Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-7l5rh Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-26T20:07:13.567Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

A Confrontation of Convergent Realism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


For many years—and with some energy since Laudan’s “Confutation of Convergent Realism” (1981)—the scientific realist has sought to accommodate examples of false-yet-successful theories in the history of science. One of the most prominent strategies is to identify ‘success fueling’ components of false theories that themselves are at least approximately true (judging by our current understanding). In this article I develop both sides of the debate, introducing new challenges from the history of science as well as suggesting adjustments to the divide et impera realist strategy. A new ‘recipe’ for the prospective identification of (at least some) working/idle posits is considered.

Research Article
Copyright © The Philosophy of Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


This article was written as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded project Evaluating Scientific Realism: A New Generation of Historical Case Studies conducted at Durham University, February to September 2012. I am most grateful to the council and to everybody involved in the project. In particular, very special thanks to Juha Saatsi and Dean Peters whose insights were absolutely invaluable. Thanks also to the Centre for Science Studies at Aarhus University (and especially Sam Schindler and Helge Kragh), where an early version of this article was presented. Finally, I am indebted to Greg Frost-Arnold and two anonymous referees for penetrating criticisms of the final drafts of the article.


Barnes, Eric C. 2008. The Paradox of Predictivism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Born, Max, and Wolf, Emil. 1999. Principles of Optics. 7th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brooker, Geoffrey. 2008. “Diffraction at a Single Ideally Conducting Slit.” Journal of Modern Optics 55 (3): 423–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brush, Stephen G. 1995. “Dynamics of Theory Change: The Role of Predictions.” In PSA 1994, Vol. 2, ed. David L. Hull, Micky Forbes, and Richard M. Burian, 133–45. East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association.Google Scholar
Buchwald, Jed Z., and Smith, George E. 2001. “Incommensurability and the Discontinuity of Evidence.” Perspectives on Science 9 (4): 463–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Callender, Craig. 2001. “Taking Thermodynamics Too Seriously.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 32 (4): 539–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carrier, Martin. 2004. “Experimental Success and the Revelation of Reality: The Miracle Argument for Scientific Realism.” In Knowledge and the World: Challenges beyond the Science Wars, ed. Carrier, Martin, Roggenhofer, Johannes, Küppers, Günter, and Blanchard, Philippe, 137–61. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carson, Fred A. 1969. Basic Optics and Optical Instruments. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
Chang, Hasok. 2003. “Preservative Realism and Its Discontents: Revisiting Caloric.” Philosophy of Science 70 (5): 902–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cordero, Alberto. 2011. “Scientific Realism and the Divide et Impera Strategy: The Ether Saga Revisited.” Philosophy of Science 78 (5): 1120–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dorling, Jon. 1992. “Bayesian Conditionalization Resolves Positivist/Realist Disputes.” Journal of Philosophy 89 (7): 362–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Elsamahi, Mohamed. 2005. “A Critique of Localised Realism.” Philosophy of Science 72 (5): 1350–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fahrbach, Ludwig. 2011. “Theory Change and Degrees of Success.” Philosophy of Science 78 (5): 1283–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Forster, Malcolm R. 2007. “A Philosopher’s Guide to Empirical Success.” Philosophy of Science 74 (5): 588600.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Frigg, Roman, and Votsis, Ioannis. 2011. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Structural Realism but Were Afraid to Ask.” European Journal for Philosophy of Science 1 (2): 227–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gregory, Jane. 2005. Fred Hoyle’s Universe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Hutchison, Keith. 2002. “Miracle or Mystery? Hypotheses and Predictions in Rankine’s Thermodynamics.” In Recent Themes in the Philosophy of Science: Scientific Realism and Commonsense, ed. Clarke, Steve and Lyons, Timothy D., 91119. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kitcher, Philip. 1993. The Advancement of Science: Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Ladyman, James. 2011. “Structural Realism versus Standard Scientific Realism: The Case of Phlogiston and Dephlogisticated Air.” Synthese 180 (2): 87101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lange, Marc. 1999. “Calibration and the Epistemological Role of Bayesian Conditionalization.” Journal of Philosophy 96 (6): 294324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lange, Marc 2001. “The Apparent Superiority of Prediction to Accommodation as a Side Effect: A Reply to Maher.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 52 (3): 575–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Laudan, Larry. 1981. “A Confutation of Convergent Realism.” Philosophy of Science 48 (1): 1948.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Leplin, Jarrett. 1997. A Novel Defence of Scientific Realism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Lyons, Timothy D. 2002. “Scientific Realism and the Pessimistic Meta-modus Tollens.” In Recent Themes in the Philosophy of Science: Scientific Realism and Commonsense, ed. Clarke, Steve and Lyons, Timothy D., 6390. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lyons, Timothy D. 2006. “Scientific Realism and the Stratagema de Divide et Impera.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57 (3): 537–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McLeish, Christina. 2005. “Scientific Realism Bit by Bit.” Pt. 1, “Kitcher on Reference.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 36 (4): 667–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Musgrave, Alan. 2010. “Critical Rationalism, Explanation, and Severe Tests.” In Error and Inference: Recent Exchanges on Experimental Reasoning, Reliability, and the Objectivity and Rationality of Science, ed. Mayo, Deborah G. and Spanos, Aris, 88112. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Pashby, Thomas. 2012. “Dirac’s Prediction of the Positron: A Case Study for the Current Scientific Realism Debate.” Perspectives on Science 20 (4): 440–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Peierls, Rudolf. 1991. More Surprises in Theoretical Physics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Psillos, Stathis. 1999. Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. London: Routledge. Page references are to the 2005 digital printing.Google Scholar
Pyle, Andrew. 2000. “The Rationality of the Chemical Revolution.” In After Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend: Recent Issues in Theories of Scientific Method, ed. Nola, Robert and Sankey, Howard, 99124. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ronan, Colin A. 1961. Changing Views of the Universe: A Survey of Astronomy. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
Saatsi, Juha. 2005. “Reconsidering the Fresnel-Maxwell Case Study.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 36 (3): 509–38.Google Scholar
Saatsi, Juha 2009. “Grasping at Realist Straws.” Review of Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives, by P. Kyle Stanford. Metascience 18 (3): 355–63.Google Scholar
Saatsi, Juha, and Vickers, Peter. 2011. “Miraculous Success? Inconsistency and Untruth in Kirchhoff’s Diffraction Theory.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 62 (1): 2946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schickore, Jutta. 2011. “More Thoughts on HPS: Another 20 Years Later.” Perspectives on Science 19 (4): 453–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schurz, Gerhard. 2011. “Structural Correspondence, Indirect Reference, and Partial Truth: Phlogiston Theory and Newtonian Mechanics.” Synthese 180 (2): 103–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stanford, P. Kyle. 2006. Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stanford, P. Kyle 2009. “Author’s Response.” In “Grasping at Realist Straws,” a review symposium of P. Kyle Stanford 2006. Metascience 18 (3): 379–90.Google Scholar
Velikovsky, Immanuel. 1950. Worlds in Collision. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Vickers, Peter. 2012. “Historical Magic in Old Quantum Theory?European Journal for Philosophy of Science 2 (1): 119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Vladusich, Tony. 2007. “Chromatic Aberration and the Roles of Double-Opponent and Color-Luminance Neurons in Color Vision.” Neural Networks 20 (2): 153–55.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Votsis, Ioannis. 2007. Review of Exceeding our Grasp: Science, History and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives, by P. Kyle Stanford. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21 (1): 103–6.Google Scholar
Votsis, Ioannis 2011. “The Prospective Stance in Realism.” Philosophy of Science 78 (5): 1223–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar