Realism In Philosophy And In Art

All three regular readers of this blog might know I’m interested in the relation between philosophy and literature. I have argued the philosophy is well viewed as a type of literature, or, conversely a certain novel writer well-viewed as a philosopher.

My aim here is to further this project of unification of the two domains. So there isn’t vulgar suspense, I’ll just tell you my argument before presenting it. There’s a notion of realism in philosophy, and one in literature. I argue that in some sense these notions are the same. A bit more precisely: human beings have a tendency to concentrate, when looking on the world, now on the world itself, and now on themselves as lookers. After all, you really can’t understand how reality is unless you understand how your conception of reality is distorted by how you view it. This tendency, which I think of as something like an inbuilt universal of how we think (I have no evidence for this), shapes both art and philosophy. In the latter, it explains the ping-ponging back and forth between realism and what’s variously called idealism, anti-realism, constructivism, and so on. In the former, it explains the distinction between realism as typified by, say, the classic 19th century novel, and modernism or postmodernism which is typified, in part, by an attention to form, to self-referentiality (i.e., I claim, self-directed attention), parody, and so on.

I am going to make this case by looking at two very different pairs of cases, which I choose mainly because I like them and have written before about them: the varieties of idealism around the end of the 18th century and the realism before it paired with 19th century Russian literature in the form of Pushkin and Tolstoy; and contemporary so-called analytic metaphysics qua reaction to the so-called linguistic turn and the style of the contemporary sitcom (not really so-called, I suppose).

We start with one of history of philosophy’s greats, Immanuel Kant and his Critique Of Pure Reason. Kant lived in modern day Kaliningrad, which is to say on the Baltic sea near Poland and Lithuania, but wrote in German and is canonically considered one of the great Germans of the period, along with Hegel a bit later, Goethe about the same time, and many others. To understand the outlines of his work — at least as presented in history of philosophy 101, beyond which I don’t go much further — we need to go a bit back to modern philosophy.

So here’s a problem. A newly confident science got to thinking about the mechanism of perception. In seeing (or smelling, hearing, etc.) an object we must be somehow affected by it. We might tell the story in terms of waves of various types (light, sound) , or chemicals, and our sensory organization. For Descartes (as I understand it, which is perhaps incorrect), the story needs to be told in terms of a world of moving stuff, whose motions, indeed, were in the process of being tamed by Galileo’s experiments and experimental methods, and the Cartesian coordinates and conception of geometry they helped foster themselves introduced by Descartes.

Regardless the details, there must be something to say about how we, as an object in a world of objects, form representations of those (other) objects (also we should say something about the object we are, but that’s another thing altogether that I’ll more or less leave out). How some of the interactions of some of the stuff, whether that be matter or fields or some quantum matterfields, generate this new type of thing, thought.

Descartes thought there was a problem, and made it all our (philosophers’) problem. Somehow we’re affected by objects in forming our thoughts of them. But how can we know our thoughts are accurate? It’s very tempting to fall into this way of thinking. Call thoughts just those things that are caused by objects. Thoughts include perceptions, on this stipulation. And those perceptions are of objects, external things. But now the problem: how do you know if the thought accurately represents reality?

Well, think about it. If you look at your smartphone, and it seems to have a weird florescent yellow mark, and you wonder whether you saw it right or it’s a trick of light, you’ll look again. But translated, that means you’ll just be comparing your first thought, the weird one, with a second one. But that’s not what we want to do. We want to know if thought as a whole accurately represents the reality that causes it. That is not, arguably, something that any amount of compare and contrast of any number of individual thoughts can do. And that’s a problem.

But note that it’s a problem with two arrows pointing to solutions of different types. You could either rethink the nature of these thoughts we’ve posited, or rethink the nature of the objects they represent. And this is a paradigmatically realist philosophy: there is an external world out there, independent of us, and the question of philosophy is how to think of thought that it can get a hold of it.

One solution, offered by the Bishop Berkeley of my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, holds that it’s the objects we can get rid of. Reasonably enough, he says that given all our knowledge is and must be of thoughts, the world must be thought-like. We can’t, he agrees, somehow get beyond thought to look at reality itself: that’s nonsense. And so he assumes that there’s a special class of thoughts, thoughts (he, as does Descartes, calls them ideas) in the mind of God. Since God thinks clearly, they exhibit the order and coherence we expect of an external world, and aren’t subject to the problem that if the world were just my thoughts, for example, then when I closed my eyes or fell asleep, the world would disappear.

Another solution is offered by Kant. He wants to square the circle and somehow get both the objectivity of the world and the fact that our thinking of it can’t be eliminated from the picture. On his view, reality is partially created by thought, but that reality is out there. Since any qualification we make of reality is in terms of our thoughts, all we can say about reality, his Ding An Sich, is that it exists. Even that’s too much, as we’ve used a singular pronoun, but number concepts are ours. Reality does be, and that’s all we can say.

The actual details, as interesting as they are, are slightly incidental to my point. The main thing is that thought and world are two poles around which perhaps the central problem of philosophy poses itself, and thinkers now emphasise one, now the other, now attempt a rapprochement. In this early modern idiom, idealism tends to be the view that thought is primary, and we’ll call realism — anachronistically — the view that an external unconceptualizable reality is primary. Kant is sort of in between.

Suspend belief and imagine you read a poem, today, in 2021. (I’m not slagging you, this is more of a reflection on the cultural role of poetry today). And it begins:

My uncle had some rules for life: clean your room!
Among the first…

Imagine later we read:

Jealous, Eugene typed: are you ducking
… Then stopped typing. Was it autocorrect
she wondered, or “were you fucking….??”
Happy he’d be jealous enough to check …

Imagine the hero is into crypto, knowing his NFTs from his Defi, and the poet tells us about it, and imagine finally, in the basically girl-meets-popular,-funny,-mardy-boy,-girl-is-spurned-by-boy story, in the climactic scene she realizes he’s a mere parody, someone who has stole others’ identity from social media:

She looks in his twitter likes. It’s all there to see:
the memes, the jokes, the comedic online gait!
He’s taken all his smartest sayings straight
from an account with a John Rawls avatar
the account of some Brooklyn lit’rary star.
Her hero, she realizes, is an NPC —
She’s been in love with a fantasy.

Such a poem, fleshed out, is clearly playful. It is aware of itself as a poem; its character’s actions themselves are shaped by others’ words (their tweets, in this case). It makes jokes about the rhymes you might expect or not; its main hero is a stitched together hipster-by-numbers who stole their personality. It’s alive to contemporary culture in all its ridiculousness, and references, for example, popular literature from the get-go, finance, and so on.

Such a poem, I want to claim, is well viewed as anti-realistic. Just as Berkeley turns away from the external world of imperceptible matter, and concentrates on thoughts, so such a poem, thoroughly recognizing itself as a poem, a rhyming production of someone in a particular culture, turns away from a central goal of art, namely presenting the world, and turns inwards. That sort of artistic style is anti-realism in literature, a sibling to anti-realism in philosophy, and sharing many of its traits.

But I need to back up. What is this poem? A couple of decades after Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was published, about 1,000 kilometres due east, Alexander Pushkin was born. He is generally recognized as perhaps the first and greatest Russian poet, and Eugene Onegin, his ‘novel in verse’ counts among the first works of the great canonical works of 19th century Russia, and — imo — the most underrated highly-rated work of European literature.

The reason for this is suggested by my weird ‘translation’: it’s a notoriously hard work to translate, in part because it has a complicated rhyme scheme (which I didn’t try to capture at all). It’s controversial, to say the least, that my rendition is accurate — you might think it’s much too Very Online to capture Pushkin’s spirit. I disagree, but I don’t think it really matters. In each case I based myself on features of the poem (respectively, the reference to a fable by one Krilov — see Nabokov's commentary, which I have replaced with a reference to Jordan Peterson; for the reference to crypto cf. the mention of Adam Smith and use of terms from econ; a play with rhymes (the roz/moroz in 3.13); and the climactic scene where Tatyana looks at Eugene’s bookmarks and sees he’s made his personality by stealing from his hero Byron.

The point is, Pushkin is i) a fundamental writer in the Russian tradition in particular and Europe in general, and Eugene Onegin is what I want to call a paradigmatically anti-realist work of literature, where that in turn means that it has turned away from the traditional artistic desideratum of representing the world, and has come to consider how representation is works, both as a writer and in his characters. Just as Berkeley rethought the concept of thought (with his introduction of God’s coherent and ubiquitous thoughts) and so did Kant with (though I haven’t talked about this) his forms of imagination and understanding that partly create the world as we know it, so Pushkin turned inwards to kick back at the limits of (in particular the romantic theory of) poetry to produce his parodic, playful poem.

If Pushkin represents an anti-realist, literature version of Berkeley, is there literary realism? This is easier answered, and we need only go about half a century forward to find it. Tolstoy’s novels are probably the best example we have of realistic narrative novels. This positive is quite hard to prove (though surely uncontroversial), so I’ll just rely on an argument from authority and quote Nabokov who tells us how

The average Russian reader will tell you that what seduces him in Tolstoy is the absolute reality of his novels, the sensation of meeting old friends and seeing familiar places … elderly Russians at their evening tea talk of Tolstoy characters as of people who really exist, people they see as distinctly as if they [were in the novel] … Tolstoy remains always exactly of our own stature, exactly keeping pace with us instead of passing by in the distance, as others do (Lectures On Russian Literature, 141–2)

(For scholarly propriety, let me note Nabokov doesn’t think Tolstoy is best among such realist writers — he is not expressing his own thought here.) Tolstoy, you want to see, sees the world. It’s almost as if he’s seen through the veil of thoughts that ensnared Descartes. And that visual world, so says I, is the archetype of realism in literature. And that’s our first example.

(A parenthetical on theory consisting of two points. Point 1. It’s tempting to try and make a bit more sense of this by taxonomising a bit. Could one say, maybe, that Pushkin really represents romanticisim and it’s that where the subjective, anti-realist sentiment lies? A concern with subjectivity has after all been taken to be typical of romanticism. Could one say instead, as I mentioned in text, that modernism or postmodernism with their playfulness with form give us the type of literature anti-realism? While tempting, I don’t want to explore this too much, partly because I’m afraid of showing my ignorance (I am not a scholar of either a movement, not even a keen amateur), but partly because from my outsider perspective all these distinctions miss too much. We want to include, surely, Tristram Shandy among our playful concerned-with-form novels (maybe also Don Quixote? But then where does it end? Aristophanes?), but is it romantic, not to mention postmodern? Point 2. A reader might think I’m retreading old ground. If I’m making the case that literature and philosophy are both particular forms of a particular type of seeing the traditional mind-world distinction, am I not just making the case that Rorty did in Philosophy and The Mirror Of Nature? It’s tempting to think — and this temptation will be encouraged below — that this parodic style is ironic, and doesn’t Rorty have a book with that word in its title? Well, maybe. The truth is, if I read PaTMoN I did so in undergrad, and don’t remember much more than that (wrong?) cliff notes version, and I haven’t even read the other book. So maybe I am retreading old ground, but I’m not taking from him, something presumably evident in the fact that our conclusions and examples — presumably — differ.)

Berkeley: The Original Galaxy Brain

Let’s retrace our steps a bit. In parody form, the argument I want to make is: in literature, we talk about realism. In philosophy, we talk about realism. Therefore, there is one univocal notion of realism that underlies both philosophy and literature which manifests, differently, in the two domains.

That’s obviously a terrible argument. It’s like saying that because there is realism about the wave function in some theories of quantum mechanics, and realism about politics in political theory, there’s a unified notion of realism there.

But thankfully that’s not all I have. If realism is a species of which some philosophy and literature are genuses (genii? genopodes?), we should be able to point to certain shared characteristics between literature and philosophy. Let’s say we think of philosophy as aiming at truth and literature beauty. Then perhaps we should expect aesthetic qualities in our philosophy and alethic (truth-related) qualities in our literature.

And we do see that. Anti-realism in literature gives us truth about the nature of representations. Think again about Pushkin. In my more modern rendition it’s, in part, about the effects of literature on us. My character Eugene is moulded by other fictional creatures — more generally, by representations. Pushkin’s Eugene is too — my rendition is faithful to that feature.

But here’s the thing: our lives are moulded by representations too. Representation has this weird inward-turning quality — it doesn’t only mirror the world, but serves to constitute us as social beings, by giving us models of life (and perhaps, some would say, even giving us the necessary self-consciousness on which consciousness depends, but that gets us into very confusing areas of philosophy I’d rather ignore).

By making poetry — a type of representation — both the form and content of his work, by turning away from the world in the paradigm anti-realist move, Pushkin tells us truths about subjectivity.

So, if you buy this, from aesthetic anti-realism we learn truths about subjectivity. The converse claim is roughly that from philosophical anti-realism we are presented with aesthetically appealing images. And I think this is true. In particular, I want to make the case that most such theories are funny. Remember Berkeley’s theory. Because we can never see them, there’s no reason to think objects as mind independent exist. But we need something to back up the orderliness of the thoughts (remember, including perceptions) we entertain, and for Berkeley it’s that they’re thoughts in the mind of God. And: he claims that his theory is common sense!

Here’s the thing to say about this: it’s funny. It’s a galaxy-brained take. You could easily imagine Berkeley lay out his theory in a sitcom to a disbelieving interlocutor. Let’s call this the sitcom test:

Sitcom test. A philosophical theory is funny if you could imagine it said in a sitcom to laughs.

Many philosophical theories are funny in this way. In fact, let me arrogantly name McKeever’s Conjecture: Any Great Philosophical Theory Is Funny. And funniness is an aesthetic property. So in addition to works of literature telling us truths, works of philosophy have artistic properties. And that, I think, is what gives my thesis that there’s a univocal notion of realism some plausibility.

But things are still a bit messy. One notable thing is that I’ve used the word ‘realism’ a lot but we haven’t actually seen much realism in philosophy. In order to do so, it’ll be helpful to jump about one hundred and fifty years, to consider the environment of contemporary analytic philosophy. We’ll do so along with my favourite contemporary artistic medium, the sitcom. I’ll claim that we see the realism anti-realism divide still at large in this different domain.

Before doing that, let me advertise something. I wrote a book, 90s To Now, released last month, which is about the development of certain core cultural concepts — irony, precarity, spectacularization of politics, ‘identity politics’ — from 90s US culture to contemporary culture. A central theme of my book was with the apt notion of realism for contemporary society, and discussing that I range beyond sitcoms to prestige tv, film, and books. While the book is a bit expensive (~$40) to buy, if you have access to a university library, please consider requesting it. (Autobiographically, I wrote the book before realizing the contents of this post, namely that in so doing I was exploring philosophical themes via the study of culture.)

Okay, so the contemporary sitcom. Here my claim is very straightforward: the past three decades are an object lesson in how an artistic medium can move from anti-realistic to realistic, from a concern with representation to a concern with reality. We start in the 90s with The Simpsons (which I assume has R’d if not IP since around the millennium). The Simpsons is paradigm anti-realist, in my usage. It constantly nods to itself as being televised — there are myriad references to old and new TV. Bart hums its theme tune; one scene makes fun of animation reusing backgrounds as characters walk along … a reused background. And so on — examples could be continued for a long time. More generally, with its channel flipping and range of different voices, it presents, I have argued elsewhere, what it is like to live in the end of the twentieth century in a TV saturated culture. In a sense, it is a modern translation of Eugene Onegin — just as Eugene forms his personality from Byron and related authors, The Simpsons gives us a world in which characterization (down to Homer’s ‘d’oh’, which, famously, is a reference to a character from Laurel and Hardy) is stolen from elsewhere, but it does so to present us the truth that in the age of cable TV, we ourselves drowned in voices other than our own.

At the start of the new millennium we have Arrested Development. It, in many ways, remains concerned with form — its narrator appears in the show at some point, it makes fun of the on-screen ads the network mandated, and so on. But it’s also slightly more concerned — in my opinion, which I realize is questionable — with depicting people’s lives. At least with regards, say, to Michael and George Michael there is, or there is meant to be, the portrayal of a father-son relationship. But the main thing is the fact that it’s anti-realist, concerned with form, just not as much as The Simpsons. Next comes the US Office. It gets very close to a straight story, concerned with depicting compelling characters whom we feel for. It has very little awareness of itself as a piece of TV, except for one crucial aspect: it is a mockumentary. This enables it to do things like pseudo-fourth-wall breaks, when Jim looks at the camera, while still holding firm to a realist style. My theory is that in The Office, we are witnessing the American TV public and those who write for it gradually ween itself off artistic anti-realism, and the mockumentary format is a way to get playfulness with form while remaining realistic.

Finally, once we move to things like Brooklyn Nine Nine, or Superstore, or AP Bio, all formal playfulness is gone, and the merits are all on the characters and their situations.

This is a bit quick, and I don’t expect to have convinced you. But this should be solid ground: The Simpsons gives us anti-realistic art, concerned with itself as a representation, but also, in so doing, presents truths about what it’s like to live in a media-saturated environment. And there’s been a move away from that style in the last twenty or so years.

Finally, contemporary philosophy. The standard history of the present of one strand of contemporary philosophy is that the metaphysical theorizing that is in vogue is a counterreaction from the linguistic-turn-oriented philosophy of a few generations ago. Timothy Williamson, for example, compares his philosophy with the previous holder of his chair at Oxford, Michael Dummett, who held that philosophical problems are concerned with the structure of thought, and that thought can only be analysed via language, so philosophy had to be a language-turned discipline.

In those previous generations, the ambitions of philosophy was more constrained. If we skip back to the 30s or before, we have the logical positivists, one of whose ideas is that we should study language in part to scope out its limits: what we can’t say, things about which there aren’t truths, which included religion, ethics, and speculative philosophy. This was paradigm anti-realism.

It’s over though (in some quarters). Philosophy of religion is active, as is hardcore ethics and metaethics, but most importantly, realistic metaphysics is back. Thus you’ll read contemporary philosophers discuss whether the world is gunky (whether every part has a proper part), junky (every object is a proper part of some other), or hunky (both these). You’ll read defences of eternalism (always, everything exists at all times) and necessitism (necesarily, everything necessarily exists).

The views don’t matter. What does matter is i) the anti-realism/realism dichotomy was still alive in the twentieth century ii) we can see a concern with the anti-realist interest in representation beyond philosophy, and make a good claim that anti-realistic art taught us truths about living in a representation-stuffed world.

What is missing is a claim about the aesthetic merit of the philosophical views. It’s here my theory breaks down a bit. I claim that the theory of hunks passes the sitcom test: it is extremely galaxy-brained. I don’t think Dummett’s view does, though: it’s not funny. Indeed, it seems to me to lack aesthetic merit: it isn’t pretty, like Spinoza’s theory, or sublime, like, maybe, Plato’s. It’s kind of dull. But hunk-theory is realistic: it’s concerned with the structure of the world, and Dummett’s is anti-realistic. So the funny not-funny distinction doesn’t line up with the anti-realism realism one, which is unfortunate, and even worse it seems we can have philosophical views without aesthetic merit.

So the conclusion isn’t definitive. There’s no neat story to tell about when and how philosophical theories have aesthetic merit and when works of art tell truths. But I do hope I’ve succeeded in making the weaker claim that the two notions of realism are much more closely aligned than might previously have been thought.



Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books ( Academic philosophy at:

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