Beyond Realism and Idealism

By Wilbur Marshall Urban | Go to book overview
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Chapter VII
Realism, Idealism and The Philosophy of Nature: 'The Philosophy of Physical Science.'

I -- A

THE preceding chapters attempted to develop an argument for the transcendence of the opposition between realism and idealism and to outline a position which could properly be called Beyond Realism and Idealism. The argument as presented was, however, carried on in the world of discourse or dialectic. The radical shift from the sphere of things to the sphere of discourse involved in all philosophical debate was evident here, but knowledge, 'science', belongs to the world of 'things' -- especially the so-called physical sciences -- and when we shift back to this world of things, whether of 'common sense' or science, arguments such as the preceding seem to be of a singularly tenuous kind and the position suggested academic and unreal. Here 'dialectic' seems ludicrous. Realism, it will be said, is an essential part of the very structure of physical science, and to be a scientist means by that very fact to be an exclusive realist.

This, as we have already seen, is quite commonly assumed. Indeed, the appeal to science -- extrinsic as it may be when properly weighed -- is, and has always been, one of the strongest forces in the resistance of realism. It is, I venture to think, this appeal, more than any supposed proof of realism or refutation of idealism, that has determined the predominantly realistic outlook of recent decades. It was partly the supposed failure of idealism, in any form, to do justice to the physical sciences which constituted the chief reason for its decline in popularity.

The situation has, however, notably changed. We find distinguished physicists maintaining idealistic positions in all the varied forms of idealism -- mentalism, Neo-Kantian idealism, and even objective idealism. We find them maintaining, moreover, not only that physical science is compatible with idealism, but that there are actual changes in the concepts and methods of modern science which necessitate idealism. The reasons for these changes are known to every one and are part of the


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