[Buddha-l] Realism, anti-realism and Buddhism #1

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Mon May 26 13:29:38 MDT 2008

On Mon, 2008-05-26 at 04:06 -0400, Dan Lusthaus wrote:

> >And what exactly are the features of
> > analytic philosophers?
> They include an inability to think without reducing everything to
> "propositions." Hence if reality is not reducible to propositions, it is
> either not real or not philosophical.

I don't recognize that as a feature of the philosophers I know to be
analytic philosophers. It sounds to me as though you are trading in
stereotypes and caricatures.

> Emphasis added. Since metaphors seem to confuse you (and don't attribute
> that attitude to Aristotle, who was almost as adept at analogies and
> metaphors as his mentor, Plato), let's try simple talk.

The attitude I attributed to Aristotle is found in his treatise called
Topics. True, Aristotle was adept at the use of metaphors, and he used
them well. At the same time, he clearly stated that they had no place in
logical discourse. Metaphors do confuse me, for the same reason they
confuse anyone. So I appreciate your condescending to try to reach me at
my simple-minded childish level of comprehension.

>  Reality is one type
> of thing. Propositions (or statements) is another. Claims (truth claims,
> etc.) are a third.

In current philosophical usage, propositions are defined as claims about
reality that have a truth value. They are therefore distinguished from
questions, exhortations, commands and other meaningful utterances that
are not claims about reality. Propositions are therefore a subset of all
meaningful, grammatically well-formed sentences. What distinguishes them
is precisely the fact that they have a truth value.

Having said this, one of the disputes in philosophy is whether ethical
claims are propositions. One might ask: Is is true (or false) that
suicide-bombers are evil-doers, or is the statement "Suicide-bombers are
evil-doers" outside the realm of propositions? An ethical realist would
take the position that there is a truth value to the claim that
suicide-bombers are evil-doers; an ethical realist believes in moral
facts. In contrast, an ethical anti-realist would take the stance that
there is no truth to the matter of an ethical claim; taking a stance on
an ethical issue amounts to nothing more than stating one's subjective
opinion on a matter.

Aesthetic claims can be treated in about the same way as ethical claims.
An aesthetic realist would hold the view that there is a truth to the
matter of whether the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is
beautiful. An aesthetic anti-realist would take the position that there
is no truth to the matter of aesthetic evaluations.

Another area of discourse in which realists and anti-realists would take
different positions would be over metaphysical claims, that is, claims
about what exists, what causality is, what identity means, what
possibility and necessity are and other related issues. A metaphysical
anti-realist would take the stance that metaphysical statements are not
propositions, because there is no truth to the matter of, say, the claim
that universals exist outside the mind; a realist, on the other hand
would say that a metaphysical claim is a proposition, because there is a
truth to the matter, even though no one may yet know what the
truth-value of some metaphysical propositions are.  

> Now if a "realist" is limited to one who only dabbles in propositions,

That is not how Dummett uses the term "realist". So your antecedent

> By Dummett's definition, syadvada would be antirealist, since it indicates
> that one and the same statement may be true in some sense and false in
> another.

That is correct. By the way Dummett uses the term "realist", Jainas
would be anti-realists because of their claim that the truth of a
proposition is determined by one's perspective, not by a reality that is
entirely independent of perspective. Jainas give every appearance of
rejecting what Thomas Nagel calls "the view from nowhere". For the
Jaina, every truth is a truth from a particular somehwere, and if one
moves to another somewhere, a proposition that seemed true from one
perspective may be false from the new perspective. 

> No Jain would appreciate being
> classified as an antirealist,

I think that if a Jaina had understood the full implications of Jaina
epistemology, the she would say "Given Dummett's particular usage of the
term 'realist', I am an anti-realist." The Jaina would recognize that no
definition or usage of terms is absolute and no usage of terms is "fixed
by reality" and that therefore there are other legitimate ways of using
the term "realism". The Jaina might then take a page from the book of
analytic philosophers and distinguish a Dummett-realist from a
Lusthaus-realist. She might then say "I am a Dummett-anti-realist but a
Lusthaus realist."

>  and would consider anyone who does so on the
> basis of this sort of absolutistic opposition (realist vs antirealist) is
> too near-sighted to have anything meaningful to say about reality.

It may be helpful to be reminded that Dummett is not trying to saying
anything about reality as such. What is interested in trying to do is
see whether there is anything that various kinds of philosophers labeled
"realist" have in common. It's a very modest project he has undertaken.

> Put another way: Why must a realist be committed to assuming that language
> is an accurate and complete mirror of reality? 

I don't see any signs that Dummett is making such a claim for realists.

> Let's say what is being questioned is not
> "consciousness," or the capacity to know reality by direct cognition, but
> rather the ability to adequately express reality linguistically. Is that
> also antirealism? Even though a reality larger than language is being
> affirmed?

Of course lot. Dummett's use of the term "realism" makes realism a
conviction that there are infinitely more realities than any human being
can be aware of, express, imagine or think about. In other words,
realism is a conviction that there is a reality even if there is no
consciousness to apprehend it and that consciousness is a mechanism that
interacts with reality and constantly adjusts its picture of reality as
it learns more about it. 

Realism is not at all an absolute term. One could be a realist in one
domain and an anti-realist in another. One might, for example, be a
geologist with a strong conviction that the physical sciences are a
method of developing an accurate picture of a reality that exists
whether or not anyone knows about it; the same geologist might be
convinced that mathematics is an entirely man-made artifact and that
there are no mathematical truths except by stipulation and that
mathematical "truths" are invented rather than discovered. Such a
geologist would be a realist in the realm of natural sciences but an
intuitionist (hence an anti-realist) about mathematics. This geologist
might be a realist about ethics but an anti-realist about the realm of

> 1) the criterion of a realist is that s/he accepts that propositions are
> either true or false (whatever true or false would mean in such an abstract
> form);

This is just how the technical term "proposition" is now used in
philosophy departments. This is not an accurate paraphrase of either
Dummett's account of realism or my paraphrase of Dummett. 

> 2) There are a variety of "positions" that can be subsumed under the heading
> "realist" because of heretofore unrecognized commonalities between them.

Yes. And the commonality is a conviction that propositions are true or
false whether or not anyone knows the truth value. So realism is the
conviction that there is such a thing as reality, which is discovered
rather than invented by human (or some other kind of conscious) beings.

> Similarly, the demons on the other side of the realist divide, the
> "anti-realists", hypothetically also share commonalities (the most important
> one being that they would question something about language's referential
> capacity).

This paraphrase is inaccurate it two ways. First, no one at all is being
demonized by anyone. A distinction is being made. Unless you hold the
view that behind every distinction there is an insidious value judgment
by which someone will be privileged to the detriment of the other, there
is neither an explicit nor implicit hierarchy in Dummett's distinction
of realist from anti-realist. Second, what distinguishes the
anti-realist has nothing to do with language's referential capacity.
Rather, what characterizes the anti-realist for Dummett is a questioning
of the claim that there is a reality independent of human (or some
other) consciousness. And, as I have now said many times, there are
numerous domains of discourse, and any given person can be a realist in
one domain and an anti-realist in another.

> We have long standing, deep disagreements about Nagarjuna.

True. On this issue I am a Dummett-anti-realist in that I am content to
say we have differing interpretations but that there there is no reality
that can be consulted to determine which of our interpretations is

>  Perhaps -- again
> is simple-speak -- it might be clearer to you expressed this way.

The way you express it is almost exactly the way I see it. I guess on
this matter we do not have deep disagreements. All I would want to add
is that your analysis of the catu.sko.ti is entirely psychological and
is focused on its soteriological usage. While I entirely agree with
everything you say on this point, it has not connection with the point I
was making, which was purely logical. Not being a Fregean, I do not feel
a need to weed all hints of psychologism out of logic and epistemology.
I do, however, think one can speak of the same topic from a logical
perspective and from a psychological perspective and that one will say
different things depending on which perspective one is speaking from.

> Nagarjuna does not deny propositional calculus per se. 

That's good to know. 

> But he uses
> propositional calculus to demonstrate the inadequacy of propositional
> calculus, and to uncover the kle"sic compulsions it pretends to mask.

In what way is propositional calculus inadequate? And for what is it
inadequate? What connection could there possibly be between kle'sas and
propositional calculus? There are in entirely different realms of
discourse. And what does it mean to pretend to mask a compulsion?  

There is, as we both know, a vast literature on catu.sko.ti and whether
or not it exemplifies an alternative to standard bivalent logic. I take
it we both agree that it does not, since Naagaarjuna does explicitly
state both the law of contradiction and the law of excluded middle. This
was really my only point, namely, that the catu.sko.ti is a tool that
operates on the assumption of the legitimacy of two-valued logic and
that using the catu.sko.ti does not in itself stand as evidence of a
commitment to either Dummett-realism or Dummett-anti-realism.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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