Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Updates re the language of Realism

[An update to this ]

Gilbert Ryle, “The Theory of Meaning” (1957):
The difficulty is to steer between the Scylla of a Platonistic  and the Charybdis of a lexicographical account of the business of philosophy and logic.

Here he uses lexicographical in an idiosyncratic sense, influenced by the etymology of Nominalist, from Latin nomen ‘name, noun’.

Colin McGinn, “Truth and Use”, in Mark Platts, ed.  Reference, Truth and Reality (1980), p. 19:
Realism is the thesis that truth (falsity) is an epistemically unconstrained property of a sentence; there is nothing in the concept of truth (falsity) to exclude the possibility that a sentence be unknowably true (false).

Incidentally -- for those not yet indoctrinated into the philosophical patois, those parentheticals are not intended as synomyms or definitions of the word to which they are appended --“truth = falsity”, à la 1984;  our philosophical faculty are not quite so nihilistic as all that.  Rather, this is the beziehungsweise way of speaking, which you can easily acquire at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and several years of your life.

Simon Blackburn, Think (1999), p. 260:
A true realist or opponent of idealism  wants to contend for facts and states of affairs that are entirely independent of the mind.

Simon Blackburn, Think (1999), p. 260:
REALISM (sometimes PLATONISM).  These rules have a real, objective existence.
CONCEPTUALISM.  These rules are creatures of the mind.
NOMINALISM.  There aren’t really any rules at all.

Simon Blackburn, Think (1999), p. 268:
What is often called ‘postmodernism’ is really just nominalism, colourfullly presented as the doctrine that there is nothing except texts.

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), p. 87:
“internal realism”, according to which our apparently objective world picture should be understood as essentially a creative product of our language and point of view.

Thus, “internal realism” is to realism what “National Socialism” is to socialism (the parallels are many).

Rom Harré, The Philosophies of Science (1971, 2nd edn. 1984), preface to the first edition, uses the term in a sense very far from what we mean by it.  He contrasts “the positivist position” with “the realist point of view, which emphasizes the work of the human imagination in leading to conceptions of the realities behind sense-experience.”  I’d call that Idealism, not Realism in our sense at all.
On p. 87, he offers a different contrast, namely with skepticism;  “Copernicus  was a realist.”
Page 92 presents yet a third dichotomy: realism vs. phenomenalism:

If mechanics  with its eliminable concept ‘force’  provides a model science for phenomenalists, the virus theory of disease provides a counter-model for realists.

Note:  only the term “constructivism” was (so far as I know) specifically confected to contrast with “Platonism”, in the way that nominalism is the antonym of realism.  But intuitionism is a whole program, not just an anti-stance.  Likewise Hilbert’s formalist program.  According to Reuben Hersh (“Some Proposals”, repr. in Thomas Tymoczko, ed., New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (1986, rev. 1998), p. 16), 

Hilbert’s writings and conversation display full conviction that mathematical problems are questions about real objects

-- i.e., full-bore Platonism.  But for foundational reasons he championed a program called formalism.  As such, they need not logically stand in contradiction;  but in practical, psychological terms, they do tend to.  Again Hersh:

We can see the reason for the ‘working mathematicisans’s’ uneasy oscillation between formalism and Platonism.


  1. the virus theory of disease provides a counter-model for realists.

    What does this mean?  Are viruses an "eliminable" concept in epidemiology?

  2. No, the author meant that, though viruses (or "germs" generally; he may or may not have the chronology right) were initially explanatory *posits*, like quarks, and like quarks, initially unobserved in the naive sense of "visibilia", subsequently (with the invention of the electron microscope) these logically posited objects actually became visible.
    When, someday, we may enter the presence of the Adonai, we might behold His chandelier in the shape of E8. Then that would provide an additional example.