The Reach of Realism In Knowledge

Realism, much like any other epistemic view, has a way of working itself into every domain of human knowledge. We have realists about law, realists about psychology, and even realists about economics. I have yet to come across a branch of knowledge which has been untouched by realism.

For sake of brevity, however, I must give the quintessential element of realism; that is, a realist will be of the belief that there exists a mind-independent world, of which can be discovered by an inquisitive and curious mind. For a realist, the truth is discoverable rather than stored only in the depths of our minds. So long as we maintain our awareness of said quintessential element, then our grasp of realism in different domains of knowledge will endure no struggle.

Law and Realism

Let us consider realism in the domain of law. Many of us have a naive realist view about language. We presume words have objective meanings which reside outside the mind, and that we learn these objective meanings over time. As example, many regard dictionaries to be the bearers of true meaning for a word, and those who study the words within its binding are learning the true meaning of each word read. A similar view manifests in the domain of law, especially when in regards to legal interpretation.

Though meaning and interpretation come in various forms within law, many of them are realists of a sort. Some believe the true meaning of a law is not presented, directly, by the words themselves, but is instead derived from the intention which the legislator placed into them. Put otherwise, words have ordinary meanings which, when placed together, produce an intended meaning.

Herein, the realism is the view that there exists real minds outside of our own, and that the content of those minds can be placed into the world around us, to be discovered by others. In specific, the minds of legislators exist, and the content of their minds exist in the laws they have written.

Yet another variant of realism in law supposes that meaning has mind-independent existence, and that there exists something known as the plain and ordinary meaning of words. But it is not just that words have ordinary meaning, it also that words ought to taken to mean their ordinary meaning; we should interpret words in their ordinary sense.

For example, suppose we have the following rule:

  1. Contracts are binding unless they are unreasonable.

The word, “unreasonable,” or, “binding,” will be argued to have plain and ordinary meanings. Demonstratively put, some could construe reasonableness as, “in accordance to logic, and thus rational,” all while taking logic to be self-evident and objective: a matter of fact in regards to reality. And so, an unreasonable contract would be one which violates the standards for rationality.

Other realists in law might respond with an argument from referential ambiguity; they could say those two words have little to do with reality. As demonstration, suppose someone believed that words referenced states of the world, that is, they held to a correspondence or reference theory of truth. From there, that someone could make the argument from referential ambiguity; they could say: “‘unreasonable,’  has no reference to the real world and is thus referentially ambiguous”.

And the reason for the words ambiguity is because it was either not given a clear meaning or the word pertains to nothing real. Of course, if one holds to the view that meaning is mind-independent, then one cannot simply give meaning to a word; and so, it thus follows that there is simply no meaning to the word “unreasonable”. We have not any grasp as to what it means to suppose, “there exists something which does not abide by rationality”.

Moreover, the point herein being, many sorts of realism can be found in law. We only mentioned realism of language within law, but there likewise realists about evidence, mind, and causation within law as well. We simply haven’t enough time to give example to each.

Psychology and Realism

In psychology, realism has manifested in many different debates; prominent among them is the debates involving the unconscious, conscious, and supposed preconscious aspects of our minds.

Some psychologists are realists about the conscious mind; they believe there exists some internal representations which bear importance for behaviour and thought. Comparatively, other psychologists believe in a stimulus determinism; that whatever stimulus is before us shall determine what behavioural outputs are produced. Both are realists in their own way.

The realists of the mind suppose there exists representations of the world itself within the mind, and that we have accurate representations of the world around us within our minds. For them, the representations serve as the basis for action, belief, and emotion.

Upon the construction of these real representations, we then follow something akin to the following: we think about them, we feel some way about them, and we then act on our thoughts and feelings about those representations.

In comparison, those who deny the existence of the mind argue that certain actions are consequences of certain stimuli. They believe behaviour is a reciprocal chain of causation between inputs and outputs.

In example, when a human slows and brings to a complete stop their motor vehicle down, it is because a deterministic relationship between traffic lights and visual perception have taken place. The human’s visual cortex has been deterministically impacted by the traffic light, and the visual cortex then had a deterministic impact on the motor centres within the brain; thus stopping the car.

So, in one case, we have a psychological view which supports a realism of mind, and in another case, we have a psychological view which supports a realism of stimulus determinism.

And yet there are still more realists in regards to the subject of consciousness and unconsciousness, such as Freud, Jung, and Piaget’s views. Freud believes in a psychoanalytic unconscious, as does Jung, though they differ in the specifics of their theories. Likewise, Piaget holds a realism about what children believe, that is, about the conscious aspects of a developing mind. Many different sorts of realism can be found in psychology.

Economics and Realism

Within economics, we can see realism spread throughout bottom-up and top-down models, as well as in  value theory.

Consider the notion of “macro-economy”. That notion is argued by some to have reference to a mind-independent entity, one that supervenes on top of the constituent pieces of the economy. For them, the macro-economy cannot be understood through analysis of smaller fragments, as the phenomenon of study only emerges after all the fragments are placed together.

As a result, they come to believe that the proper subject of macro-economics is macro-events and only macro-events; the constituent pieces reveal nothing about the macro-economy.

Those who subscribe to such a macro-economic view tend to prefer macro-policies for economic change, and have an extremely different view of causation than those who are realists about bottom-up economics.

Whereas the macro-economy view just espoused would disagree with the following: “the macro-economy is synonymous with the sum of its constituent pieces,” a micro-economist who supports a bottom-up approach would agree.

The micro-economist believes all macro-measurements are nothing but an attempt to measure the non-linear dynamics of the many exchanges between micro, independent variables. For the micro-economist, the ontology of the economy supports a realist view about the economy being a gestalt, wherein which the gestalt is composed of rational actors.

As such, if there is a macro-economic measurement of something like too much pollution, it is because the individual agents are given a rational incentive to pollute. Rather than the pollution being dealt with via macro-policy, a micro-economist would instead suppose solution which incentives agents to no longer pollute.

But realism about the direction of causation in economics, and realism about the ontology of the economy are not the only sorts of realisms in economics. We likewise have realism about value-theory and cost-benefit analysis.

On the one hand, value theory has many debates about whether value exists or not; only because, when attempting to determine somethings value in economics, there is not much agreement; and so, people take it to be referentially ambiguous and thus a fiction of human imagination.

For instance, we could suppose value is determined by how much labour something can command, or we could suppose value is how much labour is required to make something. Both are similar; but upon closer reading, we can see they are different. It is like saying, “how much labour can be bought with x,” and, “how much labour is required to make x”. Similar but different. Likewise, we could also suppose value is determined by its demand and supply, or its current future value, if we grant interest.

It is because of the ambiguity of the term that some deny value, while others support their own idiosyncratic theory of value as the one and only true theory of value.

On the other hand, cost-benefit analysts are more often than not realists about the existence of future benefits bestowed to people.

Consider, when a manager employs five workers, they do so with the belief that there will be real, tangible benefits in the future as a result of employing five people. Likewise, when an insurance company assesses a risk for a car owner, they believe that risk is tangible and not just a number on paper.

Why Realism Has Such A Long Reach

Realism, as we have seen, has a way to reach into every domain of knowledge. Whether it be law, economics, or psychology, realism manifests itself. It is a curious puzzle as to why exactly realism reaches into everything.

But if I had to theorize, my emphasis would be placed on human cognition itself. The only common theme amongst all the kinds of realisms is human reason, and so reason itself must deploy the cognition necessary for the manifestation of realism.


When we are aware of the reach which realism has, we can better understand what others espouse to us when speaking of some topic. Whether it is academic or informal, people adopt some sort of epistemic view. If we are to catch these views, and assess them accurately, we must understand that they go beyond discussions within philosophy and spread through all domains of knowing.



Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

Leave a Reply