Direct realism

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Direct realism, also known as naïve realism or Common Sense Realism, is a theory of perception that claims that the senses provide us with direct awareness of the external world. In contrast to this direct awareness, indirect realism and representationalism claim that we are directly aware only of internal representations of the external world. And in contrast to realism in general, some forms of idealism assert that no world exists apart from mind-dependent ideas.

Direct realists might claim that indirect realists are confused about conventional idioms that may refer to perception. Perception exemplifies unmediated contact with the external world; examples of indirect perception might be seeing a photograph, or hearing a recorded voice. Against representationalists, direct realists often argue that the complex neurophysical processes by which we perceive objects do not entail indirect perception. These processes merely establish the complex route by which direct awareness of the world arrives. The inference from such a route to indirectness may be an instance of the genetic fallacy.

Direct realism proposes no physical theory of experience and does not identify experience with the experience of quantum phenomena or with the twin retinal images. This lack of supervenience of experience on the physical world means that direct realism is not a physical theory.


Examples of the direct realist approach

Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid argued strenuously against the notion that ideas, or sense-data, are the objects of perception at all; to wit, he rejected representationalism.

One of Reid's simplest arguments posits that if representationalism is correct, then we are forced to accept either skepticism or phenomenalism. But skepticism and phenomenalism are both absurd, according to Reid; there surely is an external world, and we surely do have knowledge of it. So, by reductio ad absurdum, we must reject any theory that would force us to accept either skepticism or phenomenalism. Accordingly, we must reject representationalism.

To reject representationalism would mean accepting that we do not perceive sense data at all. Someone looking at their hand does not immediately perceive a bundle or series of hand sense-data which represents the actual hand. Rather, they immediately perceive the hand. They do not perceive any hand sense-data at all. So the direct realist view up for consideration is that we perceive the external world immediately and directly.

Direct realism is the view that the immediate (direct) objects of perception are external objects, qualities, facts, or events. It should not be confused with the more naïve view that the world is exactly as we perceive it to be. Obviously, we can misperceive the world. The direct realist does not deny that there are perceptual illusions. But the claim is that when we do perceive something, the immediate and direct object of perception is in the external world, not the mind.

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