Realism and Anti-Realism
Loux (Michael)
Source: Loux - Metaphysics - Contemporary Readings
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. A certain picture of our relationship to the world is intuitively appealing. According to this picture, the world is a mind-Independent structure: it consists of objects whose existence, character, and relations are fixed independently of what we happen to say, believe, or desire. We, in turn, respond to that world by forming beliefs and making statements about it. Those beliefs and statements are assertoric: they make claims about the world, saying that things are this way or that. Since beliefs and statements are, in this way, assertoric, each is determinately true or false; and on this picture, truth involves a certain kind of fit or match between a belief / statement and the world it is about. The question is: does the belief / statement get the world right? If it does and things are as the belief / statement asserts them to be, then the belief / statement is true; otherwise, it is false. So truth is correspondence with a mind-independent world; whereas falsehood is failure of correspondence. And the correspondence in question is a relation whose obtaining might well transcend our ability to detect it. For many beliefs / statements, it may be possible for us to get ourselves into a position where we are able to determine their truth value; but according to the picture we are considering, our concept of truth is such that it is possible for a belief / statement to have one or other of the truth values even though it is in principle impossible for us to find out which one. As it is often put, our concept of truth is epistemically unconstrained.
  2. I have said that the ideas making up this picture are intuitively attractive. Together they constitute something like the traditional picture of our relationship to the world. Virtually every major thinker in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods endorsed the themes making up the picture. Indeed, the picture provided something like a framework within which traditional philosophical inquiry took place; and it was so much a part of the assumed backdrop for doing philosophy that it did not occur to philosophers to give the picture a name. The picture gets a label only after philosophers began to raise questions about it. The name given to the picture is 'realism.' In this context, the name has a sense different from that we encountered in Part I, where 'realism' was a label for the view (opposed to nominalism) that endorses the irreducible existence of universals.
  3. Attacks on realism began with Berkeley and continue to the present day. Those attacks have been waged on a variety of fronts, but the metaphysically most interesting criticisms of realism are those that are motivated by the view that what we call "the world," what we call "reality" is a structure constituted, in part at least, by our representational activities. In recent years, it has become customary to call philosophers who attack realism from this perspective anti-realists. Anti-realists constitute a heterogeneous lot. Among the most radical forms of anti-realism would be the idealism of the nineteenth century which construed all that we think of as the world as nothing more than the thought of some Absolute Spirit; but Berkeley's phenomenalism also constitutes a version of anti-realism; and it is plausible to take much of what Kant says about the structure of the phenomenal world to be anti-realistic. And anti-realism spans views that initially appear to be metaphysically more temperate than any of these. Thus, those American pragmatists who provided an epistemic analysis of true belief as belief that promotes the goals of inquiry were telling us that what is true and so what is the case is somehow a function of our cognitive lives and so count as anti-realists.
  4. In our own day, the most radical forms of anti-realism are associated with Continental thinking where we meet with the idea that what traditional philosophers took to be a mind-independent world is really just a collection of stories that we tell, a collection of texts that we compose. Within the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, criticism of realism and the associated attempts at delineating an anti-realist perspective on truth and the world have taken a more conservative form. Here, the central figures are philosophers like Michael Dummett, W.V. Quine, and Hilary Putnam who seek to develop forms of anti-realism free of Continental excesses. In all three, the criticism of traditional realism gets formulated from within the philosophy of language. The claim in all three thinkers is that traditional realism presupposes a semantic theory that is demonstrably false. Since these three philosophers have presented analytic philosophy's most influential and well-developed challenges to traditional realism, I will focus my discussion on their work.

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