Realism in Philosophy of Science vs. Realism in Philosophy of History

In this post, I discuss what is peculiar in the debate over realism in philosophy of history when compared to realism-debate in philosophy of science. I argue that the arguments for historical antirealism are of a poor quality or, at least, unclear.

Scientific realism can be characterized in three theses:

The Metaphysical Thesis: The world has a definite and mind independent structure.

The Semantic Thesis: Scientific theories should be taken at face value. They are truth conditioned descriptions of their intended domain, both observable and unobservable. Hence, they are capable of being true or false. The theoretical terms featuring in theories have putative factual reference. So, if scientific theories are true, the unobservable entities they posit populate the world.

The Epistemic Thesis: Mature and predictively successful scientific theories are well confirmed and approximately true of the world. So, the entities posited by them, or, at any rate, entities very similar to those posited, inhabit the world. (Psillos 1999).

The epistemic thesis is most debated – whether our best theories accurately describe reality. The epistemic thesis implies the others, so it’s a key target for anti-realists.

The main argument for scientific realism is the “no miracles argument” (NMA). This states that realism best explains why science is successful – it would be a miracle if successful theories were not tracking truth.

Key arguments against realism include:

Underdetermination – evidence always underdetermines theory choice.

Pessimistic induction – successful past theories (like optical ether) turned out not to be true. So current theories may also be false.

Realists respond to pessimistic induction by arguing that the successful components of past theories are retained and approximately true. Debates focus on detailed analyses of historical cases to support or undermine NMA and pessimistic induction. The nuances of the debate when it comes to argumentative and historical detail are quite astonishing.

The situation is quite different in philosophy of history.

Goldstein and Acquaintance

In a classical work, Leon Goldstein attacks the idea that we can know the past by arguing that we cannot have direct evidence—based on acquaintance—about the past: “The historical past is not the real past: it is the product of intellect and can never be known by acquaintance.” According to Goldstein, realism involves the idea that we should compare historiographical results against the past and that this can be done by using perception as a method of confirmation:

“By historical realism I mean that point of view according to which the real past as it was when it was being lived is the touchstone against which to test for truth or falsity the products of historical constitution”.

“What we come to believe about the human past can never be confirmed by observation—can never be known by acquaintance—and so can never be put to the test of observation, the method of confirmation which is virtually the only one explicitly recognized by science and philosophy.

However, this argument seems to undermine all historical knowledge independently of whether that knowledge is about Ancient Rome or scientific experiment performed yesterday. Moreover, direct perceptual confirmation is not required in scientific realism, which suggests that it should not be necessary in historical realism either. Science often deals with unobservable entities and forces, yet we accept scientific theories as objectively true based on the evidence and reasoning provided. Notice, also, that there are no positions in philosophy of science—as far as I know—where it is claimed that theories can only be accepted if they are tested “by acquaintance.” For example, Bas van Fraassen, who defends constructive empiricism and not scientific realism, claims that we can accept a theory when we believe it is empirically adequate even though “empirical adequacy goes far beyond what we can know at any given time. (All the results of measurement are not in; they will never all be in; and in any case, we won’t measure everything that can be measured.)”. Demanding confirmation by acquaintance does not lead to anything fruitful in the philosophy of any field, no matter how anti-realist one is.

Fixity of the past

The philosophical debate about whether the past is “fixed” has implications for realism in historiography. If the past is not fixed independently of us, this poses a problem for realists who argue we can know the past as it was.

Danto’s thought experiment with the Ideal Chronicler is used to argue that truths about the past are not fixed or fully knowable at any given time. This seems to undermine realism. However, the Ideal Chronicler thought experiment just shows that certain cross-temporal relations (like causation) cannot be fully captured at a given moment. This does not necessarily mean the past itself is changing or unfixed metaphysically.

Roth argues the past is metaphysically plural based on the Ideal Chronicler thought experiment and considerations about conceptual schemes. But it’s unclear why realism implies an Ideal Chronicler is possible. The Ideal Chronicler is a rather limited cognitive agent (as it does not have access to things like causality). Realists are claiming that truths go beyond what can be known – they are not dependent on our epistemic world. So why would the knowledge of a limited cognitive agent have any relevance to realism?


Philosophers like Hayden White argue that historical narratives involve literary conventions that cannot correspond to the past. As Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen summarizes:

“The early narrativists highlighted the narrativity of historiography and narrativity entails two important ideas: (1) there is a lower and higher level of cognition in historiography; and (2) the truth-values of the lower level statements cannot be translated into a justification (or falsification) of higher-level cognition. This is the central premise in the subsequent narrativist philosophy of historiography.”

However, it seems that the substantive claims rather than the narrative style are most relevant to realism. A historical narrative may involve literary conventions, but this does not necessarily mean that the underlying facts or events are fabricated or subjective. Surely, that some episode was presented with the literary structure of, let’s say, a tragedy is not relevant to what is said about what happened (how events, entities, and states of affair were related) during the episode. If the main product of a historiographical work is to narrate something in the mode of a tragedy, then it is difficult to say why we would need different stories about different historical events. Once we understood what a tragedy is, then we could just say about any historical episode “that was a tragedy” and that would be all the interesting things to be said about the event. If we read a tragedy about the fall of the Roman Empire and understand the nature of a tragedy, then it would be easy to understand the First World War by simply stating that it was a tragedy; there would be no need to know anything about the war. Of course, this is not the point of the argument. However, we can notice that what is relevant in historiography is how certain events developed and were connected to each other, not the type of story the events can be seen as constituting. Given this, it remains an open question whether we should take a realist attitude. The necessity of story-telling devices in historiography does not, in itself, establish anything on this front. The extinction of dinosaurs can be presented as a tragedy, but the event still remains a piece of knowledge that can be understood realistically. Finally, even if it is argued that the story-like form adds some further meaning to what happens and this meaning cannot correspond to the historical reality, anti-realism hardly follows. Given that such a “creature of darkness” (using a phrase from Quine) can also be added to theories about the Big Bang (to have some cosmological feeling), and given that the nature of the this further meaning has no relevance in a debate over our realistic attitude over the Big Bang, the supposed further meaning of a historical work is equally irrelevant to whether we should interpret that work in realists’ terms

Moreover, colligatory expressions, such as “the Thaw” in historiography, are not singular in their reference. However, this does not imply that they cannot be interpreted from a realist perspective. “The Thaw” could potentially signify an underlying historical trend or pattern, despite the heterogeneous events it encompasses. In cosmology and other scientific disciplines, realism about patterns, trends, and hypotheses is feasible. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why colligatory expressions in historiography could not also refer to actual trends.

Of course, one can, in a sense, constitute a pattern by choosing items that are then used to define the pattern, but this does not have any constructivist consequences. We can criticize a supposed pattern by pointing out items that are left out of it. If we notice that the objects subsumed under “Thaw” are not a sample of objects that can be typically found from the historical period, then we can deny that such a pattern really exists. It hardly means much that one can define the “Thaw” as the set of objects that were chosen initially. If I am a realist and suppose there are real patterns, then the “Thaw” is relevant only if it aims at capturing such a pattern and is not merely a trick performed with definitions. Of course, if one denies realism, then the person can easily say that there is nothing beyond what we happen to present, and thus the “Thaw” automatically captures a pattern once it is defined. But this surely is not an argument from the colligatory nature of the “Thaw” to anti-realism but the other way around.

The True Nature of Historiography

Anti-realists often focus their arguments on abstract historiographical products like narratives and colligations. They claim these necessarily require an anti-realistic interpretation. However, it seems mistaken to then conclude that all of historiography is anti-realistic. There are many levels of historical claims that do not share the features of abstract narratives hypothesized to demand anti-realism. Claims about specific events, actors’ perspectives, relationships between events, and so on seem prima facie amenable to a realist interpretation.

For example, historians’ detailed research has uncovered how Eddington’s observations that confirmed relativity theory involved some idiosyncratic interpretations of ambiguous data. This shows real progress in understanding what “really happened” in a mind-independent sense. Such examples suggest sizable portions of historiographical discourse have no obvious barriers to realism, even if the most generalized narratives do. It is an overreach to dismiss the entire discipline as incompatible with realism when substantial areas remain untouched by arguments against narrative realism specifically.

Moreover, to justify branding all of historiography anti-realistic, we should carefully compare it to science at similar levels of abstraction. Again: Nobody would suggest that, because the Big Bang provides a cosmological feeling and because the feeling does not correspond anything “out there”, we have to be scientific antirealists. It remains unclear historiography is necessarily more anti-realistic than science when we restrict the comparison to comparable claim types. Arguments about historiography’s “true products” have not proven this. Making such a case requires detailed analysis of the realist credentials of each field at the same levels of products.

In summary, while abstract narratives mighta invite anti-realism, substantial portions of historiography may still permit realism. We cannot dismiss the whole discipline as anti-realistic without a careful comparative analysis focused on similar types of claims. Philosophical arguments have not yet established historiography is clearly more anti-realistic overall.

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