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Introduction | Platonic Realism | Moderate Realism | Modal Realism | Moral Realism | Other Types of Realism
Introduction Back to Top

Realism, at it simplest and most general, is the view that entities of a certain type have an objective reality, a reality that is completely ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc. Thus, entities (including abstract concepts and universals as well as more concrete objects) have an existence independent of the act of perception, and independent of their names.

The doctrine had its beginnings with Pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales, Heraclitus and Parmenides, but its definitive formulation was that of Plato and his theory of Forms (see the section on Platonic Realism below).

Later philosophers (especially Christians) amended and adapted the doctrine to suit their needs:

  • St. Augustine modified Plato's realism by holding that universals existed before the material universe in God's creative mind, and that humanity as a universal preceded individual men (thus explaining away problematical theological concepts such as the transmission of original sin in the human race, and the oneness of the Trinity).
  • St. Anselm believed that he could derive truth about what actually exists from consideration of an ideal or universal, and argued that because God is the greatest of beings, he must exist in reality as well as in thought (for if he existed in thought only, a greater being could be conceived of).
  • St. Thomas Aquinas built on Aristotle's watered down Realism (see the section on Moderate Realism below) to argue that human reason could not totally grasp God's being, but that one could use reason in theology whenever it was concerned with the connection between universals and individual objects.

It is a concept which has repercussions throughout philosophy - in Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics, Philosophy of Perception, Science, Mathematics, Religion, Law, etc - and it is as contentious today as it was for the Ancient Greeks.

Realism is contrasted with Anti-Realism (any position denying the objective reality of entities) and with Nominalism (the position that abstract concepts, general terms or universals have no independent existence, but exist only as names) and with Idealism (the position that the mind is all that exists, and that the external world is an illusion created by the mind).

There are many different types and degrees of Realism, some of which are described in detail in the sections below, and other which are touched on in brief in the Other Types of Realism section below.

Platonic Realism Back to Top

Platonic Realism is the view, articulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, that universals exist. A universal is a property of an object, which can exist in more than one place at the same time (e.g. the quality of "redness"). As universals were considered by Plato to be ideal forms, this stance is confusingly also called Platonic Idealism.

The problem of universals is an ancient problem (introduced by Pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales, Heraclitus and Parmenides) about what is signified by common nouns and adjectives, such as "man", "tree", "white", etc. What is the logical and existential status of the "thing" that these words refer to? Is it in fact a thing, or a concept? Is it something existing in reality, external to the mind, or not? If so, then is it something physical or something abstract? Is it separate from material objects, or a part of them in some way? How can one thing in general be many things in particular?

Plato's solution is that universals do indeed exist, although not in the same way that ordinary physical objects exist, but in a sort of ghostly mode of existence, outside of space and time, but not at any spatial or temporal distance from people's bodies. Thus, people cannot see or otherwise come into sensory contact with universals, and it is meaningless to apply the categories of space and time to them, but they can nevertheless be conceived of and exist.

One type of universal defined by Plato is the Form, which is not a mental entity at all, but rather an idea or archetype or original model of which particular objects, properties and relations are copies. The "forms" (small "f") or appearances that we see, according to Plato, are not real, but literally mimic the real "Forms" (capital "F"). Forms are capable of being instantiated by one or many different particulars, which are essentially material copies of the Forms - the particulars are said to "participate" in the Forms, and the Forms are said to "inhere" in the particulars.

According to Plato, Platonic Forms possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. They are perfect because they are unchanging. The world of Forms is separate from our own world (the world of substances) and is the true basis of reality. Removed from matter, Forms are the most pure of all things. True knowledge or intelligence is the ability to grasp the world of Forms with one's mind.

Plato's main evidence for the existence of Forms is intuitive only, arguing from human perception (a generalization which applies equally to objects which are clearly different e.g. blue sky and blue cloth), and from perfection (a perfect model for various imperfect copies, which are different but recognizably copies of the same thing e.g. flawed circles must be imperfect copies of the same thing).

Plato himself was well aware of the limitations of his theory, and in particular concocted the "Third Man Argument" against his own theory: if a Form and a particular are alike, then there must be another (third) thing by possession of which they are alike, leading to an infinite regression. In a later (rather unsatisfactory) version of the theory, he tried to circumvent this objection by positing that particulars do not actually exist as such: they "mime" the Forms, merely appearing to be particulars.

Aristotle points out that proof of Forms and universals rests on prior knowledge: if we did not know what universals were in the first place, we would have no idea of what we were trying to prove, and so could not be trying to prove it. He also asserted that universals and particulars imply each other: one is logically prior or posterior to the other and, if they are to be regarded as distinct, then they cannot be "universal" and "particulars".

Other critics have argued that Forms, not being spatial, cannot have a shape, so it cannot be that a particular of, say, an apple is the same shape as the Form of an apple. They have also questioned how one can have the concept of a Form existing in some special realm of the universe, apart from space and time, since such a concept cannot come from sense-perception.

Moderate Realism Back to Top

Moderate Realism is the view that there is no separate realm where universals (or universal concepts) exist, but that they are located in space and time wherever they happen to be manifest. Moderate realism represents a middle ground between Platonic Realism or Extreme Realism (see section above) and the opposite extreme, Nominalism (the position that abstract concepts, general terms or universals have no independent existence, but exist only as names).

It distinguishes between the thing itself with the way it exists: a thing exists in the mind as a universal, and in reality it exists as an individual. Thus, what our ideas present to us in a universal does not exist outside the mind as a universal, but as an individual. Moderate Realism therefore recognizes both sense knowledge, which presents things in their individuality, and intellectual conceptual knowledge, which presents things in their more abstract nature.

A similar attempt to bridge the gap between Realism and Nominalism is known as Conceptualism, the doctrine (initiated by Peter Abelard) that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality. Modern Conceptualism, as represented by Immanuel Kant, holds that universals have no connection with external things because they are exclusively produced by our a priori mental structures and functions.

Aristotle espoused a form of Moderate Realism, as did St. Thomas Aquinas, and even some modern philosophers such as the Frenchmen Jacques Maritain (1882 - 1973) and ╔tienne Gilson (1884 - 1978).

Modal Realism Back to Top

Modal Realism is the view, notably propounded by David Lewis (1941 - 2001), that possible worlds are just as real as the actual world we live in, and not just abstract possibilities. The term goes back to Gottfried Leibniz's theory of possible worlds, which he used to analyze modal notions of necessity and possibility.

Lewis claimed that:

  • Possible worlds exist: they are just as real as our world.
  • Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world: they differ in content, not in kind.
  • Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic: they are irreducible entities in their own right.
  • When we talk of our "actual" world, the term "actual" is indexical (merely indicating some particular state of affairs): it does not mean that our world is any more real than any other.
  • Possible worlds are spatio-temporally isolated from each other: they do not exist in the same space or time.
  • Possible worlds are causally isolated from each other: they do not interact with each other.

Lewis himself raises several lines of argument against the theory, and then proceeds to counter them, and it has proven to be remarkably resilient, despite its apparent affront to common sense.

Moral Realism Back to Top

Moral Realism (or Moral Objectivism) is the meta-ethical view (see the section on Ethics) that there are objective moral values which are independent of our perception of them or our stance towards them. Therefore, moral judgments describe moral facts. It is a cognitivist view (cognitivism being the view that ethical sentences express propositions and are therefore "truth-apt" i.e. they are able to be true or false), and it contrasts with expressivist or non-cognitivist theories of moral judgment, error theories, fictionalist theories and constructivist or relativist theories.

Plato and (arguably) Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx were moral realists, as well as more contemporary philosophers such as G. E. Moore and Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982).

Moral Realism purportedly allows the ordinary rules of logic to be applied straightforwardly to moral statements. It also allows for the resolution of moral disagreements, because if two moral beliefs contradict one another, Moral Realism (unlike some other meta-ethical systems) says that they cannot both be right and so there should be some way of resolving the situation.

Critics have argued that, while Moral Realism may be able to explain how to resolve moral conflicts, it cannot explain how these conflicts arose in the first place. Others have argued Moral Realism posits a kind of "moral fact" which is non-material and unobservable and therefore not accessible to the scientific method.

Other Types of Realism Back to Top

Other than the more widely known types of Realism described in the sections above, there are many others disciplines which are related to Realism, including:

  • In Metaphysics:
    • Transcendental Realism is the theory, described (although not subscribed to) by Immanuel Kant, that implies individuals have a perfect understanding of the limitations of their own minds. Kant himself was a Transcendental Idealist in that he believed that our experience of things is about how they appear to us, and he did not believe one could ever understand the world as it actually exists.
    • Organic Realism (or Philosophy of Organism, now known as Process Philosophy) is the metaphysical philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, in which subjective forms complement Plato's eternal objects or Forms. The theory identifies metaphysical reality with change and dynamism, and holds that change is not illusory or purely accidental to the substance, but rather the very cornerstone of reality or Being.
  • In Epistemology:
    • Epistemological Realism is the view (considered a subcategory of Objectivism) that what you know about an object exists independently of your mind. It is directly related to the correspondence theory of truth (that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes, or corresponds with, that world).
    • Indirect Realism is the view (also known as Representationalism or Epistemological Dualism) that the world we see in conscious experience is not the real world itself, but merely a miniature virtual-reality replica of that world in an internal representation.
    • New Realism is a 20th Century theory which rejected of the epistemological Dualism of John Locke and the older forms of Realism, on the grounds that, when one is conscious of an object, it is an error to say that there are two distinct facts: knowledge of the object in a mind, and an extra-mental object in itself.
  • In Ethics:
    • Moral Realism is the meta-ethical view that there are objective moral values which are independent of our perception of them or our stance towards them. Therefore, moral judgments describe moral facts. It purportedly allows the ordinary rules of logic to be applied straightforwardly to moral statements. It also allows for the resolution of moral disagreements, because if two moral beliefs contradict one another, Moral Realism (unlike some other meta-ethical systems) says that they cannot both be right and so there should be some way of resolving the situation. Plato and (arguably) Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx were moral realists, as well as more contemporary philosophers such as G. E. Moore and Ayn Rand (1905 - 82).
    • Quasi-Realism is the meta-ethical theory that, although our moral claims are projectivist (attributing or projecting qualities to an object as if those qualities actually belong to it), we understand them in realist terms as part of our ethical experience of the world. The theory was developed by Simon Blackburn (1944 - ), who challenged philosophers to explain how two situations can demand different ethical responses without referring to a difference in the situations themselves, and argued that, as this challenge is effectively unmeetable, there must be a realist component in our notions of ethics. However, Blackburn admitted that ethics cannot be entirely realist either, for this would not allow for phenomena such as the gradual development of ethical positions over time.
  • In Aesthetics:
    • Aesthetic Realism is the view that reality, or the world, has a structure that is beautiful, and that unifies opposites like a great work of art should, and can therefore can be liked honestly, as one would a work of art. The theory was developed by the American poet and critic Eli Siegel in 1941, and became something of a cult as its proponents claimed the one true answer to universal happiness, on the grounds that everyone's deepest desire to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
  • In Political Philosophy:
    • Political Realism (or Power Politics) is the theory in Political Philosophy that the primary motivation of states is the desire for military and economic power or security, rather than ideals or ethics. It views mankind from the Hobbesian perspective that it is not inherently benevolent, but rather self-centered and competitive, as well as being inherently aggressive and/or obsessed with security. Historically, such a view can be traced back to Sun Tzu and Han Feizi in ancient China, Thucydides in ancient Greece and Chanakya in ancient India, through the political philosophers Niccol˛ Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, to more modern day politicians and theorists like Otto von Bismarck (1815 - 98), Carl von Clausewitz (1780 - 1831), Charles de Gaulle (1890 - 1970) and Joseph Stalin (1878 - 1953).
    • Liberal Realism (also known as the English School of international relations theory) is the theory in Political Philosophy that there exists a society of states at the international level, despite the lack of a ruler or world state. It supports a Rationalist or Grotian tradition, seeking a middle way between the power politics of Political Realism and the utopianism of revolutionary theories. Liberal Realism holds that, while the international system is anarchical, order can be promoted through diplomacy, international law and society.
    • Neorealism (or Structural Realism) is the theory that international structures act as a constraint on state behavior, so that only states whose outcomes fall within an expected range can be expected to survive.
  • In Philosophy of Religion:
    • Christian Realism is a 20th Century philosophy, advocated by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 - 1971), which holds that the kingdom of heaven can not be realized on Earth because of the innately corrupt tendencies of society. Due to the natural injustices that arise on Earth, a person is therefore forced to compromise the reality of the kingdom of heaven on Earth.
    • Mystical Realism is the view, originating with the Russian philosopher Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1974 - 1948), that divine entities are real, even if they do not exist in terms of the normal definition of existence (i.e. occupying space, having matter, existing in time, and being affected by causation).
  • In Philosophy of Perception:
    • Critical Realism is the theory which maintains that there exists an objectively knowable, mind-independent reality, and that some of our sense-data accurately represent these external objects, properties and events, while others do not. The theory is a modern take on the ideas of Locke and Descartes that the sense-data of secondary qualities (such as color, taste, texture, smell and sound) do not represent anything in the external world, even if they are caused by primary qualities (such as shape, size, distance, hardness and volume).
    • Na´ve Realism (also known as Direct Realism or Common Sense Realism) is a common sense theory of perception, holding that the world is pretty much as our common sense would have it (all objects are composed of matter, they occupy space, and have properties such as size, shape, texture, smell, taste and color, all of which are usually perceived correctly). Opponents of the theory (like Bertrand Russell) have attacked it as not accounting for the phenomenon that the same object may appear differently to different people, or to the same person at different times. This theory can be contrasted to Scientific Realism (see below).
    • Representative Realism, (also known as Indirect Realism, Epistemological Dualism and The Veil of Perception), is the theory that we do not (and cannot) perceive the external world directly. Thus, a barrier or a veil of perception (between the mind and the existing world) prevents first-hand knowledge of anything beyond it. Instead, we know only our ideas or interpretations of objects in the world (Representationalism), although it maintains (unlike Idealism) that those ideas come from sense-data of a real, material, external world. The theory was subscribed to at various levels by Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, RenÚ Descartes, John Locke and Bertrand Russell.
    • Hyper-Realism (or Hyper-Reality) is the view in semiotics and Post-Modernist philosophy that consciousness is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, especially in technologically advanced post-modern cultures. In this way, consciousness defines what is actually "real" in a world where a multitude of media can radically shape and filter the original event or experience being depicted.
  • In Philosophy of Science:
    • Scientific Realism is the view that the world described by science is the real world, independent of what we might take it to be, and that unobservable things talked about by science are little different from ordinary observable things. Its proponents point out that scientific knowledge is progressive in nature, and that it is able to predict phenomena remarkably successfully. An example of a Scientific Realist is John Locke, who held the world only contains the primary qualities (such as shape, size, distance, hardness and volume), and that other properties were entirely subjective, depending for their existence upon some perceiver who can observe the objects. However, although it is related to much older philosophical positions including Rationalism and Realism, it is essentially a 20th Century thesis, developed largely as a reaction to Logical Positivism.
    • Entity Realism is a theory within Scientific Realism which claims that the theoretical entities that feature in scientific theories (e.g. 'electrons') should be regarded as real only if they refer to phenomena that can be manipulated and investigated independently. Entity Realism does not commit itself to judgments concerning the truth of scientific theories, but posits "manipulative success" as the criterion by which to judge the reality of (typically unobservable) scientific entities.
    • Constructive Realism is the view in Philosophy of Science that the theory of Constructivism (that humans construct meaning from current knowledge structures, and that knowledge is contingent on convention, human perception, and social experience) be applied to science. It utilizes a strategy called strangification, which means taking a scientific proposition system out of its context and putting it in another context.
  • In Philosophy of Mathematics:
    • Mathematical Realism is the view that mathematical truths are objective, and that mathematical entities exist independently of the human mind, and therefore are to be discovered rather than invented. There are various types of Mathematical Realism depending on what sort of existence one takes mathematical entities to have. The view effectively echoes the ancient doctrine of Platonic Realism (see section above).
  • In Philosophy of Law:
    • Legal Realism is the theory that all law is made by human beings and is therefore subject to human foibles, frailties and imperfections. The theory was developed in the first half of the 20th Century, principally by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the United States and Axel Hńgerstr÷m in Scandinavia. Many legal realists believe that the law in the books (statutes, cases, etc) does not necessarily determine the results of legal disputes (the indeterminacy of law); many believe that interdisciplinary (e.g. sociological and anthropological) approaches to law are important; many also believe in legal instrumentalism, the view that the law should be used as a tool to achieve social purposes and to balance competing societal interests.
  • There are also several Realism movements within the arts (visual arts, theatre, literature, film, etc), which generally attempt to depict subjects as they appear in everyday life, as well as many Realism-related movements like Hyperrealism, Fantastic Realism, Magical Realism, Photorealism, Poetic Realism, Social Realism, Socialist Realism, etc.

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