My main aim in this paper is to clarify the concepts of referential success and of referential continuity that are so crucial to the scientific realism debate. I start by considering the three dominant theories of reference and the intuitions that motivate each of them. Since several intuitions cited in support of one theory conflict with intuitions cited in support of another something has to give way. The traditional policy has been to reject all intuitions that clash with a chosen theory. A more radical policy, tied to some experimental philosophers, has called for the rejection of any evidential role for intuitions. I explore a largely ignored third alternative, i.e. saving intuitions (and their evidential role) even when they are at odds. To accommodate conflicting intuitions different sets of internally consistent (yet externally inconsistent) intuitions are taken to lend credence to different concepts of reference. In the current context, this means that the concepts of referential success and referential continuity are not monolithic. They are what I call ‘polylithic’. This paper is as much about meta-philosophical concerns with the role of intuitions as it is about reference and the scientific realism debate. Regarding the former I hope that a blueprint will emerge for similar projects in other philosophical domains. Regarding the latter, I hope that polylithicity helps disentangle claims about referential success and continuity in the scientific realism debate by making perspicuous which concepts are best equipped to evaluate the realist’s epistemic claims against the historical record of science.
Scientific realism Reference Theory change Intuitions Experimental philosophy