The term reality refers to everything that actually exists. Reality, in its widest sense, includes everything that there is, whether or not it is observable, accessible or understandable by science, philosophy or any other system of analysis.
Reality may also be defined in a more restricted way: Reality is that portion of ultimate reality which is accessible to scientific and philosophical observation, investigation and theoretical interpretation. Some portion of ultimate reality may lie culturally and socially. See socially constructed reality for more discussion on this point.
"Reality," the concept, is contrasted with a wide variety of other concepts, largely depending upon the intellectual discipline. It can help to understand what we mean by "reality" to note what we say is not real.
In philosophy, reality is contrasted with nonexistence (e.g., unicorns do not exist; so they are not real) and mere possibility (a mountain made of gold is merely possible, but is not real). Sometimes philosophers speak as though reality is contrasted with existence itself, though ordinary language and many other philosophers would treat these as synonyms. They have in mind the notion that there is a kind of reality--a mental or intensional reality, perhaps--that imaginary objects, such as the aforementioned golden mountain, have. Alexius Meinong is famous, or infamous, for holding that such things have so-called subsistence, and thus a kind of reality, even while they do not actually exist. Most philosophers find the very notion of "subsistence" mysterious and unnecessary, and one of the shibboleths and starting points of 20th century analytic philosophy has been the forceful rejection of the notion of subsistence--of "real" but nonexistent objects.
It is worth saying at this point that many philosophers are not content with saying merely what reality is not--some of them have positive theories of what broad categories of objects are real, in addition. See ontology as well as realism (philosophy); these topics are also briefly treated below.
In ethics, political theory, and the arts, reality is often contrasted with what is ideal.
In ethics, discussions of ethical perfectionism, what might be called "moral idealism" or the notion that we are obligated to be morally perfect human beings, runs up against notions of what is real about human nature and the human condition.
In political theory there is an old and distinguished tradition of inventing utopias and utopianism--those of Plato and Thomas More are the most famous--but these are often accused of ignoring the so-called facts of reality concerning human nature. Political liberalism, by contrast with conservatism, is usually thought of as being of the contrary view--that human nature is inherently changeable, and that there are no "facts of reality" concerning human nature, a view advocated in the twentieth century by the existentialists. And, consequently, utopianism is more often a feature of liberalism rather than conservatism.
In the arts there was a broad movement beginning in the 19th century, realism (which led to naturalism), which sought to portray characters, scenes, and so forth, realistically. This was in contrast and reaction to romanticism, which portrayed their subjects idealistically. Commentary about these artistic movements is sometimes put in terms of the contrast between the real and the ideal: on the one hand, the average, ordinary, and natural, and on the other, the superlative, extraordinary, improbable, and sometimes even supernatural. Obviously, when speaking in this sense, "real" (or "realistic") does not have the same meaning as it does when, for example, a philosopher uses the term to distinguish, simply, what exists from what does not exist.
In the arts, and also in ordinary life, the notion of reality (or realism) is also often contrasted with illusion. A painting that precisely indicates the visually-appearing shape of a depicted object is said to be realistic in that respect; one that distorts features, as Pablo Picasso's paintings are famous for doing, are said not to be unrealistic, and thus some observers will say, but with questionable grammatical correctness, that they are "not real." But there are also tendencies in the visual arts toward so-called realism and more recently photorealism that invite a different sort of contrast with the real. Trompe l'oeil (French, "fool the eye") paintings render their subjects so "realistically" that the casual observer might temporarily be deceived into thinking that he is seeing something, indeed, real--but in fact, it is merely an illusion, and an intentional one at that.
In psychiatry, the notion of reality--or rather, of being in touch with reality--seems crucial to informing discussions of schizophrenia, since that disease has often been defined in part by reference to being "out of touch" with reality. The schizophrenic is said to have hallucinations and delusions which concern people and events that are not real. Particularly outside the psychiatric community, this description of the situation is criticized by a publicly visible but small group, including for example Thomas Szasz: to describe a schizophrenic patient's bizarre beliefs and perceptions as not being of "real" things is to presuppose that there is an objective reality, or at least a reality upon which we ought to agree. It is this assumption that so-called anti-psychiatry advocates are ready to criticize on philosophical grounds. A large majority of psychiatrists and psychiatric patients and their friends strongly disagree, believing among other things that it is a serious problem that some mental patients are indeed not in touch with reality. For what it is worth, the anti-psychiatry movement remains a very small minority among mental health professionals. Be all that as it may, it is certainly true that in popular and largely in the scientific thinking, there is a robust contrast seen between proper cognition of reality, on the one hand, and insanity, delusion, and hallucination, on the other.
In each of these cases, discussions of reality, or what counts as "real," take on quite different casts; indeed, what we say about reality often depends on what we want to say it is not.
A common colloquial usage would have "reality" mean "perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes toward reality," as in "My reality is not your reality." This is often used just as a colloquialism indicating that the parties to a conversation agree, or should agree, not to quibble over deeply different conceptions of what is real. For example, in a religious discussion between friends, one might say (attempting humor), "You might disagree, but in my reality, everyone goes to heaven."
But occasionally--and particularly in the case of those who have been exposed to certain ideas from philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, and other fields--it is often thought that there simply and literally is no reality anti-realism, that is, the view that there is no objective reality, whether acknowledged explicitly or not. These topics will be discussed in greater detail below.
If we really do literally mean by "reality" simply "beliefs about reality," then our article about reality would necessarily, to be complete, have to outline every world view (this is how the German word Weltanschauung is usually translated)--every broadly different way of "seeing" reality. In this sense, the topic of reality encompasses many other topics: perception, psychology generally, cognitive psychology and cognitive science, religion, sociology and anthropology, and topics in philosophy. For a broad overview on reality in that sense, the reader is enjoined to peruse Glasglow (http://www.Glasglow .org) or any general reference work. General encyclopedias are, after all, supposed to be descriptions of everything--or perceptions of everything, if the reader prefers.
But there is a way to make the topic of reality less cumbersome for present purposes: restrict the discussion to theories about the general topic of reality itself. Thus, for example, a certain Christian world view would not count as a theory of reality, but the theory that the Christian world view is a "construction" of reality would count as a theory about reality. It is theories about reality, in this sense, that philosophers discuss as part of metaphysics; such theories are also sometimes discussed in literary theory (which is, today, heavily influenced by Continental philosophy and heavily anti-realist) as well as in sociology and cultural anthropology.
Philosophy addresses two different aspects of the topic of reality: the nature of reality itself, and the relationship between the mind (as well as language and culture) and reality.
On the one hand, ontology is the study of being, and the central topic of the field is couched, variously, in terms of being, existence, "what is," and reality. The task in ontology is to describe the most general categories of reality and how they are interrelated. If--what is rarely done--a philosopher wanted to proffer a positive definition of the concept "reality," it would be done under this heading. As explained above, some philosophers draw a distinction between reality and existence. In fact, many analytic philosophers today tend to avoid the term "real" and "reality" in discussing ontological issues. But for those who would treat "is real" the same way they treat "exists," one of the leading questions of analytic philosophy has been whether existence (or reality) is a property of objects. It has been widely held by analytic philosophers that it is not a property at all, though this view has lost some ground in recent decades.
On the other hand, particularly in discussions of objectivity that have feet in both metaphysics and epistemology, philosophical discussions of "reality" often concern the ways in which reality is, or is not, in some way dependent upon (or, to use fashionable jargon, "constructed" out of) mental and cultural factors such as perceptions, beliefs, and other mental states, as well as cultural artifacts, such as religions and political movements, on up to the vague notion of a common cultural world view or Weltanschauung.
The view that there is a reality independent of any beliefs, perceptions, etc., is called realism. More specifically, philosophers are given to speaking about "realism about" this and that, such as realism about universals or realism about the external world. Generally, where one can identify any class of object the existence or essential characteristics of which is said to depend on perceptions, beliefs, language, or any other human artifact, one can speak of "realism about" that object.
One can also speak of anti-realism about the same objects. "Anti-realism" is the latest in a long series of terms for views opposed to realism. Perhaps the first was idealism , so called because reality was said to be in the mind, or "ideal" in that special sense. Berkeleyan idealism is the view, propounded by the Irish empiricist George Berkeley, that the objects of perception are actually ideas in the mind. On this view, one might be tempted to say that reality is a "mental construct"; this is not quite accurate, however, since on Berkeley's view perceptual ideas are created and coordinated by God. By the twentieth century, views similar to Berkeley's were called phenomenalism. Phenomenalism differs from Berkeleyan idealism primarily in that Berkeley believed that minds, or souls, are not merely ideas nor made up of ideas, whereas varieties of phenomenalism, such as that advocated by Russell, tended to go farther to say that the mind itself is merely a collection of perceptions, memories, etc., and that there is no mind or soul over and above such mental events. Finally, anti-realism became a fashionable term for any view which held that the existence of some object depends upon the mind or cultural artifacts. The view that the so-called external world is really merely a social, or cultural, artifact, called cultural relativism or social constructionism, is one variety of anti-realism.