I’m a realist. I think there is a world beyond words and that the aim and purpose of (at least some parts of) language is to describe that world. Of course, not all parts of language need serve this purpose. For instance, perhaps the aim of poetry is to encourage ways of thinking where the connection to reality is far from central, so that to charge poetry with failing to provide an accurate description of reality would just be to miss the point.
Still, I think that language evolved as a means of conveying information, of making claims about the world, and that much of what we do with language today still has ‘describing reality’ as its job description. To my mind, this seems like an evidently reasonable claim, and it seems to have a fair amount of intuitive appeal, so why might one think otherwise? Why might someone think that language doesn’t describe reality at all?
Well, one thing that might prompt us towards a less realist view is the recognition that language is a human construct: the connection between any linguistic sign and some aspect of the world is a contingent one, and it comes about because of the kinds of creatures we are and the kinds of practices we engage in with that sign. It is unarguable that the word ‘cat’ in English only refers to cats (if it does at all) because we have a practice of using the word in that way. Furthermore, it’s also a truism to note that in language we can and do adopt many different perspectives: the glass of water can be described in the language of chemistry (H2O), via its affordances for action (something drinkable), in terms of its aesthetic or emotional appeal, etc.
"If we want to navigate our world successfully we had better hit upon a language that captures those things that impinge on us."
Finally, it is also unarguable that we can’t step outside ourselves and compare language with some pre-conceptual reality – the God’s eye perspective which could show us how language and reality connect is forever out of our reach. Thus, if it is, in a fundamental sense, ‘up to us’ what our words mean and which aspects of a scene we will talk about, and if we can never stand outside ourselves to assess how language and reality hook up, we might well be tempted to think that, on reflection, there is little or no reason to believe language and reality are connected at all. We use words we invent to talk about things as they seem to us. And this seems pretty close to an anti-realist view, whereby language isn’t in the business of describing reality, and indeed that perhaps there is no objective reality in existence for our language to describe even if we wanted it to.
However I think this proposed move from the truisms about language to anti-realism goes way too fast. Although it is right that we can’t view the language-reality relation from some kind of Archimedean point, there are other reasons to think language and reality do line up, reasons to do with prediction, unification and explanation. The physical world impinges on us in certain ways: no matter how I describe it, if I step into the path of a speeding car it will hit me and it will hurt. If we want to navigate our world successfully, then, we had better hit upon a language that captures those things that impinge on us and represents the causal relations between us and the world beyond ourselves.
Furthermore, languages that come nearer to reality have greater predictive and explanatory power. For instance, we could choose to have a language that explains a fever in terms of the patient’s unbalanced humours or due to the presence of a corrupt and corrupting womb – but the treatments such languages suggest (bleeding or hysterectomy) are much less likely to cure the patient than a language which describes their fever as the result of a bacterial infection. Explaining these differences in outcome is easy if we think of language as attempting to describe an objective reality, a world beyond words; it is, I think, impossible if we are anti-realists.
Of course, modern medicine isn’t the final word on describing the world. We will continue to refine and change our language as we discover better theories to accommodate reality. But recognising that the languages of our current sciences need not be our final accounts of reality should not push us to embrace anti-realism; indeed, it seems that an acceptance of realism is built into the very fabric of this idea of ‘striving to improve’.