Representative realism is from the area of philosophy known as epistemology, or Theory of Knowledge.

It is the belief that the external world that we perceive in our minds1 is a representation of the external world. The external world exists but we cannot trust our senses to show us this world truthfully. Instead we get representations of what is in the world so that what I perceive to be a tree does exist in the external world outside my mind but it may not be completely the same as the representation that I see in my mind.

Defence from the Attacks of Scepticism

The belief is often widely accepted because of the fact that it holds up to scepticism rather well. A common attack of the reliability of our senses is the matter of illusions or mirages (also known as the 'Argument from Illusion'). If our senses can be tricked into thinking that there are pools of water in a desert then how do we know that our eyes are not being constantly tricked and therefore we cannot justify the use of our senses to determine the existence of an external world. However, representative realism defends against the sceptic using the following logic which shares much from coherentism.

I know that there is a real world outside of my mind because my senses tell me so. However, I also know that my senses are not infallible and therefore I only believe what my eyes tell me when what is being shown is coherent. So with the case of a mirage, I know that there shouldn't be pools of water lieing idle in the middle of the desert so the sense data my eyes are feeding me most probably is wrong. It is incoherent with the rest of my experiences.

What is more, my other senses can be brought into play to test the coherence of something. Using the mirage example, I can go up to where the eyes were telling me the water was and see that it does not exist. I can taste it and see that it is just air and sand. These sensory corralations help us to build up coherent pictures in our mind of what is believable and what is not. It also seems more likely that these sensations are created from an external world rather than anything else (see Idealism).

Representative realism also attacks scepticism further with the view that we can know the sensations (the representations) because our mind is indubitable. The sensations are caused by the perception of the mind using the sense data it is being fed via the senses. Therefore the sensations are always true, they exist in our mind and are created by the mind. It is only the sensations that cannot be doubted. The resemblence these sensations have to the external world is still in question.


  • Beats the aforementioned Argument from Illusion.
  • Know that our senses can be tricked. What matters is the coherency of the sensations that our senses give us. Our mind isn't stupid and can filter most of the falsities out.


  • It is not entirely certain whether we can trust our mind. Drugs can induce hallucinations that seem very real (e.g. LSD trippers truly believing that they can fly).
  • Still could doubt the existence of the external world. An evil demon could be causing our mind to perceive something that does not exist. Idealism could be true.
Thanks to Cletus the foetus for the input
1. We can trust our mind and our mind only since that is the only thing that we can be truly aware of. To coin a phrase, 'I think therefore I am'. Descartes created this as an initial premise from which he could start to attack scepticism.

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