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Reference failure: why worry?

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For some time, philosophers of science have felt that a good account of reference must be a significant part of the realist response to antirealist threats like incommensurability and the pessimistic induction. There is a very large literature which wrestles with the advantages or otherwise of one suitably tweaked view over another. A lot of this tweaking is over how we should best cope with the historical problem of reference failure. The realist needs to balance the competing demands of the historical record, which apparently shows that many of the theoretical objects of science past don’t exist, with the desire to demonstrate that science has a special ontological continuity. Getting the balance right has tied the debate up into some famous knots.

Some philosophers have lately expressed frustration with this concern about reference. They think that the problem is a red herring, and that trying to solve it doesn’t scratch where realism itches. Some have argued that the debate confuses issues about semantics with issues about existence, and that existence is where the trouble really is. Others have argued that even if the problem could be solved, that wouldn’t provide the support for realism that the proponents of the debate apparently think it would.

I’ll try to show that reference failure is a proper problem for realists to tackle. I’ll first argue that I think the various ‘red herring’ arguments are mistaken. Among other things, I’ll consider the curious fact that no-one supposes that there are no cases of reference failure for the theoretical terms of science, even though they disagree over what the cases are. I’ll argue that this is surprising, because it covertly supposes that reference failure is indeed a legitimate target of realist explanation.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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