In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.[1]

In anti-realism, the truth of a statement rests on its demonstrability through internal logic mechanisms, such as the context principle or intuitionistic logic, in direct opposition to the realist notion that the truth of a statement rests on its correspondence to an external, independent reality.[2] In anti-realism, this external reality is hypothetical and is not assumed.[3][4]

Because it encompasses statements containing abstract ideal objects (i.e. mathematical objects), anti-realism may apply to a wide range of philosophic topics, from material objects to the theoretical entities of science, mathematical statement, mental states, events and processes, the past and the future.[5]


Metaphysical anti-realism

One kind of metaphysical anti-realism maintains a skepticism about the physical world, arguing either: 1) that nothing exists outside the mind, or 2) that we would have no access to a mind-independent reality, even if it exists.[6] The latter case often takes the form of a denial of the idea that we can have 'unconceptualised' experiences (see Myth of the Given). Conversely, most realists (specifically, indirect realists) hold that perceptions or sense data are caused by mind-independent objects. But this introduces the possibility of another kind of skepticism: since our understanding of causality is that the same effect can be produced by multiple causes, there is a lack of determinacy about what one is really perceiving, as in the brain in a vat scenario. The main alternative to this sort of metaphysical anti-realism is metaphysical realism.

On a more abstract level, model-theoretic anti-realist arguments hold that a given set of symbols in a theory can be mapped onto any number of sets of real-world objects—each set being a "model" of the theory—provided the relationship between the objects is the same (compare with symbol grounding.)

In ancient Greek philosophy, nominalist (anti-realist) doctrines about universals were proposed by the Stoics, especially Chrysippus.[7][8] In early modern philosophy, conceptualist anti-realist doctrines about universals were proposed by thinkers like René Descartes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, George Berkeley, and David Hume.[9][10] In late modern philosophy, anti-realist doctrines about knowledge were proposed by the German idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel was a proponent of what is now called inferentialism: he believed that the ground for the axioms and the foundation for the validity of the inferences are the right consequences and that the axioms do not explain the consequence.[11] Kant and Hegel held conceptualist views about universals.[12][13] In contemporary philosophy, anti-realism was revived in the form of empirio-criticism, logical positivism, semantic anti-realism and scientific instrumentalism (see below).

Semantic anti-realism

The term "anti-realism" was introduced by Michael Dummett in his 1982 paper "Realism" in order to re-examine a number of classical philosophical disputes, involving such doctrines as nominalism, Platonic realism, idealism and phenomenalism. The novelty of Dummett's approach consisted in portraying these disputes as analogous to the dispute between intuitionism and Platonism in the philosophy of mathematics.

According to intuitionists (anti-realists with respect to mathematical objects), the truth of a mathematical statement consists in our ability to prove it. According to Platonic realists, the truth of a statement is proven in its correspondence to objective reality. Thus, intuitionists are ready to accept a statement of the form "P or Q" as true only if we can prove P or if we can prove Q. In particular, we cannot in general claim that "P or not P" is true (the law of excluded middle), since in some cases we may not be able to prove the statement "P" nor prove the statement "not P". Similarly, intuitionists object to the existence property for classical logic, where one can prove , without being able to produce any term of which holds.

Dummett argues that this notion of truth lies at the bottom of various classical forms of anti-realism, and uses it to re-interpret phenomenalism, claiming that it need not take the form of reductionism.

Dummett's writings on anti-realism draw heavily on the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, concerning meaning and rule following, and can be seen as an attempt to integrate central ideas from the Philosophical Investigations into the constructive tradition of analytic philosophy deriving from Gottlob Frege.

Scientific anti-realism

In philosophy of science, anti-realism applies chiefly to claims about the non-reality of "unobservable" entities such as electrons or genes, which are not detectable with human senses.[14][15]

One prominent variety of scientific anti-realism is instrumentalism, which takes a purely agnostic view towards the existence of unobservable entities, in which the unobservable entity X serves as an instrument to aid in the success of theory Y does not require proof for the existence or non-existence of X.

Some scientific anti-realists, however, deny that unobservables exist, even as non-truth conditioned instruments.

Mathematical anti-realism

In the philosophy of mathematics, realism is the claim that mathematical entities such as 'number' have an observer-independent existence. Empiricism, which associates numbers with concrete physical objects, and Platonism, in which numbers are abstract, non-physical entities, are the preeminent forms of mathematical realism.

The "epistemic argument" against Platonism has been made by Paul Benacerraf and Hartry Field. Platonism posits that mathematical objects are abstract entities. By general agreement, abstract entities cannot interact causally with physical entities ("the truth-values of our mathematical assertions depend on facts involving platonic entities that reside in a realm outside of space-time"[16]) Whilst our knowledge of physical objects is based on our ability to perceive them, and therefore to causally interact with them, there is no parallel account of how mathematicians come to have knowledge of abstract objects.[17][18][19]

Field developed his views into fictionalism. Benacerraf also developed the philosophy of mathematical structuralism, according to which there are no mathematical objects. Nonetheless, some versions of structuralism are compatible with some versions of realism.


Anti-realist arguments hinge on the idea that a satisfactory, naturalistic account of thought processes can be given for mathematical reasoning. One line of defense is to maintain that this is false, so that mathematical reasoning uses some special intuition that involves contact with the Platonic realm, as in the argument given by Sir Roger Penrose.[20]

Another line of defense is to maintain that abstract objects are relevant to mathematical reasoning in a way that is non causal, and not analogous to perception. This argument is developed by Jerrold Katz in his 2000 book Realistic Rationalism. In this book, he put forward a position called realistic rationalism, which combines metaphysical realism and rationalism.

A more radical defense is to deny the separation of physical world and the platonic world, i.e. the mathematical universe hypothesis (a variety of mathematicism). In that case, a mathematician's knowledge of mathematics is one mathematical object making contact with another.

See also


  1. ^ Realism (1963) p. 145
  2. ^ Realism (1963) p. 146
  3. ^ Truth (1959) p. 24 (postscript)
  4. ^ Blackburn, Simon ([2005] 2008). "realism/anti-realism," The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. revised, pp. 308–9. Oxford.
  5. ^ Realism (1963) pp. 147–8
  6. ^ Karin Johannesson, God Pro Nobis: On Non-metaphysical Realism and the Philosophy of Religion, Peeters Publishers, 2007, p. 26.
  7. ^ John Sellars, Stoicism, Routledge, 2014, pp. 84–85: "[Stoics] have often been presented as the first nominalists, rejecting the existence of universal concepts altogether. ... For Chrysippus there are no universal entities, whether they be conceived as substantial Platonic Forms or in some other manner.".
  8. ^ Chrysippus – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  9. ^ David Bostock, Philosophy of Mathematics: An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 43: "All of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume supposed that mathematics is a theory of our ideas, but none of them offered any argument for this conceptualist claim, and apparently took it to be uncontroversial."
  10. ^ Stefano Di Bella, Tad M. Schmaltz (eds.), The Problem of Universals in Early Modern Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 64 "there is a strong case to be made that Spinoza was a conceptualist about universals" and p. 207 n. 25: "Leibniz's conceptualism [is related to] the Ockhamist tradition..."
  11. ^ P. Stekeler-Weithofer (2016), "Hegel's Analytic Pragmatism", University of Leipzig, pp. 122–4.
  12. ^ Oberst, Michael. 2015. "Kant on Universals." History of Philosophy Quarterly 32(4):335–352.
  13. ^ A. Sarlemijn, Hegel's Dialectic, Springer, 1975, p. 21.
  14. ^ Hacking, Ian (1999). The Social Construction Of What?. Harvard University Press. p. 84.
  15. ^ Okasha, Samir (2002). Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
  16. ^ Field, Hartry, 1989, Realism, Mathematics, and Modality, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 68
  17. ^ "Since abstract objects are outside the nexus of causes and effects, and thus perceptually inaccessible, they cannot be known through their effects on us" — Jerrold Katz, Realistic Rationalism, 2000, p. 15
  18. ^ Philosophy Now: "Mathematical Knowledge: A dilemma"
  19. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  20. ^ Review of The Emperor's New Mind


External links

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Donald M. MacKinnon

Donald Mackenzie MacKinnon (27 August 1913 – 2 March 1994) was a Scottish philosopher and theologian.

Elisabeth Schellekens

Anna Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann is a Swedish philosopher and Chair Professor of Aesthetics at Uppsala University (since 2014). Previously, she was Senior Lecturer at Durham University (2006-2014). Schellekens is known for her works on aesthetics and ethics.

Her research interests include normativity, Kant, Hume, the distinctions between fact and value, subjectivism and objectivism, realism and anti-realism. She has also worked on the cognitive value of art, neuroaesthetics and the relation between moral and aeshetic value.

Schellekens is co-editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics since 2007, and member of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism's editorial board since 2008.

Ethical non-naturalism

Ethical non-naturalism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

Ethical sentences express propositions.

Some such propositions are true.

Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.

These moral features of the world are not reducible to any set of non-moral features.This makes ethical non-naturalism a non-definist form of moral realism, which is in turn a form of cognitivism. Ethical non-naturalism stands in opposition to ethical naturalism, which claims that moral terms and properties are reducible to non-moral terms and properties, as well as to all forms of moral anti-realism, including ethical subjectivism (which denies that moral propositions refer to objective facts), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true), and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all).

Evolutionary ethics

Evolutionary ethics is a field of inquiry that explores how evolutionary theory might bear on our understanding of ethics or morality. The range of issues investigated by evolutionary ethics is quite broad. Supporters of evolutionary ethics have claimed that it has important implications in the fields of descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics.

Descriptive evolutionary ethics consists of biological approaches to morality based on the alleged role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior. Such approaches may be based in scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or ethology, and seek to explain certain human moral behaviors, capacities, and tendencies in evolutionary terms. For example, the nearly universal belief that incest is morally wrong might be explained as an evolutionary adaptation that furthered human survival.

Normative (or prescriptive) evolutionary ethics, by contrast, seeks not to explain moral behavior, but to justify or debunk certain normative ethical theories or claims. For instance, some proponents of normative evolutionary ethics have argued that evolutionary theory undermines certain widely held views of humans' moral superiority over other animals.

Evolutionary metaethics asks how evolutionary theory bears on theories of ethical discourse, the question of whether objective moral values exist, and the possibility of objective moral knowledge. For example, some evolutionary ethicists have appealed to evolutionary theory to defend various forms of moral anti-realism (the claim, roughly, that objective moral facts do not exist) and moral skepticism.


Instrumentalism is an interpretation within the philosophy of science that holds that a successful scientific theory reveals nothing known either true or false about nature's unobservable objects, properties or processes. According to instrumentalists, scientific theory is merely a tool whereby humans predict observations in a particular domain of nature by formulating laws, which state or summarize regularities, while theories themselves do not reveal supposedly hidden aspects of nature that somehow explain these laws. Initially a novel perspective introduced by Pierre Duhem in 1906, instrumentalism is largely the prevailing theory that underpins the practice of physicists today.Rejecting scientific realism's ambitions to uncover metaphysical truth about nature, instrumentalism is usually categorized as an antirealism, although its mere lack of commitment to scientific theory's realism can be termed nonrealism. Instrumentalism merely bypasses debate concerning whether, for example, a particle spoken about in particle physics is a discrete entity enjoying individual existence, or is an excitation mode of a region of a field, or is something else altogether. Instrumentalism holds that theoretical terms need only be useful to predict the phenomena, the observed outcomes.Instrumentalism is a variety of scientific anti-realism.

Irrealism (philosophy)

Irrealism is a philosophical position first advanced by Nelson Goodman in "Ways of Worldmaking", encompassing epistemology, metaphysics, and aesthetics.

List of philosophies

Philosophies: particular schools of thought, styles of philosophy, or descriptions of philosophical ideas attributed to a particular group or culture - listed in alphabetical order.


Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I do?", thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.

Michael Dummett

Sir Michael Anthony Eardley Dummett, FBA (; 27 June 1925 – 27 December 2011) was an English academic described as "among the most significant British philosophers of the last century and a leading campaigner for racial tolerance and equality." He was, until 1992, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. He wrote on the history of analytic philosophy, notably as an interpreter of Frege, and made original contributions particularly in the philosophies of mathematics, logic, language and metaphysics. He was known for his work on truth and meaning and their implications to debates between realism and anti-realism, a term he helped to popularize. He devised the Quota Borda system of proportional voting, based on the Borda count. In mathematical logic, he developed an intermediate logic, already studied by Kurt Gödel: the Gödel–Dummett logic.

Moral realism

Moral realism (also ethical realism or moral Platonism) is the position that ethical sentences express propositions that refer to objective features of the world (that is, features independent of subjective opinion), some of which may be true to the extent that they report those features accurately. This makes moral realism a non-nihilist form of ethical cognitivism (which accepts that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be evaluated as true or false) with an ontological orientation, standing in opposition to all forms of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism, including ethical subjectivism (which denies that moral propositions refer to objective facts), error theory (which denies that any moral propositions are true); and non-cognitivism (which denies that moral sentences express propositions at all). Within moral realism, the two main subdivisions are ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.

Many philosophers claim that moral realism may be dated back at least to Plato as a philosophical doctrine,

and that it is a fully defensible form of moral doctrine. A survey from 2009 involving 3,226 respondents found that 56% of philosophers accept or lean towards moral realism (28%: anti-realism; 16%: other). Some notable examples of robust moral realists include David Brink, John McDowell, Peter Railton, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Michael Smith, Terence Cuneo, Russ Shafer-Landau, G. E. Moore, John Finnis, Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon, Thomas Nagel and Derek Parfit. Norman Geras has argued that Karl Marx was a moral realist. Moral realism has been studied in the various philosophical and practical applications.

Objectivity (philosophy)

Objectivity is a philosophical concept of being true independently from individual subjectivity caused by perception, emotions, or imagination. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. Scientific objectivity refers to the ability to judge without partiality or external influence, sometimes used synonymously with neutrality.

Philosophical realism

In metaphysics, realism about a given object is the view that this object exists in reality independently of our conceptual scheme. In philosophical terms, these objects are ontologically independent of someone's conceptual scheme, perceptions, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc.

Realism can be applied to many philosophically interesting objects and phenomena: other minds, the past or the future, universals, mathematical entities (such as natural numbers), moral categories, the physical world, and thought.

Realism can also be a view about the nature of reality in general, where it claims that the world exists independent of the mind, as opposed to non-realist views (like some forms of skepticism and solipsism, which deny the existence of a mind-independent world). Philosophers who profess realism often claim that truth consists in a correspondence between cognitive representations and reality.Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality but that the accuracy and fullness of understanding can be improved. In some contexts, realism is contrasted with idealism. Today it is more usually contrasted with anti-realism, for example in the philosophy of science.

The oldest use of the term "realism" appears in medieval scholastic interpretations and adaptations of ancient Greek philosophy.

Philosophy of mathematics

The philosophy of mathematics is the branch of philosophy that studies the assumptions, foundations, and implications of mathematics, and purports to provide a viewpoint of the nature and methodology of mathematics, and to understand the place of mathematics in people's lives. The logical and structural nature of mathematics itself makes this study both broad and unique among its philosophical counterparts.

Property (philosophy)

In mathematics, logic, and philosophy, a property is a characteristic of an object; a red object is said to have the property of redness. The property may be considered a form of object in its own right, able to possess other properties. A property, however, differs from individual objects in that it may be instantiated, and often in more than one thing. It differs from the logical/mathematical concept of class by not having any concept of extensionality, and from the philosophical concept of class in that a property is considered to be distinct from the objects which possess it. Understanding how different individual entities (or particulars) can in some sense have some of the same properties is the basis of the problem of universals. The terms attribute and quality have similar meanings.


Reality is the sum or aggregate of all that is real or existent, as opposed to that which is merely imaginary. The term is also used to refer to the ontological status of things, indicating their existence. In physical terms, reality is the totality of the universe, known and unknown. Philosophical questions about the nature of reality or existence or being are considered under the rubric of ontology, which is a major branch of metaphysics in the Western philosophical tradition. Ontological questions also feature in diverse branches of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophical logic. These include questions about whether only physical objects are real (i.e., Physicalism), whether reality is fundamentally immaterial (e.g., Idealism), whether hypothetical unobservable entities posited by scientific theories exist, whether God exists, whether numbers and other abstract objects exist, and whether possible worlds exist.

Semantic anti-realism

Semantic anti-realism may refer to:

Semantic anti-realism (epistemology), a position put forward by Michael Dummett

Semantic anti-realism (philosophy of science), a position criticized by Stathis Psillos

Stathis Psillos

Stathis Psillos (; Greek: Στάθης Ψύλλος; born 22 June 1965) is a Greek philosopher of science. He is Professor of Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics at the University of Athens, Greece and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy—Engaging Science of the University of Western Ontario. In 2013–15, he held the Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.Psillos is best known for his work in scientific realism and the metaphysics of science. He is a notable defender of semantic realism about scientific discourse (the view that theoretical assertions are no less meaningful than observational ones) and also a notable critic of semantic anti-realism about scientific discourse (the view that theoretical terms of past scientific theories often fail to refer to anything) and structural realism.In 2015, he was classified among the 91 most cited living philosophers with public Google Scholar pages.

Truth-value link

The principle of truth-value links is a concept in metaphysics discussed in debates between philosophical realism and anti-realism. Philosophers who appeal to truth-value links in order to explain how individuals can come to understand parts of the world that are apparently cognitively inaccessible (the past, the feelings of others, etc.) are called truth-value link realists.

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