Saturday, February 10, 2007

On 'Objective Reality'

This week in my history of philosophy class, we were looking at various medieval concepts that are used by Descartes in his Third Meditation.

One of these concepts is 'Objective Reality'. As I was going over this notion, I suddenly realised that this notion could be extremely important, with respect to the the problems of representational realism that arise in Locke's Essay, which ultimately was fatally attacked by Bishop Berkeley. For fun, I thought I would Google the phrase 'Objective Reality' and see what came up. I got a nasty surprise!

It seems that the correct philosophical use of the phrase 'Objective Reality' has been swamped by all sorts of other crazy discussions, often connected to the 'Objectivist' pseudo-philosophy. In fact, I only found two sensible links on the topic. One was to a web page by Dr. Bob Burch, from the University of Alberta, which is here. The other, ironically enough was to a page on the much maligned Spark Notes site, available here. Thus, to try and redress this imbalance, I will add a discussion of the philosophically correct notion of 'Objective Reality' here.

The notion of Objective Reality first appears in the works of Duns Scotus. Objective Reality is a property of things that stand for, or represent other things. Descartes only uses the concept with respect to ideas, but there is really no principled reason why it should be so restricted. Indeed, it is easier to explain the idea, using less abstract notions.

The key thing about the Objective Reality of a thing is how well it represents the thing that it represents. So, for example, a photograph of my cat will have more Objective Reality than an artistic sketch of my cat. Similarly, an artistic sketch of my cat will have more Objective Reality than a highly abstract painting of my cat. Hopefully, this conveys the idea, reasonably well. Now, ideas are often of things. That is to say, they stand for other things. Thus, they too can be judged with respect to their Objective Reality.

Descartes specifies his notion of Objective Reality (which, as mentioned, is a slightly more restricted use of the notion) most clearly in his Reply to Objections II of the Objections and Replies to the Meditations. There he writes,

"I mean the being of the thing represented in the idea, as it is represented in the idea … Whatever we perceive as being in the object of our idea is in the ideas themselves objectively."

This then is the philosophically correct notion of Objective Reality. It should not be confused with the various other suggestions that have been made about the idea on other web sites.

The CP

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