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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Accidental Realist

I define a realist as someone who believes that true statements are statements which correspond to reality, that is, people who accept that there is an external reality and objective truth. I do not assume that a realist thinks such truths must be knowable, that is a realist must believe that ontological objectivity is possible but may believe that epistomological objectivity is mythological like, say, pegasus.

I think everyone is a realist. I don't think it is humanly possible to get away from it. This doesn't mean we are right (or that we exist outside of the feavered dreams of your brain). I think that basic principles of Quantum mechanics are undeniable but just won't fit in a human brain, so that the claims of physicists seem to be logically inconsistent and definitely false even when they are just describing the results of experiments.

In any case, many people who claim to reject realism fail to do so. Let me consider the case of Prof Stanley Fish (again). He is a smart guy. He claims he is not a realist. He writes in English not in semi translated French. He has a weird view about what a professor may and may not do

it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the [snip] agenda it may be thought to imply.

[big snip]

Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy.

Here Fish seems to say that a fair and balanced professor must teach as if all theories are created equal. He makes no exceptions. In particular he makes no exceptions for natural sciences. His view is that realism has no place in the academy.

However, professor Fish falls into a contradiction. His argument is general. It is not restricted to particular fields of inquiry. It applies to all fields of inquiry and, therefore, it applies to the particular field of inquiry called "intellectual history". When a professor discusses the "structure, history, influence and so forth" of an idea he or she takes a stand on potentially controversial debates in the study of the history of ideas. When the professor claims that the history of this idea is x, the professor makes many claims about the real world. For example the professor typically assumes that books do in fact exist outside of the professors mind and that they were written by people who are more or less the same sort of thing as the professor and the students.

You can't escape from talking about the real world by talking about the world of human ideas, because human beings are part of the real world. You can't discuss the history of the idea that there is no objective reality without implicitely conceding that there is such a history and therefore there is an objective reality.

For some reason, some people seem to think that the particular atoms that are ink on paper are different. The aspect of human history which is classified as intellectual history is different. That a professor can't propound a theory of what happened on September 11 2001, but can propound a theory on what happened when the rev Berkeley drank a bit too much pine water.

Fish is deliberately provacative, but the view is shared by someone who is deliberately not provacative -- Isaiah Berlin. It is clearly nonsense. Why do smart people believe it?

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