What is Really Meant by Realism?
Most reader’s should not be surprised that what is really meant by realism varies from theorist to theorist. In other words, there is no absolute answer and there is not agreement upon what it means in a larger sense. However, there are some tendencies that we can point toward. In general, realism is the believe there there is an absolute truth or ultimate reality of some form. This is generally agreed upon. However, what the nature of that absolute truth is varies tremendously.
Some theorists favor a material realism which states that for something to be real, it must have material. This idea was a given in modern science, so much so that realism was often taken for granted to assume some type of material realism. However, there are a number of realists that believe some absolute truth (e.g., realism) is metaphysical in nature (e.g., nonmaterial).
Another complication to the idea of realism relates to the degree to which the absolute truth can be known. Many assume that if there is a realism it must be able to be known. Others will take a critical realism perspective in which they maintain some truth can be known or some truth can be known, but only in part. In this first instance, the realist may maintain that we can know some things such as physics; however, we can not know other absolutes such as morality. The second type of critical realist may state that we can partially know some things such as physics or gravity, but we can not fully know or understand even this. A third alternative is possible which combines these two types of critical realism. They may maintain, for example, that we can know some things for sure, such as physics, and other things only partially, such as morality, even though there is an absolute truth in both science and morality.
Types of Realism
The types of realisms are far to numerous to mention, but let me just mention a few which are most relevant to the modernism/postmodernism debate:
Material Realism – Though this language is generally not used, it refers to truth being located in what is material. This is generally implied in scientific realism, which is the more commonly used term.
Scientific Realism – Truth can be know through science. A belief that truth is held in the laws of physics and that which is material is generally assumed.
Moral Realism – There is an absolute moral or ethical truth which exists separate from culture.
Critical Realism – There is truth in some areas of knowledge and not others; or the belief that though there is an ultimate truth, it can never be fully known.
Modern versus Postmodern Realists
Modern realists tend to be more certain of our ability to obtain the ultimate truth which forms the basis of realism. Postmodern realists believe we are always limited in the degree to which we can know ultimate truth. Most postmodern realists believe we cannot fully know any ultimate truth, even one as seemingly basic as gravity. Even if we can predict gravity with 100% accuracy, we can not fully know and understand all the realities around this. Stated differently, we can never fully explain why gravity works the way it does. Prediction does not equal truth.
Modernism tends to believe in a stationary or unchanging truth; postmodernism varies. Postmodernists are more incline to believe that truth can change or evolve, at least in some domains. This is more an assumption about the nature of truth than anything else and it has particular significance for some religions. For example, this is related to the question of if God exists, can God change. Modern and premodern assumptions that truth are stable would state that if God exists, God does not change. Postmodernism is much more comfortable with a fluid or changing God.
Modernists tend to rely upon a singular method which is believed to be superior to obtain ultimate truth. This is generally science, though may also be reason or logic for some content domains. The method may change with the subject, but number of acceptable methodologies is greatly limited, generally to science, reason, and mathematics (which is often considered a form of reason or logic). Postmodernists believe multiple methodologies should be used in conjunction to better approximate truth. Any singular methodology is more susceptible to error or distortion.
Realism, simply put, is another way of talking about ultimate truth. The types of realism reflect different assumptions about the nature of truth. These assumptions about what can be truth and if we can obtain are at the heart of the debate between modernism and postmodernism.