Realisms and their opponents

In N. J. Smelser & B. Baltes (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. pp. 19--12815 (2001)
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In everyday usage, ‘realism’ is often used as a name for a practically or epistemically low-ambition attitude, while ‘idealism’ is often taken to denote a highambition—if not utopian—attitude. In philosophcal usage, mostly, it is the other way around: those who are called realists tend to claim more than their opponents—they are the philosophical optimists. Within philosophy itself, ‘realism’ adopts a variety of interrelated and contested meanings. It is used as the name for doctrines about issues such as perceptual access to reality, the existence of universals, the goals and achievements of science, the nature of truth, the objectivity of morality, and many other things. Given this variety, no single shorthand definition of the term ‘realism’ can be provided. One manifestation of this variety is that the opponents of realism about these issues are not called uniformly by a single label (other than the rather uninformative ‘antirealism’): the labels used include idealism, phenomenalism, instrumentalism, conventionalism, fictionalism, noncognitivism, constructivism, relativism, irrealism, and others. Sometimes such labels vary from one dispute or domain to another even when similar ideas are being expressed. Sometimes they are used to make claims that are specific to the domain at hand and distinct from other antirealist theses. In what follows a brief tour will be taken along some of the representative philosophical highways and lanes, from ontology through semantics to epistemology. Along the way, realism will be confronted with some of its various opponents and internal conflicts. The philosophical landscape in the neighborhood of realism is nowadays much broader than it used to be: in a typical older encyclopedia, ‘realism’ was taken to name doctrines about universals or about perception, or both, to the exclusion of much of its present coverage, and many of the current opponents were missing from view altogether.

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Uskali Mäki
University of Helsinki


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