In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Realism and Anti-Realism

  • Introduction

Philosophy Realism and Anti-Realism
Sven Rosenkranz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0098


The realism/anti-realism divide has its proper place in metaphysics, but it also has important implications for epistemology and for the philosophy of thought and language. Anti-realism is defined in opposition to realism, and so it is natural to ask first what realism is and to arrive at a characterization of anti-realism on this basis. Sometimes, however, the positions put forward as competitors to realism provide us with clues as to what realism involves. Realism is not a monolithic doctrine. For one thing, one may be a realist about this but not about that. So there are differences in scope, even if not all scope restrictions allow for sensible combinations of realist and anti-realist views. For instance, realism about chemistry does not sit well with anti-realism about physics. Besides differences in scope, there are also differences in kind. Thus we must distinguish between realism as an ontological thesis and realism as an epistemological thesis. The former is concerned with what there is and how it is and argues that there are certain things that exist mind-independently. The latter is concerned with how far our epistemic powers reach and argues that there may be parts of reality in principle beyond our ken. Note that the latter thesis does not merely say something about our epistemic powers. Like the former, it also says something about reality itself, and so is just as much a metaphysical claim as the former. The need to distinguish between these kinds of realism does not imply that there are no connections between them. On the contrary, under suitable interpretations of mind-independence there may be facts about mind-independent things that are in principle beyond our reach because of the mind-independence of those things.

Realism as an Ontological Thesis

Realism as an ontological thesis always concerns things, particular or universal, of a given category (where “things” is construed broadly so as to subsume states of affairs). It contends that there are things of that category, but that things of that category exist mind-independently. Thus ontological realism combines a claim of existence with a claim of mind-independence (Devitt 1997, Brock and Mares 2007). To say that things of category C exist mind-independently is systematically ambiguous: one may read it to mean that the things that belong to C exist mind-independently; alternatively, one may read it to mean that whether a thing belongs to C is a mind-independent matter. The same distinction can be applied to the individual kinds into which things of the relevant category C might be classified: natural caves may serve as places of worship, but while, plausibly, natural caves exist mind-independently, nothing would be a place of worship without there being any minds who take it to be such. Similarly, a particular piece of brass may not exist mind-independently insofar as it was manufactured by humans with a specific purpose in mind, and yet, plausibly, its being a piece of brass is not in turn a mind-dependent matter. Even if artifacts may not be the best examples of mind-dependent existents in the intended sense, the first example is already sufficient to show the need to distinguish between two types of claims: that certain portions of reality are not in any relevant sense of our making, and that certain partitions of reality, or groupings into kinds, are not of our making in any such sense. Typically, ontological realists commit themselves to both types of claims, which is why their position naturally generalizes so as to cover the subject matter of statements about a given area or the facts, if any, these statements are apt to state, and not just the referents of the singular terms these statements contain.

  • Brock, Stuart, and Edwin Mares. Realism and Anti-realism. Durham, UK: Acumen, 2007.

    This is one of the many helpful introductions to the realism/anti-realism debate. The authors discuss various ontologically realist views and their anti-realist competitors, concerning, for example, colors, morals, modality, and the unobservable entities posited by science, mathematics.

  • Devitt, Michael. Realism and Truth. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

    Devitt explicates and defends the central tenets of realism as an ontological thesis and gives an account of mind-independence. Devitt furthermore argues that, quite generally, realism has nothing to do with epistemological matters, thereby denying that there is any genuinely realist position that answers to the label “realism as an epistemological thesis,” contrary to what we have assumed.

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