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Anti-realism and Orwell's 1984


To: Catherine B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and Orwell's 1984
Date: 29 October 2003 12:21

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your letter of 17th October, with your dialogue in response to Qu. 4 of the essay questions for units 7-9 of Possible World Machine:

'George Orwell's novel '1984' constitutes a decisive refutation of the anti-realist view of statements about the past.' - Does it?

My initial idea, in setting this question, was to focus simply on the challenge posed to our philosophical view about the nature of the past by the possibility that evidence of past events can be faked. The realist philosopher who asserts that 1984 constitutes a 'decisive refutation of the anti-realist view' wants to appeal to our intuitions of there being a 'truth out there' no matter how much we monkey about with the evidence. The truth which is out there will still be out there, no matter what we come to believe as a result of the trickery of others.

By raising the question of the objectivity of our judgement about the evil of totalitarianism' as illustrated in 1984, you have succeeded in broadening the question. We are no longer dealing with realism or anti-realism about simple factual statements about the past (such as that such-and-such an event, e.g. a fire, happened or did not happen) but rather about historical *explanations*, as well as historical *value judgements*.

Let us assume that both sides, the realist as well as the anti-realist, agree that from the point of view of the totalitarian society of Orwell's 1984, damning criticisms can be made of social democracy in the Britain of 2003, just as damning criticisms can be made of the totalitarian society of Orwell's 1984 from the point of view of social democracy in the Britain of 2003. However, the realist will assert, while the anti-realist denies that there is an ultimate fact of the matter concerning *which criticism is really valid*, even if there is no way to establish the truth, in order to end the dispute. As before, the realist believes, while the anti-realist denies, that the truth is 'out there' irrespective of what any particular individual or group happens to believe.

Where does that get us?

I don't accept that in the world of 1984 you need to hold 'anti-realist attitudes' in order to justify re-writing history. A realist can just as easily set out to deceive as an anti-realist. But there is more to say.

It does look at first as though we might be tempted, if we were anti-realists, to think that it is OK to fake the evidence, not from any evil motive but simply because the consequences will be beneficial to society as a whole. Our intuitions react in horror to such a proposal, and this could be taken as an argument against the anti-realist view.

However, I am not persuaded that an anti-realist view allows the possibility of believing that I have 'changed the past' by my actions any more than the realist view. Here is where things get subtle. I, the anti-realist can say, "In 100 years time all the available facts will point to it's not being the case that the X happened." However, the anti-realist, as they light the fire which destroys the evidence for X does not occupy the point of view of people living in 100 years time. From the point of view of here and now, they know that they are not *changing* the past, merely faking history, which is exactly the same as what the realist believes. So this is an argument in *defence* of anti-realism. The theory of anti-realism cannot be used to justify the practices of the revisionist 'historians' in the world of 1984.

I don't think the argument stops there, however. (That's what makes it so interesting.) There is a very real issue of how 'relativist' a view we are prepared to take of historical accounts and explanations. As Ben Pimlott says, our hold on objective knowledge is shaky, our grip on the past uncertain. Here anti-realism, in the wider sense, does seem to give comfort to the historian who is prepared to take the relativist view. And that is, for the realist, something to get worried about.

On the other hand, in view of what we know about the complexities of historical research, the naive realist approach which assumes that there *must* be one, and only one correct explanation also looks suspect. In other words, with regard to the question about historical explanations and value judgements, we may find that we are looking for a position located in between the extremes of realism and anti-realism.

All the best,