The Doom of Realism

Updated: Jul 6


Royce, Josiah. In The World and the Individual. Gifford Lectures, 72–77. New York: Macmillan, 1900.


As to the historical and practical significance of realistic metaphysics in the history of life and of religion, one must say at once that, like all human conceptions, these various fundamental metaphysical conceptions also are, in one aspect, distinctly active and practical attitudes towards that Other which finite thought seeks. For Realism, the true meaning of our ideas is to be wholly external. Yet the internal meaning of the ideas stubbornly remains. The realist actually believes his doctrine because he finds it simple, or rational, or otherwise contenting to his inner interests. We never think without also acting, or tending to act. When we think we will. We have then internal meanings. So far as we have ideas really present to us, they embody purposes. Accordingly we shall find that all of our four various definitions of the ontological predicate are expressions of distinctly universal and human interests in life and the universe. Man confesses his practical ideals when he defines his philosophical notions.


And so, in particular, Realism, in addition to being an effort to meet the general problem of Being, is also the product and expression of essentially Social motives and interests. It is socially convenient, for purely practical reasons, to regard my fellow as a being whose mind shall be wholly independent, as to its inner being, of my own , knowledge about my fellow. This view of the social relation is indeed suggested by well-known experiences, but in its ideally extreme forms, it is warranted by no experience, and is actually contradicted by every case of the communication of mind with mind. But we also find it socially convenient to view the common objects of our human and social knowledge as independent both of my fellow and myself, even while we still view these objects as the same for both of us, and for all other actual and possible human observers. And so, in the end, we conceive these common objects, abstractly, as independent of all knowing processes whatever. When, to these social motives, we add that interest in escape from our private and finite disquietude of incomplete insight of which we before spoke, the special motives for the more abstract forms of Realism are in substance stated. It is true that there is a deeper and a very general motive at the heart of Realism, — a motive which we shall only later learn to appreciate. This is the interest in viewing the Real as the absolutely and finally Determinate or Individual fact. But this motive is present for Realism in a very abstract and problematic form. And even this motive, as we shall later see, is a practical one. We believe in the determinate individuality of things because we need and love individuality. We can justify this belief, in the end, only upon other than realistic grounds.


In consequence we may say that Realism is, in its special contrast with other views, an interpretation of the folklore of being in the interests of a social conservatism. Accordingly, in the history of thought, Realism is the metaphysic of the party of good order, when good order is viewed merely as something to be preserved. Hence the typical conservatives, the extreme Right-wing of any elaborate social order, will generally be realistic in their metaphysics. So too are the conservative theologians, so long as they teach the people. Amongst themselves, these conservatives, if deeply religious souls, may use quite other, namely, mystical speech. Realistic, too, are those plain men, whose only metaphysic is the blind belief in "established facts." Realistic also are the tyrants. Realism has lighted the fires for the martyrs, and has set up the scaffolds for the reformers. As to its most familiar cases of real objects. Realism is fond of socially important objects. Property in general, technical objects, money, mechanism, instruments, whatever can be passed from hand to hand, the solid earth on which we all alike appear to walk, —these are the typical and exemplary instances of realistic metaphysics. If you question Realism, the realist asks you whether you do not believe in these objects, as facts independent of your ideas. With these instances, then, the realist is ready to confute the objector. The realist is fond of insisting upon the "sanity " of his views. By sanity he means social convenience. Now reflective thinking is often socially inconvenient. When it is, the realist loves to talk of " wholesome " belief in reality, and to hurl pathological epithets at opponents. It is thus often amusing to find the same thinker who declares that reality is quite independent of all merely human or mental interests, in the next breath offering as proof of his thesis the practical and interesting "wholesomeness" of this very conviction.


But you will ask, Have no realists then been reformers, liberals, atheists? Yes, I answer, the pure materialists have been realists. But these more unorthodox realists are still what Kant called Dogmatists, partisans of a tradition preached as authoritative, — conservatives as to certain conceptions of a distinctly social, even if unorthodox origin.


Yet Realism, if indeed strictly sane, as sanity goes amongst us men, is a view as falsely abstract as it is convenient. This sundering of external and internal meaning is precisely what our later study will show to be impossible. As a shorthand statement of the situation of the finite being, Realism, laying stress as it does upon our vast and disquieting inadequacy to win union with the Other that we seek, is a good beginning of metaphysics. As an effort to define determinateness and finality, it is a stage on the way to a true conception of Individuality and of Individual Beings. As a summary indication of the nature of our social consciousness, and of our social world. Realism is indeed the bulwark of good order. For good order, in us men, practically depends, from moment to moment, upon abstractions, since we have at any one instant to think narrowly in order to act vigorously. But viewed as an ultimate and complete metaphysical doctrine, and not as a convenient half-truth, Realism, as we shall find hereafter, upon a closer examination, needs indeed no external opposition. It rends its own world to pieces even as it creates it. It contradicts its own conceptions in uttering them. It asserts the mutual dependence of knowing and of Being in the very act of declaring Being independent. In brief, realism never opens its mouth without expounding an antinomy.


Its central technical difficulty, as we shall later more particularly see, and as Aristotle's Metaphysics already laboriously shows you, is that wondrous problem of the nature of individuality and as to the meaning of universal. The independent realities must be individuals, for they are fixed data, finished and unique in advance of any knowing. And in a realistic world, as we shall find, there must be at least two individuals, independent of each other. But there cannot be such individuals; for the individuals of a realistic world are essentially Noumena, objects defined, even for the realist, by a thinking process. And mere thinking, when taken as in opposition to facts, merely abstract thinking, as Plato well and irrefutably observed, —can define only universals, and only linked systems of fact. Herein lies the doom of Realism. Its laws, as universals, contradict its facts, which have to be independent individuals. Whatever is said to be true of its reals is a conceived, and hence an universal truth, linking many in one. But its reals are not universal, and are not to be linked. Their essence excludes universality, and demands mutual independence. Hence, in the end, nothing whatever proves to be true of them. History shows many examples of this consequence. The troubled darkness of the Herbartian realm of the Reals is one such historical example. In Herbart's world, in an uncanny and impossible way, these Reals, which can have nothing to do with one another, still, according to the philosopher come "Zusammen"; and while nothing can happen to them, they preserve themselves changeless amidst unreal disturbances, by crawling, as it were, like worms, and so producing a "wirkliches Geschehen." Well, this strange metaphysical scene, in the distracted globe of Herbart's system, is only one instance of the sort of thing that has to be found in any realistic world, if one confesses the truth, as Herbart nobly confessed it.

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