Naivism and Realism

Lots of people think naive realism is important. But is it important because it’s naive or because it’s realist? Part of that answer depends on whether or not naivism is preferable to realism, or vice versa. Whichever one is, although one might be more important for other reasons, there will be resistance to it because we prefer the other.

We can distinguish between naive realism and naivism:

  • Naive realism concerns the view that what seems to be real is real: 

For example: if, on visually experiencing a coloured round object (such as a red balloon) that seems to be real, then naive realism is the position that, indeed, this apparently real and red balloon is a real and red balloon.

  • Naivism is more general: it is the view that what seems to be x is x: 

For example: if, on visually experiencing a coloured round object (such as a red balloon) that seems to be imaginary, then naivism is the position that, indeed, this apparently imaginary and red balloon is an imaginary red balloon.

That is, along with naive realism, one can also have naive idealism: what seems to be mind-dependent is mind-dependent.

One question such a categorisation raises is: Is naive realism true of our experience? When it comes to our experience, is everything apparent to us (everything in our phenomenology) also apparently real? If so, then naive realism and naivism are the same.

However, this doesn’t seem to be right. Lots of theorists of experience — phenomenologists such as Husserl or Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre (thinking of his book Imagination) — think that some experiences are appearances of only imaginary things. If one is naive about this, then one holds that such things ARE imaginary — because that is how they seem.

Imagination isn’t the only possible case of non-perceptual experience. There is also memory experience — which, whatever else it seems to be, doesn’t seem to be perception (unlike memory hallucination).  And, recently, interest has resurged on the idea of cognitive phenomenology[1] –that there is a phenomenal character or experience to some instances of thought, an experience which cannot be reduced to other forms (such as perception, memory or imagination).

If these are all actually kinds of experience, then there are at least three forms of experience and appearance that are not perceptual.

Another question is raised out of that point: A naive theory is that you take appearances to correspond or, if you can, be identical to how things are. A realist theory is that you take things to be real (independent of human thought and experience). It is possible they can come into conflict. If they do, which is more important?

To answer this, we must first clarify how they could come into conflict. If they can’t conflict, then the question of importance is less important; you’ll never have to choose.

1. Naivism Versus Realism

With perceptual experience, there isn’t any reason to think that they would conflict. It is definitive of perception that it’s of real things; a perceptual experience under naive realism would be a case where there seem to be real things.

But they can come into conflict with at least some of the other kinds of possible experience.

1.1. Imaginal Experience: the experience of imagining

Realism about imagined things is not naive. One holds that, if something is imagined, then it is real. That sure isn’t how it appears to the imagining individual.

There are some complications to this: there is only an obvious conflict where what is imagined is only imagined. And even, then, perhaps there are cases where what is only imagined is real.

For example, one might hold that they can only imagine the size of the universe, the other side of the Earth, a colour between the only two blues they’ve ever seen, the inside of a calzone.  All of these are real: there IS a size to the universe (assume for now), another side to the Earth, a colour between two blues, an inside of a calzone.

Whether or not any of these are real, how do you know these are real? From your imagining of them — or from something else? I think the answer is: you don’t take what is imagined to be real because of how it seems when you imagine it. What you are ‘imagining’ here is not merely imagined. It’s also, e.g., necessary based on experience, facts about the world, etc.

What complicates matters here is that, when we imagine, we can often use things that are remembered. To use an example I gave at a talk a couple of years back (for no reason except it sticks with me, and is ridiculous): when I imagine a donkey on a bed,  this is something that is only imagined. I’ve never seen a donkey on a bed. However, it’s made of remembered things. I’ve seen donkeys. I’ve seen beds. And I’m pretty sure that  one of those seen things is in this imagined scene.

Similarly, I once asked a friend to imagine a unicorn. She did. So I asked her to describe it. And when I asked her for more detail, she admitted that she was imagining seeing a picture of a unicorn, using what she had remembered. One might ask: in only remembering a picture of a unicorn, did she fail to imagine a unicorn? Or is that enough?

Like Marianne Moore’s famous phrase (which, incidentally, is a quote in the poem where she says it), “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (from ‘Poetry’).[2]

If that’s right, these things — these real things — are not imagined, but remembered. Their order and arrangements may be imagined. But the elements involve remembered things.

The issue then turns to whether or not appearances in memory are of real things.

1.2. Memory experience 

What is remembered is of past things. One might hold that past things aren’t real. That’s one issue. But the important question here is if past things seem real or don’t seem real.

If they don’t seem real in our experience of them, then realism about them conflicts with appearances. If they do seem real in our experiences of them, then realism doesn’t conflict.

Having thought about this a few years back (in my paper ‘Temporal Illusions’), I was left not knowing what to think. Whatever is meant here, it isn’t that the experience of memory is of past things that seem real now, where ‘now’ means the past things are in the present. They aren’t present. And they don’t seem to be present (which is why, in that paper, I disagree with McKay that there is a ‘necessary illusion’ in memory).

Once you eliminate the presentist condition of ‘real’ meaning ‘real now’, you get the positions that past things either seem real in the past or do not seem real in the past. Yet, in memory, they do seem real in the past (unless they’re unicorns in remembered drawings of unicorns…). In that case, realism about them doesn’t conflict with the appearance of past things.

Note: there is a different situation if you think (as I do) being past is like the spatial property of being there, i.e., pastness is a property which is derived by a temporal location (otherwise (tenselessly) determined). In that case, past things are just like present things, except at another time. There might be a conflict because their apparent pastness might be a sort of apparent Absolute or Fundamental Pastness. And people like me deny that’s the case — there is no absolute/fundamental pastness (any more than there’s absolute/fundamental presentness).

However, that’s not a situation where what’s past seems unreal, and, e.g., I’m a realist. If anything, it’s the reverse: I’m denying the reality of such absoluteness/fundamentality, and the appearance is of absoluteness/fundamentality.

1.3. Cognitive phenomenology

Does what is particular to cognitive phenomenology appear real or unreal? As said, I’ve not considered the discussion on cognitive phenomenology in too much depth yet. However, I think, if there is something particular to cognitive phenomenology, then, whatever that is, it appears real.

I think of two and two. I consider that conversation I had with my friend Oonagh last week.  I try to understand PI. I think of a square circle. I wonder about God, and the speed of light, and unicorns. I reflect on the expression on a baby’s face as I take candy from it.

Assume there is cognitive phenomenology. There is something it is like to think, to understand, to consider and to reflect (at least on some occasions). There is an experience involved in having them (on some occasions).

I don’t know how detailed the arguments for cognitive phenomenology are but I assume, to work at all, they need to be separated from cases of imagination, memory and perception. As such, I’m assuming the experience involved in all cases is what’s left if you remove imagining, remembering, and perceiving.

What is left is my thinking or, more generally, attitudes. And my thinking seems to be happening, to be real. If that’s right, then realism about my attitudes doesn’t conflict with appearances.

In conclusion:

It seems as if the only case is that experiences involved in imagining. Once we remove the condition of reality being present, is unclear that memory experience is of something unreal. Once we remove other experiences accompanying it, cognitive phenomenology is an experience of something real.

So, with imagination, should we be naive or realist about what we imagine?

2. Choosing Between Naivism and Realism

With imagination, it seems best to be naive. What is imagined is not real, what seems to be imagined seems to not be real. Being realist about it is…strange, to say the least.

But, I don’t know.

  • In some cases, I prefer realism about things over anti-realism.

I would prefer to fill the world with stuff, than empty it, and then have it that our experience is of a small region of that stuff.

I don’t think that’s a counter-intuitive view. It’s an abstraction from how most people think. This is only to say that there’s more to the world than we experience, and perhaps can even think of (although I think there are problems with that further thesis, and can only stop at scepticism with it). We do think our experience — and appearances — do not equal everything that’s really there.

  • On the other hand, I prefer naivism over realism.

I don’t think that, if we could explain something in realist terms, that we should. It is counter-intuitive that anything we can imagine is real. I think this is incredible. But a committed realist, someone who holds that what we imagine is real, may simply say this is a form of the ‘incredulous stare argument’ against modal realism.[3]

I’m not sure what to recommend here. But I can tell you what I think myself. I prefer naivism over realism. This surprises me. I always thought of myself a realist first.

My thinking about a lot of experience is realist. I think what we seem to see is real (and so counter to presentism). I think remembered things — past things — though not present — are real. I think thoughts are real (although not the content of our thoughts).

But these views don’t make me a realist. What makes me a realist is that I explain things in terms of mind-independent things.  What makes me hold these views is that they hold on to how things appear.

What decides it for me is imagination. But if my thinking about other experiences is right, this is the only place, with respect to experience, where we need to decide between naivism and realism.

So, I don’t hold that, just because I imagined it, a donkey really is standing on a bed.

I’m naive about imagination that way.

3. Conclusion

  1. There is a difference between naivism and naive realism because there are cases of experience in which there appear to be things which are not real.
  2. These are cases of experiences involved in imagining.
  3. They are not cases of memory experience or cognitive phenomenology.
  4. I prefer naivism over realism.

Finally, if you are a naive realist for perceptual experience, is there any further importance to distinguishing these two parts of naive realism? I think so.

Naive realism is a position on perception which has competitors, such as representationalists or adverbialists. Debates and arguments between naive realists and those competitors may be clarified if the following is understood: some naive realists are arguing from naivism and other naive realists are arguing from realism.

Arguing against one part of the position with someone who is more strongly motivated by the other part is not going to work as well. For example, if you argue that naive realism is false because things can’t be how they appear: if the naive realist is motivated by realism, they may more readily agree with you, taking your point even if your argument is not conclusive; if they are motivated by naivism, they may resist your argument, not accepting it unless they must.



  1. For now, I don’t have an opinion on cognitive phenomenology, not having considered the arguments.
  2. Oh, and precisely what I imagine depends on the order of the elements, especially the real ones. If I’d asked you to imagine in a different order, the character would be different. For example,a) Imagine a donkey with the body of a moth.

    b) Imagine a moth with the head of a donkey

    Question: which is bigger: the creature in ‘a’ or ‘b’?

    ….But this is a different issue.

  3. All three words are in quotes because most people don’t think a stare is an argument.




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