- In many branches of philosophy, dealing with very different areas of our thought and talk, there occur disputes centred on the tenability of positions described as 'realist'. In the philosophy of science, realism stands opposed to various forms of instrumentalism; mathematical realists, often known as Platonists, are opposed in one way by nominalists, in another by constructivists; moral realists contend with subjectivist tendencies, such as expressivism and projectivism, as well as with error theories; in the theory of meaning itself, realism is under attack from positions which hold that meaning must be explained in terms which preserve an essential link between what we mean and evidence, as well as from meaning-sceptical arguments advanced by W.V. Quine, Saul Kripke and others.
- It is scarcely obvious that there is some single type of issue at stake in these disputes (henceforth R/AR disputes), or that there is at least some significant continuity between them. The very diversity of the positions set against realism in these different areas might of itself be thought to point towards the opposite conclusion: that realism amounts to different things in the different cases, so that any attempt at general discussion is doomed to failure. It is not obvious, either, that the various disputes have anything much to do with the philosophy of language, or that there is any reason to expect arguments in the philosophy of language to play a significant part in their resolution.
- Against these dampening thoughts may be set – besides the feeling that it is unlikely to be sheer coincidence that the same label is applied to completely disparate positions with no significant similarities whatever – at least two reasons why philosophers of language may properly take an interest in general questions about realism and the forms which opposition to it may assume.
- First, and most obviously, there is a R/AR dispute (or disputes) within the philosophy of language itself, centered on the tenability of realist theories of meaning. At the very least, it might be expected that scrutiny of R/AR disputes in other areas may illuminate the issues here, if only through contrasts rather than parallels.
- But second, and more importantly, the notion that debates about other realisms – in science, mathematics, or other areas – may proceed unaffected by arguments in the philosophy of language overlooks the possibility that a successful anti-realist argument in the theory of meaning may ramify into other disputed areas (see "Hale (Bob) - Rule-following, Objectivity and Meaning", section 3.)
- We begin (§ 1) with an examination of Michael Dummett's influential treatment of these issues, which couples an attempt to identify a common form exemplified by a large, if not exhaustive, range of R/AR disputes with important arguments against a realist position about meaning which - if they are sound, and Dummett's diagnosis of what is at stake in those disputes is correct - promise to resolve the issue in the anti-realist's favour, not only in the theory of meaning itself, but across the board.
- We then (§ 2) survey the principal negative arguments, advanced by Dummett and others, for semantic anti-realism.
- In § 3, we turn to the wider question of the bearing of these arguments on R/AR disputes more generally, and review doubts about the adequacy of Dummett's general conception of their common form.
- Other ways in which the anti-realist case may be prosecuted are reviewed in § 4: classical reductionist positions: error theories: expressivist / projectivist options and quasi-realism; and
- We conclude (§ 5) with a brief examination of the new perspective on R/AR disputes advocated in recent work by Crispin Wright.
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