New realism (philosophy)


New realism (philosophy)

New realism was a philosophy expounded in the early 20th century by a group of six US based scholars, namely Edwin Bissell Holt (Harvard University), Walter Taylor Marvin (Rutgers College), William Pepperell Montague (Columbia University), Ralph Barton Perry (Harvard), Walter Boughton Pitkin (Columbia) and Edward Gleason Spaulding (Princeton University).

The central feature of the new realism was a rejection of the epistemological dualism of John Locke and of older forms of realism. The group maintained that, when one is conscious of, or knows, an object, it is an error to say that the object in itself and our knowledge of the object are two distinct facts. If we know a particular cow is black, is the blackness on that cow or in the observer's mind? Holt wrote; "That color out there is the thing in consciousness selected for such inclusion by the nervous system's specific response," Consciousness is not physically identical with the nervous system: it is "out there" with the cow, all throughout the field of sight (and smell, and hearing) and identical with the set of facts it knows at any moment. The nervous system is merely a system of selection.

This position, which belongs to a broader category of views sometimes called neutral monism or, following William James, radical empiricism, hasn't worn well over the subsequent century, partly because of the problem of the nature of abstract ideas such as blackness. It seems very natural to locate blackness as an abstract idea in the brain that useful in dealing with the world. The new realists did not want to acknowledge representationalism at all but later embraced something akin to Aristotle's form of realism: blackness is a general quality that many objects have in common, and the nervous system selects not just the object but the commonality as a fact. But Arthur Lovejoy showed in his book The Revolt Against Dualism that the perception of black varies so much, depending on context in the visual field, the perceiver's personal history and cultural usage, that it cannot be reduced to commonalities within objects. Better, Lovejoy thought, to bring representational ideas back into the account after all.

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