What is direct realism?

Sarah asked:

What is direct realism?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Direct realism is the name given to naive realism by naive realists who do not like being called naive. Naive realism is the doctrine what we perceive around us — the empirical world — is real, in the sense of continuing to exist when unperceived. But it cannot be real, it can at best be images of reality, because it consists of secondary qualities and illusions. It is also sometimes called common sense realism.


Geoffrey Klempner

What is the difference between naive realism and direct realism? Russell has a nice quote on this:

“Thus, science seems to be at war with itself: when it means most to be objective, it finds itself plunged into subjectivity against its will. Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore, naive realism, if true, is false, therefore it is false.” (Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, 1940).

Naive realists, it is claimed, don’t realize (or don’t think about) all the physical processes involved in perception. I am not ‘looking’ at my computer monitor as I write these words, but at an image at the back of my retina which my brain ‘interprets’ as an object in an external world.

But why stop there? The image at the back of my retina is converted into electrical impulses in my optic nerve. So I am really not ‘looking’ at those impulses? How far do you trace the chain of causes and effects back? And who, or what, is this ‘I’ that is ‘perceiving’ these various kinds of entity or process?

The response of the direct realist is to cut the Gordian knot, avoiding the threatened regress. Perception, when it is successful, not subject to illusion, has an object in the physical world. The ‘I’ that does the perceiving is another object in the physical world, one which has mental as well as physical attributes.

Back in the 1920s, direct realism was called ‘New Realism’, a revolt against the prevailing idealist philosophy of Royce, Bradley and McTaggart. Two great metaphysical works, Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity (1920) and A.N. Whitehead Process and Reality (1929) epitomized the new realist approach to the fundamental questions of metaphysics.

In more recent times, direct realism was once again revived by philosophers influenced by the the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin. As academic philosophers tend to do, they thought they had ‘discovered’ it.


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