Commonsense Realism
Direct Realism
Perceptual Realism


Reality independent of knowers

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … all of external reality
  • Knowing is … perceptions of reality
  • Learner is … an inner being (insulated and isolated from the world)
  • Learning is … perceiving
  • Teaching is … conveying


Ancient (entrenched in the language)


Broadly speaking, Realism is the idea that objects exist independent of agents/knowers who might interact with them. That is, the world exists independent of minds.
  • Absolutism – the perspective that such values as morality, ethics, beauty, and truth are inscribed in reality. Absolutism is founded on the convictions that reality is fixed and truth operates independent of circumstance.
  • Naïve Realism (Direct Realism; Phenomenal Absolutism) – the idea that the one’s perceptions of the world are accurate – that is, one’s senses provide direct awareness of the world as it really is. (Contrast: Naïve Idealism, under Idealism.)
  • Logical Realism (Logical Objectivism; Anti-Psychologism) (Immanuel Kant, 1770s) – a discourse that assert or assumes that logical truths, such as mathematical concepts, exist independently of human thinking
  • Representationalism (Epistemological Dualism; Indirect Realism; Representationism) – the belief that the world one perceives in one’s mind is not reality, but an internal copy/replica/representation of reality
  • Scientific Realism (Bas van Fraassen, 1980s) – the view that ongoing scientific inquiry is sufficient for progressing toward a knowledge of how the universe really is – albeit that needs to adjust and revise “scientific facts” will always be necessary as methods are refined and data are accumulated. Subdiscourses include:
    • Structural Realism (James Ladyman, 1990s) – a pared-down version of Scientific Realism that asserts scientific inquiry affords insights into the structure of the universe, but not on its nature
  • Substantialism – the assumption “reality” is constant and composed of unchanging substances – rather than, for example, dynamic and interacting forces. In the context of educational philosophy, Substantialism is usually associated with the criticisms that it prioritizes objects rather than relations and that it “explains” complex phenomena into cause–effect terms. (Contrast: Materialisms.)
There are discourses that use the word “realism,” but that begin with rejections of the grounding assumption that objects exist independently of actors. Examples include:
  • Agential Realism (Karen Barad, 1990s) ­– the suggestion that objects emerge in one’s interactions with them – or, more accurately, in the intra-actions of the actor and the acted-upon. The perspective draws its inspiration from quantum theory, and its assertions encompass not just the emergence of ideas (i.e., one’s thoughts about and experiences with objects), but the emergence of the actual materiality of objects.


Many commentators have noted that, in our most unguarded moments, almost every human is not just a realist, but a naïve realist. We tend to move through the world on the assumption that what we are perceiving is the world as it really is. Phrased differently, Realism prevails among humans – even among the most critical humans. It is the common-sense backdrop of most human activity.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Realism is usually identified as a philosophy, but it can also be identified as a theory of learning because it has clear and immediate entailments for how one comes to know – namely, taking in a world through the senses.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Realism is not a theory of teaching, but many educational commentators argue that it the belief is evident in much, if not most of contemporary teaching practice.

Status as a Scientific Theory

In some senses, Realism is the opposite of a scientific theory. It is certainly not a scientific discourse, although it does serve as the uncritical backdrop for much empirical research.


  • Absolutism
  • Agential Realism
  • Logical Realism (Logical Objectivism; Anti-Psychologism)
  • Naïve Realism (Direct Realism; Phenomenal Absolutism)
  • Scientific Realism
  • Structural Realism
  • Substantialism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Realism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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