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Does anti-realism violate the reality principle?


To: Christodoulos P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does anti-realism violate the reality principle?
Date: 28th October 2009 13:12

Dear Christos,

Thank you for your email of 21 October, with your third essay for the Pathways Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Does anti-realism violate the reality principle in denying the existence of a verification independent 'target for our thoughts to aim at'?'

This is a well written essay which covers the main moves made by the anti-realist in attempting to 'construct' a view of truth which is consistent with anti-realist scruples. What this means, in practice, is that the anti-realist looks for a way to distil the notion of truth out of our activity of verifying and falsifying judgements.

As you successfully argue, each of these attempts fails. Let's consider the last move, which (although you don't mention this) is associated with the later philosophy of Wittgenstein: the idea that there are 'indefeasible verifications' (which Wittgenstein called 'criteria'). If a judgement passes the test of indefeasible verification, if it satisfies the criteria, then that's just what it *is* for that judgement to be true. Any would-be sceptic who attempts to imagine a scenario where the judgement in question 'might turn out to be false' is just spinning nonsense.

One philosopher who argues for this view is Crispin Wright, in his book, 'Truth and Objectivity'.

G.E. Moore, in his 'Refutation of Idealism' made a similar point when he told his audience, 'Here is a hand, and here is another hand.'

Let's leave aside the question whether Wittgenstein would accept Wright's 'gloss' on his notion of criteria. It is true -- and this is something which Wittgenstein argued -- that to raise sceptical questions of the kind that philosophers love to consider is not, in itself, sufficient to create doubts about our most basic kinds of knowledge. In his last book, 'On Certainty' which was partly inspired by Moore's lecture, Wittgenstein shows how the human concept of knowledge 'works', how we accept things as 'facts' or as 'certain' despite the fact that one could *imagine* ways in which we might turn out to be wrong.

There's a famous line in the Investigations. Wittgenstein imagines a sceptic who complains, 'Aren't you shutting your eyes to doubt?' And he replies, simply, 'They are shut.'

But I remain unhappy with this, as a way of defending the anti-realist's 'definition' of truth. Why do we need a definition? Why do we need to say what truth *is* in anti-realist terms?

Why can't an anti-realist agree with the realist that 'truth transcends verification', only not because truth consists in 'correspondence with facts' but rather because whatever definition we offer of truth is capable, in principle, of being defeated. We will, of course, continue to say (just as the realist says) that a particular judgement is 'true' or that some other judgement is 'not true', but in saying this we are not making any additional claim: we are merely stating, or denying the judgement in question.

This is, in effect, the view of truth taken by the 'redundancy theory.' According to the redundancy theory, the predicate 'is true' functions as a device of 'disquotation'. Saying 'P' is true, is the same as saying, P. If you make a long speech, and I agree with everything you say, I can save myself the trouble of repeating it by saying simply, 'What Christos said is true.'

On this view, the anti-realist who refuses to define truth doesn't need a 'picture' of 'how things are in reality', or 'how human judgements relate to the world'. The whole content of anti-realism is negative and dialectical, consisting in the rejection of the realist's claims.

Is that an acceptable view? This kind of anti-realist hasn't said anything which obviously contradicts the reality principle. But he has done this, only by refusing to make any positive statement about what anti-realism means.

Suppose the realist says, 'I don't believe in 'correspondence with facts' or any other metaphysical view of truth. I hold the common sense view that a judgement can be true regardless of whether we are able to verify it or not.' The anti-realist says, 'I hold that too, but I don't *mean* it in the way that you mean it. What you mean, or think you mean, has no meaningful content.' The realist replies, 'How do you know what I mean, or think I mean?'

This is a stand-off. The question is, who wins? Both the realist and anti-realist have a certain 'picture' of what they mean, or of what they reject about the opposing position, but the two positions are so tightly bound together that there seems no way in from the outside.

In later units, will argue that the very fact that this dispute can arise shows something wrong about our concept of truth, and that the correct account is neither 'realism about truth' nor 'anti-realism about truth'.

All the best,