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Perspectival realism and norms of scientific representation


Perspectival realism combines two apparently contradictory aspects: the epistemic relativity of perspectives and the mind-independence of realism. This paper examines the prospects for a coherent perspectival realism, taking the literature on scientific representation as a starting point. It is argued that representation involves two types of norms, referred to as norms of relevance and norms of accuracy. Norms of relevance fix the domain of application of a theory and the way it categorises the world, and norms of accuracy give the conditions for the theory to be true. Perspectival realism could be made coherent by taking a realist stance towards one type of norm, and a perspectival stance towards the other, by assuming they are relative to a community. This provides two versions of perspectival realism, called relevance perspectivism and accuracy perspectivism. How each option fares with respect to the challenge of incompatible models is examined. Finally, the prospects of full perspectivism are evaluated.

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  1. This is distinct from contextualism, which is the view that the content, or truth-conditions, of assertions depends on the context of utterance (the latter could be analysed in terms of indexicality or “hidden indexicality”). However, the literature on perspectival realism in philosophy of science does not really bear on this distinction (see for example van Fraassen (2008)).

  2. Massimi (2018a) develops a version of perspectivism about “truth conditions” (understood as standards of justification rather than propositional content), and claims that it concerns the epistemic clause of scientific realism. Although this is an interesting position, I am not convinced that it constitutes an alternative to standard scientific realism in the context of the traditional debate (notably because justification does not imply truth). In any case, I will not address this version of perspectivism here.

  3. The notion is meant to capture the fact that the target involved in modelling can be abstract or fictitious, which denotation does not allow. For example, a model can represent a thought experiment, engineers can represent a non-existent bridge that will never be realised, or physicists can represent the hydrogen atom as an abstract type of entity, without their model representing one atom in particular. However I will focus in this paper on the representation of concrete entities, assuming that this is the locus of the debate on scientific realism.

  4. Even if the realist accepts that our best theories are only approximately true, I presume that this is with respect to an ideal notion of truth, which is what I am interested in here. The “approximate” part is a matter of epistemology, while the “truth” part is a matter of semantics, and as already explained, I take perspectival realism to be a semantic position.

  5. The notion of possible context of use is required to make sense of the notion of domain of application, because the latter is not restricted to actual applications of the theory. This prompts the question of whether and in what sense various possible contexts of use are part of the same larger epistemic context or perspective. I think we can make sense of this hierarchy of contexts in terms of norm sharing, where norms are more or less local. I will come back to this idea later in this article.

  6. This is for the case of novel predictions. In the case of corroboration, the relevance perspectivist could simply argue that corroboration through different accesses confirms her realism with respect to accurate properties.


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Correspondence to Quentin Ruyant.

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This article belongs to the Topical Collection: Perspectivism in science: metaphysical and epistemological reflections

Guest Editor: Michela Massimi

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Ruyant, Q. Perspectival realism and norms of scientific representation. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 10, 20 (2020).

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  • Perspectivism
  • Scientific representation