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Theory-dependence, warranted reference, and the epistemic dimensions of realism


The question of the role of theory in the determination of reference of theoretical terms continues to be a controversial one. In the present paper I assess a number of responses to this question (including variations on David Lewis’s appeal to Ramsification), before describing an alternative, epistemically oriented account of the reference-determination of such terms. The paper concludes by discussing some implications of the account for our understanding of both realism and such competitors of realism as constructive empiricism.

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  1. 1.

    Just how realist Lewis intends his account of Ramsification to be becomes clear from his insistence that it implies a version of skepticism (Lewis 2009).

  2. 2.

    This skeptical attitude persisted even until Carnap’s The Logical Syntax of Language. See Lavers (2004) for a useful discussion of Carnap’s evolving views on semantics.

  3. 3.

    Kuhn famously relented under the influence of philosophical colleagues like Hilary Putnam.

  4. 4.

    I have nothing to say in this paper about the issue of the semantic content of names and other terms. I accept that semantic content is not usually epistemology-focused (in the case of proper names it may even be Millian). My concern is only with the determinants of reference.

  5. 5.

    This is rather less clear in Kripke, since Kripke (sometimes) suggests the involvement of a more direct kind of causal interaction: e.g., “When I refer to heat, I refer ... to an external phenomenon which we perceive through the sense of feeling” (Kripke 1980, p.129).

  6. 6.

    More generally, if T introduces a number of different theoretical terms F1, F2, ...Fn, let T(x1, ...xn) be the (realization) formula that results from T when we replace the newly introduced terms F1, ...Fn by different variables x1, ...xn. We can then let Fi be defined as “the ith entity in the unique sequence of entities x1, ...xn such that T(x1, ...xn).” (If there is no such sequence, Fi fails to denote.)

  7. 7.

    On the other hand, Lewis’ account shows us very clearly how to avoid a looming problem in Ramsey’s treatment of the content of theories. Let T(F) be one theory and ¬T(F) another. These look contradictory, unlike their quantified Ramsey-sentences, unless we first conjoin them and then Ramsify. But on the assumption that the relevant theories provide us with the complete theoretical specification of F, something that is required if Ramsification is to be permitted, F on its first occurrence simply means ix T(x) and on its second occurrence simply means ix ¬T(x). So there is no contradiction after all between T(F) and ¬T(F), and conjoining them prior to Ramsification, following this up with Ramsification, would be to commit a fallacy of equivocation. (Clark Glymour 1980, pp. 2–23, attacks Ramsification on the grounds that Ramsified theories fail simple rules of inference like Conjunction and Modus Ponens. But as Braddon-Mitchell and Nola (1997) show, the argument he uses commits the fallacy described above.)

  8. 8.

    One point to make is the following. Stich argues that a claim like ‘“Phlogiston” doesn’t refer’ should be construed in deflationary terms as simply meaning ‘Phlogiston doesn’t exist’. But this is to replace one allegedly problematic locution with something at least as problematic: why would anyone want to trade in questions about reference for questions about existence, given the notoriously puzzling nature of (especially singular) existential statements?

  9. 9.

    Earlier attempts at formulating some of these ideas, especially as they bear on the issue of commensurability, are found in Kroon (1985) and Kroon and Nola (2001).

  10. 10.

    Apart from emphasizing historical reference-borrowing chains, Kripke himself was coy about the causal character of reference-fixing. He held some reference-fixing to be descriptive.

  11. 11.

    If we stress the element of implicit awareness enough, we are on the way to a kind of descriptivism about reference; and if we highlight the causal nature of the sort of information-promoting links of which we are implicitly aware, we are on the way to a kind of causal descriptivism (Lewis 1984; Kroon 2009; Jackson 1998, 2010). Whether we should take these further steps need not concern us.

  12. 12.

    The vagueness in what is relevantly important and of interest generates different intuitions in Putnam’s well-known Twin-Earth thought-experiment about the reference of ‘water’ (Putnam 1975). Once we hear Putnam’s manner of presenting the thought-experiment, with its stress on the radical difference in underlying structure between what is called ‘water’ on Earth and Twin-Earth respectively, the “natural kind” way of resolving the vagueness becomes particularly salient. But there is another resolution of vagueness on which ‘water’ is a more inclusive term. (As David Lewis has suggested, given the way in which Putnam’s presentation raises the notion of a natural kind to salience it is no wonder that so many think he has won the day on this issue; Lewis 1994, pp. 423–4.)

  13. 13.

    Some of these conditions will seem more like a presuppositional background to reference-fixing than conditions that actually play a reference-fixing role—in the case of a theoretical term from theory T, for example, they might include claims from other theories that, in conjunction with a theoretical condition from T, help to confer warrant on the introduction of the term. This complication doesn’t affect the main point of the paper.

  14. 14.

    An analogy might be the way our sophisticated inductive practices should be seen as based on, and continuous with, more primitive inductive practices; cf. Kitcher (1993).

  15. 15.

    For instance, color was explained by using the view held by Macquer and others that phlogiston is the matter of light “fixed in” combustible bodies. (For details of such explanations, see Partington 1962.)

  16. 16.

    The choice of another empty term is deliberate. By determining how the term fails, it is easier to see what makes for success.

  17. 17.

    Stich (1996), p. 69.

  18. 18.

    In Marconi (2009), Diego Marconi explains why being called a ‘witch’ is not sufficient for being a witch by invoking the idea that the move from something being paradigmatically called ‘F’ to its being correct to call that thing ‘F’ (proposition B*) requires its being originally believed that Fs constitute a natural kind; and witches were not believed to constitute a natural kind. But there is a perfectly respectable sense of the word ‘witch’ (one identified above) on which witches constitute a sociological kind, and on this understanding of the term the move from being paradigmatically called ‘F’ to being correctly called ‘F’ seems no less reasonable.

  19. 19.

    The emphasis on practical interests, including the explaining and predicting of behavior, suggests that such an account can also be applied to much more controversial cases such as the case of the psychological terms ‘belief’ and desire’ and our near-Moorean intuitions about the existence of beliefs and desires. Assuming that the identification of beliefs and desires for the purpose of explaining and predicting behavior is an important practical interest and not an interest in some underlying natural neural kind that might explain more recondite features of our behavior, the warrant-conferring assumptions of folk psychology will be those that permit this practical kind of interest to be played out (or played out well enough; we certainly allow lapses). Not surprisingly, they are the assumptions favored by modest folk-psychological analysis, and so don’t include the recondite assumption that beliefs are inscribed in a language of thought, say. As it happens, these assumptions are extremely successful at this job; hence our near-Moorean intuitions about beliefs and desires.

  20. 20.

    Substantive’, but not, perhaps, ‘intrinsic’. Whether our techniques for fact-finding extend to intrinsic properties is another question. According to Lewis (2009), the framework of Ramsification shows that such an extension is subject to significant skepticism. (In response, Langton 2004 charges that Lewis’s skepticism is little different from more familiar kinds of skepticism—skepticisms to which Lewis himself has a well-known contextualist response.)

  21. 21.

    I say more about the role of such an ‘honest’ conception of our epistemic endeavors and its connection to realism in Kroon (1994), although without linking it to the theory of reference.

  22. 22.

    See also Psillos’s rather more elaborate characterization in Psillos (1999), p. xix, which assigns scientific realism a metaphysical, semantic and epistemic component. (In this case, the metaphysical and semantic components are too general to carry epistemic implications.)

  23. 23.

    For the distinction between hermeneutic and revolutionary fictionalism, see Burgess and Rosen (1997) and Kalderon (2005).

  24. 24.

    The charge of selective skepticism is made by Devitt (1991), pp. 150–153.


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Correspondence to Frederick Kroon.

Additional information

Thanks to audiences at the University of Auckland and the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh for useful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Special thanks to David Braddon-Mitchell, Mitch Green, Robert Nola, and two anonymous referees for this Journal.

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Kroon, F. Theory-dependence, warranted reference, and the epistemic dimensions of realism. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 1, 173–191 (2011).

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  • Theoretical terms
  • Reference
  • Meaning
  • Realism
  • Constructive empiricism
  • Fictionalism