I have a foundational knowledge of philosophy but Ive never managed to understand the basics of realism vs antirealism debates and why it matters.

Ive read that there are ontological, epistemic, semantic and truth-related threads to it but textbooks on the topic quickly leave me behind.

Please could anyone help shed light on this?

/* edit 30-12-2018 Thanks for the replies

Context: Ive come across the existence and independence axis notions in Brock and Meres but couldnt follow it; it lost me from page 1. Ive read a 'Very short introduction to metaphysics' which discussed Platonism vs nominalism regarding universals but I couldnt grasp why it mattered. I tried Shapiro's 'Thinking about mathematics'. Too advanced. Ive read the SEP on metaphysics and challenges to metaphysical realism. I didnt grasp the latter, too advanced. Ive skimmed Dancy's Contemporary Epistemology and didnt comprehend the realism etc sections. Wikipedia articles jump from basic to advanced word-salad. In ethics I believe moral realism is roughly moral universalism, contrasted with relativism or emotivism. Im familiar with instrumentalism and Poincare's 'bankruptcy of science' notion in philosophy of science (seems the only justifiable stance on the matter). Ive read the scientific realism SEP but I imagine I got confirmation bias and didnt properly understand other views. I know of the notion of Berkeleian Idealism from pop-philosophy books and podcasts.

Generally Im wondering if 'realism vs whatever' are distinctions without any difference? The volume of literature makes me think this suggestion is naive and premature, and that the debate must cash out in differences to care about at some point.

Ive put in hours reading different sources hoping the vocabulary would sink in and the content would make sense. Instead I still have zero understanding and am demotivated wherever I look by a reference web of advanced terms that never seem to be defined in exclusive and clear distinction from other concepts.

Im struggling for foundational/intermediate-level explanations. Please could anyone link resources or provide a sketch for the main concepts/areas/stances and their distinctions?

Thankyou */

  • 2
    I think you mean "scientific realism" vs "scientific antirealism", right? Does that clarify anything? Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 22:19
  • Hi, welcome to philosophy SE. Your question is currently too broad/vague for our format. Without you telling us more precisely what it is that leaves you behind all we can do is point to general discussions of the debates, such as SEP's. It matters to people whether some/all things we talk about in science, mathematics or ethics are real, or just useful fictions/aids, and they produced many arguments for and against it.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 22:53
  • It's the opinion of most mainstream scientists that there exists a thing called reality.. and that we share it with each other. It matters to science that reality appears to have predictable behaviours such as momentum or electromagnetism. It doesn't matter to scientists whether some people wish to claim reality is entirely in the mind.. as long as those people don't deny that it appears to have these properties. Because if they do.. they are denying their own reality, which is absurd. In short it doesn't matter... What matter actually is.. what matters is that it remains constant in behaviour
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 23:27
  • I would argue that if you don't understand the basics of the realism vs anti realism debate, you do not have foundational knowledge of philosophy. What kind of background do you actually have? What textbooks on the subject have you read that left you behind? Where are you actually coming from? We need more information in order to help you.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 0:31
  • See Realism and Challenges to Metaphysical Realism. Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 11:02

2 Answers 2


I assume your question is about scientific realism.

The debate can be framed as a question concerning what science aims to achieve, and what it's successful at: is it at discovering the fundamental nature of reality, or merely building efficient theories to make predictions and develop technologies? Or something in between?

This matters for understanding science generally: what to expect from it, how to interpret theories, to what extent science can answer deep metaphysical question, etc.

  • Thanks for the reply. How can we ever know our conception represents a "fundamental nature"? Isnt it 'appearances all the way down'? Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 12:56
  • 1
    @kungfuhobbit by asking that, you're merely entering the debate... What you say more or less corresponds to an important argument against realism: that we can never "step out" of our representations to see whether they correspond to anything outside of it, so realism is moot. As I'm leaning towards anti-realism, I'm quite sympathetic to this argument, but the realists respond that the best explanation of the continuing success of science is that our theories probably correspond to something out there, otherwise it would be a miracle. Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 13:36

In technical terms, it sometimes seems like the debate between realism and anti-realism in science is splitting hairs. Indeed, this is the case with philosophy because the professionals so seldom stray from the exact topic at hand. If they were to stray from the topic at hand and acknowledge the hot-button implications, we would see a better picture of why the debate is interesting in the first place.

Scientific realists believe that best understanding of science is either a reference to, or an approximation of, reality. I think it's pretty clear that a typical scientific realist would also believe that what's not known through science is not reality.

Scientific anti-realists are more skeptical. They believe all the conclusions of science, but do not believe that the words of scientists reflect reality unless the claim has been observed. And even then, an anti-realist might hedge scientific facts with caveats such as "experiments show", "cosmologists believe", "a growing body of researchers maintain", etc.

It seems that the labels "realists" and "anti-realists" have both been applied pejoratively toward people. Somebody who thinks that realists are wrong might chuckle at being called an anti-realist, but he or she would probably say "I just understand epistemology."

Likewise, somebody who thinks anti-realists are wrong might be amused at being called a realist; he or she might say "I just believe in science."

  • This is just an editorialized opinion, not an answer. You can't even cite a single source?
    – Not_Here
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 0:32
  • @Not_Here, I gave a source now. See link in the first sentence. Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 18:42
  • Giving a source is not the same as citing a source or using a source, this is still jus an editorialized opinion. Why does that link have anything to do with what you're saying? Any quotes? Any specific details to give instead of just linking to it? If this was an essay in a class do you think your teacher would count this as "citing" a source? Or do you think they'd take points off and explain how incorporating sources into your work actually works and why it's important to not just give your own opinions without contextualizing them with other information?
    – Not_Here
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 20:08

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