In defence of realism

How this sober philosophy defies its critics

Many philosophers, such as Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel, claim to have refuted realism. None has succeeded. We must recognise the distinction between truth and knowledge and the distinction between truth and falsity. Philosophical ideas have a way of leaking into the rest of society; we cannot speak truth to power if we have given up on truth argues Timothy Williamson.


The word ‘realism’ is used in very different ways. I will explain one philosophical view which can reasonably be called ‘realist’. It is not exactly the same as the view Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel calls ‘realism’ in her article ‘Is realism the future of philosophy?’, but I think my realism captures the insights in the realism she criticizes. Although many philosophers claim to have refuted this kind of realism, none of them has succeeded. Realism is a sober philosophy; rejecting it brings both the pleasures and the dangers of drunkenness.

Reality comprises everything. Most of reality is independent of us—of you, me, and other thinking creatures. There is a big universe out there; it existed long before any thinking occurred. Of course, we are part of reality too: in that sense, a tiny bit of reality depends on us. But thinking or saying something still does not make it so. People can be infected by Covid-19 however strongly and sincerely they deny it.

Although humans and other animals are fallible, that does not make knowledge impossible. A cat knows that there is a fish in the bowl. Human science has been remarkably successful in gaining knowledge, for example of other galaxies and of Covid-19, though the more we learn the more we realize the extent of our ignorance. There may even be aspects of reality which we cannot know: the limits of what we can know are not the limits of what can be. The universe was not designed to suit our cognitive capacities.

Realism is a sober philosophy; rejecting it brings both the pleasures and the dangers of drunkenness.

Error involves the distinction between truth and falsity. Aristotle explained it very clearly. According to him, when you say that something is the case, you speak truly if it is the case; you speak falsely if it is not the case. For instance, it is true to say or think ‘The patient is infected with Covid-19’ if, and only if, the patient is infected with Covid-19; it is false to say or think ‘She is infected with Covid-19’ if, and only if, the patient is not infected with Covid-19. Fancy talk about correspondence with the facts is at best a way of picturing these elementary logical points, at worst a way of obscuring them under useless metaphysical baggage.

Typically, the truth of what we say is independent of our saying or thinking it, but the nature of truth and falsity does not require such independence. If I shout ‘I am shouting’, I do so truly, because I am shouting. For the same reason, if I shout ‘I am not shouting’, I do so falsely. By contrast, if I say ‘That man is shouting’, the truth or falsity of the statement obviously depends on whether he is shouting, not on whether I am.

 A harder challenge comes from Liar paradoxes, which are at the heart of Thomas-Fogiel’s case against realism. The ancient Greeks already saw the problem of Epimenides the Cretan, who supposedly said ‘All Cretans are liars’—though, in his letter to Titus, St Paul seems to have missed the point of the example. In a streamlined modern version, I say ‘I am not speaking truly’; do I thereby speak truly? Given what I am saying, Aristotle’s principle for truth seems to imply that if I am speaking truly, then I am not speaking truly, but also that if I am not speaking truly, then I am speaking truly: a contradiction. Fortunately, there is a loophole. Aristotle’s principles apply when one says something, in the sense not just of uttering a grammatical sentence, but of using it to make a statement. When I say ‘I am not speaking truly’ I utter a grammatical sentence, but perhaps the reasoning shows that I fail to make a genuine statement. Working out a rigorous theory to diagnose and treat Liar-like paradoxes is a very difficult task, but logicians such as Alfred Tarski and Saul Kripke have made significant progress. Their work casts no doubt on the idea that Aristotle’s principles are at the very least a good first approximation; indeed, their work may be better understood as developing ways to implement those principles in precise detail.

Timothy Williamson outlines how the principles of logic can be understood as the laws of reality


Despite these complications, Aristotle’s principles about truth and falsity are very general. Rightly, they do not tell us how to find out whether a statement or thought is true (or false). That is a different question. Aristotle is just explaining what it is for statements or thoughts to be true (or false). Many accounts of truth and falsity go wrong by confusing the two questions. They assume that a difference between two statements in how we know them to be true makes a difference in what ‘true’ means when applied to them. It does not. Sherlock Holmes may arrive at the conclusion that Moriarty was the killer by an ingenious process of reasoning, while Dr Watson arrives at the same conclusion by happening to glance through the window just as Moriarty commits the crime, but what it is for the conclusion to be true is the same either way. One scientist may refute a theory by experimentally falsifying its predictions, while another refutes the same theory by showing it to be logically inconsistent; either way, it is false in the same sense.

Some people doubt that there can be such a clean cut between truth and knowledge. At first glance, there is little difference between saying ‘The patient is infected with Covid-19’ and saying ‘I know that the patient is infected with Covid-19’. But that is simply because you should not make the statement in the first place if you do not know it to be true. The difference between truth and knowledge becomes obvious in cases where you recognize your own ignorance. If you are honest, you deny knowledge, but you do not deny truth. You say ‘I don’t know whether the patient is infected with Covid-19’. You do not say ‘It isn’t true that the patient is infected with Covid-19’, for that would amount to saying ‘The patient is not infected with Covid-19’, which in the circumstances you are in no position to say. Aristotle’s principles get such cases exactly right. More complex accounts which mix up truth and knowledge just confuse the issue.

None of this implies that questions of knowledge and evidence are unimportant. They are vital. But separating truth from knowledge is a necessary step towards understanding both. Otherwise, we flatter ourselves by underestimating the potential depth of our ignorance.

Separating truth from knowledge is a necessary step towards understanding both. Otherwise, we flatter ourselves by underestimating the potential depth of our ignorance.

 In characterizing realism, I talked of reality, but said little about what specifically it contains. That was deliberate. As Hamlet says, ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. A realist philosophy allows that there are more things in reality than it dreams of. For obvious reasons, it cannot specify just what those things are. We must be willing to conceive reality in that open-ended, unspecific way.

This is not scepticism. We have extensive knowledge, initially from common sense methods of perception and thought, later from their refinement, systematization, and correction by various sciences—including philosophy. But, as already emphasized, the extent of our ignorance is even greater. By taking a modest view of our present level of understanding, realism makes itself robust to future developments in science, and is thereby well-suited to playing a central role in the future of philosophy.

Disputes between realism and anti-realism are not irrelevant to practical issues, though anti-realists might like them to be. In recent years, questions of truth and falsity have been salient in public life, with ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and ‘post-truth’ politics, and widespread scepticism about science, concerning climate change and the state of the environment, vaccines, coronaviruses, bizarre conspiracy theories and genocide denial, …. Although lying politicians and popular delusions are nothing new, the lying and gullibility have been remarkably blatant of late—for example, about who won the US Presidential election. Such powerful disconnects from reality are unlikely to go away any time soon. Obviously, philosophers are not mainly responsible for this mess; we are culturally too marginal. But over the long term philosophical ideas do leach into society at large, and it is not a matter of indifference whether the ideas which do so are good ones or bad. They are one of many elements in a potentially toxic mix. When a philosopher like Richard Rorty dismisses the distinction between truth and falsity as politically irrelevant, or an anti-realist confuses and obscures the distinction with flimsy objections, or a radical constructivist describes scientific theories as fictions like any others, whatever their intentions, they are at any rate not helping the cognitive environment of politics. Naturally, truthfulness includes truthfulness about the nature of the distinction between truth and falsity, but the evidence against realism about that distinction is weak.

Whatever the future brings, we can be fairly confident that the need will be as great as ever to speak truth to power—and to the almost powerless, who can still vote, or join a mob. Imagine a future where a dictator or would-be dictator, accused of spreading falsehoods, can reply: ‘You are relying on obsolescent realist ideas of truth and falsity; realism has been discredited in philosophy’.

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David Morey 1 March 2021

Regularities and patterns are reasonably reliable but do not necessitate metaphysical realism or materialism. But despite our unavoidable interpretation of all language, questions and answers we still have to listen to reality to obtain answers, data, experiences, etc. How we value and use data and experiences is up to us. But the independence and potential surprises of nature/reality remains, a kind of conversation but always in languages we have constructed, including mathematics, but we 'test' reality, we explore what is possible and impossible, what is open, what is closed or repeats. Non-realism or post-realism, maybe, but there remains some sort of distinction between the actual and the possible or possibility space (as explored by mathematicians and poets), but it is all very real, we are far from constrained by what actually is.

Seth Edenbaum 1 February 2021

"Realism is a sober philosophy; rejecting it brings both the pleasures and the dangers of drunkenness."
No man is the best judge of his own drunkenness.
Empiricism is "realism". Rationalists rationalize.

Minnie_S 1 February 2021

I think this defence could have been more robust. It was a sober defence, in fact. We rely on realism to think and act all the time. Post-modernism is an interesting theory, nothing more. If it does not affect how we interact with the world, what's the point?