Archive for November 8th, 2021

November 8, 2021

Realism, truth and all that

by Neil Rickert

A comment to my last post raised some questions about my views on realism and on truth. This post will be an attempt to respond to those questions.


First, some background. I’m a mathematician and I have spent time doing computer science. I have no doubt that my experience in mathematics and computer science have greatly influenced my thinking on many topics.

Around 1990, or perhaps a year earlier, I asked myself the question of “how does learning work?” This arose, in part, out of pedagogical concerns. It seemed to me that the dominant ways of teaching mathematics did not work well with how we actually learn.

That started me in a project of attempting to understand human cognition. In some ways, this has been very successful. I believe I do have a reasonably good, if imperfect, understanding. But, in other ways, it has been a failure. Much of what I now understand about cognition goes against the conventional wisdom. And that makes it hard to explain to others.

I bring up this background, because I might occasionally mention what was my view before 1990. And by that, I mean what was my view before I started that investigation into cognition.


The comment to which I am responding begins with:

I’m curious to know what you mean when you say that you are a realist.

For many scientists, “realist” and “pragmatist” are almost interchangeable. I guess that’s a good starting point for my own views on realism.

People seem to use the word “real” as if it has a meaning that comes directly from God. But it can only mean what we take it to mean. I like Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. I don’t see how “real” can mean anything beyond what the conventional wisdom takes to be real. There isn’t any magic that gets us to some pure meaning that is independent from how people use the word.

I contrast realism with Berkeley’s idealism. Perhaps I should say that for me, realism is a denial of Berkeley’s realism and a denial of Kant’s transcendental idealism.

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