientific realism
- Epistemological realism, a subcategory of objectivism
- Hyper-realism or Hyperreality, the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from fantasy
- Legal realism
- Mathematical realism, a branch of philosophy of mathematics
- Moderate realism, a position holding that there is no realm where universals exist
- Modal realism, a philosophy propounded by David Lewis, that possible worlds are as real as the actual world
- Moral realism, the view in philosophy that there are objective moral values
- New realism (philosophy), a school of early 20th-century epistemology rejecting epistemological dualism
- Organic realism or the Philosophy of Organism, the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, now known as process philosophy
- Platonic realism, a philosophy articulated by Plato, positing the existence of universals
- Quasi-realism, an expressivist meta-ethical theory which asserts that though our moral claims are projectivist we understand them in realist terms
- Representative realism, the view that we cannot perceive the external world directly
- Speculative realism
- Transcendental realism, a concept implying that individuals have a perfect understanding of the limitations of their own minds
- Truth-value link realism, a metaphysical concept explaining how to understand parts of the world that are apparently cognitively inaccessible
- Analytic philosophy
- Philosophy of social science
- Principle of bivalence
- Problem of future contingents
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- An experimental test of non-local realism. Physics research paper in Nature which gives negative experimental results for certain classes of realism in the sense of physics.
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