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Realism, anti-realism and immaterialism


To: Max T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Realism, anti-realism and immaterialism
Date: 17 December 2003 14:15

Dear Max,

Thank you for your e-mail of 6 December, with your fifth and final essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ''The debate between realism and anti-realism has the same structure as the debate between Kantian and Berkeleian versions of Immaterialism.' - Assess the strength of that claim.'

Well done for completing this program, which is easily the most difficult of the six Pathways programs. A certificate and my report will be on their way to you shortly.

Your essay brings out the fact that there are different aspects of the 'structure' of realism vs. anti-realism and Kant vs. Berkeley that can be emphasized. The question is which aspect or aspects are the most important.

Since the realism/ anti-realism debate concerns the truth of propositions and the Kant/ Berkeley debate concerns the existence of objects, this is one obvious difference.

The fundamental link, I would argue, concerns a notion which one might describe, neutrally, as 'mind dependence'.

For the realist, the truth of a proposition is independent of our ability to make a judgement concerning its truth. Not only are there propositions which we are not able to make a judgement about, but in addition, any proposition which we judge to be true can turn out to be false (as in Descartes 'evil demon' hypothesis). What is it, if not judgement, that *makes* a proposition true? The realist's answer is that it is 'the way the facts are', or just 'the facts'. The way things are for us, how we judge things to be is one thing. But there is also how things are in reality, and that alone is what gives propositions their truth value.

The link with the Kant/ Berkeley debate is between 'facts' realistically conceived and 'noumena'.

The interaction which ultimately gives rise to perceptual experience is explained by the Kantian as the product of things in themselves (noumena) and the subject in themself (the noumenal subject).

Just as the anti-realist can object that 'facts' don't explain anything about the way we are able to make 'judgements of truth' so the opponent of Kant can object that 'noumena' don't explain anything about the way we are able to perceive objects in the empirical world around us. To use Wittgenstein's phrase, positing facts, or noumena, is a 'wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it' (Philosophical Investigations, para 271).

So we have, on the one side, philosophers who think that they are emphasizing something very important when they point that there 'is something ultimately out there' which judgement, or perception reflects, and on the other side, philosophers who feel that this appeal to 'what is ultimately out there' is completely empty. Nothing of explanatory value, they complain, is added by introducing this ultimate dimension.

You say, 'the Berkeleian has created an empty class, namely the class of unperceived objects' while 'it is the realist who created an empty class (propositions with no definite truth-value)'. In this formal sense, it could be said that the Berkeleian and the realist 'agree in the existence of an empty class'. But what does this really mean?

The Berkeleian is saying that there is *no such thing* as an unperceived object. The Realist is saying that there is *no such thing* as a proposition without a truth value. That's all talk of an 'empty class' comes to. Would you want to say that the Berkeleian and the Realist agree in using the phrase 'no such thing'?

We could also describe the anti-realist as claiming that there is no such thing as a *truth which is independent of judgement*. Surely, there is a much stronger link here to the claim that there is no such thing as an *object which is independent of perception*.

Recall that at this point in the argument we have accepted Kant's criticisms of the historical Berkeley and Leibniz for their attempts to characterize things in themselves (Berkeley's archetypes in the mind of God, or Leibniz's monads) in terms which apply to things as they are for us. The 'Berkeleian' that we are considering, by contrast with the historical Berkeley, is one who is prepared to countenance a 'reality full of holes' (14/435) as the only alternative to Kantian noumena. The Berkeleian subject weaves a world of existing objects out of the materials of perception, just as the anti-realist weaves a world of truths out of the materials of judgement.

In each case, it looks as though we have a dispute that cannot be resolved. Either you believe that human perception and judgement constitute 'reality' or you believe that there is something 'ultimate', essentially beyond human perception and judgement.

My own view - I do not support either side because I believe that both are in the wrong. The overlooked alternative in the case of realism and anti-realism is 'judging as a physical action'. The overlooked alternative in the case of Kant vs. Berkeley is materialism.

All the best,