Bizarro am always been realist

Fri 14 Dec 2012 03:35 PM

The 50th anniversary of the publication of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has prompted numerous authors to write pieces about what we really learned from Kuhn. Reading two of these, I am struck by the sense of having been whisked away to Bizarro world.

I read two books in the summer of 1996, after undergrad but before grad school. One of these was Structure. The other was Philip Kitcher's then-recent The Advancement of Science. In Advancement, Philip defends realism and rationality against relativist interpreters of Kuhn like Gerry Doppelt.

Both Philip and Gerry were at UCSD when I started there, so this opposition loomed large in my thinking about philosophy of science. My approach to philosophy of science was shaped by that context in some profound ways. There was clearly something right about scientific realism but something wrong about scientific realism debates. Even in my first year, I was struggling toward a kind of pragmatic naturalism and modest realism. And the context of the science studies program convinced me that philosophy of science needs to live close to examples. These influences are close to the surface in Planets to Mallards.

Then yesterday I read Philip and Gerry reflecting on the legacy of Kuhn.*

Philip now argues that there is a legitimate sense in which adherents of different paradigms have different worlds, "worlds of objects divided into kinds and classes."

Worlds in [this] sense do change. They are shaped not only by human capacities for perception and cognition, but also by our contingently evolving interests, interests that pick out certain questions as worth asking, that set standards of precision, and that favor some ways of drawing boundaries around objects, some ways of demarcating things into kinds and classes.

I do not see how this counts as a world, rather than a scheme for carving up the world. Moreover, if we were to accept that this world changes with schemes of classification, then I don't see how we have any way left to talk about the world as something that "exists independently of human activity and cognition." Philip doesn't disavow realism altogether, but I don't see how anti-realism about kinds leaves room to be realist about much of anything else.

Gerry now argues for what he calls Best Current Theory (BCT) realism. The basic idea is that the success of science is best explained by the truth of our present theories. So (inferring to the best explanation) we should believe that our best current theories are true. Anti-realists typically resist inferring from success to truth by listing past theories which were successful but turned out to be false. However, the BCT realist does not think that the success of (eg) phlogiston chemistry was any reason to believe in phlogiston. Instead, that success is just a reason to believe in our present account of oxygen. Both past and current successes are explained by the truth of our current theory. It is not just that our current theory happens to be the one we have now, but that our current theory satisfies more stringent criteria than those past, discarded theories.

These changes in their positions didn't come out of nowhere. They have both been drifting in these directions for more than a decade. That doesn't make it any less weird for me.

When I went to grad school in the twentieth century, Philip was the staunch realist and Gerry the relativist anti-realist. Now, in the Bizarro world of the twenty-first century, they have swapped places.

In the book, I articulate a pragmatic naturalism which can recognize kinds as both useful and real. Category schemes which are constructed in the light of our interests can still reflect the structure of the world. This can be seen as a middle way between the extremes from fifteen years ago, and they haven't made either extreme more attractive by switching places.

* Citations:

Philip Kitcher. "The Many Lessons of Structure."

DOI: 10.1525/hsns.2012.42.5.532

Gerald Doppelt. "Explaining the Success of Science: Kuhn and Scientific Realists."

DOI 10.1007/s11245-012-9135-x


from: jay odenbaugh

Thu 03 Jan 2013 02:50 PM


How very interesting... Kitcher has been a peculiar realist for a very long while. This was the first time I saw it:,38&sciodt=0,38

But it is there in Advancement too. As of Science, Truth, and Democracy, I thought that his view was a realism regarding sets and given some interest, some sets are interesting and real. These will call 'natural kinds' (plus, maybe some proviso regarding similarities between members).

However, as you note, the above "world-making" seems to be a misnomer. Specifically, world are not made but found. True we are looking for things that interest us but they were always there. Maybe his new-found pragmatism means that my sketch of his realism in Science, Truth, and Democracy is incorrect or his views have changed.

It seems to me that someone more friendly to Kuhn is Ian Hacking whose nominalism makes it sound like kinds are made (though some of which are real in his "loopy" sense). However, nominalists typically deny the existence of universals or properties and hence saying "worlds are made" is similarly a misnomer.

Have you read Kitcher's "Preludes to Pragmatism"?

from: Administrator (P.D. Magnus)

Thu 17 Jan 2013 02:16 PM

Jay: Sorry for the delay in approving your comment.

"Preludes to Pragmatism" wasn't on my radar before, but it is now. Since it includes essays going back a couple of decades, maybe there is a coherent narrative in which this has always been his view.