Scientific realism

From Academic Kids

Scientific realism makes philosophical observations about the nature of scientific endeavor. There are three commitments:

  • that the acceptance of a scientific theory represents a belief that what that theory says about unobservable phenomena is at least approximately true, the epistemological commitment
  • that the language of science cannot be translated into the language of some other domain without a change in meaning, the semantic commitment; and
  • that scientific theories aim at truth about unobservables, the normative commitment.

A further tenet of scientific realism is that scientific knowledge is progressive in nature, that is, it builds on previous understanding.


1 Arguments for and against Scientific Realism
2 See also
3 References

History of Scientific Realism

Logical positivism was the forerunnner of scientific realism, holding that a sharp distinction can be drawn between observational terms and theoretical terms, the latter capable of semantic analysis in observational and logical terms.

Logical positivism encountered difficulties with:

  • the verification theory of meaning (for which see Hempel (1950))
  • troubles with the analytic-synthetic distinction (for which see Quine (1950)
  • the theory ladenness of observation (for which see Kuhn (1970) and Quine (1960))
  • diffculties moving from the observationality of terms to observationality of sentences (for which see Putnam (1962))
  • the vagueness of the observational theoretical distinction (for which see Maxwell (1962)). Scientific realism is suggested, though arguably not entailed, to resolve all these difficulties.

Scientific Realism, edited by Jarrett Leplin, is an important anthology of articles on scientific realism.

Arguments for and against Scientific Realism

One of the main arguments for scientific realism is that scientific knowledge is progressive in nature, and that it is able to predict phenomena successfully. For example, a scientific realist would point out that science must have some ontological basis for humans to successfully send explorers to the moon. However the success of theories does not prove realism, as a constructivist may argue that success is part of the construction.

Against scientific realism, social constructivists (and other anti-realists) point out that scientific realism is unable to account for the rapid change that occurs in scientific knowledge during periods of revolution.

See also


  • Hempel, Carl. (1950) "Empiricist Criteria of Cognitive Significance" in Boyd, Richard et al. eds. (1990) The Philosophy of Science Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Kukla, A. (2000). Social constructivism and the philosophy of science. London: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, Thomas. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Edition Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Leplin, Jarrett. (1984). Scientific Realism. California: University of California Press.
  • Leplin, Jarrett. (1997). A Novel Defense of Scientific Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Maxwell, Grover (1962) "The Ontological Status of Theoretical Entites" in Feigl and Maxwell Scientific Explantion, Space, and Time vol. 3, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 3-15.
  • Putnam, Hilary. (1962) "What Theories are Not" in Ernst Nagel et al. (1962) Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science Stanford University Press.
  • Quine, W.V.O. (1951) "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in his (1953) From a Logical Point of View Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Quine, W.V.O. (1960) Word and Object Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Sankey, H. (2001) "Scientific Realism: An Elaboration and a Defense" retrieved from

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