Realism and the Advancement of Knowledge

  • Paul Needham
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 423)


The chapter advocates a view of the progress of science as the acquisition of knowledge—knowledge of the world as the literal understanding (with some qualification) of contemporary scientific theory would have it. This is challenged by antirealists, who accept this claim only for knowledge of what they count as observable, which they distinguish from the theoretical representation afforded by science and which they maintain we are not justified in holding as a literally true representation of how the world really is. The antirealist challenge is met by a moderate realism, which rebuts the anitirealist arguments of Laudan’s pessimistic induction, Kuhn’s argument from the putative incommensurability of successive theories and Bas van Fraassen’s argument from the so-called underdetermination of theory, but without resorting to the miracle argument or the strategy of inference to the best explanation on which it relies, which are also rejected. It is not necessary to accept the more extreme claims about preservation of reference throughout scientific change in order to rebut antirealism, and Putnam’s thesis of the preservation of the extension of “water”, the idea that Dalton’s atoms are the same things as the atoms of modern science, Psillos’s device of saving the reference of abandoned terms and the claims of structural realism are all discussed and rejected. In the course of this discussion I try to steer a middle path of a moderate realism that acknowledges the force of the natural view that science is to be taken literally, accommodating change over the course of history in the spirit of Duhem’s continuity thesis and recognising that there are aspects of theory that scientists themselves don’t take literally.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Needham
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of StockholmStockholmSweden

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