concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Linguistic realism

Linguistic realism is the opposite of linguistic idealism: please see that article for a definition of linguistic idealism and the arguments against it. The implication of the argument against linguistic idealism in Middle Way philosophy is support for linguistic realism. This is a modification of the position argued for by Thomas Nagel.

Unlike realism in general, linguistic realism is not a metaphysical position, because it does not involve asserting the reality (or unreality) of anything. Instead, it merely asserts the meaningfulness of symbols which attempt to represent metaphysical realities, which are "real" in the linguistic realm even if we should not accept any such reality beyond it. I am arguing that criticism of metaphysics should be focussed on its lack of epistemological justification and its moral effects, not on linguistic claims about its meaninglessness. Indeed, it is important to accept the meaningfulness of metaphysics for those who use it, as a matter of basic respect to their experience, where metaphysics is meaningful. It is then equally important to decisively reject metaphysical claims on other grounds.

One obvious example where linguistic realism applies is in discussion of God. To claim that the concept of God is meaningless is dismissive in the extreme, yet our acceptance of its meaningfulness need not imply that it is a good idea to "believe in" God. Indeed, one could go further and argue that those who "believe in" God are missing the point of what God means as a symbol (a matter richly explored by Jung), which might even be better appreciated with an agnostic attitude to the metaphysical claims surrounding God. 

Such general points about meaningfulness should be distinguished from our personal experience of meaningfulness. Personally, I often do not find metaphysical discussion particularly meaningful, because it relates to matters that lie beyond my experience, and I lack a strong emotional relationship to it. However, in principle I would refrain from claiming on those grounds that such discussion is meaningless.

Links to further discussion

Metaphysics page

Faith page

Religion page


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