Realism and Anti-Realism

Course description

These four lectures will discuss Michael Dummett’s and Hilary Putnam’s objections to metaphysical realism.

Where and when

Weeks 1-4, Friday 10-11, Lecture Block Room 7

Lecture 1: Realism

This lecture introduces the discussion about realism. We can distinguish three forms realism can take: metaphysical, epistemological, and semantic. Metaphysical realism has been criticised from an epistemological angle by idealist philosophers. Semantic realism has been the target of recent discussions. Michael Dummett claims that the semantic realist’s core commitment is the principle of bivalence. Hilary Putnam, who also develops a semantic criticism, gives a characterisation of realism that combines metaphysical, epistemological, and semantic claims.

Suggested Reading
  • Michael Dummett, ‘The Reality of the Past’ (1969) (Reprinted in Truth and Other Enigmas)
  • Tim Button, The Limits of Realism (OUP, 2016), Ch. 1
  • Mathieu Marion, ‘Oxford Realism: Knowledge and Perception’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 8:2, 299-338

(Download handout here)

Lecture 2: Acquisition and Manifestation Arguments

This lecture presents Michael Dummett’s Acquisition and Manifestation arguments. One should notice that Dummett is working with a specific view of language (roughly, a meaning-is-use theory). This means that the connection between meaning and understanding is at least as important as the connection between meaning and truth. Both the arguments exploit the idea that knowledge of meaning is a kind of practical knowledge: it is an ability to distinguish between correct and incorrect assertions of a statement. Can the realist make sense of acquiring such an ability, or manifesting it, if the truth conditions for a statement are verification-transcendent?

(Download handout here) (Download appendix to handout here)

Note, compare the Acquisition argument with Berkeley’s Master Argument. Berkeley: “Can you form a conception of an object unperceived? No, because to have a conception of an object is already to perceive it (in your mind’s eye)”. The acquisition argument: “Can you form a conception of truth conditions that can obtain independently of your knowledge of how to recognise them? No, because to have a conception of truth conditions is already to know how to recognise them.” How robust is this parallel?

Suggested Reading
  • Michael Dummett (1969), ‘The Reality of the Past’ (Reprinted in Truth and Other Enigmas)
  • John McDowell (1978), ‘On “The Reality of the Past”’ in C. Hookway and P. Pettit, eds., Action and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 127- 44.
  • P.F. Strawson (1976), ‘Scruton and Wright on Anti-Realism Etc.’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 77, pp. 15-21.
  • Crispin Wright (1993), Realism, Meaning and Truth (Oxford: Blackwell), ‘Introduction’ (pp. 1-43) and ‘Strawson on Anti-Realism’ (sec. V).

Lecture 3: Model-theoretic Objections to External Realism

This lecture will present Putnam’s model theoretic argument against external realism. The external realist claims that the world is largely independent of us and our sentences are true just if they correspond to the external things and structures of things external world. What the model-theoretic argument shows is that, if there is any way to make the theory true, then there are many ways of making the theory true. Putnam argues that any attempt to introduce a constraint on the external realist theory is “just more theory”, and so subject to the model-theoretic argument as well.

(Download handout here)

Suggested Reading
  • Putnam, Hilary, Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986.
  • Tim Button, The Limits of Realism (OUP, 2016), Ch. 1

Lecture 4: Anti-Realism

The anti-realist theory of meaning is (broadly) verificationist. It is fine to understand meaning in terms of truth-conditions, as the realist does too. But we should not understand truth conditions in terms of truth (as the realist does), but in terms of the conditions under which a sentence would be verified, i.e. when we would correctly assert it (verificationism). Classically, S is not true iff S is false, and S is not false iff S is true. But the anti-realist accepts that S can be not verifiable (i.e. not true) and not falsifiable (i.e. not false). Putnam thinks that, apart from adopting a specific philosophy of language, we should also give up certain assumptions about perception.

(Download handout here)

Note: Classically, we say that S is true iff S is not false, and that S is false iff S is not true. Truth and falsity are interdefinable, using negation. But if S is true iff S is verifiabile, and if S is false iff S is falsifiable, as the anti-realist wants to say, then given that the denial of verifiability is not falsifiability, but unverifiability, we cannot hold on to the classical opposition. Instead, we should say that it is not the case that S is true iff is is not false (S may be not true and also unfalsifiable). Bivalence breaks down. Perhaps this is why Dummett thinks the issue turns on the acceptance or rejection of bivalence. However, it’s easy to define falsity in disjunctive terms: S is false iff S is falsifiable or [S is unverifiable and unfalsifiable]. With such a definition, S is true iff S is not false, and S is false iff S is not true. Bivalence is re-instated. This justification of bivalence, however, is thoroughly anti-realist in spirit, and not obviously available to the realist.

  • Michael Dummett (1969), ‘The Reality of the Past’ (Reprinted in Truth and Other Enigmas)
  • Putnam, Hilary, Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986.
  • Putnam, Hilary, ‘Sense, Nonsense, and the Senses: An inquiry into the powers of the human mind’. The Journal of Philosophy 91.9, pp. 445–517.
  • Button, Tim, The Limits of Realism (OUP, 2016), Ch. 8-10.
  • Gardiner, Mark Q., Semantic Challenges to Realism: Dummett and Putnam University of Toronto Press. 2000.