In everyday use realism is commonly attributed to caution, or moderation in one's aspirations-the converse of utopianism . The word is also used to describe a variety of approaches in literature and the visual arts in which accurate depiction of reality is the aim. Each of these uses involves a contrast between human thought or imagination, on the one hand, and an external reality independent of mind, on the other. The notion that reality has a cognitive or normative authority over the mind is also generally present. In philosophy, realism signifies the assertion of the existence of a reality independently of our thoughts or beliefs about it. Controversy has centred especially on the question of whether universals (for example properties such as ‘redness’ or ‘softness’) really exist, or whether they are functions of our use of language (‘nominalism’).
Realism as a metaphysical doctrine is challenged by a range of sceptical arguments. Both in classical Greek philosophy and in the early modern period, sceptical arguments commonly began by appealing to our experience of such phenomena as dreams, illusions, and hallucinations, in which our senses mislead us. Since this does, unquestionably, sometimes happen, how do we know that it does not always do so? How can we be sure that, on any particular occasion, what we seem to observe may not turn out to have been illusory? More recently these arguments have been supplemented by analogous challenges to our ability to secure reliable reference to external reality in the use of language. Since we have no access to the world that is not mediated by thought or language, what independent check have we upon the reliability of what we think or say?
Such sceptical arguments do not necessarily lead to a denial of a reality independent of thought. It is possible to hold that there is a such a reality, but that we cannot know its nature (or, perhaps, that we cannot know that we know). More commonly, such epistemological scepticism lapses into phenomenalism, solipsism, or some other form of denial of the existence of a reality independent of mind, thought, or language.
In the philosophy of science, empiricists tend to be sceptical about the existence of the entities (many of them unobservable) postulated by scientific theories. On this view, the concepts of such entities are just convenient summaries of actual or possible observations, or grounds for prediction. Scientific realists, on the other hand, argue that the theories in question should be understood as claiming existence for the entities (sub-atomic particles, retroviruses, or whatever) they postulate. These claims may, of course, be either true or false. Many sociological opponents suppose that scientific realists are committed to an uncritical acceptance of the knowledge claims of science. This is not so. They are, rather, committed to an interpretation of those claims as claims about the nature of a reality which exists and acts independently of our knowledge or beliefs about it. Realists may be as sceptical as anyone else about whether those claims are true. The problem for the anti-realists is to make any sense at all of what science is about; and, in particular, of what it might be for scientific knowledge-claims to turn out to be false.
The leading British figure in the late twentieth-century revival of realist metatheory in philosophy and the social sciences is Roy Bhaskar. He and his associates have recently developed a form of scientific realism (variously termed ‘transcendental’ or ‘critical’ realism) which is offered as a comprehensive alternative to both empiricism and conventionalism in the philosophy of science. (The reference to critical is intended to indicate that the pursuit of knowledge is or should be emancipatory.) Activities such as scientific experimentation and the application of scientific knowledge are held to be unintelligible except on the assumption of a world independent of our beliefs about it. It is also necessary to distinguish the real causal powers and mechanisms of which science seeks knowledge, from the actual flow of events triggered by the activity of these mechanisms. The actual must, in turn, be distinguished from the empirical-that small sub-set of events which are observed by someone. Bhaskar claims that this view of science is applicable to both the human and the natural sciences in a way which is able to take fully into account the radical differences in the natures of their objects. Chief among his many publications are A Realist Theory of Science (2nd edn. 1978), The Possibility of Naturalism (1979), Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation (1986), and Reclaiming Reality (1989).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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