Naive Realism in Philosophy of Literature

By Leddy, Thomas W. | Philosophy Today, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Naive Realism in Philosophy of Literature


Leddy, Thomas W., Philosophy Today


The journal Philosophy and Literature is one of the leading locations for contemporary discussions of the relations between philosophy and literature. Recently the journal came out with its 20th Anniversary Issue, a copy of which I received because I had written a book review for the issue. For the fun of it I decided to read the issue from front to back. I was struck by how many of the articles were committed to some form of what has traditionally been called naive realism.1 Much is said positively about science and scientific method, whereas schools of thought that have often criticized naive realism, for example post-structuralism and Rortyan pragmatism, come under frequent attack. This is not surprising, given that the editorial, by Dennis Dutton and Patrick Henry, focuses on Alan Sokal's explanation of his now famous hoax against the well-known cultural studies journal Social Text.2

While reading the issue it occurred to me that journals are units of cultural production, and that they should be as open to discussion and critique as anything else. Although it would be difficult to read the entire production of a journal, a special anniversary issue would surely represent the general point of view of the editors and the contributors.3

Someone might object to criticism of one journal appearing in another, for example in Philosophy Today. It is my view that writing a critique of this sort is not fundamentally different from writing a review of an edited collection of essays. It should also be stressed that I have no intention to denigrate the work of the editors of Philosophy of Literature, which I consider to be a fine publication. My only desire is to open up new avenues of discussion for the issues raised in that journal.4

My general claim then is that the anniversary issue of Philosophy and Literature, taken as a whole, is a defense of naive realism against the various opponents of that position. (I shall call this defense of naive realism "the new realism.") We certainly need some sort of corrective against the recent excesses of postmodern literary theory and philosophy. But pendulum swings have a way of overcorrecting. Nothing is being said by any of the authors found in this issue about the limits or possible disadvantages of naive realism, or of the metaphysical assumptions behind that position.

Part of reason why these assumptions are not addressed is that the awfulness of the opposition seems so glaring. The new realists frequently and gleefully point to the inscrutable jargon, inconsistencies and bad arguments of their opponents. (Editor, Dennis Dutton, runs a well-known annual Bad Writing Contest for the "ugliest, most stylistically awful single sentence-or string of no more than three sentences-found in a published scholarly book or article."5 Some of the winners are simply stunning.) This may lead them to believe that a combination of clarity, logic and scientific method will save literary studies and philosophy from the barbarians. These concerns are certainly legitimate, and nothing I will say here is intended to justify poststructuralist outrages. I would simply like us to engage in a bit of hopefully jargon-free and clear-headed questioning about new realism itself.

First, a comment about the term "realism." Most people would consider themselves realists in some sense. I certainly do. Those who, like myself, are opposed to, or at least critical of the version of realism found in these pages tend to refer to it as "naive realism." The true realism, on our account, is not naive. Naive realism is not truly realist, not realistic enough. It was a sad mistake for critics of naive realism to have called themselves anti-realists, since this allowed the term "realism" to remain in the hands of their opponents.

The most fundamental assumption of naive realism is existence, stability, independence and ideal determinability of facts. The naive realist would not go so far as to say, with Wittgenstein, that the world is all that is the case. …

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