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Summary The main interest of the topic of reference in science relates to the reference of theoretical terms.  This issue was of particular importance in the context of the response to the problem of semantic incommensurability which arises due to meaning or conceptual change.  Philosophers such as Israel Scheffler, Hilary Putnam and Michael Devitt argue that reference may be preserved throughout theoretical change thus ensuring the comparability of theories.  This response found a natural place within the causal theory of reference.  However, problems arose about the application of the causal theory of reference to unobservable entities, as well as with respect to the failure of reference of theoretical terms.  A number of responses have emerged including causal-descriptive theories of reference.
Key works For Scheffler's use of the sense/reference distinction in relation to meaning variance and the comparability of theories, see Scheffler 1982.  Hilary Putnam indicates how a causal theory of reference may be of use with respect to this issue in Putnam 1973.  Arthur Fine raises problems about change of reference which seem to be ruled out by the causal theory in Fine 1975.  Devitt provides general coverage of the topic, including some basis for a response to Fine in Devitt 1979. Kitcher also makes good suggestions about how to deal with the problem of reference change in Kitcher 1978.  The problem of reference failure for theoretical terms within the context of the causal theory and reasons to move to a causal descriptive account are dealt with in Enć 1976, Nola 1980 and Kroon 1985.  For an influential discussion of theoretical terms, see Lewis 1970.  A very influential critical discussion of reference in relation to scientific realism is to be found in Laudan 1981.
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  1. Peter Achinstein (1965). The Problem of Theoretical Terms. American Philosophical Quarterly 2 (3):235-249.
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  2. Holger Andreas (forthcoming). Theoretical Terms in Science. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  3. Holger Andreas (2008). Another Solution to the Problem of Theoretical Terms. Erkenntnis 69 (3):315 - 333.
    In this paper, a solution to the problem of theoretical terms is developed that is based on Carnap’s doctrine of indirect interpretation of theoretical terms. This doctrine will be given a semantic, model-theoretic explanation that is not given by Carnap himself as he remains content with a syntactic explanation. From that semantic explanation, rules for the truth-value assignment to postulates, i.e. sentences that determine the meaning of theoretical terms, are derived. The logical status of postulates will be clarified thereby in (...)
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  4. Wolfgang Balzer (1996). Theoretical Terms: Recent Developments. In Wolfgang Balzer & Carlos Ulises Moulines (eds.), Structuralist Theory of Science: Focal Issues, New Results. Walter de Gruyter.
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  5. Wolfgang Balzer (1986). Theoretical Terms: A New Perspective. Journal of Philosophy 83 (2):71-90.
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  6. Katherine Bedard (1993). Partial Denotations of Theoretical Terms. Noûs 27 (4):499-511.
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  7. Alexander Bird (2004). Kuhn on Reference and Essence. Philosophia Scientiae 8 (1):39-71.
    Kuhn's incommensurability thesis seems to challenge scientific realism. One response to that challenge is to focus on the continuity of reference. The casual theory of reference in particular seems to offer the possibility of continuity of reference that woud provide a basis for the sort of comparability between theories that the realist requires. In "Dubbing and Redubbing: the vulnerability of rigid designation" Kuhn attacks the causal theory and the essentialism to which is is related. Kuhn's view is defended by Rupert (...)
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  8. Michael A. Bishop & Stephen P. Stich (1998). The Flight to Reference, or How Not to Make Progress in the Philosophy of Science. Philosophy of Science 65 (1):33-49.
    The flight to reference is a widely-used strategy for resolving philosophical issues. The three steps in a flight to reference argument are: (1) offer a substantive account of the reference relation, (2) argue that a particular expression refers (or does not refer), and (3) draw a philosophical conclusion about something other than reference, like truth or ontology. It is our contention that whenever the flight to reference strategy is invoked, there is a crucial step that is left undefended, and that (...)
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  9. H. Bohnert (1971). Review: David Lewis, How to Define Theoretical Terms. [REVIEW] Journal of Symbolic Logic 36 (2):321-321.
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  10. H. Bohnert (1971). Review: Peter Achinstein, Theoretical Terms and Partial Interpretation. [REVIEW] Journal of Symbolic Logic 36 (2):321-322.
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  11. David Braddon-Mitchell (2005). The Subsumption of Reference. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 56 (1):157-178.
    How can the reference of theoretical terms be stable over changes of theory? I defend an approach to this that does not depend on substantive metasemantic theories of reference. It relies on the idea that in contexts of use, terms may play a role in a theory that in turn points to a further (possibly unknown) theory. Empirical claims are claims about the nature of the further theories, and the falsification of these further theories is understood not as showing that (...)
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  12. Ingo Brigandt (2004). Biological Kinds and the Causal Theory of Reference. In J. C. Marek & M. E. Reicher (eds.), Experience and Analysis: Papers of the 27th International Wittgenstein Symposium. Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society.
    This paper uses an example from biology, the homology concept, to argue that current versions of the causal theory of reference give an incomplete account of reference determination. It is suggested that in addition to samples and stereotypical properties, the scientific use of concepts and the epistemic interests pursued with concepts are important factors in determining the reference of natural kind terms.
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  13. J. Brown (1998). Natural Kind Terms and Recognitional Capacities. Mind 107 (426):275-303.
    The main contribution of this paper is a new account of how a community may introduce a term for a natural kind in advance of knowing the correct scientific account of that kind. The account is motivated by the inadequacy of the currently dominant accounts of how a community may do this, namely those proposed by Kripke and by Putman. Their accounts fail to deal satisfactorily with the facts that (1) typically, an item that instantiates one natural kind instantiates several (...)
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  14. Werner Ceusters & Barry Smith (2005). Tracking Referents in Electronic Health Records. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics 116:71–76.
    Electronic Health Records (EHRs) are organized around two kinds of statements: those reporting observations made, and those reporting acts performed. In neither case does the record involve any direct reference to what such statements are actually about. They record not: what is happening on the side of the patient, but rather: what is said about what is happening. While the need for a unique patient identifier is generally recognized, we argue that we should now move to an EHR regime in (...)
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  15. Austen Clark (1983). Functionalism and the Definition of Theoretical Terms. Journal of Mind and Behavior 4:339-352.
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  16. Pierre Cruse (2004). Scientific Realism, Ramsey Sentences and the Reference of Theoretical Terms. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 18 (2 & 3):133 – 149.
    It is often thought that questions of reference are crucial in assessing scientific realism, construed as the view that successful theories are at least approximately true descriptions of the unobservable; realism is justified only if terms in empirically successful theories generally refer to genuinely existing entities or properties. In this paper this view is questioned. First, it is argued that there are good reasons to think that questions of realism are largely decided by convention and carry no epistemic significance. An (...)
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  17. D. Cummiskey (1992). Reference Failure and Scientific Realism: A Response to the Meta-Induction. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 43 (1):21-40.
    Pure causal theories of reference cannot account for cases of theoretical term reference failure and do not capture the scientific point of introducing new theoretical terminology. In order to account for paradigm cases of reference failure and the point of new theoretical terminology, a descriptive element must play a role in fixing the reference of theoretical terms. Richard Boyd's concept of theory constituitive metaphors provides the necessary descriptive element in reference fixing. In addition to providing a plausible account of reference (...)
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  18. Craig Dilworth (1984). On Theoretical Terms. Erkenntnis 21 (3):405 - 421.
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  19. Igor Douven (2000). Theoretical Terms and the Principle of the Benefit of Doubt. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 14 (2):135 – 146.
    The Principle of the Benefit of Doubt dictates that, whenever reasonably possible, we interpret earlier-day scientists as referring to entities posited by current science. Putnam has presented the principle as supplementary to his Causal Theory of Reference in order to make this theory generally applicable to theoretical terms. The present paper argues that the principle is of doubtful standing. In particular, it will be argued that the principle lacks a justification and, indeed, is unjustifiable as it stands.
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  20. Igor Douven & Jaap Van Brakel (1998). Can the World Help Us in Fixing the Reference of Natural Kind Terms? Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 29 (1):59 - 70.
    According to Putnam the reference of natural kind terms is fixed by the world, at least partly; whether two things belong to the same kind depends on whether they obey the same objective laws. We show that Putnam's criterion of substance identity only "works" if we read "objective laws" as "OBJECTIVE LAWS". Moreover, at least some of the laws of some of the special sciences have to be included. But what we consider to be good special sciences and what not (...)
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  21. Igor Douven & Jaap van Brakel (1998). Can the World Help Us in Fixing the Reference of Natural Kind Terms? Journal for General Philosophy of Science 29 (1):59-70.
    According to Putnam the reference of natural kind terms is fixed by the world, at least partly; whether two things belong to the same kind depends on whether they obey the same objective laws. We show that Putnam's criterion of substance identity only “works” if we read “objective laws” as “OBJECTIVE LAWS”. Moreover, at least some of the laws of some of the special sciences have to be included. But what we consider to be good special sciences and what not (...)
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  22. Jane Duran (2005). Realism, Positivism and Reference. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 36 (2):401 - 407.
    Depending on the realist or instrumentalist twist that is given to positivism, interesting arguments can be made for both causal and classical theories of reference with regard to the use of scientific terms in the language of theory. But my claim is that the rigid foundationalism that supports the theoretical terms via the correspondence rules of the Received View undercuts the notion that it is possible to argue coherently for a causal theory of reference as allied to a positivistic view.
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  23. Berent Enć (1976). Reference of Theoretical Terms. Noûs 10 (3):261-282.
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  24. Paul K. Feyerabend (1962). Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism. In H. Feigl and G. Maxwell (ed.), Scientific Explanation, Space, and Time, (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume III).
  25. Hartry Field (1973). Theory Change and the Indeterminacy of Reference. Journal of Philosophy 70 (14):462-481.
  26. Arthur Fine (1975). How to Compare Theories: Reference and Change. Noûs 9 (1):17-32.
  27. Greg Frost-Arnold (2014). Can the Pessimistic Induction Be Saved From Semantic Anti-Realism About Scientific Theory? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65 (3):521-548.
    Scientific anti-realists who appeal to the pessimistic induction (PI) claim that the theoretical terms of past scientific theories often fail to refer to anything. But on standard views in philosophy of language, such reference failures prima facie lead to certain sentences being neither true nor false. Thus, if these standard views are correct, then the conclusion of the PI should be that significant chunks of current theories are truth-valueless. But that is semantic anti-realism about scientific discourse—a position most philosophers of (...)
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  28. Greg Frost-Arnold (2008). Too Much Reference: Semantics for Multiply Signifying Terms. [REVIEW] Journal of Philosophical Logic 37 (3):239 - 257.
    The logic of singular terms that refer to nothing, such as ‘Santa Claus,’ has been studied extensively under the heading of free logic. The present essay examines expressions whose reference is defective in a different way: they signify more than one entity. The bulk of the effort aims to develop an acceptable formal semantics based upon an intuitive idea introduced informally by Hartry Field and discussed by Joseph Camp; the basic strategy is to use supervaluations. This idea, as it stands, (...)
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  29. Haim Gaifman, Daniel N. Osherson & Scott Weinstein (1990). A Reason for Theoretical Terms. Erkenntnis 32 (2):149 - 159.
    The presence of nonobservational vocabulary is shown to be necessary for wide application of a conservative principle of theory revision.
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  30. Ian Hacking (2010). Putnam's Theory of Natural Kinds and Their Names is Not the Same as Kripke's. Principia 11 (1):1-24.
    Philosophers have been referring to the “Kripke–Putnam” theory of naturalkind terms for over 30 years. Although there is one common starting point, the two philosophers began with different motivations and presuppositions, and developed in different ways. Putnam’s publications on the topic evolved over the decades, certainly clarifying and probably modifying his analysis, while Kripke published nothing after 1980. The result is two very different theories about natural kinds and their names. Both accept that the meaning of a naturalkind term is (...)
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  31. Clyde L. Hardin & Alexander Rosenberg (1982). In Defense of Convergent Realism. Philosophy of Science 49 (4):604-615.
    Many realists have maintained that the success of scientific theories can be explained only if they may be regarded as approximately true. Laurens Laudan has in turn contended that a necessary condition for a theory's being approximately true is that its central terms refer, and since many successful theories of the past have employed central terms which we now understand to be non-referential, realism cannot explain their success. The present paper argues that a realist can adopt a view of reference (...)
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  32. Paul Hoyningen-Huene & Howard Sankey (eds.) (2001). Incommensurability and Related Matters. Kluwer.
  33. Philip Kitcher (1978). Theories, Theorists and Theoretical Change. Philosophical Review 87 (4):519-547.
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  34. Frederick W. Kroon (1985). Theoretical Terms and the Causal View of Reference. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 63 (2):143 – 166.
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  35. James Ladyman (2011). Structural Realism Versus Standard Scientific Realism: The Case of Phlogiston and Dephlogisticated Air. Synthese 180 (2):87 - 101.
    The aim of this paper is to revisit the phlogiston theory to see what can be learned from it about the relationship between scientific realism, approximate truth and successful reference. It is argued that phlogiston theory did to some extent correctly describe the causal or nomological structure of the world, and that some of its central terms can be regarded as referring. However, it is concluded that the issue of whether or not theoretical terms successfully refer is not the key (...)
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  36. Anders Landig (2014). Partial Reference, Scientific Realism and Possible Worlds. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 47:1-9.
    Theories of partial reference have been developed in order to retrospectively interpret rather stubborn past scientific theories like Newtonian dynamics and the phlogiston theory in a realist way, i.e., as approximately true. This is done by allowing for a term to refer to more than one entity at the same time and by providing semantic structures that determine the truth values of sentences containing partially referring terms. Two versions of theories of partial reference will be presented, a conjunctive (by Hartry (...)
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  37. Larry Laudan (1981). A Confutation of Convergent Realism. Philosophy of Science 48 (1):19-49.
    This essay contains a partial exploration of some key concepts associated with the epistemology of realist philosophies of science. It shows that neither reference nor approximate truth will do the explanatory jobs that realists expect of them. Equally, several widely-held realist theses about the nature of inter-theoretic relations and scientific progress are scrutinized and found wanting. Finally, it is argued that the history of science, far from confirming scientific realism, decisively confutes several extant versions of avowedly 'naturalistic' forms of scientific (...)
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  38. David Lewis (1970). How to Define Theoretical Terms. Journal of Philosophy 67 (13):427-446.
  39. Mohan Matthen (1984). Ostension, Names and Natural Kind Terms. Dialogue 23 (01):44-58.
    It has been suggested that the theory of reference advanced by Kripke and Putnam implies, or presupposes, an aristotelian vision of natural kinds and essences. I argue that what is in fact established is that there are degrees of naturalness among kinds. A parallel argument shows that there are degrees of naturalness among individuals. A subsidiary theme of the paper is that the definition of "natural kind term" as "rigid designator of a natural kind" is mistaken. Names and natural kind (...)
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  40. Christina McLeish (2006). Realism Bit by Bit: Part II. Disjunctive Partial Reference. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 37 (2):171--190.
    In this second paper, I continue my discussion of the problem of reference for scientific realism. First, I consider a final objection to Kitcher's account of reference, which I generalise to other accounts of reference. Such accounts make attributions of reference by appeal to our pretheoretical intuitions about how true statements ought to be distibuted among the scientific utterances of the past. I argue that in the cases that merit discussion, this strategy fails because our intuitions are unstable. The interesting (...)
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  41. Christina McLeish (2005). Scientific Realism Bit by Bit: Part I. Kitcher on Reference. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 36 (4):668--686.
    In this paper, I consider Kitcher's (1993) account of reference for the expressions of past science. Kitcher's case study is of Joseph Priestley and his expression `dephlogisticated air'. There is a strong intuitive case that `dephlogisticated air' referred to oxygen, but it was underpinned by very mistaken phlogiston theory, so concluding either that dephlogisticated air referred straightforwardly or that it failed to refer both have unpalatable consequences. Kitcher argues that the reference of such terms is best considered relative to each (...)
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  42. Don A. Merrell (2006). Theoretical Identity, Reference Fixing, and Boyd's Defense of Type Materialism. Philosophia 34 (2):169-172.
    In his Materialism without Reductionism: What Materialism Does not Entail, Richard Boyd answers Kripke’s challenge to materialists to come up with a way to explain away the apparent contingency of mind-brain identities (such as ‘Pain=C-fiber firings’). Boyd accuses Kripke of an imaginative myopia manifesting itself as a failure to realize that the more theoretical term in the identity (‘C-fiber firings’) is fixed by contingent descriptions – descriptions that might pick out otherworldly kinds of neural events where C-fibres are absent. If (...)
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  43. Ilkka Niiniluoto (1997). Reference Invariance and Truthlikeness. Philosophy of Science 64 (4):546-554.
    A holistic account of the meaning of theoretical terms leads scientific realism into serious troubles. Alternative methods of reference fixing are needed by a realist who wishes to show how reference invariance is possible in spite of meaning variance. This paper argues that the similarity theory of truthlikeness and approximate truth, developed by logicians since the mid 1970s, helps to make precise the idea of charitable theoretical reference. Comparisons to the recent proposals by Kitcher and Psillos are given. This argument (...)
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  44. Robert Nola (2008). The Optimistic Meta-Induction and Ontological Continuity: The Case of the Electron. In Lena Soler, Howard Sankey & Paul Hoyningen-Huene (eds.), Rethinking Scientific Change and Theory Comparison. Springer.
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  45. Robert Nola (1980). Fixing the Reference of Theoretical Terms. Philosophy of Science 47 (4):505-531.
    Kripke and Putnam have proposed that terms may be introduced to refer to theoretical entities by means of causal descriptions such as 'whatever causes observable effects O'. It is argued that such a reference-fixing definition is ill-formed and that theoretical beliefs must be involved in fixing the reference of a theoretical term. Some examples of reference-fixing are discussed e.g., the term 'electricity'. The Kripke-Putnam theory can not give an account of how terms may be introduced into science and then subsequently (...)
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  46. Charles Nussbaum (2001). Troubles with the Causal Homeostasis Theory of Reference. Philosophical Psychology 14 (2):155 – 178.
    While purely causal theories of reference have provided a plausible account of the meanings of names and natural kind terms, they cannot handle vacuous theoretical terms. The causal homeostasis theory can but incurs other difficulties. Theories of reference that are intensional and not purely causal tend to be molecularist or holist. Holist theories threaten transtheoretic reference, whereas molecularist theories must supply a principled basis for selecting privileged meaning-determining relations between terms. The causal homeostasis theory is a two-factor (causal and intensional) (...)
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  47. David Papineau (1996). Theory-Dependent Terms. Philosophy of Science 63 (1):1-20.
    The main puzzle about theoretical definitions is that nothing seems to decide which assumptions contribute to such definitions and which do not. I argue that theoretical definitions are indeed imprecise, but that this does not normally matter, since the definitional imprecision does not normally produce indeterminacy of referential value. Sometimes, however, the definitional imprecision is less benign, and does generate referential indeterminacy. In these special cases, but not otherwise, it is necessary to refine the term's definition.
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  48. Stathis Psillos (1997). Kitcher on Reference. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 11 (3):259 – 272.
    In his (1978) and parts of (1993), Philip Kitcher advances a new context-sensitive theory of reference which he applies to abandoned theoretical expression-types, such as Joseph Priestley’s ‘dephlogisticated air’, in order to show that, although qua types they fail to refer uniformly, they nonetheless have referential tokens. This piece offers a critical examination of Kitcher’s theory. After a general investigation into the overall adequacy of Kitcher’s theory as a general account of reference, I focus on the case of abandoned theoretical (...)
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  49. John T. Roberts, The Semantic Novelty of Theoretical Terms.
    Often when a new scientific theory is introduced, new terms are introduced along with it. Some of these new terms might be given explicit definitions using only terms that were in currency prior to the introduction of the theory. Some of them might be defined using other new terms introduced with the theory. But it frequently happens that the standard formulations of a theory do not define some of the new terms at all; these terms are adopted as primitives. The (...)
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  50. Howard Sankey (2012). Reference, Success and Entity Realism. Kairos 5:31-42.
    The paper discusses the version of entity realism presented by Ian Hacking in his book, Representing and Intervening. Hacking holds that an ontological form of scientific realism, entity realism, may be defended on the basis of experimental practices which involve the manipulation of unobservable entities. There is much to be said in favour of the entity realist position that Hacking defends, especially the pragmatist orientation of his approach to realism. But there are problems with the position. The paper explores two (...)
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