by Dave Maier
“Realism” is a word with many senses. In politics, it’s synonymous with pragmatism in being the alternative to idealism, which it considers naive. In science, realists oppose instrumentalism and (extreme forms of) empiricism, positing a reality behind the phenomena of empirical investigation. In philosophy as well, one can be a realist about this or that by resisting the reduction of that or this phenomenon to other things thought more ontologically basic.
Mainly, though, philosophical realism is metaphysical realism, an ontological commitment to a basic reality irreducible to, and independent of, mind, belief, language, social conventions, empirical observations – whatever you got. On this side of the pond, realism has generally been considered the default position, but analytic philosophy was born in linguistic analysis and a robust strain of empiricism, so various sorts of antirealism have remained popular here as well.
On the Continent, however, things are different. Analytic philosophy was a revolt against a post-Hegelian tradition which remained dominant in Europe, and in the last third of the previous century, when postmodernism ruled supreme, continental realists hardly dared even show their faces in public. At least, that’s the story now being related by a new breed of continental realist. Now that postmodernism is yesterday’s (or last week’s) news, realism is popping up all over.
If postmodernism was nonsense on stilts, then a return to common sense can only be good. But analytic antirealists, at least, aren’t just dimwits or charlatans, and we shouldn’t simply identify substantive philosophical claims, however intuitive, with mere sanity; and continental realism, it turns out, comes in a bewildering variety of forms. Before sounding the hosannas, and awarding the palm to realism at last, we owe this new development a closer look. Read more »