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Philosophical realism and postmodern antirealism.

Realism has preoccupied philosophers, literary theorists, and art theorists for generations. Yet in neither of these disciplines have discussions concerning realism reached a conclusive state or a clear definition. Typically, the conception of realism is subject to considerable disagreement regarding its very meaning, its implications (on any level of theory or practice, of semantics or ontology), and even regarding its place in the overall structure of the disciplines in question. Exemplary cases in this context are the debate over the mimetic value(1) of perspective in Renaissance art, the debate over the realism of the novelistic genre in literary studies, and the debate over the kind of truth conception realism entails in philosophy or over how tenable realism can be in view of the possibility that future science will refute the existence of its current theoretical position. All these discussions continue to stir the verbal energies of both philosophers and art and literary theorists with an intensity that varies at different times.

Facing the profound multivalence surrounding the concept of realism, this paper will suggest that realism stands to gain in clarity and productivity if discussed within an interdisciplinary framework. Specifically this paper aims to suggest ways in which the philosophical debate between realists and antirealists can illuminate the position of critics towards questions of representation in literature. This aim will be attained, however, without positing philosophical tools as privileged or prior but rather as analogous to the conceptual tools offered by literary theorists. Rethinking realism in interdisciplinary terms evidently offers vast possibilities; these will be delimited to the question of what constitutes a realist position in philosophy and how such a position can be identified in the context of literary theory. Once spelled out, the complex of assumptions of the philosophical realist will lead to a consideration of some of the assumptions guiding the work of literary theorists of postmodernism. I shall examine whether the practice of formulating a poetics of postmodernism as implemented in literary studies by necessity contradicts a realist perspective, one that privileges notions such as "reality" and "representation." Examining the case of postmodernist poetics against the assumptions of philosophical realism will reveal that a gap exists between the perspective that allegedly dominates postmodernist theories, one that is a professed antirealist perspective, and the practice of postmodernist criticism. Thus, while postmodernist discourse often includes formulations that signal cultural relativism or even a radical antirealism, critical approaches to literary postmodernism are in fact much less extreme in their practices.


Although realism is a concept already present in various disciplines, the idea of creating an interdisciplinary domain for discussing the problem of realism takes this interdisciplinary reality a step further. The idea is not to move back and forth between philosophy and literary theory to find places where realism in the philosophical sense is discussed by literary theorists and vice versa. Rather, the purpose of this kind of project is to show that realism, although operative within particular disciplines, can also become operative across disciplines. Despite the fact that philosophy has contributed mostly to the formulation of the problem of realism on a metatheoretic level while literary and art theory contributed mostly to defining the problem of realism as a problem in and of representation, this paper attempts to construct a level of interaction between the disciplines.

The attempt to discuss realism across disciplines conflicts with a certain diffuseness that characterizes current discussions of realism in each of the disciplines concerned. This diffuseness can be attributed to the following factors:

(1) The question of realism, both in philosophy and in literary theory, has opened vistas of problems; realism has turned out to touch on the very foundations of each of the disciplines involved. In philosophy the concept of realism borders on fundamental questions regarding the very legitimacy of the philosophical project, the future of philosophy, and the validity of specific philosophical pursuits in science and language. A consideration of realism does not confine philosophical discussion to specific problems but encompasses almost any philosophical issue one may think of (from issues in the philosophy of science, language, mind, and logic to questions of moral philosophy). A similar tendency to touch global questions through a study of realism can be identified in literary theory where the notion of realism is continuously employed both to question the idea of representation in the history of literature and also to inquire about the very underpinnings (methodological, theoretical, and operational) of the study of literature: is it a discipline at all? Does it stand up to scientific standards? Is there an intersubjective basis to the practice of criticism and interpretation? What is the nature of literary knowledge? The concept of realism in literary theory has not remained within the domain of issues related to representation in art; realism is now perceived as one theoretical stronghold pitted against the constructivism (relativism) prevalent in many parts of this domain or as a threat to postmodern culture and to poststructuralist modes of thought in other quarters. Realism hence appears to be not a limiting but a broadening concept.

(2) Realism as a concept, it is claimed, would gain in explanatory content if turned into an interdisciplinary notion. Yet, unlike many other concepts that naturally invite interchange among disciplines, realism cannot simply be extended to another discipline.(2) With the notion of realism, the route for interdisciplinary interchange cannot be taken for granted. In philosophy realism stands for a metaperspective on the relations of signs and concepts to reality.(3) Here the realist position is constituted by a belief in the mind-independent existence of the world of objects,(4) a belief in truth as correspondence between language and the world, and a belief that there is only one true description of the world. In literary and art theory realism refers to the ability of signs and images to accurately or convincingly represent a reality. In some ways, then, these are two (even if trivially) similar uses of the term since both in philosophy and in literary studies realism has to do with the relations between signs (of thought or language) and the world of objects. Yet, this basic similarity has not produced much interchange among the disciplines. That is, the concept of realism has not lent itself naturally to interdisciplinary study despite a level of conceptual similarity between the uses of realism in the different disciplines. Whenever philosophers and literary or art theorists connect realistic representation in literature to philosophical realism, this connection is suggested either as a nonphilosophical figure (see Diamond 40ff.), as a readily. misinterpreted link (see Wolterstorff 89; Brinker 2), or as a reduction (e.g., Livingston, 1988). Even within philosophy itself, the difficulty of incorporating aesthetic reflections on representation in art into realist or antirealist perspectives is often acknowledged.

(3) The concept of realism in all disciplines involved appears to retain its explanatory value and its centrality despite what appears to be a deep-rooted ambiguity of the concept. Both in philosophy and in literary theory, the debate over realism is over rudiments, over the very meaning of this position. In philosophy realism is claimed to be a metaphysical stand (Devitt, Realism 14ff.), an epistemological stand that can be reconciled with relativism (Putnam 26-29), an overarching hypothesis about empiricism in natural science (Boyd, "Current Status" 25-26), a stand that defies any metaphysical view altogether (Fine 112ff.; Putnam, Renewing 123-28), and so on. The ambiguity in defining and locating the realist position also affects philosophical stands regarding related issues: does realism necessarily imply a theory of truth, or is it a theory that says nothing semantic at all? Does realism presuppose a correspondence theory of truth, or can it be reconciled with a rejection of correspondence and an acceptance of a pragmatic truth conception (i.e., the view that the truth of a statement is determined according to whether the statement works in a certain context or within a given framework)? On the other hand, there is an evident readiness to accept a variety of incompatible interpretations attributed to realism as if the multiplicity of ways of understanding realism is inherent to the concept itself. The multiplicity of interpretations given to realism as a metaphysical, semantic, or empirical stand does not always imply mutual exclusion; it thus also raises possibilities of pairing some of these interpretations.

Similarly in the literary discipline, since Erich Auerbach's Mimesis and Roman Jakobson's overview on "Realism in Art," it has become an acknowledged fact that a variety of representational conceptions are assembled under realism. Realism can be equated with a specific object of representation (nineteenth-century literature and visual art are claimed to depict situations from everyday life, coarse, unsublimated domains of reality) or with the mode or style of the representation (detailism, concreteness of depiction, dominance of description, transparent rendering, dominance of referentiality, etc.). Nowadays realism is also identified with a kind of structuralist or rational approach to the claims made by theory(5) (which may appear, but falsely so, to be where literary studies bear more literally and directly on questions of realism in philosophy). Yet, literary theorists appear to accept the situation of no consensus on the nature and definition of realism rather than attempt to settle the ambiguity of the concept one way or another. Literary research on realism has consequently tended to exceed the boundaries of specific periods in literary history, leading to studies of literary phenomena that are realistic in one or another sense or that reconcile the incompatibility between these two meanings of realism. Thus such questions as these are typical: Can fantasies be realistically rendered? In what sense is science fiction realistic? Can nineteenth-century culture motivate both a mode and object (subject matter) of literary writing? A similar agreement regarding the range of possible meanings that can be attributed to realism exists in art theory and history (as seen in the works of Svetlana Alpers, Menachem Brinker, E. H. Gombrich, Nelson Goodman, and Kendall Walton).

Realism as an interdisciplinary concept is hence more of a thing to be constructed than a "reality" to be justified. This alternative is due both to the conceptual multivalence realism holds in each of the interacting disciplines(6) and to the fact that beyond a commonplace association between the realisms of the two disciplines, any further analogy appears to have caused more of a misinterpretation than an illuminating exchange. One obvious reason is that whereas realism in philosophy is a metaperspective that aims to define stands over principal issues of semantics and epistemology, the realism of representational arts is part of the object of investigation itself: it has to do with the manner and style of the artistic phenomenon itself. In order to translate conceptually the realism of one domain into the realism of another, it will be necessary to show that the discrepancy between the two notions of realism is not so great: neither is realism necessarily a metaphilosophical stand (realist and antirealist positions permeate the semantics of scientific lexicons and the specific objectives of scientific and linguistic practices) nor is representational realism "out there" in the artistic object (realism in representation is as much a construction, a convention imposed by the language of theory, as it is a feature of the object itself). It will be claimed, in other words, that it is precisely the understanding of realism as a position that goes down (or up) from metatheory to the practice of producing theories that can lead to a fruitful exchange between the uses of this concept in the various disciplines.


Realism is a metaphilosophical position in the sense that it explicates some presuppositions behind specific philosophical pursuits. Realism asserts something about reality and something about the relation of reality to language or to other forms of conceptual representation. Since realism allows for a possible incongruity between reality and its representation (it allows, for instance, the possibility of error in our theoretical suppositions), it follows that the realist acknowledges there being a domain beyond the conceptual sphere.(7) That is, the realist assumes that the world of objects is independent of our mind, theories, and language. The realist also assumes that our beliefs and experiences are grounded in a reality external to thought, which is why a testable theory is viewed by the realist as asserting something about reality (Popper 117). Thus, as a metaphilosophical perspective realism proposes a metaphysical picture that accounts for the underlying nature of the world in general and, ideally at least, makes this world the content of language and its concepts.

With all the complexity and multifacedness of the debate around the concept of realism in philosophy, the various ramifications of this debate share the one realistic theme of "the given"(8) (the idea of a world prior to language) in its relation to experience, concepts, and beliefs. Whether philosophers accept, qualify, or reject a dualism between the given and conceptual schemes, between empirical reality and thought signs, the point to be made in this context is that realism assumes some kind of interplay between the two. Current versions of the realist position see little point in referring to the notion of the "thing in itself" and attempt to find correlative ways of holding to the realist doctrine.(9)

Yet, realism as a metaphilosophical perspective (the idea that the world consists of a fixed totality of mind-independent objects, the idea that there is only one true description of the way the world is, and the notion of truth as correspondence of some sort) is in itself contentless (Putnam, Realism 30ff.). Realism only has content when qualified by further assumptions and notions or when relativized to a state of knowledge or to a mind. If not, that is if realism did not have to do with a certain relation between concepts and theoretical reality (an articulative relation explaining what is correspondence, what are the implications of assuming that the world is mind independent, etc.), realism would have been just an empty framework. In the same way that representational content is necessary to picture the exercise of concepts (otherwise this picture would depict "only a play of empty forms" [McDowell 6]), specific theoretical contents are what ascribe substance to the concept of realism.

The extreme claim that identifies radical philosophical realism refers to whatever generates our beliefs and justifications as extending beyond the conceptual domain (although presumably no self-proclaimed realist will endorse the claim as thus formulated). Conversely, the claims characterizing various nonrealisms deny the existence of nonconceptual spheres. These two metaphysical varieties define nothing more than a metaperspective on the relations of concepts to world, of categories to experience.(10) This preliminary status of realism as an overall philosophical picture (or its nonrealist rejection) has to be taken into account when examining the explanatory potential philosophical realism holds for other disciplines. These metapositions are to be translated, in turn, into particular research programs and transformed into concrete questions within a given research domain.

Realism can be extended into particular ontological, semantical, and epistemological arguments. It can be extended into a belief in the existence of objects (observable and unobservable) assumed by scientific theories and in the denotative capacity of their (linguistic) "names"; it can be extended into a belief in the truthfulness of successful theories (these correspond to the world's states of affairs); and it can be extended into the epistemic belief in the ability of theories to converge toward truth: that is, in our ability to have some access to a mind-independent world.

Evidently, none of these extensions is inevitable. Some realists (like Devitt, Realism 46-47) even claim that the realist doctrine does not go beyond its metaphysical point of view: all the remaining assumptions are optional. Although other philosophers account for the realist doctrine as necessitating a definite set of assumptions (Dummett, for instance, insists that the principle of "bivalence" - i.e., the idea that every proposition is determinately true or false - is an indispensable logical basis of the realist doctrine [9]), it is clear that the realist can compile his position from various options and can interpret the type of commitment realist metaphysics entail in a range of ways.(11) Thus, in view of the tentative connections between the metaphysical doctrine and its various extensions, it is clear how realists differ widely on the question of which of the various ontological, epistemological, and semantical arguments are to be attached to a realist position. Realists are not all defenders of correspondence truth (not to mention the fact that the idea of correspondence can receive radically different interpretations if a Popperian correspondence is compared to a Tarskian one, for instance), nor are they necessarily opponents to the view that all domains of our experience are conceptually mapped.(12) Furthermore, realists and nonrealists can hold to the same assumption on one level and differ on another. For instance, in defending a particular version of scientific realism, Richard Boyd argues that while realists and constructivists can agree on what constitutes scientific knowledge, they part on the kind of epistemology that explains this knowledge. For the constructivist, scientific methodology is determined by the theoretical tradition within which scientists work. The knowledge gained through this methodology is hence constituted or constructed from the theoretical tradition in which the scientific community operates. For the realist, however, the same scientific method is a guide to true scientific knowledge: it "rests upon the logically, epistemically and historically contingent emergence of suitably approximately true theories" (Boyd, "Current" 71). These different perspectives on the status of scientific knowledge can be further extended. For instance, the realist view of epistemology as an empirical science (i.e., as contained or affirmed by the results of natural science) can be advanced to defend in the history of science a referential continuity and successive approximation to the truth, which are already ways of dealing with specific topics in the philosophy of science.

Realism as a set of instructions for particular research programs is the outcome of philosophical procedures that translate a general doctrine and its epistemological and methodological assumptions into empirical guidelines for research. Realism, as a metaphilosophical stand, can be translated into a complex of claims and beliefs in particular philosophical contexts. Thus, we can question the objective status of any set of entities and be realists or antirealists in a specific domain. We can confirm the existence of possible worlds or any other modal categories and be modal realists; we can pick the subject matter of mathematics and inquire whether mathematical propositions describe an independent reality; in the philosophy of mind we can ask whether a person's observable actions and behavior are evidence of inner states and be psychological realists; we can question the existence of theoretical entities of science (such as black holes, quarks, antimatter, superstrings, etc.); and we can address the problem of time and puzzle ourselves over the existence of past, present, and future time.

Philosophical debates over realism revolve around the question of which complex of claims and beliefs constitutes a coherent, consistent, and valid philosophical framework. Conversely, departing from a disbelief in the world as a given, the constructivist philosopher of science would claim that the world about which we gain knowledge with our scientific methodology is defined or constituted by the theoretical tradition in which a given scientific community works (what counts as observation, as acceptable theory, which experiments are taken to be well designed; which measurement procedures are legitimate; what sorts of evidence are required for accepting a theory - all these features are determined by the theoretical tradition with which scientists work). When a scientist is forced to abandon important features of current theories and to adopt radically new ones, this phenomenon cannot be seen as an example of theory brought into conformity with a theory-independent world nor as an example of the construction of reality within a theoretical tradition. Since there are no significant theory-independent standards of rationality, changing theories involve adopting a wholly new conception of the world complete with its own distinctive standards of rationality. The scientific realist would conversely argue that in view of the mind independence of the world, the choice between rival scientific theories is guided by the prospect of achieving more accurate approximations about observable and nonobservable phenomena. Since for the realist theoretical terms possess a denotative capacity, choice among theories can be rational even though experimental methodology is theory dependent.

This procedure illustrates how a metaphysical position can be gradually developed into a whole complex of answers to the questions posed by theory and science and touched upon while scientific enquiry of any sort is under way. In specifying this range of claims included in a realist or constructivist position, one can show how a metaphilosophical position gradually permeates and affects the theoretical and methodological suppositions that guide research in any particular field of investigation.


Although in philosophy the question of what realism commits a theorist to (to the existence of what kind of entities, to what kind of truth conception, to what view on knowledge, etc.) has received a variety of answers, the above dissection of the realist position into its constituents can be reformulated and summarized into the following suppositions shared by all versions of realism:

(1) Realism is metaphysically a doctrine stating the existence, or possible existence, of a nonconceptual domain.

(2) Realism is ontologically a belief in the independent existence of two separate orders: the order of the real and the order of the linguistic; entities of language designate entities in reality.

(3) Realism is epistemically the view that there is at least a partial access from language to reality.

(4) Realism is semantically the assumption that access from the order of language to the order of the real is based on a relation of a particular kind (of representation, approximation, convergence, accuracy, truth, correspondence, or their likes).

I would claim that this conceptual structure, exemplifying the way a realist perspective is assembled, often goes unnoticed by literary theorists who adopt or reject nonsystematically any of these aspects of realism. The same applies to various antirealisms that similarly forward a complex of claims regarding the relations of language (or other conceptual systems) and the world. Literary theorists thus often develop research programs that are incompatible with their realist or nonrealist presuppositions or with explicit perspectives on questions of epistemology and methodology. Furthermore, I will claim that theories of postmodernism, although formulated at times when nonrealisms of various kinds are at their height of popularity in many sciences and although highly self-conscious of the present predicament of theoretical discourse at large, preserve many aspects of the realist position.

In examining attempts to devise a poetics of postmodernism, it appears that the theorist, in executing this inquiry into postmodernism, is caught in a double bind. Postmodern fiction is written into a context that grants very little legitimacy to systematic knowledge. The decline of faith in self-sufficient objects to which theories can refer and the epistemological crisis that have swept disciplines from philosophy of natural science to historiography create a new situation shared by theories of culture and by natural and social sciences alike. Postmodern literature presents as diffuse an object of research as magnetic fields or historical events. Within literary studies postmodernism in this respect presents the same theoretical problem as any other school, genre, or literary period: these are equally subjected to skeptical, pragmatist, or relativistic points of view. At times when practitioners no longer believe in the intrinsic essence of any object of observation, modes of observing modernism, postmodernism, romanticism, or the absurd by necessity manifest a radical change.

Yet, on top of this general epistemological crisis, postmodernism holds particularly complex relations with contemporary theory: "the tendency toward auto-commentary and 'meta-fictions' in literature is actually another version of the theoretical tendency in scholarship; both appear when innocent representation is no longer possible and when, at the same time, pure formalism or methodology-for-its-own-sake have proved equally unsatisfactory" (Bruss 22). That is, the postmodernist artifact is considered to mirror the very epistemological crisis described above: it reflects in a way the state of the theory dedicated to accounting for it. In this context of a literature that presents "worlds under erasure" (McHale, Postmodernist 99ff.), it seems particularly inappropriate to depict worlds and "antiworlds" as literary facts within a positivistically oriented theory. In such a double bind, where the properties of the object of theory have permeated and, in fact, have taken over the discourse about this object and vice versa, the relations between object and theory are made problematic. This situation has also made critics and theorists of postmodernism particularly aware of considerations of metatheory and methodology and has generated lengthy discussions regarding the status of theoretical discourse itself. The strikingly consistent tendency to treat theories as stories or as fiction is an exemplary case in point. It is part of the condition of postmodernity that "theory" (i.e., the kind of general genre of writing into which all distinct discourses of separate academic disciplines have dissolved) can "narrate" its object in different ways and that it can make the distinction between fact and fiction barely visible. This conception of theory as a story or fiction and not as a translucent medium representing an object of research carries radical implications especially for critics of postmodernism who, by definition, consider their own work as historical.(13) The strategy of treating both theory and its object as stories and fictions is complemented by the tendency to blur the distinction between the writing of literature and the writing of theory. Elizabeth Bruss, for instance, refers to the "literariness" of recent literary theory, to the aesthetic considerations that weigh in the construction of theories (50). Thus both postmodernist literary practice and postmodern theory are preoccupied with a similar set of themes: the limitations of representation, the failure of reference, the indispensability of ideology in deciphering discourse, the overall narrativity of all discourses.

On face value it appears that the condition of postmodernism has changed the state of theory in three major ways (although, as will be claimed below, these changes are not equally unavoidable):

(1) Theoretical discourse self-consciously marks its own literariness; theory, as much as literature, narrativizes, constructs fictional worlds, implements games of intertextuality, invents metaphors and figures of speech, and so on.

(2) Theories have lost their privileged status vis-a-vis their objects, which has led to undermining the epistemological claims of literary theory. No longer being considered a metalanguage and having lost its claim to knowledge and explanatory force, literary theory requires new standards for testing its proposals. Here theory again responds to or reflects a widely circulated relativism that, supported by parallel views regarding the status of knowledge produced by science, sees truthfulness as the product of concepts and prejudices posited by science itself.

(3) Literary theory, equipped with only tentative methodology and with constructivist epistemology, in fact ceases to refer to any prior object of observation. The evasiveness of the postmodern object can easily lead to the idea that postmodernism is whatever a given theory claims it to be.

These three conclusions that can be drawn from the postmodern condition are not all on a par. The first is a claim regarding characteristics (structural, conceptual, but also stylistic) of the postmodernist discursive practice. The second is a claim regarding the epistemological status of this type of discourse, and the third refers to the kind of ontology to which postmodern discourse can, or rather cannot, be committed. That is, the implications that can be drawn from talk about the changing face of literary theory and about the elusiveness of its object of observation can vary and do not necessarily lead to a total merging of metalanguage and object language nor to a total disbelief in the ability of metalanguage to explain and represent its object. I will claim that the possibility of drawing the latter conclusion, of defying any claim of literary theory to knowledge or representation vis-a-vis its object, a possibility which in fact illustrates an extreme form of antirealism, is rejected by many who attempt to construct a poetics of postmodernism. Finding ways of acknowledging the tentative nature of theory while retaining its explanatory and representational powers is therefore a central task facing critics of postmodernism.

Looking back at the three aspects of the theoretical and methodological dilemma of postmodernism, we can now try to construct an analogy between these and the levels of commitment that constitute the realist or antirealist perspectives in philosophy. The following are three theses that link philosophical realism with the postmodern position.

(a) Realism is metaphysically a doctrine regarding the existence, or possible existence, of a nonconceptual domain, a domain that is independent of the mapping capacities of languages and theories (i.e., conceptual schemes).

This doctrine is rarely, if ever, denied by any philosopher, whether a realist or a nonrealist. Rorty ("Texts and Lumps") has pointed out that the pragmatist has no difficulty with separating the hardness of data in the natural sciences ("lumps") from the data relevant to cultural studies ("texts"). Rorty has therefore indicated that in doubting the ability of language to "cut the world at its joints," its ability to provide the one true description that corresponds to the way the world is, the nonrealist only claims that the world as we know it is parochial (that is, a product of intersubjective agreement) but not that the world does not exist prior to theory (Rorty, "Texts and Lumps" 32, 91). Likewise Putnam has shown that in telling the story of the impossibility of accounting for the furniture of the universe and our epistemic relation to it, the relativist stops short of an ontological doubt regarding the very metaphysical distinction between noumena and phenomena ("Comparison" 73-74). "When Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter through his telescope ... the impact on his retina was 'hard' in the relevant sense, even though its consequences were, to be sure, different for different communities.... The datum itself, it might be argued, is utterly real quite apart from the interpretation it receives" (Rorty, "Texts and Lumps" 4).(14) Rorty recognizes that the question of what exists is almost trivial as long as both lumps and texts are not viewed as enduring substrates subjected to varying descriptions or interpretations. In other words, the question of existence or factuality is not where the pragmatist positions himself, and even extreme forms of cultural relativisms feel no need to deny the distinction between lumps and texts. In other words, in the context of an irrealist argument, where the very notion of truth as correspondence is viewed as unsalvageable, there is little need to deny the existence of the world of objects in order to establish a pragmatist-relativist position. The irrealist philosopher can defend his/her position without counter-intuitively denying existence to material/physical objects.

Yet, literary and cultural critics, often dazzled by the charismatic appeal of various relativisms in philosophy, may find themselves committed to an extreme metaphysical version, whose implications go far beyond the type of problems that a theory of postmodernism is in fact bound to tackle: "No doubt there 'is' no such 'thing' as postmodernism. Or at least there is no such thing if what one has in mind is some kind of identifiable object 'out there' in the world, localizable, bounded by a definite outline, open to inspection..." (McHale, Constructing 1).

Although this may sound like a statement about the impossibility of accounting for "the given," in the context of a postmodern poetics such a statement, as radically constructivist as it may sound, does not carry radical metaphysical implications. Evidently, cultural products, whether of a modern or a postmodern descent, cannot be "out there" as objects mapped irrespective of human activity. Thus, although problems of objecthood and factuality of modes of being are undoubtedly not accidental in postmodernist contexts, the fact that postmodernist artifacts are constructs of cognitive activity rather than "existents" in the sense that gold or stars are is evident. In other words, addressing texts and not lumps already takes the literary theorist one step further from the prior metaphysical question. Postmodernism is not "out there" in the world in the same sense that no cultural artifact can form part of a mind-independent universe.

Hence, postmodernist poetics is not, and has no reason to be committed to, a realist or nonrealist metaphysics regarding the existence or nonexistence of a world of objects.

(b) Realism is ontologically a belief that entities to which languages and theories refer do exist. This ontological tenet of realism implies that language or theory constitutes levels that are distinct from the objects to which they refer. This point is crucial in distinguishing realists from nonrealists. Nonrealists see the difference between interpretation, theory, and the objects of these activities as two alternative discursive practices, whereas for the realist interpretation and theory aim to catch the real essence of the objects that exist independently of metalanguages. The realist hence assumes two separate orders, as we saw above: a linguistic order and an order of entities to which language refers.

It is in this context that we should understand discussions of the literariness of theoretical language in the context of postmodernism. Theorists of postmodernism, by diagnosing similar features both in the verbal object (postmodernist texts) and in theories about them, can be easily led to a slighting of the very idea of a theory distinct from its object. How seriously are we to take the theoretical apparatus, asks Bruss, when literary theory has become theory as literature? "The ludic impulse to treat every construct as a fiction ... can make theory much more wily or simply incapacitate it..." (109). The aesthetization of theory may suggest that concepts like "postmodernism" or "reference," which are postulates of theory, are discursive fictions as much as their objects. Yet, despite this danger of totally deprivileging theory and making its claims commensurate with those of literary fiction, the task of criticism in postmodern culture only becomes more intricate in keeping apart the theorizing practice from the one theorized about. "The art and theory" of postmodernism, claims Linda Hutcheon, "are not perhaps, as revolutionary as either their own rhetoric or their supporters' suggest" (222). Although in its rhetoric postmodern criticism might present its object as "created" or "constructed" by theoretical models and hence as two merging practices, the distinction between metalanguage and object language is in fact retained. Alternative theories of postmodernism, that is theories that provide equally valid descriptions of a corpus of texts, are not likely to be presented as creating two separate "givens" but only as changing emphases in our understanding of a writer or a text or as shifting writers or texts from one context of discussion to another (see, for instance, Brian McHale's discussion of the place of Gertrude Stein relative to different definitions of modernism [Constructing 57]).

(c) Realism is epistemically the view that there is at least partial access from language and theory to a world of objects. The epistemological claim of literary theory is often nourished by a false or mythical image of how models of knowledge are constructed in the natural sciences. Livingston, for instance, maintains that formerly natural sciences were considered as "hard" and "exact" in their claim to knowledge in opposition to the "softness" of their humanistic counterparts. According to the current relativistic image of science the latter can only set an arbitrary and institutionally determined framework. Both images of science, claims Livingston, are equally untenable. Literary theorists tend to adopt a reduced version of science (whether as an ideal and perfected mode of knowledge or as an irrational and/or socially determined one) in order to support their own critical interests (16ff.). While Livingston uses examples of this misguided contact between science and literary theory programatically to resume inquiry into the rational epistemological claims of theory, our own question in this context should be directed elsewhere. Have relativistic images of scientific knowledge (images that have permeated the field of criticism and literary theory since poststructuralism and deconstruction have turned mainstream) indeed generated a theory that is epistemically emptied of its claims? In fact, relativism, even in its extreme formulations, rarely results in narcotizing all claims to knowledge but only in qualifying the range of applicability of such claims. In constructing a model of reference in postmodern contexts, Hutcheon shows that although the referential dimension of language is problematized when writing sous rature ("under erasure"), reference is never really devalued. Moreover, since the assertion or denial of referential mechanisms in literature have long been on the theoretical agenda, it can be argued that in postmodernist contexts questions of reference only gained in intensity but were not radically redefined. Consequently the poetics of postmodernism can still be engaged with accounting for common denominators of writing, which include questions of meaning construction and of reference (Hutcheon 144-45).

The fact that we cannot prove or disprove the truth of any theory does not entail that all descriptions are "on a par." Perhaps, claims Rorty, they are epistemologically on a par, but the significance of choosing between them is not thereby removed (Rorty, "Contingency" 6). I claim that postmodernist theorists refrain from invalidating literary theory as establishing principles of knowledge. The fact that theory can make use of narratives does not make it a story; the fact that it employs intertextual relations and allusions does not make it fictional.

The task of criticism, then, is not to situate itself within the same space as the text, allowing it to speak or completing what it necessarily leaves unsaid. On the contrary, its function is to install itself in the very incompleteness of the work in order to theorize it, to explain ... that of which it is not, and cannot be aware. (Bruss 132)

The claim to knowledge, although qualified, is in no way weakened. Literary theory and criticism of postmodernism hence retain their theorizing capacity vis-a-vis their object.

Realism forwards the semantic belief that language and world maintain relations of a particular kind (of representation, approximation, convergence, accuracy, truth, correspondence or their like).

In the context of postmodernist poetics, the representational function of language is rarely undermined. That is, literary theorists dealing with postmodernism are clear on the impossibility of their own discourse or of literature itself to create some kind of prior relations with a material, distinct reality in any naive sense. Yet, the irrelevance of this picture of the real in its relation to language does not mean that the relations of language to reality have ceased to exist, but only that the nature of the referent has changed. An exemplary case in this regard is Benjamin Woolley's study of postmodern culture as a culture that has dramatically changed our notions of reality: "reality," claims Woolley, "has left the physical world and moved into the virtual one" (235).(15) The radical change of faith in the material world and in the ability of language and theory to refer to this world does not, however, invalidate the semantic relations that discourse creates with an alternative world picture. According to Woolley, the twentieth century, which has witnessed a change from modernity to postmodernity, is the site of new theories that challenge one's basic reality notions. In order to construct an alternative reality notion, science, gradually and in striking unison, has exchanged the notion of reality for that of virtual reality. Quantum mechanics and the many-worlds interpretation that have been ascribed to this physicalist model illustrate how an alternative referent is posited for scientific theories. Quantum mechanics replaces the material world of classical physics with a set of possibilities. The many-worlds thesis is hence not merely a way for interpreting a theoretical model: rather, the many-worlds thesis implies a fundamentally different outlook on the way the world is. The world itself, as it were, is caught at a moment when two possible versions exist in two parallel sets of universes. This state of the world, according to the many-worlds thesis, is independent of observation (since an observer will collapse the possibilities into actuality [Woolley 227]). In other words, Woolley does not weigh here the question of the validity of the many-worlds thesis or the degree of agreement it has yielded among scientists (most have rejected it as extravagant); he only asserts that having such models available in the world of science indicates the possibility of alternative world pictures and images of the real that are to replace the picture of an external material reality to which science refers. A maneuver that is equally instructive is McHale's use of models to do the descriptive work of theory. "Modernism" and "postmodernism" are for McHale two strategic models that can be used to extract or underline different aspects in a given corpus of texts. As such, the language of theory, although never absolute in its claims, is capable of proposing alternative ways of depicting or representing a given object. Again, the semantic relations between language and its object are tentative but definable for specific strategic purposes (McHale, Constructing 42ff.).

In conclusion, it is only within a holistic view of realism as a complex of metatheoretical, epistemological and methodological suppositions that the connection between realism in the philosophical sense and realism as a theoretical-critical position toward artistic representation is revealed. Although this paper does not deal with realism in terms of specific techniques and conventions that stylistically create artistic textures of realism (as this paper does not address literary practice but only theories of that practice), this essay does, however, aim to indicate that such techniques and conventions are ways of translating beliefs about the world and its representation into properties of literary discourse. In the case of postmodernism, discursive practice, both literary and theoretical, should be understood as integral to proclaimed (often contradictory) beliefs about the relation of language to world. Thus, the whole conceptual structure of realism accounts both for the way a set of texts is represented by the language of theory and for how a world is represented by a literary text. A realist perspective, in other words, secures the theorizing capacity of theory regarding its object but also the capacity of language to represent a world.

It is in relation to this capacity of language to represent a world that literary studies can further explore types of representation (of reality, of virtual reality, or of a symbolic world). By being fully conscious of the conceptual structure and implications of either a realist or a nonrealist perspective, literary studies can proceed through a more avowedly interdisciplinary understanding of the question of realism.


1 See Jan Bruck for the distinction between mimesis and realism. Bruck claims that mimesis, as its Aristotelian origins indicate, refers to "representation." Objects and conceptions of mimesis can therefore change from one period to another (as exemplified in the difference between representing social situations by the Greeks and the representation of nature in the eighteenth century). Mimesis does not imply any notion of realism since the latter only emerges in the nineteenth century as part of bourgeois ideology with the demand to represent contemporary "real life" objectively. Despite Bruck's assertiveness in discussing the two concepts, his statement is part of an ongoing debate over their meaning and distinguishability.

2 The idea of possible worlds, for instance, "invented" by logicians to deal with "nonactual" ontologies, lent itself naturally to interdisciplinary research and was applied to analogous phenomena in other disciplines. Possible worlds clearly pertain to the case of fictionality in literary theory but also to probable as opposed to factual occurrences in science and to conditional as opposed to assertive constructions in language (see Ronen).

3 This definition indicates that the debate over realism to which I refer in this paper is the current one in twentieth-century philosophy that has followed the linguistic turn. In this sense, realism contrasts with relativism or with current forms of idealism.

4 This attempt to give a definitive, albeit instrumental definition of realism already reveals the fact that no definition of realism can be presented as consensual. The idea that the realist is committed to the existence of certain entities is rejected by Michael Dummett for instance, who claims that "we cannot say that a realist about things of a certain category is one who believes that such things exist" (324); entities can be ideal, actual, merely possible or impossible.

5 See, for instance, Paisley Livingston (chapter 3).

6 Again, this situation is unlike the case of possible worlds: the concept was attributed to a variety of philosophical interpretations (ascribing a wide range of "realisms" to the logical categories involved); when the concept of possible worlds was transferred into the study of literature, its applicability was established within a well-defined area: the study of fictionality and of the semantics of narrative and their level of concretization appeared to be agreed upon.

7 This aspect of realism is grasped by the image of "brains in vats," for instance, developed by Hilary Putnam (Reason 50; Realism 110ff.). Brains in vats are an imaginary race of people created by a mad super scientist, people possessing brains but no bodies. Receiving, however, stimulii, they have the illusion of bodies in an external environment although in reality they are brains suspended in a vat of chemicals. This hypothesis of "radical deception" "seems to depend on the idea of a predetermined, almost magical, connection between words or thought-signs and external objects that Transcendental Realism depends on" (Putnam, Realism 112).

8 "The given" traditionally refers to the contents of experience, uncontaminated by subjectivity and believed to be immediately accessible to the subject. The world for many realists (but not all) exists in some prior, undifferentiated, preconceptual state. Yet, in referring here to the theme of the given, I include philosophers who treat the world prior to language as already mapped and particularized.

9 For instance, "technical realists" (as Richard Rorty calls philosophers like Saul Kripke and Keith Donnellan) assume that the world is already divided into natural kinds and their particulars and that these are causally linked in a physicalistic sense to terms of a given language (Rorty, Consequences xxiii). On this physicalistic interpretation of the realist doctrine, the picture that hooks language to the world is incompatible with the idea that meanings and concepts carve the world and with a notion of the given as an undifferentiated lump prior to language.

10 Even philosophers who reject the metaphysical picture behind realism and antirealism (like Putnam or Arthur Fine) still offer a picture, though a self-conscious one, depicting the way concepts are filled with representational content.

11 This latitude of choice explains how philosophers like Putnam, Dummett, and Donald Davidson can receive both a "realist" and an "antirealist" interpretation. Putnam's internal realism allows him with Michael Devitt to reject "the renegade Putnam" (Devitt, "Realism") while for Rorty Putnam's pragmatism is more than questionable (Rorty, "Putnam").

12 See "technical realism" explained in note 9.

13 The historical question of how to explain the move from modernism to postmodernism is on the agenda of many theorists of postmodernism (McHale, Constructing 19ff.; Woolley 190ff.). For them historical mapping often serves a constitutive rather than a descriptive purpose: by constituting a new period concept, for instance, by constituting postmodernism as distinct from modernism, the theorist obliges his own historical purposes.

14 See also Putnam's critique of Nelson Goodman (Putnam, Renewing 113ff.): the fact that we created a language and the concept "star," for instance, does not make it the case that we made the concept apply to a particular thing. Our linguistic practices did not make Sirius a star.

15 This radical slogan of antirealism should not necessarily be taken irrevocably, nor does it represent Woolley's overall position. Do new models of reality indeed change the fact that science is in some sense still interested in physical phenomena? Presumably what Woolley means here is that science and other natural and cultural practices cannot refer to reality but only to images of the real.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 1946. Trans. Willard Trask. Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1953.

Boyd, Richard. "On the Current Status of the Issue of Scientific Realism." Erkenntnis 19 (1983): 45-90.

-----. "What Realism Implies and What it Does Not." Dialectica 43 (1989): 5-29.

Brinker, Menachem. "Art and Illusion and The Image and the Eye: Philosophical Implications." Unpublished essay, 1994.

Bruck, Jan. "From Aristotelean Mimesis to 'Bourgeois' Realism." Poetics 11 (1982): 189-202.

Bruss, Elizabeth. Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.

Davidson, Donald. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

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Diamond, Cora. The Realistic Spirit. Cambridge: The MIT P, 1991.

Dummett, Michael. The Logical Basis of Metaphysics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Fine, Arthur. "Piecemeal Realism." Philosophical Studies 61 (1991): 79-96.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Jakobson, Roman. "On Realism in Art." Readings in Russian Poetics. Ed. L. I. Matejka and K. Promorska. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1962. 29-36.

Livingston, Paisley. Literary Knowledge: Humanistic Inquiry and the Philosophy of Science. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

McDowell, John. Mind and World. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1992.

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Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1989.

Putnam, Hilary. "A Comparison of Something with Something Else." New Literary History 17 (1985): 61-79.

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Ronen, Ruth. Possible Worlds in Literary Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

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Ruth Ronen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature at Tel Aviv University. She has published widely on interdisciplinary questions beween philosophy and literary theory. Her book on possible worlds in literary theory was published in 1994.
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Date:Jun 22, 1995
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