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Realism and antirealism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The basic idea of realism is that the kinds of thing which exist, and what they are like, are independent of us and the way in which we find out about them; antirealism denies this. Most people find it natural to be realists with respect to physical facts: how many planets there are in the solar system does not depend on how many we think there are, or would like there to be, or how we investigate them; likewise, whether electrons exist or not depends on the facts, not on which theory we favour. However, it seems natural to be antirealist about humour: something’s being funny is very much a matter of whether we find it funny, and the idea that something might really be funny even though nobody ever felt any inclination to laugh at it seems barely comprehensible. The saying that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a popular expression of antirealism in aesthetics. An obviously controversial example is that of moral values; some maintain that they are real (or ‘objective’), others that they have no existence apart from human feelings and attitudes.

This traditional form of the distinction between realism and its opposite underwent changes during the 1970s and 1980s, largely due to Michael Dummett’s proposal that realism and antirealism (the latter term being his own coinage) were more productively understood in terms of two opposed theories of meaning. Thus, a realist is one who would have us understand the meanings of sentences in terms of their truth-conditions (the situations that must obtain if they are to be true); an antirealist holds that those meanings are to be understood by reference to assertability-conditions (the circumstances under which we would be justified in asserting them).

Citing this article:
Craig, Edward. Realism and antirealism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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