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Contemporary realism: Karl Popper, Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam

From the middle of the 19th century, a form of anti-realism imposed itself with the development of positivism (Comte, Mach, Duhem), then of neo-positivism and empiricism in the first half of the 20th century (Vienna Circle, A.J. Ayer, Ryle). These positions all have in common the rejection of metaphysics and the realism associated with it.

According to Rudolph Carnap, one of the leading members of the Vienna Circle, realism is the metaphysical thesis which affirms the reality of the external world, while idealism is the one which denies it. For Carnap, these two antinomic positions do not make sense because they are “on the other side of experience”. They both err in metaphysics.

From the 1950s, it was realism that became dominant among philosophers of the analytical tradition, with the rehabilitation of metaphysics, conceived this time in connection with the natural sciences (physics in particular).

Karl Popper and critical realism

Karl Popper(For Karl Popper (here around 1980), the truth of a scientific statement is only possible if this statement has a meaning. However, the meaning of a scientific statement rests on the possibility of its refutation.)

For Popper, like Carnap, the central thesis of realism is “the thesis of the reality of the world”. But unlike Carnap, Popper argues that realism is a position that makes sense, can be argued, and needs to be defended.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), Karl Popper asserts that the characteristic of a scientific theory is its refutable or “falsifiable” character, opposing on this point the criterion proposed by logical positivism for which scientific statements must be empirically verifiable. Furthermore, he transforms the traditional opposition within realism between the “inner world” and the “outer world” into an opposition between a scientific theory and a reality that transcends theory. Although this problem belongs to the field of science, realism remains in Popper a metaphysical doctrine, because it is neither demonstrable, as are logic or mathematics, nor refutable, as are the empirical sciences. But this metaphysical character of realism, instead of discrediting it, allows it to fulfill the role of foundation for scientific methodology. Here, the role of realism is threefold:

  1. It founds the possibility, for a theory, of being false (of being refuted) by justifying the possibility of refutation. We then speak of critical realism to qualify this position.
  2. It ensures the possibility of growth in scientific knowledge by arguing that the world is more like how modern theories describe it than outdated theories.
  3. It plays a regulatory role by setting a goal for science: the increase of knowledge about the world (because it is possible).

In Objective Knowledge, Popper defends a theory of truth-correspondence.

Kripke, Putnam and externalism

Saul Kripke(Saul Kripke)

It is up to Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam to have attempted in the 1970s to justify realism on the ground of language and semantics. Drawing on Gottlob Frege’s distinction between word meaning and word reference, Kripke and Putnam develop a causal theory of term reference to explain how the meaning of a term can change while designating the same thing in reality. According to this theory, the reference of a linguistic expression (what it designates in the world) is fixed by an act of “initial baptism”. This act arbitrarily designates a very real physical object associated with observable effects (e.g. electrons that produce electric light), but the meanings attached to this expression can evolve, even change completely. What establishes the “reality” of an expression or term is the existence of a continuous causal chain, linked to the initial baptism. Language thus maintains a stable relationship with the external environment which ensures the existence of the things and events described in the truthful statements.

This conception of the meaning of expressions makes it possible to reconcile naïve realism and scientific realism. The continuity of the reference between everyday language and science is guaranteed by the causal link which connects them via a certain relationship to their material environment and to the initial act of baptism.

Hilary Putnam
Credit: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5 license

(According to Hilary Putnam, who first championed metaphysical realism and later challenged it, metaphysical realism involves adopting a so-called “God’s point of view.”)

“Strong” realism

In its strong version, realism asserts that theories, beliefs or perceptions are (at least approximately) true in the sense that they correspond to reality. The notion of truth that is mobilized is therefore that of truth-correspondence: a theory, a belief or a perception is true when it reproduces in the mind what is, thus constituting a kind of copy of reality (admittedly incomplete and imperfect).

In this version of realism, a statement is true if it accurately describes what exists. The truth of a statement then establishes a relation of identity between the semantic content of this statement and the world. The “true” and “false” predicates are ontological predicates, relating to the existence or not of the objects or properties we are talking about, unlike epistemic predicates such as “certain”, “doubtful”, etc., which convey a human attitude of acceptance or rejection and relate to human beliefs.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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