What is the meaning of the term "reality" from a philosophical perspective? And how does it differ from the traditional use of the word?

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For those philosophers working in the area of epistemology, this would depend entirely on the position taken in epistemology; however, in philosophy in general, many people I think would take either a tacit position towards the nature of reality which is actually entirely consistent with non-philosophical positions, or a tacitly ambiguous, ambivalent, inconsistent or contradictory position ... Often, the tacit position taken on the nature of reality is determined by the terms the philosopher prefers to use in another more specific philosophical debate: for example, a political philosopher with a cosmopolitan position towards the global justice debate will not necessarily deal with questions of epistemology in an explicit way, but the debate about global justice as conducted by them will necessarily take for granted a tacit position in epistemology (whether this is taken from their non-philosophical experience, as members of one or another society/community, or from their particular school/tradition in philosophy).

For me, I would define the meaning of reality through reference to knowledge and understanding, and say there are formal differences between knowledge, understanding, and reality, and it is the philosopher's prerogative to characterise the formal difference between knowledge, understanding, and reality, in order for them to hold positions in other philosophical debates which are consistent "all the way through".


This seems slightly muddled question but that's okay. Nearly all philosophical questions are slightly muddled. This is why we have to ask them.

Philosophy takes Reality as its subject of study and does not define it in advance of its research except as 'whatever is real'. Some would say it is 'whatever exists' but this is a to be avoided since in philosophy the word 'exist' may mean something quite different from 'real'.

There is no precise definition since few people have a clue as to what is real and what is not. The perennial philosophy would say that to be real is to exist independently or non-relatively. All space-time phenomena would therefore be unreal and space-time also. They would exist, but not in the way we usually think they do. Kant reached much the same conclusion.

To exist is to stand-out. Erwin Schrodinger notes that to stand-out a phenomenon must have a background and that 'as well as the painting there is the canvas on which it is painted'. As the painting depends on the canvas it follows that everything that stands-out is not real. The canvas would be what is real, but it would not exist in the same contingent or relative fashion as bicycles and neutron stars.

If there is a traditional use of the term then it is probably the perennial claim that Reality cannot be defined as simply what seems to exist, and that the definition of 'Reality' must not be conflated with that of 'Existence'. We see this use in the title of Bradley's famous essay 'Appearance and Reality'.

In science the word is often used to refer to the visible universe. This is either sloppy language or the speaker is a naive realist. In philosophy we are more humble and careful since anyone who studies ontology must soon begins to wonder just how real the world around them really is. Our inability to make the slightest sense of how or why anything exists implies that it doesn't, and the use of 'Reality' to mean 'whatever independently exists' is loose enough to allow for the possibility that everything that seems to exist is not real, an idea that causes much confusion. But here 'exists' would not mean 'stand-out'. Reality would the only real phenomenon, so just as it can have no Kantian noumenon it can have no Schroderian background from which to stand-out.

The definition of 'Reality' as 'whatever has an independent existence' makes no more assumptions about reality than the phrase 'whatever is real' but it is clear about what it means by 'Real' and so it seems a good one. Reality would be what is non-contingent.


Reality is often cast in terms of mind independence. What is real is what exists independently of our representations of it. (Note that it doesn't mean that minds are not real: our minds can exist independently of our representations of it).

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