Philosophical Realism and Postmodern Antirealism

By Ronen, Ruth | Style, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Philosophical Realism and Postmodern Antirealism


Ronen, Ruth, Style


Realism has preoccupied philosophers, literary theorists, and art theorists for generations. Yet in neither of these disciplines have discussions concerning realism reached a conclusive state or a clear definition. Typically, the conception of realism is subject to considerable disagreement regarding its very meaning, its implications (on any level of theory or practice, of semantics or ontology), and even regarding its place in the overall structure of the disciplines in question. Exemplary cases in this context are the debate over the mimetic value(1) of perspective in Renaissance art, the debate over the realism of the novelistic genre in literary studies, and the debate over the kind of truth conception realism entails in philosophy or over how tenable realism can be in view of the possibility that future science will refute the existence of its current theoretical position. All these discussions continue to stir the verbal energies of both philosophers and art and literary theorists with an intensity that varies at different times.

Facing the profound multivalence surrounding the concept of realism, this paper will suggest that realism stands to gain in clarity and productivity if discussed within an interdisciplinary framework. Specifically this paper aims to suggest ways in which the philosophical debate between realists and antirealists can illuminate the position of critics towards questions of representation in literature. This aim will be attained, however, without positing philosophical tools as privileged or prior but rather as analogous to the conceptual tools offered by literary theorists. Rethinking realism in interdisciplinary terms evidently offers vast possibilities; these will be delimited to the question of what constitutes a realist position in philosophy and how such a position can be identified in the context of literary theory. Once spelled out, the complex of assumptions of the philosophical realist will lead to a consideration of some of the assumptions guiding the work of literary theorists of postmodernism. I shall examine whether the practice of formulating a poetics of postmodernism as implemented in literary studies by necessity contradicts a realist perspective, one that privileges notions such as "reality" and "representation." Examining the case of postmodernist poetics against the assumptions of philosophical realism will reveal that a gap exists between the perspective that allegedly dominates postmodernist theories, one that is a professed antirealist perspective, and the practice of postmodernist criticism. Thus, while postmodernist discourse often includes formulations that signal cultural relativism or even a radical antirealism, critical approaches to literary postmodernism are in fact much less extreme in their practices.

THE PROBLEMATICS OF AN INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDY OF REALISM

Although realism is a concept already present in various disciplines, the idea of creating an interdisciplinary domain for discussing the problem of realism takes this interdisciplinary reality a step further. The idea is not to move back and forth between philosophy and literary theory to find places where realism in the philosophical sense is discussed by literary theorists and vice versa. Rather, the purpose of this kind of project is to show that realism, although operative within particular disciplines, can also become operative across disciplines. Despite the fact that philosophy has contributed mostly to the formulation of the problem of realism on a metatheoretic level while literary and art theory contributed mostly to defining the problem of realism as a problem in and of representation, this paper attempts to construct a level of interaction between the disciplines.

The attempt to discuss realism across disciplines conflicts with a certain diffuseness that characterizes current discussions of realism in each of the disciplines concerned. This diffuseness can be attributed to the following factors:

(1) The question of realism, both in philosophy and in literary theory, has opened vistas of problems; realism has turned out to touch on the very foundations of each of the disciplines involved. …

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