Category: direct realism

It’s been a long weekend. And time is subject to perceptual variation. So bang on time is the promised homework.

The following four questions / tasks (the bullet pointed bits) MUST be done (even if you’re called Jake) by Monday 22nd February.

Seeing as you’re getting so good, have a go at these. They will require some thought, I had to think about them, but that means little as I have fewer brain cells than you.

  • What does a comparison of idealism and direct realism tell us about the difference between epistemology and ontology?
  • Why does solipsism threaten both idealism and representative realism? What philosopher(s) might we turn to for an escape from solipsism and how might he help us?

These are from the text book, p. 60, but are rather good: (I’ve got a bit of a hunch about Locke and primary / secondary qualities being in the exam – It is only a hunch and not inside information – unfortunately).

  • Say whether the following are examples of primary qualities, secondary qualities, both, or neither. Explain your thinking.

  • Describe and illustrate one epistemological distinction between primary secondary qualities and one ontological one.


Bertrand Russell proposed a system of representative realism based on the notion of ‘sense data’. ‘Sense data’ are the products of our perception of the world: our senses produce ‘sense data’ as a response to our encounters with the physical world.

Sense data are mind-dependent representations of the physical world: they only exist in our minds and therefore are entirely subjective and relative to the particular circumstance of our perception.

  • sense data vary according to our location relative to the objects we perceive
  • they vary according to the functioning of our senses
  • they vary according to our mood and mental state
  • they vary according to their context amongst the other sense data that we get with them (staring at a tomato on a white plate in a small white room with no other distractions will produce different ‘sense data’ to an encounter with a speeding tomato as it whizzes past our head having been thrown at us by some tomato hurling hooligans)

So we can see that sense data are all about ‘perceptual variability’ or ‘perceptual relativity’. Therefore Russell and other indirect or representative realists have no problem explaining illusions, hallucinations, time lag arguments etc. in the way that that direct or naive realists do: for Russell these are just occasions when the sense data fail to match up with the physical world.

Causal Dependency

Russell does not attempt any ‘scientific’ account of the way in which the representations in our minds are connected to the objects in the world that they represent. That there is that some degree of causal dependency between the mental representation and the physical object is, he suggests the most likely and most reasonable conclusion to draw, but the nature or accuracy of this connection cannot be established and has the status of ‘working hypothesis’.

‘How the world looks to me is how the world is. It’s obvious. What I see out there is what’s out there.’

‘What about illusions?

‘Wot about them?’

Don’t they prove that how the world appears is not necessarily how the world is?

‘Do what, son? ‘s jus’ a trick o’ the light, or summint, innit?’

‘But, what about hallucinations or the problem of perceptual relativity. If you accept that even once your perceptions do not match ‘reality’ then subsequently it’s impossible to have ontological certainty, surely.’

‘Oo you calling Shirley? You cheeky muppet! I’ll give you homological (sic) certainty, you pranny, take that!

‘Ah, you are quite correct, sir, the impact of your fist upon my nose has caused me a direct and .. . to be continued …
A more coherent defence of a form of direct realism is given by J.L. Austin. The text book mentions him, but doesn’t do him justice. We must when we revise.