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Realism : Taiwan IV


You might expect this lecture to be titled Realism and antirealism, but I want to
emphasize that many very different philosophical doctrines bear these names. In the end, I shall
focus on realisms and antirealisms that are connected with the sciences, but even there we have
scientific realism about theoretical non-observable entities, and types of realism called
platonism" in mathematics that would be better called mathematical realism. Although my
interests end up being narrow, it is important to glance at a larger canvas, so I shall begin by
mentioning debates about which I have, here, nothing constructive to say.
I do not mean to imply that nothing can be said. This lecture was presented at Soochow
University, at a time when it had a three year research group at work, under exactly this heading,
Realism and Antirealism. As I understand it, quite a few types of realism and antirealism were
under discussion, so that my emphasis on realisms in the plural was unusually germane.
Not realism versus nominalism
There is a series of debates in the history of Western philosophy which begins with Plato
and Aristotle, and continues to the present. These were most intense, I think, among the great
Arab philosophers in Mesopotamia and North Africa, and then among the scholastic Christian
philosophers of the European high middle ages. What is at issue is described in many ways, and
many things were up for debate. They have two faces, one ontological and one grammatical.
Traditionally, the emphasis has been on the ontological aspect, on questions about what there is.
But both the Islamic and the Christian scholastic philosophers often turned the discussion in the
direction of grammar, just as twentieth century analytic philosophers turned to semantics. In
ontology, it is always tempting to engage in what Quine called semantic ascent, to turn from a
discussion of things to a discussion of names for things.
One advantage of semantic ascent, at least for twentieth century thinkers, is that it allows
one to think that it is all a matter of words. Sometimes the effect is positively noble, as in
Rudolf Carnaps principle of tolerance. Carnap proposed that all ontological questions were
external to knowledge, and had to do with the choice of a language. Meaningful questions arose
only within the framework of a language which carried presuppositions of existence (or not) with
it.1 Quines critique has of course superficially disabled this easy tolerance, but it is a persistent
theme in much analytic philosophy. I try to avoid semantic ascent, which evades philosophical
issues but does not make them go away. I do not make them go away, but I think it helps to
understand how they come into being.
One way to pose an ontological question is to take the example of justice. Plato, as you
know wrote the Republic, his classic work of political philosophy, around the concept of justice.
Socrates keeps on asking, what justice is. His companions give various examples of justice, but
he keeps on protesting that they are just examples, not justice itself. They propose definitions of

Rudolf Carnap, Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology, Revue internationale de philosophie 4 (1950): 20-40.

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justice, and he interjects with counterexamples of two kinds. There are cases that satisfy the
definition, but which are examples of unjust acts or arrangements. He also cites examples of just
acts or just arrangements that do not satisfy the definitions.
Sometimes one wants to say that it all boils down to the question, Is there anything in
common among just acts and arrangements, other than that we recognize them as just, other than
that they are called just? The extreme nominalist replies, No! There is nothing in common
between just acts except, that a Greek equivalent of the adjective just is applied to each of
them. There is no property of being just over and above the word just and its use (in whatever
language you may be speaking). Of course the necessary parenthesis about a particular language
already makes one wonder if these questions are language-relative, for the use of more or less
inter-translatable words in different languages is at best only approximately the same. Leave such
quibbles aside for the moment. Such extreme nominalism could well be called name-ism. Not
very many philosophers have been willing to state and defend extreme name-ism, but some come
close. I think of the English founder of political science, Thomas Hobbes, in the seventeenth
century, and the American pragmatist Nelson Goodman in the twentieth.
At the opposite end of a spectrum is extreme realism, which holds that justice itself is a real
entity, over and above arrangements, judgements, or acts that are just. Justice is not merely the
class of all just entities, but something that itself exists, independently of any acts, arrangements,
decisions or whatever individual items you may think of. It is not merely an ideal for which we
may strive, but something that actually exists, even if we never in fact attain it. This is one kind
of realism. It is ontological in character; it is about what exists, or, to pound the table, what really
exists. This is not a body of dispute that yields readily to semantic ascent, although doubtless
Carnaps tolerance is called for.
Times have changed. I spoke to one well-known British philosopher who writes about
realism, and asked if anyone still spoke of realism as the opposite of nominalism. He tartly
replied no in the rather abrupt manner of a scholar accustomed to dismissing the tedious
questions of inept undergraduates. What then did he think that realism/antirealism debates are
about? See the section about Michael Dummett below.
I do not believe that this philosophers brusque answer was justified. It may be regrettable,
but philosophers of various types will go on posing ontological problems, and say that they are
debating realism versus nominalism. Nominalism is very properly taken to be one kind of
antirealism. But since I am concerned with the sciences, I shall, so far as is possible, avoid this
kind of realism and antirealism, one that can be expressed in terms of universals. That is why I
headed this section, Not realism versus nominalism.
Sometimes the abstract, real, entities that a realist claims to exist are called universals.
Hence what is at issue in such realist-nominalist debates is sometimes called the problem of
universals. That is a scholastic way of putting things, which directs attention to grammar and
semantics and away from ontology. In fact the Latin word translated as nominalism appears to
have been invented by Spanish scholars in 1492, the year that other Spaniards financed
Columbus, captain of the first European ship to reach the West Indies and Central America.

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Bertrand Russell has a lovely seemingly simple discussion in The World of Universals,
chapter IX of his 1912 primer, The Problems of Philosophy. When we examine common
words, he writes, we find that, broadly speaking, proper names stand for particulars, while
other substantives, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs, stands for universals. A little later on the
same page, he cheerfully said that, Seeing that nearly all the words to be found in the dictionary
stand for universals, it is strange that hardly anybody except students of philosophy ever realizes
that there are such entities as universals.
Someone reading Bertrand Russell might ask, well, what if our language did not break up
into this way into substantives, (that is, common nouns), verbs, and so on? Would we be so
inclined to say that nearly all the words in the dictionary stand for universals? Is it at all natural
to even pose this problem, if one speaks Chinese rather than a European language? In other
contexts Bertrand Russell himself argued that a great deal of Western philosophy was simply
wrong-headed because it was so locked into the subject-predicate grammar and the corresponding
substance-attribute metaphysics. There is now a substantial literature on this subject in Englishlanguage philosophy journals. One such contribution is by Professor Wenzel of National Chi Nan
University.2 His philosophical work makes extensive references to a recent anthropological study
by Nisbett.3 But his real debt is proudly stated; he thinks that the clearest thinking about language
and thought, with special reference to Chinese and German, is to be found in a long essay penned
in 1827 by the philosopher, philologist, William von Humboldt (1767-1835).4 Wenzel is planning
to complete a book on this topic.
I do not here take a position on these issues, but I think it is worth reflecting on this
question: Might the roots of realism debates lie not in universal aspects of nature and the human
mind, but in particular linguistic structures? More specifically, might the issues of realism versus
nominalism arise from structures of European languages? Nietzsche probably thought so.
Ontology recapitulates philology.
Quine used this aphorism as an epigraph for his 1960 book, Word and Object. He attributes
it to James Grier Miller, one of the founders of Systems Theory. I actually heard the phrase
earlier than Quines book, in lectures at Cambridge University by John Wisdom, in the fall of

Christian Helmut Wenzel, Chinese Language, Chinese Mind? in C. Kanzian and E. Runggaldier (eds.), Cultures:
Conflict-Analysis-Dialogue, (Proceedings of the 29 International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium, 2006), Frankfurt
am Main: Ontos, 2007, 296-314.

R. E. Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently And Why, New York:
Free Press, 2003. For a summary of criticisms of Nisbetts type of results, see Geoffrey Lloyd, Cognitive Variations:
Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007. (Reviewed by me in the
London Review of Books, 1 November 2007.)

William von Humboldts systematic ideas about the heterogeneity of languages is to be found in his famous
monograph, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental
Development of the Human Species, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. (Translated from ber die
Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaus und seinen Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des
Menschengeschlechts, 1836). Wenzel, however, attends to a text that is less well known, a letter written in 1827 to
Jean-Pierre Abel Rmusat, who had been professor of Chinese at the Collge de France in Paris since 1814, the first
chair of Chinese in Europe. Lettre M. Abel-Rmusat: Sur la nature des formes grammaticales en gnral et sur le
gnie de la langue chinoise en particulier, Paris: Dondey-Dupr, 1827. (Reprinted by Elibron Classics 2005.)
Wenzel provides references to German and other scholarship on this letter.

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1956, but of course Grierson may have coined the phrase. (But systems theory was not exactly
Wisdoms cup of tea; I doubt he had ever heard of Grierson.) Whoever first coined the phrase, it
was an obvious, nay inevitable, joke. It comes from a catchphrase proposed by Ernst Haeckel in
1868: Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny. Haeckel was a great advocate of Darwins natural
selection, and its prophet and spokesman in Germany. Ontogeny is the growth of an organism,
for example of a human from fertilized egg to foetus to infant to adult. Phylogeny is the
evolutionary history of a species. So Haeckel was urging that the growth of individual organisms
from conception followed the pattern by which the species, to which that organism belongs,
evolved. (This was once a popular idea, but is no longer so.) At any rate, our philosophical
aphorism is a play on the biological one.
The maxim sounds cute but what does it mean? Quine probably meant that by a suitable
choice of grammar and language, you do not need to commit yourself to more than a very sparse
ontology. Prune your syntax and your semantics, and philosophy will mutely follow orders. Thus
the maxim served Quines variety of nominalism well.
One could, however, use the aphorism to make a very different suggestion: Ontological
problems are by-products of the grammar of the language spoken by the philosopher. That is not
to say that I subscribe to Quines ontological relativity. Quine held that ontology is relative to a
language. I do not make any claim about ontology. I suggest something about the origin or source
of ontological problems. Thus I step back one pace from the philosophies of Quine and his
opponents. Thus I am proposing something like, the linguistic relativity of philosophical
Against too much linguistic relativity: Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu.
The idea of linguistic relativity is an all too tempting a notion to play with. People on their
second or third exposure to philosophy love to dabble in relativism of this and other sorts.
Although I am sympathetic, I do not want to overdo it. Some philosophical concerns or instincts
seem rather universal. One of them is a fascination with names. It seems to transcend difference
in grammar, and to be recognizable in cultures whose linguistic expression of names is very
different from anything I well understand. Without going too far afield, we find, in many
civilizations, philosophers puzzled by names, and tending to make quite remarkable comments
about names. I shall just mention two statements, one from 19th century German, and one from
Chinese written more than 2100 years earlier. Both appear to be concerned with names and
reality and hence in some way with realism and antirealism. First, Nietzsche in The Gay
58. Only as creators! There is something that causes me the greatest difficulty, and
continues to do so without relief: unspeakably more depends on what things are called
than on what they are. The reputation, name, and appearance, the usual measure and
weight of a thing, what it counts fororiginally almost always wrong and arbitrary,
thrown over things like a dress and altogether foreign to their nature and even to their

For other senses of linguistic relativity, see encyclopedia articles such as the one by C. Swoyer in the Stanford
online encyclopedia,, or L. Boroditsky, linguistic
relativity in L. Nadel (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, New York: Wiley.

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skinall this grows from generation unto generation, merely because people believe in
it, until it gradually grows to be part of the thing and turns into its very body: what at
first was appearance becomes in the end, almost invariably, the essence and is effective
as such! Only a fool would think it was enough to point to this misty mantle of illusion
in order to destroy the world that counts as essential, so-called reality! We can destroy
only as creators! But let us not forget this either: it is enough to create new names and
estimations and probabilities in order to create in the long run new things.6
One main point of this aphorism is, as its heading states: Only as creators. A sub-theme then must
be that we can undo a named idea only by creating some positive concept in its place.
Deconstruction for its own sake is self-indulgent play. It is, however, for the other thought that I
single out this passage: Unspeakably more depends on what things are called than on what they
are. And: It is enough to create new names and estimations and probabilities in order to create
new things.
I happen cautiously to agree with Nietzsche when it comes to names of kinds of people. I
have used this quotation in a paper stating my current position on an entirely different interest of
mine, namely the classification of people and the interaction of classifications with the people
themselves.7 But, subject to qualifications again, I am not inclined to this way of thinking when it
comes to names of things. Needless to say, people are things, but it is the way in which people
conceptualize themselves, and other people conceptualize them, that makes the difference. I am,
if you want a label for me, very much a materialist about non-sentient things, as will become
more clear towards the end of this lecture. So Nietzsches aphorism resonates for me only when it
comes to names for kinds of people; but it is not an appealing doctrine about things.
I wish to put beside Nietzsche a small passage, equally out of context, from Chuang Tzu, in
what are called The Inner Chapters. As I understand it, it is presumed that the Taoist philosopher
wrote these chapters himself, and they are not the work of later commentators.
I shall take two remarkable translated sentences out of context:
(1) A name is only the guest of reality.8
Pause to reflect on this. It is a beautiful saying, quite regardless of what Chuang Tzu meant, or of
whether it is a correct translation of a Chinese sentence written 2300 years ago. Pierre Hadot has
said that To write the history of thought is sometimes to write the history of series of
misinterpretations.9 He was telling the history of an even older adage attributed to Heraclitus,
Nature likes to hide. It is important to the history of Chinese philosophy, to know exactly what

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, translated by Walter
Kaufmann from the 2nd edn (1887), (New York, Vintage Books, 1964), 58.

Kinds of People: Moving Targets Proceedings of the British Academy 151 (2007): 285-318.

Chuang Tzu, The Inner Chapters, trans. David Hnton, Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, p. 7. For the record,
Pr Lagerkvist (1891-1974), Nobel Prize for literature 1951, published his autobiographical novel Guest of Reality
(Gst hos Verkligheten, Stockholm: Aldus/Bonnier 1967) in 1925. For a discussion of Chuang Tzu even more out of
context than mine, see, Mark Berkson, "Language: The Guest of Reality--Zhuangzi and Derrida on Language,
Reality, and Skillfulness," in P. Kjellberg and P. J. Ivanhoe, Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the
Zhuangzi, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. 97-126.

Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, Harvard University Press 2006, p. 14.

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Chuang Tzu meant, but whatever he meant that English sentence is remarkably powerful, all by
itself, out of context.
We usually think that misinterpretation is a terrible thing. We ought to find out what the
sage really meant! So we should, but we should also welcome innovative misinterpretations that
endure. Nature herself is said to evolve by fruitful mistranscriptions of genetic code.
Misinterpretation can, on occasion, be more creative than merely sound interpretation. Whatever
I say about a name being the guest of reality will probably be a misinterpretation of what is
possibly a mistranslation of what is possibly an incorrectly transcribed ancient sentence. That
does not bother me. As it stands, (1) is exquisite; it also makes you think. I hear it, first, as a
strong commitment to a reality, wholly independent of, and prior to, naming, classification, and
any human intellectual activity. Reality is just there, and occasionally it welcomes this or that
name as a good fit but only as a guest.
That idea is not exactly realism in any of the philosophical senses at which I gestured
earlier. We might say that it is truly realist, or even mystically realist, expressing a deep respect
for what is. A few pages on, however, we read another sentence that seems to be a radical
expression of nominalism:
(2) Naming things makes them real.10
That sounds just like Nietzsche! What follows next, immediately changes the tone.
Why real? Real because real. Why nonreal? Nonreal because nonreal. So the real is
originally there in things, and the sufficient is originally there in things. Theres
nothing that is not real, and nothing that is not sufficient.
I shall take all this to express what I might call really-real realism, or, better, really-realism.
Unlike scholastic realism, which expresses a commitment to the reality of universals, concepts,
and classes, these aphorisms appear to express a profound respect for a reality that stands
complete, no matter what humans do or think.
Perhaps an English-speaking 21st century analytic philosopher can see (1) and (2) as
compatible in this way: A complete reality is prior to any conceptualization. When a name is a
welcome guest of that reality, it picks out a thing, or a kind of thing, which is thereby real
because it is a guest of that complete reality. The same philosopher may suggest that the ancient
sage thinks of the complete reality as the ground of what we say and know about things, but at
the same time rejects the European Enlightenment bid to provide foundations for knowledge.
This brings Chuang Tzu and Nietzsche surprisingly close together.
This little aside may indicate that I do not take too seriously the idea that philosophical
problems are relative to a language group. To avoid misunderstanding, I should also say that I do
not take too seriously the idea that the German philosopher and the Chinese one, separated by
two millennia, had exactly the same concerns.
General ontology and the special sciences.


The Inner Chapters, p. 23.

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To return to my main theme, I said I do not want to talk much today about realism versus
antirealism in general. This is because I am concerned with questions about existence that arise
in the sciences. For example, around 1970 analytic philosophers of science began to talk about
scientific realism. They meant the question whether the unobservable theoretical entities, such
as those postulated in physics, exist. Scientific realists said yes, an entity exists if a theory about
it is true, even if the entity is in principle incapable of being observed. Scientific antirealists
such as positivists and instrumentalists said the entities do not exist. They are only instruments
of thought; the terms that we use to express them do not denote entities that exist. Bertrand
Russell cast this in a precise form by claiming that whenever possible we should substitute
logical constructions for inferred entities.
I interject here that positivism can be deadly. Historical positivism, introduced in France by
Auguste Comte in the 1830s, was once a live philosophy, complete with churches which would
replace those of organized religion. I have been at one such church, in the capital of the most
southern province of Brazil, Porto Allegre. The city square of that capital is like many, with an
imposing government building, with a cathedral, etc., but in the centre is the magnificent gilded
monument to positivism and progress, many metres high. In the 1890s, after the restoration of
elected government, the first two governors were from the Positivist Party. The second one died
of small-pox because he did not believe in germs, and was not inoculated. He did not believe that
theoretical entities really exist.
A more modest and reflective positivism escapes that danger. Bas van Fraassens
constructive empiricism maintains only that we cannot assert that this or that theoretical entity
exists. We should not believe they exist, for we have no grounds for believing or asserting that
they do. Worse, in most cases, we could not have any such grounds, no matter how empirically
adequate our theories are. But we are still allowed, by this narrow philosophy, to act as if the
theories are true that is, when theories are empirically adequate. When theories about small-pox
are empirically adequate, we should get inoculated against the small pox, and so avoid the death
that awaits the heroic positivist.
I would like to maintain that realism debates in the special sciences have nothing much to
do with more general ontological debates, or with any problem about universals. Certainly van
Fraassen does not sound much like a classic mediaeval nominalist such as William of Ockham.
But I have a difficulty in pushing this thought very far. This is because I take the traditional view
that mathematics is a science. Platonism in mathematics is a version of the realist doctrine
about mathematical objects, and anti-platonism is an antirealist doctrine. Both, I claimed in
lecture II, are by-products of the introduction of the mathematical style of reasoning. We are right
back to ontology, for the abstract objects of mathematics were one of the pillars of Platos entire
realistic philosophy.
For a nice confirmation of this, let us go back to Russells handy Problems of Philosophy.
In my second lecture, Where do mathematical objects come from?, I wanted to show how
European philosophy had been obsessed with mathematics from the word go. I started the
discussion by quoting from Russells Problems: The question which Kant put at the beginning
of his philosophy, namely How is pure mathematics possible? is an interesting and difficult one,
to which every philosophy which is not purely sceptical must find an answer.11 That is from

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, London: The Home University Library, 1946, 84. Kants question
is stated in The Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan, 1929, 56 (B 20)

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chapter VIII, on A Priori knowledge, the chapter just before the chapter on universals with which
I began this talk. That chapter ends with a lead on to the following chapter, where we shall find
that it solves the problem of a priori knowledge, from which we were first led to consider
Thus Russell saw realism versus antirealism, insofar as that concerns the ontological reality
of universals, as intimately connected with realism and antirealism about mathematical objects.
Historically speaking he was beyond question correct. So I cannot keep the general metaphysical
issues so far away from the sciences as I would have liked.
Dummetts type of antirealism.
I am not yet finished with types of realism that I shall not talk about. (But which I spend
too much time talking about!) Michael Dummett began his career as a logician and philosopher
of mathematics. He was deeply attracted by intuitionism and constructivism about mathematics,
yet at the same time resisted Wittgensteins Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, at least
in the way that he read them. He sharply distinguished the denial of the law of the excluded
middle, from the denial of bivalence, the doctrine that propositions must have one of two truth
values. He turned realism into a thesis about bivalence.
Dummett applied this notion across the board. Consider a man, now dead, who never in his
life had the opportunity to display or even to intimate whether he is courageous or not. Then
according to Dummett and I tend to agree the proposition, He was a courageous man, is not
true. Likewise, He was not a courageous man, is not true. Thus on Dummetts construal of
realism as a commitment to bivalence, he is antirealist about the courage of this man.
Dummett flirted with various antirealist doctrines about history, and in general encouraged
an antirealist discourse of anti-bivalence that flourished particularly among British philosophers a
few years ago. Once again, that is an antirealism that I shall pass by.
An allusion to Richard Rorty
The late Richard Rorty, who made a lecture tour in Taiwan some years ago, thought that
the entire family of realist-antirealist debates was misguided. In particular he thought that of the
ones that were going on in America during the 1980s were pointless. I recall him saying, in
conversation, in what was for him a pretty bitter tone of voice, realism is mickey-mouse. In the
slang of those days, that meant too easy that the entire discussion was not worthy of a
childrens comic.
Perhaps I should interject here a word about my attitude to Rortys philosophy. This is
because the book based on his lectures here in Taiwan has, I am told, been widely received and


Ibid., p. 100.

Richard Rorty, Hope in Place of Knowledge: The Pragmatics Tradition in Philosophy, Taipei: Institute of
European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, 1999.

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From the very beginning I have always been ambivalent about his way of doing
philosophy. I do not agree with his running many kinds of discourse together, as part of an
undifferentiated conversation of mankind. Yes, it is an important value to keep the conversation
going, in as untrammelled a way as possible. But I betray a very different instinct from Rortys. I
am a splitter, a divider, an analyst; I believe that the making of distinctions is not an end in itself,
but it is one without which no ends can be served. I always put plurals into titles! Example: I am
not talking about realism but about realisms
I was asked to write a puff for Rortys last book, the fourth volume of his collected essays
published by Cambridge University Press, which came out just before he died this year. I spent a
long time writing 60 words in order to express my admiration but not to conceal my ambivalence.
In the end, the Press decided to put only one puff on the back of the book, mine. I shall quote
myself, for these words really demanded a lot of work:
Wise and immensely readable, these essays hammer home John Deweys theme:
Philosophy matters when it changes what we want to talk about, and how we do it. In
detail, they usually seem to me to be blissfully right or infuriatingly wrong: the fact that
they can itch so makes me deeply suspicious of a lot of the philosophy that I hold dear.14
That is how I feel, and it is even how I feel about the proposal that realism/antirealism debates are
mickey-mouse. Rorty said that to me 20 or 30 years ago. It annoyed me then, but even so I was
inclined to agree with it, and hid from myself the fact that I agreed with him. I am even more thus
inclined today. I am also inclined to make more use of Nelson Goodmans epithet, and to speak
of irrealism, using it to express a certain indifference to traditional realist and antirealist debates.
Arthur Fines Natural Ontological Attitude
Rorty referred to Arthur Fine as his favourite philosopher of science.15 Fines paper, The
natural ontological attitude, begins with the sentence, Realism is dead.16 Rorty correctly
summarizes: Fine asserts that we should be neither realists nor antirealists, that the entire
realism-antirealism issue should be set aside. Well, I agree, it should be set aside. But it wont
let itself be shunted into retirement. Fine doubtless intended Realism is dead to recall
Nietzsche. Well, whatever else is the case about God, existence-of-God debates have not gone
away in Western thought, since Nietzsche wrote his famous aphorism. I have found it worth
while to come to some understanding of the appeal of both realisms and antirealisms. That has
been one theme of my first three lectures. Call it the by-product thesis. In the ontological debates
that beset the sciences, the various types of objects rejected by antirealists about scientific
entities, and the pound-on-the-table objects asserted to exist by scientific realists, are all byproducts of the styles of scientific thinking by which they are introduced.
I do not think that realism is dead. I am not interested either in killing it off or in giving it
life support. I am curious why so many kinds of realism keep on thriving. But here I restrict my

From the back cover of the paperback, Richard Rorty, Philosophy as Cultural Politics. Philosophical Papers IV,
Cambridge University Press 2007.


Ibid., p. 133.

Arthur Fine, The natural ontological attitude, in his The Shake Game: Einstein, Realism and the Quantum
Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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query: why do realism debates continue to thrive among philosophers who reflect on the
sciences, although they do not matter at all to scientists at work on their fields of expertise?
Beyond entities
I would not want to imply that in a field of live research, the investigators never discuss the
reality of this or that. In microscopy and many other fields, one wants to know whether what
appears through the lenses is real or is an artefact of the staining, or is indeed some aspect of the
target. For brevity, people ask, is it real, or is it an artefact? Recently astronomers began to ask if
Pluto was a real planet and decided not. The decision was something to do with the orbit and its
parameters (but of course Pluto is a real orbiting body). And recalling a topic to which I directed
too much energy, psychiatrists debated whether or not Multiple Personality Disorder, now
renamed Dissociate Identity Disorder, was a real mental illness. This could mean too many
things. For some this was the question of whether it was biological a biochemical or
neurological dysfunction, or something better attribute to psychology and the milieu in which
the patient lived. I tried to examine those matters in Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and
the Sciences of Memory (Princeton 1995) and Mad Travelers: On the Reality of Transient Mental
Illnesses (Virginia 1998, Harvard 2001).
Those studies were not directed at realism/antirealism debates. I did not think that my
experimental argument for entity realism had any direct bearing on such matters. This is partly
because the latter is concerned with a global debate, in which I was confronting various types of
positivism, instrumentalism, constructive empiricism, which held that for example there are no
unobservable theoretical entities, or more modestly that we never have adequate grounds for
asserting of any unobservable theoretical entity that it exists. A second reason is that even if we
use the generality of the word entity to regard MPD as a putative disease entity or mental
illness entity, it is not an entity that can be either observable or unobservable in the sense of
the traditional scientific realism debates.
But let us turn to more widely held, and perhaps more widely applicable, types of scientific
realism than mine. Turn to theory-oriented realism. In the 1980s people took this to be the
doctrine that (a) many scientific theories are true, and (b) that the denoting expressions in
sentences expressing true theories refer. That is, they rewrote realism in semantic terms, as if
they suffered from a life-threatening attack of semantic ascent. But of course they were hiding
behind ambiguities in the verb to refer. The denoting expression phlogiston in many 18th
century chemical tracts certainly refers, in one ordinary sense of the word; it refers to phlogiston.
What was meant was more like this: the term should refer to something, or something that exists.
So the talk about reference in (b) was, on many theories of reference, pushed back on to clause
(a). For it would be claimed that there are no true positive object-level sentences in which
phlogiston occurs as a putatively denoting term.
Authors in this theory-oriented vein were most concerned with theories expressed in
sentences that referred to unobservable theoretical entities, so theirs was the theoretical side of
my entity realism. But their self-definition allowed a larger scope.
For example, if there were true theories about Multiple Personality Disorder, for example
that, on average, patients had 17 alter personalities, or that the illness was caused by early but
forgotten child sexual abuse, then by (b), if MPD is a denoting expression, then it must, in the

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lingo of the doctrine, refer. That in turn was to be unpacked as, MPD is real, or is a real disorder,
or exists. But what does the work turns out, as just suggested, to be (a), whether or not there are
true positive object-level statements about MPD. That does not quite do the trick, because on
average, patients diagnosed with MPD did, in say 1991, have 17 alter personalities. This forces
us to the question whether the patients did suffer from MPD: well they did, by the standard
published criteria. And that did not settle anything, because critics thought the criteria did not
define a valid disease entity. And so on. The global doctrine of theory-oriented scientific realism
was too coarse to bear on a small but significant dispute within American psychiatry.
So I have never thought that any such approach was helpful. One needs a more fine-grained
and topic-sensitive inquiry. In the concluding chapter of Mad Travelers I did not think in those
terms at all. Certainly my experimental argument for entity realism is not applicable. This is not
just because MPD is not what I think of as an entity I do grant that some people in the MPD
debate asserted in just these words: MPD is a true disease entity. My argument does not apply
because the key clause in my argument, which I am about to repeat, involves the use of an entity
to investigate something else, some other more dubious or less well grasped entity. It does not
make much general sense to talk of using a disease entity to investigate some less well
understood part of nature, or of crafting apparatus to use MPD to investigate something else. But
now I am jumping ahead of my exposition below, where I repeat my 1983 claim, that the best
argument for realism about an entity is when (as I italicize below) one is using such an entity to
investigate other entities. One never did that with MPD, and I am not sure that it would make
much sense to think in such terms about a putative disease entity.
So what about my experimental argument for entity realism?
My book of 1983, Representing and Intervening, came in two parts divided by what I
called a break. The second part included an argument for realism about unobservable
theoretical entities. Did I then think that realism was important? No. Have I changed my mind?
Hardly at all. First, let me highlight a couple of lines from page 2 of the book.
Disputes about both reason and reality have long polarized philosophers of
science. []
Is either kind of question important? I doubt it. We do want to know what is really
real and what is truly rational. Yet you will find that I dismiss most questions about
rationality, and am a realist on only the most pragmatic of grounds.17
Is either kind of question important? To repeat myself, I doubt it. Yes, I still doubt it, 25 years
after these words were published.
Incidentally, since I have just mentioned Rorty, the great neo-pragmatist of our times, I did
not say I myself was a pragmatist, that is, a card-carrying member of the Peirce-James-Dewey
philosophy. I said that if I was a realist at all, it was on pragmatic grounds, not on grounds of
pragmatism. Peirce remains a hero of mine, just as Dewey was always Dick Rortys role-model. I
have explained all this in a recent paper explaining why I am not a pragmatist.18

R&I, p. 2.

On not being a pragmatist: eight reasons and a cause, in Cheryl Misak (ed.), The New Pragmatists, Oxford,
2007, 32-49.

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My book was a plea for experiment. The key sentence was, Experiment has a life of its
own, independent of theory. The first part of the book dutifully explained in a slightly lighthearted but academically sound way, what one needed to know about recent debates in
philosophizing about theoretical science. When the book was published, philosophers were
simply not interested in experiment. I wanted to open a door. Scientific realism was all the vogue
in 1980. I used the raging controversy about scientific realism as a peg on which to hang my plea
for experiments.
I was lucky. Unknown to me, lots of young people were beginning to open the door in their
own ways. By the end of the decade, experiment was positively fashionable among philosophers,
historians and above all sociologists of science.
Thus there was no incompatibility in my own mind, between my experimental argument for
scientific realism, and what I said on page 2, that I doubted that realism (or rationality) debates
were important. Sometimes I wish I had asked Rorty for permission to quote his remark, realism
is mickey mouse.
What was the experimental argument? (a) If, (NOT only if).
Many people remember the sentence early in the book, If you can spray them, then they
are real. This was made in connection with an electron gun that sprayed polarized electrons in
order to attain certain well understood effects on a super-cooled super-conducting super-fluid ball
of niobium.
An astounding number of readers first took this to mean not only what it says, but also,
Entities are real only if you can spray them. I never thought that. It simply never occurred to me
so I did not guard against it. Ernan McMullen was one honest philosopher of science who
confessed to me, with apologies, that he had really made that elementary error of reading.
More generally, my thought was that the standard debates about scientific realism were
always indecisive because they were conducted at the level of theory and often of semantics.
They always were conducted as if the debaters fully subscribed to what John Dewey called the
spectator theory of knowledge. As if we just look and talk, and never do anything in the
sciences. My general theme was, only if you get away from the spectator theory and start
realizing that science is doing as well as reasoning, will you lose interest in the debates that so
flourished in the 1980s.
What was the experimental argument? (b) The strongest argument (NOT a conclusive one)
My experimental argument was given in chapter 12. The first sentence of that chapter was:
Experimental work provides the strongest evidence for scientific realism.
I continued:
This is not because we test hypotheses about entities. It is because entities that in
principle cannot be observed are regularly manipulated to produce a new phenomenon
and to investigate other aspects of nature. They are tools, instruments not for thinking
but for doing. (p. 262.)

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And so on. I went on to make the consideration, to my mind, rather compelling. My intention was
always to escape the view of the spectator. I go into the lab in order to look at a team of
experimenters. I go in to try to participate, to be to the best of my ability (which is not much) a
participant observer. Hence I would have the experience of trying to think about how to make a
piece of apparatus use an entity in order to do something else. Note that in the preface to the book
I thank a colleague who welcomed me into his laboratory in order to learn how to use a
microscope, and how I broke a lot of glass trying to make things. Today I have a research
assistant, a PhD student in Toronto, Eran Tal, doing just the same thing in a cold atom (quantum
optics) laboratory, aided by two physics grad students.
I have never thought of the experimental argument as more than, as the opening sentences
states, the strongest argument for scientific realism. The argument can in a particular case carry
conviction, it can be compelling, but it is not thereby conclusive.
I also thought that if an entity has not yet got to the stage of being manipulated in order to
be a tool for finding out about something else, then we do not yet have a compelling argument for
its existence. I did not intend to say, that in those circumstances that we have no argument, or that
we cannot reasonably think that the entity exists. I certainly did not intend to say, failing
manipulability, the entity does not exist.
A strong argument can always have a false conclusion
Teachers of elementary logic have to remind their pupils that excellent arguments can from
time to time lead us astray. The strongest type of argument for entity realism need not be
conclusive. Usually critics mention use old chestnuts for their counterexamples: phlogiston, or
the all pervasive aether of early electromagnetic theorizing. It is not clear to me that one
manipulated these conjectured entities to interfere with and learn about other objects, or that
one designed instruments to capitalize on ones ability to use them. So let me take a (counter-)
example I understand in greater detail, and which fits the form of my argument better,
My quoted statement about the strongest evidence may be ambiguous. Scientific realism
is not a carte blanche doctrine that every entity propounded in any theory is real. It is the
doctrine that when one is using such an entity to investigate other entities, antirealism about it
does not make sense. It is not that one is reasonably convinced that it is real, and hence that the
general doctrine of the reality of (some) theoretical entities is true. The stance of the experimenter
could be called a performative argument.
My original experimental realism comes to this:
() Experimental work provides the strongest evidence for the reality of an unobservable
theoretical entity.
I always had in mind realism about this or that entity using my trite example of the electron, or
more interestingly polarized electrons. I now think I should not have spoken of evidence at all.
For that makes it seem as if we are inferring the existence of an entity that we use. In short, it
invites a return to what John Dewey called the spectator theory of knowledge. Science is not a
spectator sport. It is a game to be played, and those who play hockey do not infer the existence of
the puck: they hit it, they move it, they aim, they usually miss, but sometimes they score goals
with it.

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Because I wrote in terms of best evidence, most commentators on my discussion have

refused to leave the stands. They argue that the argument must be a case of inference to the best
explanation. Nothing could have been further from my mind. It is spectators who explain.19
I choose arbitrarily one recent clear paper that sums up two misreadings of my idea in a
single sentence. Mauricio Surez state my metaphysical claim as,
Metaphysical Experimental Realism: Manipulation is a sufficient condition on reality: x
is real if x can be manipulated.20
First, I have to repeat that I said strongest evidence, not that manipulability is a sufficient
condition, a proof of the reality of x. Second, and much more important, to my way of thinking,
my statement did not say manipulated, full stop. What I wrote was quoted above. I spoke of
entities that are,
regularly manipulated to produce a new phenomenon and to investigate other aspects of
nature. They are tools, instruments not for thinking but for doing.
Manipulation for the joy of manipulation is not much different from spectator sports. I said
manipulated with a purpose. Or rather several purposes. To produce new phenomena. To
investigate other aspects of nature. To find something out. Moreover, do not forget that modifier,
regularly. A one-off manipulation to try to produce new phenomena does not cut it.
Surez is at pains to distinguish a metaphysical from an epistemological version of
experimental realism. The latter states that Manipulation is a necessary and sufficient condition
on causal warrant: our belief that x exists acquires this special kind of warrant if and only if we
believe that we manipulate x. If I have to choose between the two, my intentions were and are
metaphysical and not epistemological. My regrettable talk of evidence might suggest I had some
epistemological claim in mind. In fact I was talking about evidence for the metaphysical claim.
Please remember, however, my doubt that the metaphysical question matters much!
Best but not conclusive
I would prefer not to have put () in terms of evidence, but I did so and have to live with
that. () does not say even of any particular case that the evidence is conclusive, only that it is
compelling. Thus I am unmoved by counter-examples that mention the use of phlogiston to
produce various effects and by all similar examples. I do not know enough about the phlogiston
story to know what Priestley or whomever thought he was doing. But I am prepared to accept on
faith that his experimental work gave him compelling evidence for the reality of phlogiston. It
was, alas, not conclusive.
My own example is from the early days of photography. Edmond Becquerel (1820-1891)
was part of a great dynasty; his son shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of radioactivity, and
his father was a great pioneer of electrochemistry. In 1839, when he was 19 years old, Edmond
communicated a paper which with hindsight can be read as the first demonstration of the photo19

Some of the critiques are, D. Resnik, Hackings Experimental Realism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy. 24
(1994): 395-412. R. Reiner and R. Pierson, Hackings Experimental Realism: An Untenable Ground, Philosophy of
Science 62 (1995): 60-69.
Experimental Realism Defended: How Inference to the Most Likely Cause Might be Sound, in Stephan
Hartmann, Carl Hoefer, Luc Bovens (eds.), Nancy Cartwrights Philosophy of Science, Routledge, 2008.

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electric effect.21 In those days, one explained basic effects of photochemistry by the conjecture
that the sun emitted two kinds of radiation, light rays and chemical rays. That was taught in
lectures and textbooks at the Polytechnique, the French cathedral of mathematics and physics. So
Edmond was using chemical rays to produce differences in electric potential, and he went on to
more and more imaginative experiments. I am sure he was convinced of the reality of chemical
rays precisely because he could use them to investigate other phenomena, such as electric
potential and above all change the properties of various chloride emulsions in what we now call
photography. In the same year, 1839, Daguerre explained the secret of his marvellous process for
producing images, the daguerrotype; by 1840, young Edmond Becquerel himself used chemical
rays to produce superb images photographs of Bridges over the Seine, the Jardin de
Tuilleries, etc. He had a compelling argument for the existence of these theoretical entities, the
chemical rays. Alas, like many compelling arguments, it was not conclusive.22 But this is not a
counterexample to (), about the strongest evidence for scientific realism about this or that entity.
My argument was not about looking at some experiment, it was about doing. It was above
all an explication of the conviction of experimenters, that sometimes the entities that they use are
as real as their left hands. It is replied, we all know that scientists feel that way, so what? I say,
they do not just feel that way; it is a reasonable conviction based on what they can do with
various entities. In particular I pointed to engineering: what I had in mind was designing and
building a piece of apparatus in order to do something with an entity, such as polarized electrons
or chemical rays.
When we can not interfere
I went on to write a paper about gravitational lenses, just at the time that these were big
news, that is, 1986, after the first four had been detected.23 Gravitational lensing is a consequence
of the general theory of relativity. Let there be a big heavy star a long way off. Let there be a light
source yet further off, behind the first star. Then light from that source will be bent by the star,
perhaps on each side of the star, just as light is bent by reflection when passing through a suitable
glass lens. If we are lucky, and conditions are just right, gravitational lenses will be an
extraordinary way to bring distant objects closer, in the metaphorical sense in which a
telescope is sometimes said to bring a distant object closer.
I took gravitational lenses as a perfect example of something with which we could not
interfere, something we just could not manipulate. Einstein had thought, on the basis of a
calculation made on the back of an envelope, that we would never detect a gravitational lens.
That was, in his opinion, wonderful. We would know that this phenomenon is going on, all over
the universe, but never see it! He was wrong. In the 1980s gravitational lenses began to be


Edmond Becquerel, Recherches sur les effets de la radiation chimique de la lumire solaire, au moyen des
courants lectriques, Comptes rendus hebdomedaire des sances de lAcadmie des Sciences, 9 (1839): 145-149.
Cf. Edmond Becquerel, La Lumire: ses causes et ses effets, 2 vols., Paris: Firmin Didot Frres, II, p. 122. The
experiment has been replicated by Jrme Fatet; see his online seminar dated 26 January 2005, Edmond Becquerel:
La naissance de lactinomtre lectrochimique .


Daniela Monaldi pointed this out to me, after reading what I wrote about Becquerel in a preprint, Another new
world is being constructed right now: the ultracold, Berlin: Max Planck Insitute for the History of Science, 2006.


Extragalactic Reality: The Case of Gravitational Lensing, Philosophy of Science, 56 (1989), 555-581.

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detected; now they are commonplace. They are in fact used to gain knowledge of the distant
universe (I confess that some of the claimed uses are a bit exaggerated, more for getting grants
than for studying the distant universe.) But we still cannot interfere with them; we cannot focus
them, although we can do cunning things with the bent light they deliver us for free. Compare the
cosmic rays, amazing sources of cheap high-energy beams, used even in the 1930s for
discovering sub-atomic particles. There we can manipulate the beams, but not the sources.
I ended the paper perhaps a little too flippantly. I suggested that one can still be a sort of
phenomenalist about gravitational lenses, regarding them as theoretical entities that admirably fit
and explain the phenomena. I even made such a suggestion about black holes that we are
always going to be in a Duhemian position with respect to those, that all we can do is save
(solve) the phenomena. That is because we are only spectators: in fact in the case of black holes,
we are not even spectators, we are spectators of the havoc we think they wreak.
I was getting carried away, as you will see from the fact that this paper about astrophysics
ends by quoting poetry. I should have stopped a little earlier in the paper, saying simply the
gravitational lensing was, at the time, breaking news in observational astronomy, of immense
potential, but that the experimental argument for realism would never apply. Thus, the strongest
argument for realism could not be invoked. I did not mean positively to assert anti-realism about
gravitational lenses. I never intended to claim that they are definitely not real! To anyone who
thought I implied we ought not to believe they are real, I apologize. I meant only that we have
more compelling reasons for asserting the existence of polarized electrons than of gravitational
* Added March 2010: The paper in question was written 1986, when only four gravitational lenses had
been identified. Since then the field has blossomed, and the lens are used for investigating other entities,
including black holes, so they do now satisfy the criteria for the experimental argument for entity realism.
See the survey article, Richard S. Ellis, Gravitational Lensing : A unique probe of dark matter and dark
energy, Phil. Trans. Royal Society A, 368 (#1914, 2010): 967-987.

The self-vindication of the laboratory sciences.24

I published a paper with this title after I began to develop my philosophical adaptation of
Crombies idea of styles of scientific thinking. I understand that it has recently been translated
into Chinese.
The paper was not about realism or antirealism. Indeed it was written with the firm
conviction that debates about realism are by-products of the laboratory sciences. If anyone wishes
to apply Nelson Goodmans epithet, irrealist, to that paper, I will grudgingly accept it. Why
grudging? Because irrealism does have a tincture of antirealism, and by now I do not want to be
realist or antirealist. Perhaps I am pleased by the illusion that Representing and Intervening was a
realist work, while this paper is an antirealist one. Both, I want to say, are neither.
The argument was that experiment, theory and apparatus constitute plastic resources, a term
that I took from Andrew Pickering. Each can be moulded and adapted to fit the other. Duhem had
already shown how theory can be moulded to take account of recalcitrant experimental results,
but also, how one can mould an account of experiment to preserve theory. I added that there are

The Self-Vindication of the Laboratory Sciences, in A. Pickering, Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1991, 29-64.

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many layers of theory and of experiment, including theories of the apparatus, and also the
material stuff is a layer, the physical apparatus. All of these are changed and modified in the
course of getting an experimental result. The result is a kind of self-vindication which is not
viciously circular, indeed it is incredibly painful and often cannot be done. When it cannot be
done, it is research that never gets published and is erased from history. Most research is erased.
15. The stability of the sciences. One aim of the paper was to address the stability of the
sciences. Philosophers had lived through an era of literal revolution of space, time, and
causality. But let us say after 1950 revolutions stopped occurring in physics. It was as if we
had got it right. I have even argued that from now on there will be no more revolutions, only
surprises. I argue this as one small point in a long discussion of ultracold experiments. I can only
point at these thoughts now. I happen to believe that physics itself is changing to make my thesis
about self-vindication more and more apparent. Here is a recent sentence that I noticed in my
current hobby, cold atoms.
[] our results point to the fact that the [Bose-Hubbard model] is sufficient to explain
all the features discovered in the experiment and that the experiment was a clean
realization of the model as expected.25
The model is right because it explains how the experiment went, and the experiment was a good
one because it fit the model. How is that for self-vindication?


S. R. Clark and D. Jaksch, Signatures of the superfluid to Mott-insulator transition in the excitation spectrum of
ultracold atoms, New Journal of Physics, 8, [8] (2006), pp 160-178 on p. 177.