The Instrument of Science: Scientific Anti-Realism Revitalised, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

The Instrument of Science

Scientific Anti-Realism Revitalised, 1st Edition

By Darrell P. Rowbottom


216 pages

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pub: 2019-03-18
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Roughly, instrumentalism is the view that science is primarily, and should primarily be, an instrument for furthering our practical ends. It has fallen out of favour because historically influential variants of the view, such as logical positivism, suffered from serious defects.

In this book, however, Darrell P. Rowbottom develops a new form of instrumentalism, which is more sophisticated and resilient than its predecessors. This position—‘cognitive instrumentalism’—involves three core theses. First, science makes theoretical progress primarily when it furnishes us with more predictive power or understanding concerning observable things. Second, scientific discourse concerning unobservable things should only be taken literally in so far as it involves observable properties or analogies with observable things. Third, scientific claims about unobservable things are probably neither approximately true nor liable to change in such a way as to increase in truthlikeness.

There are examples from science throughout the book, and Rowbottom demonstrates at length how cognitive instrumentalism fits with the development of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century chemistry and physics, and especially atomic theory. Drawing upon this history, Rowbottom also argues that there is a kind of understanding, empirical understanding, which we can achieve without having true, or even approximately true, representations of unobservable things. In closing the book, he sets forth his view on how the distinction between the observable and unobservable may be drawn, and compares cognitive instrumentalism with key contemporary alternatives such as structural realism, constructive empiricism, and semirealism.

Overall, this book offers a strong defence of instrumentalism that will be of interest to scholars and students working on the debate about realism in philosophy of science.


"The book is a welcome and timely addition to the literature. It will certainly help the anti-realist cause, as it provides a number of serious challenges to realism . . . It will also be a valuable starting point for others interested in developing a new instrumentalism in philosophy of science."Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"This accessible and engaging defence of instrumentalism is essential reading for all those interested in the debate between realism and instrumentalism in the philosophy of science."Jon Williamson, University of Kent, UK

"Analyzing fascinating examples from the history of science, this book builds a compelling and carefully argued case for cognitive instrumentalism: that is, for a philosophy of science that takes seriously what we can understand, and do, with science in the world as we experience it." – Axel Gelfert, Technical University of Berlin, Germany

Table of Contents

Science as an Instrument: An Introduction

1. Scientific Progress and the Value of Science

2. The Limits of Scientific Discourse about the Unobservable

3. Unconceived Alternatives and the Contingency of Science’s Content

4. Historical Illuminations: 1885–1930

5. Empirical Understanding

6. Objections and Comparisons

7. The Illusion of Scientific Realism

Appendix: What Is Scientific Realism?

About the Author

Darrell P. Rowbottom is Professor of Philosophy at Lingnan University, and serves as Editor in Chief of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A.He is the author of Popper’s Critical Rationalism: A Philosophical Investigation (Routledge, 2011) and Probability (2015). He also co-edited Intuitions (2014) with Anthony R. Booth. He has published numerous articles in leading journals, including Analysis, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophy of Science, Synthese, and Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (Parts A and C).

About the Series

Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Science

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SCIENCE / Philosophy & Social Aspects