Friday, February 11, 2011

Realism: What (continued)

Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century (2003), p. 95, summarizes the realist commitments:
(1)  To the existence of everyday objects.
(2) To the existence of abstract objects (numbers and such).
(3) To every object of thought, which “must possess some kind of being, since otherwise we couldn’t think about it.”

Herewith our assessment of these commitments.

(1) To reject these would be churlish: a universe whose apparent bunnies and gumdrops, were but phantoms, would be the work of a devil, not of God.   We embrace the phenomenal world (beginning with the breast)  with the same uncomprehending acceptance with which we receive the Host.  We believe in the Real Presence of this chair in this room.

(2)  These are the most certain; only these survive the catastrophe of Brains-in-a-Vat.

(3)  These are much more problematic than numbers, or even differentiable 4-manifolds. The zoo of correspondents to every idea (already one is somewhat begging the question,  speaking of an “object of thought”) threatens to devolve into Meinongism – an ontological slum. 

            Certainly a mere expression – a string of words – does not in general denote or connote or (as Amos ‘n’ Andy might put it) jinote  anything at all.  “The square root of the present Pope of Islam’s antigravity mushroom non-unicorn”, though evocative enough, is referentially mere flatus vocis.  But there is no clear dichotomy.  Whether or not a thought corresponds to an expression (without which assurance we cannot even open the question of the expression’s potential reference or denotation) is not an all-or-nothing question.  Take the case of the much-maligned “present King of France”.  The expression suggests a clear idea; we know what sort of thing would fill the bill; upon enquiry we learn, with some disappointment, that as it happens, nothing does.  So far so good.
            Now take the equally widely execrated expression, “a round square”.  To the average man, this probably suggests nothing at all; it may even repel him, like a bad omelette;  and philosophers never tire of pronouncing it impossible, nay incoherent; but it did suggest something to me.  The idea was dim at first, but not vacuous for all that:  whatever object might fit the description, if any, would be round, for one thing, in some reasonable sense of this elastic term. And, it turns out, round squares do exist – not on our cul-de-sac, granted, but in R x R provided with the sup norm (║  ║∞).  Place four points equidistant from the origin, symmetric about both coordinate axes, and join with geodesics: the analogue of a square in this non-Euclidean space.  But in the sup norm, every point of that figure is equidistant from the origin, which is therefore the center of a circle (again in the relevant sense).  So now the image corresponding to the expression is quite precise; the object of thought, as real as a rocks.


In the chapter “On Realisms”, in An Experiment in Criticism (1961), C.S. Lewis writes:

The word realism has one meaning in logic, where its opposite is nominalism; and another in metaphysics, where its opposite is idealism.  In political language it has a third and somewhat debased meaning:  the attitudes we should call ‘cynical’ in our opponents  are called ‘realistic’ when our own side adopts them.  At present we are concerned with none of these, but only with realism and realistic  as terms of literary criticism.

(His discussion of this topic is bracing;  realistic, as commonly used, turns out to be something of a misnomer.


We close with a refreshingly clear and concise  thumbnail definition by Quine:
Unregenerate realism, the robust state of mind of the natural scientist.

Yo -- he means us!  --  Waiter, another beer!

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