October 25, 2007

What I mean by "realism"

When I refer to realism, I am usually referring to a point of view that asserts that there is a unique and knowable world beyond the observer. In many cases this is real.

I am strongly influenced here by the literary critical frame. In particular when I think about realism, I often have something like the descriptions that Terry Eagleton (Literary Theory: an introduction, 1983, Univ. Minnesota Press) gives of the roots of the American New Critical School. In particular practical criticism and close reading. In these frames the text stands independent of its culture, of the author and of the reader:
It inescapably suggests an attention to this rather than something else: to the 'words on the page' rather than to the contexts which produced and surround them. (p. 44) ... The poem meant what it meant, regardless of the poet's intention or the subjective feelings the reader derived from it. Meaning was public and objective, inscribed in the very language of the literary text, not a question of some putative ghostly impulse in a long-dead author's head or the arbitrary priviate significances a reader might attach to his words. (p. 48).
In referring to realism, I am alluding to a frame that includes a unique and objective external world. I am also asserting that things about that world can be known and that we can know with great confidence whether or not the things we know are True. There is an element of empiricism in my idea; we find out things about the world by observing them. There is also an element of linearity in my idea; we can know about things in isolation and when we put them back together again, they still make sense.