Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen:The Real-Ideal Divide

The philosophy of Immanuel Kant introduced a change in the philosophical and scientific attitude towards mind and its relation to reality. Thus, we can talk about “realism” before and after Kant.

Generally speaking, the most essential and characteristic feature of realism is the notion of a mind-independent existence, which means that individual or a species of things have an existence that is “in-itself”. Realism is a metaphysical position; it is a stance taken of individual mind-endowed human beings towards the world in perception. On the other hand, to deny that something is mind-independent is yet another, however different, metaphysical stance that is called anti-realism or idealism. However, philosophical discourse discloses the fact that we, as philosophers and scientists, tend to choose different specifications for what is to count as “independent of mind” and also in which way this “mind-independent” entity is supposed to exist. There are many metaphysical issues over which realism and idealism have been argued. For example, we have the question about the existence of moral values. Or we have the problem of the existence of souls and minds. More interestingly is whether the past can be said to have been real, or, on the other hand, if the future is real. We tend, nevertheless, to take different specifications for granted and therefore we have a tremendously large variety of senses in which the word “realism” is being used. In order to get a general feeling of the modern sense of philosophical realism, we have to briefly take a look at the “before” and “after” of Kant.

Medieval scholastic realism had two poles: an extreme or exaggerated version and a much more moderate one. These two poles of realism were opposed to “nominalism” and “conceptualism”. Scholastic realists in general did not see “mind-independence” as any essential feature of their positions. In fact the “mind-independence” aspect did not present itself as any feature at all in the debate; it is only in modern philosophy that the aspect of mind-independence becomes an issue. It is the focus upon the aspect of “mind-independence” that marks of the shift from “medieval” realism to our modern versions. Scholastic realists emphasized the intimacy between mind and reality rather than focusing on the issue of having to deal with different “substances”.

The transition to the modern sense of realism came, however, with the philosophy of Kant. Kant saw idealism as the opposing view to realism. For Kant realism was divided into transcendental and empirical variants. Like the empirical realists, Kant was of the opinion that we know about the existence of things and objects in the world. These are things that appear in space and time. The transcendental realist would go further by stating that the existence we claim to know is wholly independent of our perception and predication. Kant would probably disagree with this view since his view was primarily interpreted as stating that knowledge is about things in the world dependent upon perception. However, this knowledge would rest upon nothing else but appearances. This is not knowledge proper.

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