Pretty straight forward question - there are two movements throughout modern philosophy that quite often come together - realism and empiricism. I'm wondering if being realistic must assume being empiric, or can realism defy empiricism? And if so, is there a philosopher who went by this view?

  • If anything, there is a tension between realism and empiricism, empiricists were generally skeptical about realist claims (extreme examples are Hume and positivists). Empiricist forms of realism are usually weak, e.g. Quine's or Putnam's. Strong forms of realism are usually accompanied by objective idealism (platonism is the best known example), currently popular with some physicists, like Tegmark. See also Structural Realism. – Conifold Jan 14 '18 at 8:31
  • @Conifold isn't our science empiric realism? And, I know idealistic empiricism is possible (and quite common with skepticm as you've said), but what about the exact "opposite" - non-empiric realism? – Yechiam Weiss Jan 14 '18 at 8:36
  • Quine's and Putnam's views are a variety of scientific realism, but you have to be more specific as to what "non-empiricist realism" means. The common approach is to accept empirically established theories of science as ontological and add something extra along platonist lines. Are you looking for views anti-scientific in some sense? Heidegger is a prominent critic of scientific approach to metaphysics, although I'd hesitate to call him a straight realist. Phenomenology (derived from Husserl) is friendlier to science but advocates additional exploration of reality uncaptured by it. – Conifold Jan 14 '18 at 8:54
  • @Conifold thanks for suggesting Heidegger and Husserl, haven't thought of them that way. Empirical and non-empirical (at least as far as I know) relates to study of nature, while realism and idealism relates to world views (more precisely, study of consciousness, but that's another matter). A non empiric realist (in my view) would be a realist (i.e. someone with a realistic worldview) that would disagree (partially or fully) on the empiric way of studying (meaning he wouldn't require testable theories, or a postriori experience in order to prove theories). As you've said, much like Husserl. – Yechiam Weiss Jan 14 '18 at 9:03
  • I wouldn't call Husserl a realist. – Quentin Ruyant Jan 14 '18 at 9:13

There are many versions of empiricism and realism, but generally speaking, they are rather in tension. Realist positions are optimistic towards knowledge: they assume that knowledge (or at least some aspects of it) are about an external reality, beyond mere experience. Empiricist positions are about the acquisition or justification of knowledge, which they restrict to experience.

For example, some versions of empiricism have it that no inference can be made from the observable to the unobservable. In this sense, realism is incompatible with empiricism. So the answer to your question is: yes, a realist can defy empiricism, and it actually has to do to be a realist, at least this kind of empiricism: the realist claims that our inferences go beyond experience. All realists go by this view.

Weak versions of realism could be compatible with weak versions of empiricism that merely say that knowledge has it source in experience, but that inferences that go beyond are permissible, or that knowledge must be justified by experience but with a permissive understanding of justification. But some versions of realism can still defy even this weak version of empiricism by assuming that we have some direct intuitive access to first principles or to the fundamental nature of things. This view might not be very popular these days but it used to be quite common: it was held by rationalists and platonists, so to go back to your question, all rationalist and Platonist philosophers actually went by this view.

  • I should probably edit that into the question, but look at my comment in my question. We're probably not talking about the same empiricism (and I might be wrong to use this term, in this sense). – Yechiam Weiss Jan 14 '18 at 9:24
  • @YechiamWeiss I'm not sure. When you say that our sciences are empirical, this is in a weak sense of empiricism: they claim to be justified by experience, but the justification is rather permissive. So for example noone as ever seen an electron but it is sufficient that there's a contact between our postulates and our observations. This is what you seem to imply in your comments and this corresponds to the last paragraph of my answer: this is compatible with a weak form of realism, typically, a realism that remains provisional concerning what goes beyond experience. – Quentin Ruyant Jan 14 '18 at 11:13
  • oh I see. I always referred empiricism (or - only what can be observed can be learned) as science because even though electron isn't physically observed with our eyes, we can observe it by testing and seeing results. Let's say for example, Quantum Theory (or in the more extreme - String Theory) wouldn't be scientifically valid if it weren't testable (hence my reference to Popper's pseudo-science distinction), while still be theoretically real/true. So if science was mere realism without empiricism, it would've accepted, for example, String Theory by now, without the need to wait for a test. – Yechiam Weiss Jan 14 '18 at 12:04
  • @YechiamWeiss that's right but in philosophy, there are more strict versions of empiricism (that includes scepticism about science describing reality: our theories are merely empirically adequate) and of realism (for example that there are natural kinds and properties that exactly correspond to the classification of scientific theories) and scientists need not take position on these issues because it is "meta-science". A practicing scientist can be instrumentalist or realist for example. From a philosophical perspective science is just an institutionalised activity with shared norms. – Quentin Ruyant Jan 14 '18 at 13:53
  • @YechiamWeiss endorsing a theory, for example quantum mechanics, does not mean believing that the theory is a true description of reality: some scientists might believe that quantum mechanics is currently the best theory not because it's true, but only because it is very efficient and useful. Then they are not realist. So scientific validity doesn't mean realism. – Quentin Ruyant Jan 14 '18 at 13:58

Yes, if you accept realism as the theory (very roughly) (a) that some facts, events, states of affairs exist independently of experience, (b) that these facts, &c., can be known, and (c) that they can be known (or can only be known) conceptually and not through experience.

Descartes comes to mind as a candidate for this view. Experience, or 'phenomena' as Descartes sometimes calls it, provides the material for science but as such it explains nothing. On the contrary, it leaves everything to be explained by principles, namely laws, which are formulated by reason.

A clear statement of this position is Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, 1644, II, art. 64 : 'The only principles which I accept, or require, in physics are those of geometry and pure mathematics; these principles explain all natural phenomena, and enable us to provide quite certain demonstrations regarding them' ('The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, I, tr. J. Cottingham and others, Cambridge, 2009, 247).

We might want to retreat from Descartes' belief in 'quite certain demomstrations' but he does outline the kind of position you asked about.

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