Scientific Perspectivism

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Many people assume that the claims of scientists are objective truths. But historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science have long argued that scientific claims reflect the particular historical, cultural, and social context in which those claims were made. The nature of scientific knowledge is not absolute because it is influenced by the practice and perspective of human agents. Scientific Perspectivism argues that the acts of observing and theorizing are both perspectival, and this nature makes scientific knowledge contingent, as Thomas Kuhn theorized forty years ago.


Using the example of color vision in humans to illustrate how his theory of “perspectivism” works, Ronald N. Giere argues that colors do not actually exist in objects; rather, color is the result of an interaction between aspects of the world and the human visual system. Giere extends this argument into a general interpretation of human perception and, more controversially, to scientific observation, conjecturing that the output of scientific instruments is perspectival. Furthermore, complex scientific principles—such as Maxwell’s equations describing the behavior of both the electric and magnetic fields—make no claims about the world, but models based on those principles can be used to make claims about specific aspects of the world.

Offering a solution to the most contentious debate in the philosophy of science over the past thirty years, Scientific Perspectivism will be of interest to anyone involved in the study of science.

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Editorial Reviews

Bas C. van Fraassen

“Ronald Giere’s new book has placed perspective center stage, contributing to innovations that are changing philosophy of science today as radically as the historical turn of a half century ago. There is no view from nowhere, the sciences do not provide it, and science is not the realization of a metaphysical dream but a historically and naturally conditioned rational empirical inquiry. Giere offers the view that not only measurement results but also the representation of phenomena in theories and models are perspectival, and supports it with challenging, provocative arguments.”
Miriam Solomon

“Ronald Giere uses the techniques of scientists to ask philosophical questions about science. He argues that science can be a human construct and still portray the world objectively, just as color vision is a human construct that detects objective features of the physical world. Scientific Perspectivism builds on Ronald Giere’s earlier ideas—from Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach and Science without Laws—to yield an accessible and creative account of the nature of scientific theories.  It is of broad interest to those in science studies as well as philosophy of science.”
Nancy Cartwright

Scientific Perspectivism is an interesting and important book, well written and well conceived by an innovative thinker whose views are widely discussed in the philosophy of science. Giere has long been arguing in conference papers, lectures, and publications for a position he calls ‘perspectivism,’ situated between realism and social constructivism. This detailed development of the view is most welcome.”
Paul Teller

“Does science deliver the unvarnished truth, or is it some kind of social construct? Giere resolves this opposition, deciding in favor of both sides by exposing the conflict as an artifact of a problematic assumption that both sides—and most of us—are making. Just one of many insights! A must read for anyone with any interest in understanding science.”
Science - Peter Lipton

"Clear and engaging."
Quarterly Review of Biology - Evan Selinger

"A wonderful volume: insightful, compact, and readable."
Clear and engaging.

— Peter Lipton

Quarterly Review of Biology
A wonderful volume: insightful, compact, and readable.

— Evan Selinger

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226292120
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2006
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ronald N. Giere is professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Minnesota, a former director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and a past president of the Philosophy of Science Association. He is the author or editor of many books, including, most recently, Science without Laws, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2006

The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-29212-0


What Is the Problem?

Since the end of World War II, the influence of science within Western culture has come to rival that of other major components of culture, such as religion, the military, law, medicine, entertainment, and even commerce. Indeed, many other components of Western culture have been largely transformed by technological developments based on new scientific knowledge, medicine and the military being prime examples. If one includes computer technology, one could argue that virtually all aspects of Western culture are being transformed with the help of new scientific knowledge.

In spite of the undeniable successes of post-World War II science, there have always been some who questioned whether the influence of science within Western society is a uniformly good thing. And with reason. The bomb that won the war in the Pacific became the basis for the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which governed the long Cold War that followed. Yet even those who raised such questions typically ascribed the problems to the applications of scientific knowledge. The nature of the knowledge itself was rarely questioned. It was taken for granted that scientists were discovering the objectively real inner workings of nature. These workings are there to be discovered. It only takes effort, sometimes requiring huge expenditures of resources, to uncover them. This pretty well sums up the attitude of most people at the beginning of the twenty-first century, including both scientists and nonscientists.

After World War II, widespread serious questions about the nature of scientific knowledge itself began to be raised only in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. During this period, many who grew up after World War II found themselves horrified by the use of B-52s and other high-powered military technology against Vietnamese peasants riding bicycles and armed with little more powerful than an AK-47. Around the same time, it became clear that modern industries and, particularly, agricultural technologies were degrading the environment in many ways. Additionally, some women began to regard new household technologies as more enslaving than liberating. Some people whose fundamental attitudes were formed during this period became university professors. And a few of these focused their attention on the sciences, not as scientists themselves, but as critics of science. Not surprisingly, many of these critics found their way into the humanities and social sciences, such as history, philosophy, sociology, literature, or, eventually, cultural studies. Especially in the latter three disciplines, it is now almost taken for granted that scientific knowledge is some sort of "social construct." I will shortly try to make clearer what this might mean. Here, it is enough to know that scholars in these disciplines typically deny that scientific activity amounts to the discovery of something unproblematically out there in the world waiting to be uncovered by clever scientists. Rather, these constructivist scholars would argue, there is at best a consensus among scientists regarding what to say they have found. And reaching a consensus is a complex social process in which exhibiting empirical evidence is only a part, and by no means a determining part. Evidence, it is claimed, must be interpreted, and this can always be done in more than one way.

So now we have a major disagreement within the academic world on something as substantial and important as how to understand the nature of claims to scientific knowledge. Most scientists and representatives of the general public say one thing. Many scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including most in the fledging field of science studies, say something quite different. Nor has this dispute been entirely academic. At the end of the twentieth century, it broke into the public media in the United States and Britain as "The Science Wars." As in most wars, there was considerable collateral damage. Positions became polarized. Careers were altered. In the end, the most extreme advocates of constructivist views were chastened, abandoned by their more sober colleagues. Most scientists who were exposed to the conflict seem to have remained comfortable with their original views. It is difficult to discern any reaction, one way or another, among members of the general public.

Among humanists, philosophers of science have traditionally been closest to sharing the views of scientists themselves. The project of Anglo-American philosophers of science, in particular, has generally been to analyze both the theories and methods of scientists with the aim of making explicit what remains implicit in what scientists do. To be sure, this analysis often involves a good deal of interpretation and reconstruction, whether focused on particular sciences or on science more generally. One major dispute among these philosophers of science has been whether all the claims of scientists about entities and processes described in scientific theories should be interpreted realistically or in some less committal manner. This dispute to some extent intersects with the broader dispute over constructivist interpretations of scientific claims, because the less committal the scientific claims, the more room there is for constructivist interpretations.

I can now give a preliminary statement of my objective in writing this book. It is to develop an understanding of scientific claims that mediates between the strong objectivism of most scientists, or the hard realism of many philosophers of science, and the constructivism found largely among historians and sociologists of science. My understanding will turn out to be closer to that of objectivist scientists and realist philosophers of science than to that of constructivists. Nevertheless, in spite of the excesses of some constructivists, I think there is a valid point to the constructivist critique of science. The challenge is to do justice to this point while avoiding the excesses.

There already exists a considerable literature containing arguments for or against realism in the philosophy of science and another somewhat overlapping literature with arguments for or against constructivism in science studies. When I think it productive, I will engage some of this literature, although often in footnotes rather than in the body of the text. Both philosophers and sociologists sometimes complain that the debate between realists and empiricists in the philosophy of science, or between realists and constructivists, has been inconclusive, even sterile. To some extent I share this opinion. Rather than simply abandoning or ignoring the issues, however, I seek to change the terms of the debate by developing an alternative view that is more than a minor variant on already existing views.

The positive view to be developed here is a version of perspectivism. Perspectivism has antecedents in the work of some much earlier philosophers, such as Leibniz, Kant, and Nietzsche. My perspectivism, however, will be developed almost wholly within the framework of contemporary science. Thus, in the end, my own claims must be reflexively understood as themselves perspectival. The remainder of this introductory chapter will be devoted to further clarifying both objectivism and constructivism and then to introducing my own version of perspectivism. I would caution the reader not to jump to hasty conclusions as to my ultimate understanding of perspectivism. This will emerge in the chapters to come.

Objective Realism

Everyone starts out a common-sense realist. Among the first things a child learns is to distinguish itself from the things around it. Pretty soon the independent reality of ordinary things-trees, dogs, other people-is taken for granted. Things are thought to be just what they seem to be. For most people most of the time, common-sense realism works just fine.

The realism of scientists may be thought of as a more sophisticated version of common-sense realism. Here are several expressions of objectivist realism by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg (2001). The first emphasizes the discovery of truths and the permanence of scientific knowledge.

What drives us onward in the work of science is precisely the sense that there are truths out there to be discovered, truths that once discovered will form a permanent part of human knowledge. (126)

The second adds the idea that the truths to be discovered take the form of laws.

[A]side from inessentials like the mathematical notation we use, the laws of physics as we understand them are nothing but a description of reality. (123)

The third emphasizes a sense of progress toward truths.

I can't see any sense in which the increase in scope and accuracy of the hard parts of our theories is not a cumulative approach to truth. (126)

These expressions of the nature of scientific claims are more explicit than one usually finds in the writings of scientists, because here Weinberg is deliberately acting in the role of spokesperson for the scientific community. There is no reason to think, however, that he does not represent the sentiments of a great many scientists.

The themes expressed by Weinberg may also be found in the writings of many philosophical scientific realists. They coincide with a viewpoint the philosopher Hilary Putnam a generation ago called "metaphysical realism," namely, "There is exactly one true and complete description of 'the way the world is.'" (1981, 49) Putnam argued that metaphysical realism is ultimately an incoherent doctrine, and recommended instead what he called "internal realism," a view sometimes characterized as perspectival (Blackburn 1994). I disagree with aspects of Putnam's analysis, but it is not primarily because of these disagreements that I prefer different labels. Rather, it is because the logical-linguistic framework in terms of which Putnam frames his presentation is shared by almost no one in the scientific or the science studies community apart from analytic philosophers. His work is not so much even philosophy of science as it is logic, philosophy of language and mind, epistemology, and metaphysics. This work thus fails to engage many of those whom I wish to engage. For this reason, I have chosen the term "objectivist realism" for views like those expressed by Weinberg and in the language in which he expressed them. My rejection of objectivist realism is based entirely on an examination of scientific practice, something appreciated by scientists as well as historians, sociologists, psychologists, and other students of science as a human enterprise. Nevertheless, some further elaboration is required.

In the passages quoted, and in other writings, Weinberg seems to be saying not only that there are true laws to be discovered, but that scientists are capable of discovering them and, moreover, knowing that they have discovered them, so that, in his words, these truths "once discovered will form a permanent part of human knowledge." In spite of the epistemological optimism of these words, I doubt Weinberg would deliberately claim for scientists the kind of infallibility he implies. In writings too long or scattered to quote here, he seems to agree with most contemporary philosophical opinion that no empirical claims can be known with absolute certainty to be true. It always remains possible we will find out later that we were earlier mistaken. By itself, however, this admission does not imply that scientists are not, in some weaker sense, fully justified in making unqualified claims to knowledge of the objective truth of some laws of nature. The way to resolve this apparent tension is to take objective realism as an expression the proper aim of scientific investigation, even though it can never be known with certainty that the aim has been achieved. This position has been succinctly stated by the foremost antirealist philosopher of science of the later twentieth century, Bas van Fraassen. "The correct statement of scientific realism," he writes, is: "Science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true" (1980, 8). I take this to be a good capsule statement of objectivist realism, but I do not want to identify scientific realism in general with objective realism. I will be arguing that there is a kind of realism that applies to scientific claims that is more limited than this full-blown objective realism. Thus, in the end, I wish to reject objective realism but still maintain a kind of realism, a perspectival realism, which I think better characterizes realism in science. For a perspectival realist, the strongest claims a scientist can legitimately make are of a qualified, conditional form: "According to this highly confirmed theory (or reliable instrument), the world seems to be roughly such and such." There is no way legitimately to take the further objectivist step and declare unconditionally: "This theory (or instrument) provides us with a complete and literally correct picture of the world itself."

The main thrust of the arguments to be presented in this book is to show that the practice of science itself supports a perspectival rather than an objectivist understanding of scientific realism. This does not, however, constitute an argument for constructivism in general, but only for the position that scientific claims may be in part socially constructed, and thus for the possibility of discovering the social contributions to these claims. The extent to which any particular scientific claim is socially constructed can only be determined, if at all, by a detailed historical examination of the case in question.


The first book containing the expression "social construction" with its contemporary meaning in the title was Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality, published in 1966. In fact, the subject of Berger and Luckmann's book is the social construction of social reality. Hardly anyone would question that a large part of our social world is the product of human social interaction over time. For example, that there are males and females might be regarded as a biological fact, that there are men and women might be ambiguously either a biological fact or a social fact, but that there are husbands and wives (as opposed to just mates) is unambiguously a social fact. That there could be anything that is a husband or a wife requires that there be an institution of marriage. And that there be such an institution requires a fairly complex form of social organization. So, sometime early in the history of humans there were males and females but no husbands and wives, because there was no institution of marriage. This was so even if males and females typically bonded into pairs. In general, then, the possibility of there being members of a social category depends on the existence of a social arrangement in which that category makes sense.

Unlike many later constructivists, Berger and Luckmann clearly distinguished between biological and social facts, declaring that any attempt to legislate that men should bear children "would founder on the hard facts of human biology" (1966, 112). Now consider a seemingly unproblematic example from the physical sciences. Before the Scientific Revolution, what we now call planets were known as wandering stars. Indeed, the word planet derives from a Greek word meaning "wanderer." So the category of "planet" with our modern meaning did not exist prior to the seventeenth century. Are we to conclude that planets did not exist before the seventeenth century? That sounds absurd to the modern scientific ear. Of course they existed before then; indeed, according to currently accepted theories, they existed a few billion years before then. As Weinberg, ever the objective realist, puts it: "[I]t is true that natural selection was working during the time of Lamarck, and the atom did exist in the days of Mach, and fast electrons behaved according to the laws of relativity even before Einstein" (2001, 120). I will recommend a more modest way of maintaining such claims that now seem pretty much common sense.

The Contingency Thesis

Lest Weinberg be accused of merely stating the obvious when claiming that "the atom did exist in the days of Mach," several founders of the constructivist movement did early on make claims that suggested the contrary. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979, 128-29), for example, explicitly rejected the idea that objects of investigation have "an independent existence 'out there,'" insisting, rather, that these objects are "constructed" in the sense of being "constituted solely through the use of" various recording devices. Similarly, Karin Knorr-Cetina (1983, 135) spoke of "scientific reality as progressively emerging out of indeterminacy and (self-referential) constructive operations, without assuming it to match any pre-existing order of the real."


Excerpted from SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVISM by RONALD N. GIERE Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents List of Illustrations....................vii
1. SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE....................1
What Is the Problem? Objective Realism Constructivism Naturalism Perspectivism Retrospect 2. COLOR VISION....................17
Introduction Basic Color Science Color Subjectivism Color Objectivism Comparative Color Vision Color Perspectivism The Philosophy of Color A Final Question 3. SCIENTIFIC OBSERVING....................41
Introduction Astronomy in Color Deep Space from the Perspective of the Hubble Telescope The Milky Way in Gamma Ray Perspectives Conclusions within Perspectives Imaging the Brain Instrumental Perspectives 4. SCIENTIFIC THEORIZING....................59
Introduction Representing Theories Laws of Nature Fitness Maps Truth within a Perspective Perspectives and Paradigms Scientific Kinds Perspectival Realism The Contingency Thesis Revisited 5. PERSPECTIVAL KNOWLEDGE AND DISTRIBUTED COGNITION....................96
Introduction Distributed Cognition Scientific Observation as Distributed Cognition Models as Parts of Distributed Cognitive Systems Computation in Scientific Distributed Cognitive Systems Agency in Scientific Distributed Cognitive Systems Why Distributed Cognition? Distributed Cognition and Perspectival Knowledge Color gallery follows page 62 Notes....................117
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