Reference Library: Realism
'Realism' is commonly defined as a concern for fact or reality and a rejection of the impractical and visionary. As a word in common use, however, realism is employed to suggest a wide variety of meanings, the choice among them depending on the context of use and the pertinent community of interpretation, from the arts, especially film, literature, and painting, to philosophy, politics, and international relations.
Realism in philosophy
As a term of art in philosophy, realism refers to the thesis that general properties, technically known as universals, have a mode of existence or a form of reality that is in a certain sense independent of the things that possess them. Opposing theses, known as nominalism and conceptualism, hold that universals are not real or do not properly exist, that only individuals and particulars exist, and that it is only the corresponding general concepts of thought or universal terms of language, serving as equivocal denotations of many particular things, that deceive the mind into thinking so. Philosophical realism is also referred to as Platonic realism or Scholastic realism, depending on the nuances of the particular variant in mind. In some versions of realism, in stark contrast to everyday usage, a distinction is drawn between existence and reality, based on the idea that potentials can be real but that only actuals can exist.
In a separate context of discussion, realism is contrasted with both idealism and materialism, and is more controversially considered by others to be synonymous with the position in the philosophy of mind known as dualism. In recent transmogrifications of the word, realism is contrasted with anti-realism and irrealism.
Increasingly these last disputes, too, are rejected as misleading, and some philosophers prefer to call the kind of realism espoused there metaphysical realism and eschew the whole debate in favour of simple naturalism or natural realism, which is not so much a theory as the position that these debates are ill-conceived if not incoherent, and that there is no more to deciding what is really real than simply taking our words at face value.
Realism in the arts
'Realism' in art and literature is the depiction of subjects as they appear in everyday life, with minimal embellishment or interpretation. The term is also used to describe works of art which, in revealing a truth, may emphasize the sordid or ugly.
Realism also refers to a mid-19th century cultural movement with its roots in France.
Realism in politics and international relations
The term "realism" comes from the German compound word "Realpolitik", from the words "real" (meaning "realistic", "practical", or "actual") and "Politik" (meaning "politics"). It focuses on the balance of power among nation-states. Bismarck coined the term after following Metternich's lead in finding ways to balance the power of European empires. Balancing power meant keeping the peace, and careful realpolitik practitioners tried to avoid arms races. that the international system is anarchic, in the sense that there is no authority above states capable of regulating their interactions; states must arrive at relations with other states on their own, rather than it being dictated to them by some higher controlling entity (that is, no true authoritative world government exists). It also assumes that sovereign states, rather than international institutions, non-governmental organizations, or multinational corporations, are the primary actors in international affairs. According to realism, each state is a rational actor that always acts towards its own self-interest, and the primary goal of each state is to ensure its own security. Realism holds that in pursuit of that security, states will attempt to amass resources, and that relations between states are determined by their relative level of power. That level of power is in turn determined by the state's capabilities, both military and economic. Moreover, Realists believe that States are inherently aggressive ("offensive realism"), and that territorial expansion is only constrained by opposing power(s). The principal Realist theorists are E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
After the Second World War, a new school of "structural" realism or neorealism, developed in the American political science tradition, sought to redefine realist theory as a rigorous positivist social science by incorporating a concept of political structure into the central idea of anarchy.
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