Critical Scientific Realism

Critical Scientific Realism

Critical Scientific Realism

Critical Scientific Realism


Ilkka Niiniluoto comes to the rescue of realism in the philosophy of science. Philosophical realism holds that the aim of a particular discourse is to make true statements about its subject-matter. Niiniluoto surveys different kinds of realism in various areas of philosophy, then sets out his own critical realist philosophy of science, characterizing scientific progress in terms of increasing truthlikeness, and defends this theory against its rivals.


The philosophy of science in the twentieth century has been a battlefield between 'realist' and 'anti-realist' approaches. The interpretation of scientific theories, and the dispute about the cognitive significance of their theoretical terms and claims, provided a major impetus for the work of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. The demise of logical positivism was followed by the rise of scientific realism within the analytic philosophy of science in the 1950s, but anti-realist attitudes became fashionable again through the historical-relativist approaches in the 1960s and the new pragmatist turn in the 1970s.

Arthur Fine's recent declaration that 'realism is dead' seems utterly overhasty, however. In this book, I claim that realism is alive and well. I also argue that critical scientific realism can be successfully defended against its most important current alternatives (instrumentalism, constructive empiricism, Kantianism, pragmatism, internal realism, relativism, social constructivism, epistemological anarchism).

Fine's announcement is an expression of philosophical frustration. In fact, he is not the only one who feels that the two camps— the realists and the anti-realists, divided moreover into several sects— are producing endless sequences of more and more elaborate positions and technical arguments, but still the basic issues remain unsettled. But, as long as we are doing philosophy, no final consensus can be expected: the realism debate is one of its 'eternal' problems, since wholesale philosophical programmes cannot be proved or disproved by any single pro or contra argument. Such overall philosophical outlooks are able to survive even in hard circumstances— gaining new strength, or losing credibility, by novel insights and discoveries. This is, indeed, the pattern of progress in philosophy: the debate on realism has taught us many important new lessons in logic, ontology, semantics, epistemology, methodology, axiology, and ethics.

In brief, the case of realism vs. anti-realism is alive and philosophically fascinating, since it is unsettled. Its vitality and continuing relevance can be seen in the fact that all major philosophical trends of our time can be located, in some way or another, in coordinate positions defined by the axes of reality, truth, and knowledge. This holds not only of the varieties of realism and anti-realism, but also of those 'minimalists' (like Fine) who try to get rid of the whole problem of realism.

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