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  In philosophy, realism is the doctrine that some things exist independently of any mind: it is the antonym of philosophical idealism. Sceptics about realism ask the kind of question beloved of philosophers: ‘Can one believe in realism about the mind if no mind can exist independently of itself?’ One reply is that realism is not necessarily the view that things can exist independently of minds in general, but rather that they exist independently of any specific beliefs we might have about them. In other words realism emphasizes that truth is possible: beliefs are testable against ‘reality’, and that reality is ‘knowable’. Scientific realism is the belief that scientific theories and hypotheses, even about unobservable entities, are theories and hypotheses about real entities that is, entities that are independent of our theories about them. It rejects the sloppy reasoning found in contemporary relativism which says that all knowledge is ‘theory-dependent’ and concludes that ‘therefore’ all knowledge is a matter of opinion. Scientific realism does not deny that theories are dependent on minds (or languages or judgements) if only because such theories have to be expressed by minds and in languages—it just denies that the world would be other than it is without such theories.

In politics realists are analysts who claim to be able to understand the world as it is, rather than as others might wish it to be. They are vehement critics of Utopianism, and condemn political idealism for judging matters according to moral criteria, and for not knowing that power and self-interest are what explain political events and developments. Critics observe that it is not realistic of political realists to think that people are never motivated by ideals or moral values. Yet because realism counsels caution and pessimism about the principled nature of one\'s opponents and one\'s friends, its sage-like charms are never likely to disappear from the political lexicon. Realism is especially prevalent in international relations, partly because the absence of a world state make an analysis focused on power and self-interest more plausible than one grounded in the claims of morality and duty.

Realism is an important concept in fine art, drama and literature. In fine art, critics use the term loosely, redefining it constantly in light of the work in question. For example, it is not a synonym for naturalism or illusionism, nor does it describe a mirror image of the world. Nor is Realism (the movement, signified by the use of the capital ‘r’) synonymous with ‘realism’ (the quality). Historically, Realism is the offspring of the Romantics\' interest in finding beauty in the bizarre or the conventionally ugly, and is epitomized by the work of the mid-19th-century artist Gustave Courbet. The Realists focused on scenes of workers and peasants depicted in a gritty or earthy manner: Courbet\'s Burial at Ornans (1849) is typical, both in the scene it depicts and the way its composition and application of paint match the down-to-earth nature of the subject. But ‘realism’ anticipates this kind of Realism by many centuries. Giotto is ‘realistic’ in the sense that his compositions are psychologically plausible; Caravaggio is a ‘realist’ because he represents Bible characters as ‘real’ people. In this sense, realism is the opposite process to idealization, and may be applied to works as diverse as Greek statuettes of grimacing slaves, Japanese paintings of beggars and crones, and European works as aparently remote from them as Rembrandt\'s Jewish Bride (1669). More recently, critics have used the term to designate the work of those, like Lucien Freud, whose figurative paintings tacitly oppose abstract impressionism. But this last use clearly shows the term\'s inadequacy as an artistic concept, since the works in question are ‘realist’ only in the sense that they are not abstract.

In literature, realism was a movement in European fiction whose intellectual origins lay, first, in the political egalitarianism proclaimed during the French Revolution, and second, in the rise of the bourgeoisie during the early 19th century—a reading audience with an enormous appetite for descriptions of people and events similar to those they saw around them. (At the time, this was for most writers an untapped resource.) Realist writers set out to describe, in unaffected language, the ‘reality’ of life and people, to give fiction as it were a documentary dimension. Artificiality of style and fanciful invention of character and incident were both eschewed. Notable adherents of the style were Balzac and Flaubert (who said that he worked to make his own authorial presence in his work as unobtrusive as possible), and its main monument is Tolstoy\'s War and Peace. But to say that is to reveal the innate flaw of realism as a literary theory, and it is similar to the problem in fine art. All writing is an assemblage, the result of authorial attitude and choice, and Tolstoy\'s novel (for example) no more represents the ‘reality’ of the historical events and society it depicts than (for instance) Austen\'s Pride and Prejudice does the reality of life in middle-class Regency England. In Balzac, the principles of realism are sometimes taken too far, until the work becomes both grandiose and otiose. The old man in Père Goriot, for example, stands out not because he is ‘photographed’ in prose, but because he is a magnificently-imagined individual character (that is, realism is selectively deployed) and because the other characters in the novel are too many and too relentlessly described to escape boring us. In later fiction, thorough-going realism has tended to be the practice of such comparatively minor writers as (in English) Margaret Drabble, Mrs Gaskell, C.P. Snow and Jerome Weidman; the finest authors who have used realist techniques—they include Dickens, George Eliot, Joyce and Proust, not to mention a host of ‘moderns’ from Grass to Roth, from Samuel Beckett to Patrick White—have made them part of much wider fictional strategies.

In theatre, the distinction between realism and naturalism is important but blurred. In naturalism and classic realism, the effacing of artifice is imperative, and is achieved through a system of conventions. The idea of realism as a mimetic representation of life has informed theatrical practice, and responses to it, from the Renaissance to the present day. Naturalism, while utilizing the characteristics of realism, developed from, and sought to represent, specific 19th-century concepts. The transparent function of realism as a ‘window’ to meaning was made concrete by the idea of the ‘fourth wall’ in theatres with a proscenium arch, through which spectators look at the ‘meaning’ of the play. The challenge to the Aristotelian concept of mimesis, which had a direct effect on theatrical representation, came from what has been identified as the ‘Brecht/Lukács’ debate in the mid-20th century. In this debate, Brecht defines realistic drama as that which is not fixed in a specific historical moment, but which allows the spectators at a particular time and place to understand and to change the conditions of their existence. In practice, this means that the spectators do not lose themselves in the detailed reproduction of a fictional world, but are constantly reminded of the artifice of the play being performed: so that, for example, while Mother Courage\'s cart has to look as though it has covered many miles over several years, there is no attempt to create a setting for it other than a stage. Classic realism is the dominant form of most film and television (media which are much more able to reproduce the illusion of the real), but theatre has been more able to respond to formal and conceptual challenges to the fixed form of classic realism. PD MG TRG KMcL BO\'L

See also materialism; objective and subjective; reduction and reductionism.Further reading J. Foster, The Case for Idealism; , Damian Grant, Realism; , H. Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism; , C. Rosen and , H. Zerner, Romanticism and Realism: the Mythology of Nineteenth Century Art; , Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy.



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