Realism, relativism, and constructivism

Synthese 89 (1):135 - 162 (1991)
This paper gives a critical evaluation of the philosophical presuppositions and implications of two current schools in the sociology of knowledge: the Strong Programme of Bloor and Barnes; and the Constructivism of Latour and Knorr-Cetina. Bloor's arguments for his externalist symmetry thesis (i.e., scientific beliefs must always be explained by social factors) are found to be incoherent or inconclusive. At best, they suggest a Weak Programme of the sociology of science: when theoretical preferences in a scientific community, SC, are first internally explained by appealing to the evidence, e, and the standards or values, V, accepted in SC, then a sociologist may sometimes step in to explain why e and V were accepted in SC. Latour's story about the social construction of facts in scientific laboratories is found to be misleading or incredible. The idea that scientific reality is an artifact turns out to have some interesting affinities with classical pragmatism, instrumentalism, phenomenology, and internal realism. However, the constructivist account of theoretical entities in terms of negotiation and social consensus is less plausible than the alternative realist story which explains consensus by the preexistence of mind-independent real entities. The author concludes that critical scientific realism, developed with the concept of truthlikeness, is compatible with the thesis that scientific beliefs or knowledge claims may be relative to various types of cognitive and practical interests. However, the realist denies, with good reasons, the stronger type of relativism which takes reality and truth to be relative to persons, groups, or social interests.
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