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Philosophy 

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2 ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL SCHOOLS

 

2.7 Realism

 

  

 

 

Understood in its broadest philosophical sense, Realism connotes any viewpoint that accords to the objects of man's knowledge an existence that is independent of whether he is perceiving or thinking about them. Though it may seem strange to the unphilosophical layman that the independent existence of objects "out there" should be questioned, the philosopher, faced with the many profound challenges that Idealists have posed against the independence of objects, knows that the problem of the existence of objects--whether in thought or in concrete form--is far from trivial. (see also  cognition , perception, idealism)

Clearly, Idealists have argued, musical tones such as middle C do not have existence as tones in the air; they appear, instead, to be qualities that the mind itself generates when the appropriate hair cells in the organ of Corti are stimulated. Nor does the colour purple have existence as a quality in the world outside of the mind; there can be, in fact, no such thing as a beam of pure (monochromatic) purple light inasmuch as purple is a unique kind of colour that is perceived when vibrations at the opposite extremes of the visual spectrum (red and violet) are mixed together in the same beam. At least in this one case, the colour seems created by the mind. But if this is so of purple, the Idealists ask, is it not true, also, of all colours? Similarly, under certain circumstances heat is felt as cold and rotation as oscillation. It is not surprising, therefore, that philosophers have asked what, if any, residual properties an object might have in and of itself after due allowance has been made for those qualities that the mind and perspective of the observer have imposed upon it; nor is it surprising that they have asked what, if anything, it would mean to insist on the objective existence of an object of which all of the qualities were mental. Realists, on the other hand, have held that, in spite of the foregoing considerations as proposed by the Idealists, there still remains a sense in which objects can have an existence that is independent of minds. (see also  epistemology)

Realism exists, however, in several strikingly different versions: its objects may be, for example, either individual things (such as "the Moon"), or merely particular qualities of things (such as "roundness," "yellowness"), or species and genera of things (such as "moons," "planetary bodies"). In one way or another, however, whether it regards things from the viewpoint of the things themselves or from that of the human activities related to them, Realism tends to stress some definite function of the independent existence of objects.

 

2.7.1 NATURE AND SCOPE OF REALISM

 

2.7.1.1 Realism and the problem of knowledge.

One of the major problems confronting Realism involves the distinction between private, public, and so-called ontological objects. A private object is a sheer datum (such as a perceived patch of yellow) taken purely as an uninterpreted item in the knower's own inner experience; a public object is one that the mind has projected into an objective conceptual frame of space and time shared in common with other minds, an object that the mind has constituted as a percept (such as the perceived Moon)--though it is still acknowledged to be in part mental (e.g., its yellowness; or its visual size, which is larger when it is near the horizon); and an ontological object is the Kantian "thing-in-itself" (the Moon as it really is), which may as well consist of monads, of God's thoughts, of will, or of action, as of force and matter. Though Realists and Idealists both acknowledge that the knower transcends the private object, they make different assumptions about the relationship between the public and the ontological object: on the one hand, the Realist holds that the physical sphericity, yellowness, and hardness perceived (or perceivable) in the public object are in some degree actual properties of the ontological thing-in-itself; the Idealist, on the other hand, holds that the public object is merely a phenomenon, from which little can be inferred about the underlying onta (realities), least of all of their basic qualities, which are probably quite different from the roundness and hardness of the perceived object. The Idealist may, in fact, surmise that the nature of the onta is conveyed more faithfully in the fundamental mental tone of the public object--in the colours, feelings, and durations (which are of the nature of mind)--than in its specific material properties. (A third contender, that philosopher known as the metaphysical solipsist, would hold to the viewpoint that the ontological object does not exist at all.) (see also  sense-datum)

Similarly, if a particular thing regarded in its particularity (such as the Moon) is distinguished from a universal--i.e., an entity comprising the essence of the thing (moonness)--that which it shares with all the other things of the same species or genus (as with the moons of Jupiter)--then a form of Realism can be defined as asserting the independent reality of universals, which it may even exalt above that of particulars.

Accordingly, Realism may be variously opposed to the tenets of other philosophical positions. As opposed to Nominalism, which denies that essences (or the specific and generic natures of things) have any reality at all (except as names), and conceptualism, which grants such universals reality only as concepts within the mind, Realism allows to the specific or generic nature of the thing a distinct existence in reality outside the mind. Against Idealism (see below), it asserts that the existence of sense objects (such as the perceived Moon) and that of their qualities is external to thought. In opposition to phenomenalism and sensationalism, which regard objects as comprising nothing more than private volleys or families of disconnected sense fragments, Realism grounds objects in real unified and enduring substances. Unlike conventionalism, a philosophy of science that regards scientific laws and theories as freely chosen constructs that are simply devised by the scientist for the purpose of describing reality, Realism holds that laws and theories have determined and real counterparts in things.

The term Realism first appeared early in the 19th century, though the adjective Realist dates from the late 16th century. These terms have been applied, however--often retroactively--to various systems that have arisen throughout history.

In its broadest scope, the term Realism has application in a number of distinct areas. In literature, art, and aesthetics, in law, and in philosophy, it emphasizes real existence or relation to it. The present article is concerned solely with Realism in the philosophical area.

 

2.7.1.2 Philosophical senses of Realism.

Even within philosophy Realism has a wide range of applications. Though a definitely modern term, Realism is freely used today for tenets of the Greek and medieval epochs, as well as for the modern period.

 

2.7.1.2.1 Basic kinds of Realism.

Among philosophical Realisms, two fundamentally different kinds can be distinguished: the Realism of natures and the Realism of things. In the Realism of natures, that which is viewed as having an existence external to the mind is an entity that, in some sense, is set apart in the world of things--an entity that is variously understood as the Form or Idea in which a thing participates, such as "manness" or "bedness" (Platonic Realism), as the essence or to ti en einai, "the 'what it is' of a thing" (Aristotelian Realism), or as its nature, either absolute, specific, or generic (medieval Realism or the Realism of universals), or, finally, as laws or theoretical models abstracted from scientific observations. In the Realism of things, on the other hand, that which is viewed as having an existence external to the mind is the total, concrete, and individual object of experience, which the Realist regards as retaining its chief properties at all times, even when left unseen. This Realism, too, can be variously conceived: the externality of the world, for example, can be regarded as simply and obviously given (commonsense Realism); the object itself, though external, can be viewed as the sole entity standing before the mind and grasped by it (neo-Realism); or the object can be conceived as, in some sense, duplicated, so that the mind directly encounters only a counterpart of the external object and not the object itself (critical Realism), a counterpart which was sometimes regarded as a representation of it (representational Realism).

 

2.7.1.2.2 Distinctions among the Realisms.

As previously noted, the term Realism has been applied retroactively to the transcendence of the Platonic Forms or Ideas, to the extent that for Plato the natures of things have, in the ideas of them, an existence more real than that of sensible, individual things. Yet, from its emphasis on ideal as opposed to concrete existence, this Platonic doctrine would be classed as an Idealism instead of a Realism. In the parallel issue in Aristotelianism, the stand that the universals, or specific and generic natures, exist only in the mind but are nonetheless grounded in the real forms of things has been called a moderate Realism. Aristotle himself, however, vigorously denied that the universals have any substantiality (Metaphysics, Z: 13-14; 1038b8-1039b19), which clearly suggests that, for him, the universals have no existence independently of cognition; this tends, in this first context, to invalidate the designation Realism for the Aristotelian doctrine.

Correspondingly, Realism is used to describe medieval views that allowed species and genera some kind of distinct existence outside of their conception by the mind. There it meant not only that individual men and individual animals and so on exist outside cognition but also that the specific nature of man and the generic nature of animal and the like have an existence of their own in the outside world. For Realism, objects "fall into" such categories as humanness, mountainness, and so on naturally. For its opponents, however, this is not always the case: thus, in terms of a modern illustration, graniteness--that which all the granite rocks share in common--does not exist except as an artificial category set up by the mind (conceptualism) because it merges by imperceptible gradations into diorite or felsite as its mineral composition and texture gradually change. (see also  Middle Ages)

Yet in actual fact the various medieval doctrines do not fit neatly under these divisions. In the philosophies of several medieval Scholastics, for instance, both the particular thing and the universal are distinguished in one way or another from a third entity, the specific or generic nature taken absolutely in itself. This so-called absolute nature was given a "being of its own" by Avicenna, the early 11th-century Persian philosopher and physician, and--in the 13th century -- by Henry of Ghent, an eclectic Christian Scholastic, and by the voluntarist John Duns Scotus, an important medieval Franciscan Scholastic, who gave the absolute nature a reality that was distinct in form from the individual thing, but unitively contained in it. Thomas Aquinas gave it no being at all. Though these views reflect radically different metaphysical settings, they all variously bar the natures from real existence when separated in any way from the individual.

In its conventional applications to Greek and medieval thought, accordingly, Realism turns out to be an elusive and even confusing notion. It seems to be an inept way of emphasizing difficulties that are significantly present in the philosophies of these epochs, which require understanding and solution. But the granting of extramental existence to the generic and specific natures has raised more difficulties than it has solved.

All of these ancient and medieval doctrines--whether Realistic, conceptualistic, or nominalistic--accept the external existence of individual sensible things. From this viewpoint, they would all be Realisms in the second main sense of the term, that of the Realism of ordinary things, which is the sense in which Realism is predominantly employed in the modern era. Here it means the epistemological (or theory-of-knowledge) view that things taken as individual wholes have an existence that is outside of human cognition.

 

2.7.2 HISTORY OF WESTERN REALISM

In these and other related ways, modern writers have seen the philosophic attitude called Realism continually surfacing in the stream of Western thought, suggesting that it is a perennial feature.

 

2.7.2.1 Ancient Realism.

In pre-Socratic thought, even in Parmenides (late 6th century), known for reducing reality to the One, the relevant reality of the objects of cognition was everywhere assumed. In Plato (5th and 4th centuries BC), the separate and more excellent existence of the natures, or Forms, was strongly asserted at times, though quite often the immanence of the form in individuals was just as surely implied without any satisfactory reconciliation of the contradiction. With Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher in the 1st century AD, the existence of the Platonic Forms was located within the mind of God, a view also found in the early 5th century in Augustine of Hippo (De diversis quaestionibus, "On Diverse Questions"). In the medieval Augustinian tradition, for instance in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, the influence of this interpretation persisted. In the early 6th century, on the other hand, Boethius, perhaps the intellectual founder of the Middle Ages, in transmitting Aristotelian logic to the West, presented the universal notions with a strong cast of Platonic Realism, while acknowledging that the Aristotelian view was different. Among medieval thinkers in the early 12th century, such as William of Champeaux, the Parisian logician and theologian, the Platonizing tradition of Boethius was dominant, though it was brought under fire by such men as Roscelin, founder of nominalism, who saw universals as mere words. With the stormy controversialist Peter Abelard, who was the foremost dialectician of his time, the Boethian Realism was attacked. But according to Abelard, more than mere words were required to justify universality; in his view, universals were concepts signifying real things and had their ultimate basis in the divine ideas, as in the Augustinian tradition. (see also  theology, Platonism)

 

2.7.2.2 Medieval Realism.

The approach of the early medieval thinkers to the problem of universals was made from the side of logic. But it soon involved theological issues, which, when added to the much deeper study of its metaphysical backgrounds made by Boethius, led the scholars to place the relevant questions in a different setting. The natures or common essences of things came to be scrutinized from a threefold viewpoint: as existent in sensible things, as existent in the mind, and as absolutely existent in themselves. This subjected the problem to metaphysical investigation. In that setting, Aquinas allowed neither being nor unity to be attributed to the nature taken absolutely. Duns Scotus, however, accorded it a lesser unity than that of the individual and gave it a kind of being proportionate to this real specific unity, but which required unitive containment of the nature by the individual. In these different ways the nature, so taken, provided the ground for the universal that existed only in the mind. Views incorporating this feature have been called moderate Realisms, though the designation is open to the same objection as it is in its application to Aristotle (see above, Distinctions among the Realisms ). In later Scholastic tradition the currents became badly confused, and unending controversy raged on the various kinds of universals and the respective status of each type.

 

2.7.2.3 Modern Realism.

In the familiar formula cogito ergo sum ("I think; therefore, I am") proffered by the first notable modern philosopher, René Descartes, methodical thinking was rooted in thought itself, thus raising the problem of how any material world outside of thought could be reached philosophically. In Descartes and a half century later in the British Empiricist John Locke, an external origin for sensations was accepted, though without any thoroughly philosophical justification. Rather, the denial of an external world was regarded as too absurd to be countenanced. In this perspective Locke's philosophy displayed a commonsense Realism. According to one of Locke's contemporaries, the Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche (known for his claim that God's will is the true cause of motion), religious faith guaranteed the external world. The Cambridge Platonists, a sober group of 17th-century moral and religious Rationalists, in a similar atmosphere of faith and with a Cartesian understanding of sensation, acquiesced in the external existence of sensible things while, against a Neoplatonic background, they accorded a respectively greater reality to the objects of intellectual cognition. For Berkeley, an early 18th-century Empiricist and Idealist, the scriptural guarantee was lacking because matter was nowhere mentioned in the revealed descriptions of the sensible universe; accordingly, in his view, no sensible world outside cognition was left. But in David Hume, whose teachings marked the climax of the Empiricist movement, even the cognitive subject, or soul, vanished. (see also  Cartesianism)

Facing the impossibility of a genuine philosophical justification for arguing to an external world from the starting point of mind or idea, Claude Buffier, an early 18th-century French Jesuit, and, shortly later, the Scottish Realists leaned explicitly on common sense as the motive for accepting the world's external existence. The most prominent exponent of this school was Thomas Reid, an opponent of paradox and skepticism. And John Witherspoon, who was called from Scotland to the presidency of Princeton University, held that "the impression itself implies and supposes something external that communicates it, and cannot be separated from that supposition." Consequently, the attempt of the viewpoint of Berkeleian immaterialism "to unsettle the principles of common sense by metaphysical reasoning" could, in his view, never produce conviction.

 

2.7.2.4 20th-century Realism.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a strong revolt against Kantian subjectivism and the dominant Idealisms appeared in such thinkers as William James, a psychologist and Pragmatist; Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most influential logician and philosopher of his time; and G.E. Moore, a meticulous pioneering Analyst. Thus it was that very early in the century philosophers came to use Realism, as opposed to Idealism, for their own ways of thinking. In 1904, James signalled the resurrection of natural Realism. In 1910, W.P. Montague of Columbia University and Ralph Barton Perry of Harvard University and several others signed an article entitled "The Program and First Platform of Six Realists," and followed it with a cooperative volume, The New Realism (1912). New Realism, or neo-Realism, in defending the independence of known things, explained that in cognition "the content of knowledge, that which lies in or before the mind when knowledge takes place, is numerically identical with the thing known." To other Realists this epistemological monism, as Perry called his theory of knowledge, failed to extricate itself from the egocentric predicament (i.e., from the incapacity of the mind to transcend its private experience) that they all professed to see in the logic of Idealism. Nor could it give a satisfactory explanation of the mind's proneness to error, or even of cognition itself as being significantly different from the things known. Another type of Realism was advanced against neo-Realism in a similarly cooperative volume entitled Essays in Critical Realism (1920), by the naturalist George Santayana and several others. To the monism of the neo-Realists such writers opposed an epistemological dualism, in which the object in cognition and the object in reality are numerically two at the time of perception. They divided, however, into a majority group and a minority group on the status of the immediately given object. For the majority group this datum was not an existent but merely an essence; for the others it was an existent--a mental or psychic existent for some and a physical (brain) existent for others. Here agreement failed, and the cooperative effort of the critical Realists soon fell apart.

These and the ensuing discussions left a recognized distinction between the schools of representative Realism and direct Realism: for representative Realism the immediate confrontation of cognition occurred over against a mental representation of the external object; for direct Realism the confrontation was immediately with the thing existent outside of cognition. The critical Realists themselves, in claiming that the datum was not an object as such but only the means of perceiving it, disavowed any representationalism; but in others, who proposed that the sense-datum was the image directly apprehended and was markedly different from the physical object, representative Realism was definitely present. Representationalism may also be seen in the Realism of the Belgian Neoscholastic Désiré Mercier, who founded the school of Louvain, and in the physiological Idealisms of contemporary neurophysiologists. In essence, representationalism was the inferential procedure employed by Descartes and Locke for reaching the external world. Direct Realism, on the other hand--as defended by recent writers--acknowledged no intermediate object between cognition and the external thing perceived.

Within the ambit of contemporary discussions, naive Realism was the label for any unquestioning belief that things in reality correspond exactly to human cognition of them. Expressly meant as a prephilosophical attitude, naive Realism can hardly be included under philosophical procedures. Yet its appropriateness to the man in the street has also been widely challenged; for the ordinary man is keenly interested in distinguishing critically between reality and figments of cognition and is continually doing so in ordinary life. He does not proceed, however, as did the aforementioned Realisms: he does not first regard the object in terms of its status in cognition and then explore its relation to reality. But to come under the notion as introduced by the Realists, naive Realism must be explained in terms of the cognitional relation--e.g., as one of the "three typical theories of the knowledge relation." It is, accordingly, a philosophical category, though historians and controversialists shun the listing of recognized philosophers under such a title.

Further, a number of philosophies that neither bore the name of Realism nor defined reality in terms of its relation to cognition are frequently regarded as Realisms today. Aristotelianism, for example, explained the reality of things through their substantiality, Thomism through their existence in themselves, Scotism through the metaphysical priority of a nature possessed in common, and contemporary linguistic philosophy, as in John Austin, an important mid-20th-century Oxford Analyst, through a completely ostensive view of language; yet all have been seen as Realisms. The process philosophies of the Pragmatist John Dewey and of Alfred North Whitehead, an influential cosmologist and metaphysician, and--still more controversially--the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, an individualistic American logician and Pragmatist, may also be taken as Realisms, even though they did not stress the basic relation to cognition; for these thinkers agreed that things as a fact do have, or may have, existence outside cognition, even though this existence was not reached from cognition nor defined through its relation to cognition. With them the cognitional relation was only an inessential afterthought. Serious interest in explaining as Realism the traditional tenets of pre-Cartesian philosophies may be seen in the writings of many contemporaries. Yet for Aristotle and Aquinas, what was meant by the reality of sensible things is already established metaphysically, through their substantiality or ontal (real) existence, before they are compared with cognition; hence to bring in the further notion of Realism for this purpose seems meaningless. The notion is therefore extraneous to the philosophical procedures of thinkers who locate the starting point of their philosophy in some actuality of the real thing itself; for relation to cognition does not play an operative role in their basic procedures. Only by means of entirely extrinsic bonds can they be grouped with the genuine Realisms.

 

2.7.3 MAJOR ISSUES AND EVALUATION OF REALISM

From the foregoing survey of the historical development of Realistic thought, the major issues upon which Realism focusses attention stand out clearly. For both speculative and practical reasons, men wish to distinguish sharply between what they call reality and what they recognize or suspect to be merely products of their own cognition. Accordingly, the ancient Platonic concentration on specific and generic natures and, in Aristotle, the essential role played by the universal in reasoning led to a close scrutiny of the way in which these natures exist. Undoubtedly, they exist in human thought. For the Realistically inclined thinker, however, their crucial role tends to demand counterparts if human thinking is to bear on what really exists. Still more drastic are the post-Cartesian philosophies in which the existence of external things themselves does not enter human cognition in direct confrontation. Finally, the mathematical and scientific constructs, which have been so fruitful in man's struggle for mastery over nature, seem to require for the Realistically minded thinker some counterpart in the things themselves in order to provide an adequate philosophical explanation of their success.

When the issues are faced in the foregoing manner, some lines of a procedure common to the various explicit Realisms emerge upon which it may be possible to base an evaluation. Universals, sensations and perceptions, scientific formulas and laws are all found to be existent in cognition. From that sure starting point, attempts are made to show that objects either corresponding to them or identical with them exist outside the mind. That pattern seems to be the general procedure followed in any way of thinking that has spontaneously given rise to the notion of an epistemological Realism and that can, with historical and philosophical significance, be labelled such. As is likewise apparent from the foregoing survey, this way of thinking follows a dubious procedure: Realism is not primarily a doctrine of the existence of things but rather a doctrine of cognition. In Realism, cognition is regarded as the object most present to itself; i.e., a man knows his own thought processes more intimately than anything else. But the genuine Realist seems unwittingly to take the material thing as his model in conceiving cognition. No external object can be more present to a material thing than that material thing itself. If cognition is conceived after this analogy, it will be what is most present to itself, and will have to be the starting point from which the Realist reasons. This starting point seems to offer no exit. The objects reached from it can be only internal products or occurrences in the mind, for it offers nothing more basic from which to reason than the cognition itself. Any philosophically genuine Realism seems, in consequence, prone to failure in its basic objective.

Accordingly, Realism, in the senses responsible for the epistemological use of the term, has long since ceased to inspire vigorous debate. In a Platonic tradition that continues in modern thought, however, Realism in respect to the natures of things is by no means dead. In regard to the Cartesian problem of the world's external existence, representative Realism seems to have shared the fate of the sense-datum and to be quite inoperative outside of the wake of neurophysiological writings. But attempts at direct Realism are still made. In the scientific field the opposition to conventionalism and to retaining a merely instrumental status for laws or theories has remained a lively issue. Moreover, modern means, such as the electron microscope (which shows molecules in real existence) and the hope of being able to see atoms foretoken a greater correspondence of scientific constructs with the structure of reality than had previously been demonstrated. But this verification process consists in a comparison of reality with thought rather than in any attempt to reach reality from cognition alone. ( J.O./L.H.St.)

 
   


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