One or two years ago I read an article about what was termed a newer branch of philosophy that examined not only what was real, but what took precedence in importance in certain areas depending on this 'realness'.

'Country', 'confidence', 'The Pope', 'President' and 'Kings' were examples of things that weren't real.

The grounds for this were complex but the basic rule of thumb was that if all human memory was wiped, including external written and cultural memory of any form and also 'internal' conceptual memory, then anything that didn't remain wasn't real.

It also classified different types of 'realnesses' e.g. if this scenario somehow occurred then it's arguable that things like 'Country' and 'King' etc. would re-emerge, so there is a certain psychological reality to these, whereas it's unlikely that 'Santa Claus' would return and therefore this was less classed as less'real'.

It also argued that it was morally(?) wrong for the requirements of anything less real to dictate to anything more real e.g. if a human (real) is being told to adopt the belief in a country (not real) by the state (not real) then it's wrong on the grounds that the human should take precedence. It also argued that for optimum mental health, given that the brain's function is to keep the organism alive and that the brain would conceivably most often tend toward presenting the observer (whatever that means) with an accurate representation of reality as possible, which would avoid delusions like 'Country', then anytime cultural indoctrination or brain-washing is attempted then it'd wrong on the grounds that it reverses the imperatives of reality.

This subject defined 'Country' as something along the lines of a political mechanism or convention that arises more or less organically to fulfill a need and if the belief has to be forced on the people then there'd be something wrong with the concept, not the people.

The crucial part of all of this was the precedence of importance and the article lambasted the theory even although I thought it was quite insightful.

So, in short, can anyone please tell me to which branch this belongs, or even better, do they know of the article and can therefore provide a link? I think that the theorist was Japanese, but can't be sure.

  • Something related to or derived from critical realism, I guess warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ces/research/current/socialtheory/maps/… ; asatheory.org/current-newsletter-online/… Mar 28, 2021 at 21:50
  • The thing is that if one wants to be anal about this; one can be a critical realist at every level one can speak of realism tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02698599208573431 Mar 28, 2021 at 22:03
  • Generally speaking in philosophy, realism alone is not a philosophical/metaphysical position, it's a stance towards some subject matter. Most philosophers would regard at least something (maybe very little for skeptics) as real while deny something else. For me Fictionalism (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictionalism) may be the branch you're after since here you can use more imagination and have more leeway to opine something is "more" real than another, just in a purely metaphoric way. Mar 29, 2021 at 2:31
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    A binary between real and 'not real' is always going to be problematic. We have a tendency to essentialise, so you can say something inside a person making them a king isn't real, but there are real roles and functions, ceremonies & hats. Was discussing the collision of ideology & game theory here philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/78788/… which might count as less real failing to create stability in the face of biology & instinct
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 29, 2021 at 13:05
  • Thanks for these responses. I've been trying to understand Critical Realism and Fictionalism but so far neither appear to be the theory/branch mentioned. It was much more recent than the mid-70s that it was proposed - being closer to the last decade. From what I understand of Critical Realism, anything that causes an effect in the real world is considered real. Therefore Santa Claus would be be 'real' if it causes people to leave out milk and cookies. The theory that was proposed argues the opposite: that mental concepts like these, plus the others mentioned, aren't real.
    – user51915
    Apr 1, 2021 at 7:46

2 Answers 2


Firstly, the general branch in philosophy you're seeking is Ontology. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that explores the reality of things in the world.

Now the specific type of ontology you describe here seems like some sort of a hierarchical critical/objective-idealism. For example, consider a Kantian framework where the things that exist depend on the mind of the "I"; but those things share universal validity of realism. Perhaps a bit close to the framework you describe is Cassirer's Symbolic Forms, or (from a different angle) Husserl's Phenomenology. I'd also advise you to look at SEP's article on concepts.

This is a very complex (and imho hard to argue for) ontological framework. Moreover, the ethical and political implications derived from it are an entirely different thing. You can hold a hierarchical framework of "realness" without deriving ethical implications from it.

An anecdote (that I now learned) - turns out that modern Japanese philosophy was very influenced by German Idealism, which is quite fitting for this type of ontology.


I don't recognize a particular theory from your description, but contrary to Y. Weiss, I would say this sounds like the exact opposite of German Idealism, more of a throwback to crude empiricism and anti-Platonism.

Given that is appears to have a moral-practical dimension based on "realness," I would suspect it as the basis of a reactionary political stance, as when Thatcher argues "there is no such thing as society" only individuals and families, thereby eliminating the need for any "social" concerns or policies. It is like saying there is no such thing as forests, only trees.

There is a long history of anti-idealism, which denies primacy to "forms" or collective, abstract ideas like "horse" or "ungulate" as opposed to this of that particular animal. The attempt to erase all universalist "ideas" and rebuilt from "reality" is the sort of anti-rationalist move undertaken by Locke and other liberal empiricists. By "real" they begin with the certainties of the senses and assume a "nominalist" stance towards words and concepts, especially those that have assumed an unaccountable, dogmatic authority, such a kingship or papacy.

This idea quickly runs into trouble, as Berkeley and Hume demonstrate its internal paradoxes and the slippery slope to absolute skepticism. Then Kant makes the definitive case for underlying a priori concepts, such as space and time, that are necessary to form any coherent idea of what we call "experience," as the sensory experience of "real" things. Kant himself framed a coherent idea of "reality" of sorts and a bulwark against dogmatic rationalism, yet he pretty much demolished the recourse to naive realism.

Still, the appeals to realism constantly recur in philosophy, usually as a corrective to the excesses of speculation and often with an undercurrent of conservatism. The "phenomenalism" (not phenomenology) of 19th century physics took a similar stance with regard to any theoretical luggage beyond "real" or perceptible objects, so that Mach, for example, refused to believe in atoms as hypothesized by Boltzmann and even after Einstein's convincing demonstration of their actual existence.

Mach was then the godfather of certain branches of logical positivism, which similarly tried to separate out the "real" from the figmental or nominal and classify "more real" and "less real," as Russell and others took it, ridding the world of unicorns!

So, this only places the theory you describe in a very broad, very simplified lineage, if that helps. I am sure there are many resurrections of the "realist" project and may be quite interesting, but it is, as I say, often a stalking horse for political conservatism and explicitly opposed to all the supposed horrors wrought by German Idealism after Kant. As with the Thatcher doctrine, what gets tossed out as "unreal" or "less real" is generally a matter of convenience, like justifying whatever you want with selected Bible passages.

  • I'll reply to the only part that I understand by opining that there isn't such a thing as a forest nor society, but that this doesn't necessarily mean like you say, that there are no needs for social concerns or policies. Instead it can be instructive to realise that they are just concepts and that they can be dropped, not necessarily that they should.
    – user51915
    May 9, 2021 at 20:52
  • Language itself is based on concepts that "cover" individuals and particulars. To follow the logic of extreme empiricism and nominalism "tables" and "horses" do not really exist. They are just useful concepts for collections of individuals. I see no more problem in defining a "society" than a "table," which is a concept also covering many unseen tables across space and time and borderline cases. May 10, 2021 at 12:37
  • "horses" comprise only real individual elements whereas society includes rules, traditions, expectations, norms etc. "People" would be a more real concept than "society" since if there was a mass mind-wipe, multiple people would still exist, but all of society's traditions, rules etc wouldn't. Similarly Kings, Popes etc. Wouldn't be considered real since they comprise purely imaginary and conceptual ideas. If everyone but a King lost their memory the "King" would have a difficult time explaining that they should do as he commands.
    – user51915
    Jun 9, 2021 at 10:09

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