Scientific Realism

Edited by Howard Sankey (University of Melbourne)
Assistant editor: Zili Dong
About this topic
Summary Scientific realism is primarily a view about theoretical science.  According to a classic (or "standard") form of scientific realism, the unobservable "theoretical" entities postulated by scientific theories (e.g. atoms, electrons) are real and theoretical claims about those entities are true or approximately true.  Scientific realism contrasts with commonsense realism, which is realism about the observable entities of the ordinary, everyday world.  Scientific realism may be combined with commonsense realism, though some philosophers take there to be a conflict between science and common sense, which may make it difficult to reconcile the two doctrines.  Some scientific realists ("entity realists") emphasise the reality of theoretical entities while downplaying or avoiding altogether talk of the truth of theories.  Some scientific realists (e.g. "structural realists") downplay or reject the reality of theoretical entities while emphasising structural aspects of theory or reality. Some anti-realists (e.g. "constructive empiricists") admit commonsense realism while rejecting or withholding judgment about scientific realism.  The classic opponent of scientific realism ("instrumentalism") denies that theoretical discourse about theoretical entities is to be interpreted in literal fashion, instead taking the latter to be fictitious entities which play at most a role in prediction at the observational level.  The major argument for scientific realism is the "success argument" (also known as the "no miracles argument" and the "ultimate argument") that scientific realism is the best explanation of the success of science.  Scientific realists who emphasize truth in their formulation of the view require an account of approximate truth or verisimilitude because they tend to see science as progressing toward truth rather than having already reached the final truth about the world (this view is sometimes known as "convergent realism").  The main arguments against scientific realism are that the truth of theory is radically underdetermined by empirical data and the so-called "pessimistic induction" from the falsity of past theories to the likely falsity of current theories.  An important response to the latter objection is that scientific realists should only take specific parts of theories to be true or approximately true rather than take the entirety of a theory to be true or approximately true (so-called "deployment realism"). 
Key works Ian Hacking's book, Representing and Intervening Hacking 1983, provides general discussion of the issues relating to scientific realism, emphasising entity realism.  Stathis Psillos's book, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth Psillos 1999, also provides general coverage, while developing a deployment realist approach. Two important collections are Jarrett Leplin (ed.) Scientific Realism Leplin 1984, and the more recent Routledge Handbook of Scientific Realism edited by Juha Saatsi Saatsi 2017.  Larry Laudan's paper, 'A Confutation of Convergent Realism', presents criticism of scientific realism that is sometimes understood as a pessimistic induction Laudan 1981.  Bas van Fraassen's book, The Scientific Image Van Fraassen Bas 1980, presents criticism of scientific realism and articulates the constructive empiricist form of anti-realism.  For development of structural realism, see John Worrall, 'Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?' Worrall 1989 and James Ladyman 'What is Structural Realism?' Ladyman 1998.
Introductions See Michael Devitt's entry on scientific realism in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary PhilosophyDevitt 2005 and Anjan Chakravartty's entry on scientific realism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Chakravartty 2013.  For a quite basic introduction to scientific realism, see Howard Sankey, 'What is Scientific Realism?' Sankey 2000, which is also available in French translation Sankey 2002.
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  1. Scientific Understanding and Representation: Modeling in the Physical Sciences.Insa Lawler, Kareem Khalifa & Elay Shech (eds.) - 2022 - New York, NY: Routledge.
    This volume brings together leading scholars working on understanding and representation in philosophy of science. It features a critical conversation format between contributors that advances debates concerning scientific understanding, scientific representation, and their delicate interplay.
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  2. Lebenswelt und Wissenschaft. Zum Spannungsverhältnis zweier Erfahrungsweisen.Gregor Schiemann - 2021 - Berlin: De Gruyter.
    Das Verhältnis von Lebenswelt und Wissenschaft befindet sich mit ungewissem Ausgang in stetiger Bewegung. In diesem Prozess ist das treibende Element die Wissenschaft, die Technisierungen ermöglicht und mit ihren Erkenntnissen die Welt überzieht. Trotz der fortschreitenden Verwissenschaftlichung hat sich die Lebenswelt jedoch ihre Eigenständigkeit bewahrt. Die vorliegenden Studien tragen zur Aufklärung dieses erstaunlichen Phänomens bei. Sie weisen Strukturdifferenzen der beiden Erfahrungsweisen auf und zeigen, wie sie mit- und gegeneinander existieren. Zugleich wird deutlich, dass ein Ende der lebensweltlichen Eigenständigkeit einen fundamentalen (...)
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  3. Mεtascience: Scientific General Discourse - No. 2 - Metascientific Ontology.François Maurice - 2022 - Mεtascience: Scientific General Discourse 2:1-260.
    [This is the complete issue of the second issue of Mɛtascience] -/- This second issue of the journal Mεtascience continues the char acterization of this new branch of knowledge that is metasci ence. If it is new, it is not in a radical sense since Mario Bunge practiced it in an exemplary way, since logical positivists were accused of practicing only a mere metascience, since scientists have always practiced it implicitly, and since some philosophers no longer practice philosophy but rather (...)
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  4. Levels of the world. Limits and extensions of Nicolai hartmann’s and Werner heisenberg’s conceptions of levels.Gregor Schiemann - 2019 - HORIZON. Studies in Phenomenology 8 (1):103-122.
    The conception that the world can be represented as a system of levels of being can be traced back to the beginnings of European philosophy and has lost little of its plausibility in the meantime. One of the important modern conceptions of levels was developed by Nicolai Hartmann. It exhibits remarkable similarities and contrasts with the classification of the real developed by Werner Heisenberg in his paper Ordnung der Wirklichkeit (Order of Reality). In my contribution I will introduce these two (...)
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  5. Mehr Seinsschichten für die Welt? Vergleich und Kritik der Schichtenkonzeptionen von Nicolai Hartmann und Werner Heisenberg.Gregor Schiemann - 2012 - In M. Wunsch & G. Hartung (eds.), Nicolai Hartmann – Von der Systemphilosophie zur Systemetischen Philosophie. De Gruyter. pp. 85-104.
    Ich thematisiere die beiden Konzeptionen als Varianten der wissenschaftlichen Weltsicht. Der Reiz des Vergleichs liegt aber weniger in den Gemeinsamkeiten als vielmehr in den Differenzen und den dabei hervortretenden Desideraten der beiden Konzeptionen. Heisenberg versteht sein Schichtenmodell nicht wie Hartmann als Fortsetzung und Zusammenfassung vorangehender philosophischer Bemühungen, sondern als einen Bruch mit den Hauptströmungen der philosophischen Tradition. In der geschichtlichen Entwicklung der Versuche um eine Bestimmung der Weltstruktur sieht er statt einer Generaltendenz, die langfristig auf eine Annäherung an die Wahrheit (...)
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  6. Werner Heisenberg.Gregor Schiemann - 2008 - C.H. Beck.
    Gregor Schiemann führt allgemeinverständlich in das Denken dieses Physikers ein. Thema sind die Erfahrungen und Überlegungen, die Heisenberg zu seinen theoretischen Erkenntnissen geführt haben, die wesentlichen Inhalte dieser Erkenntnisse sowie die Konsequenzen, die er daraus für die Geschichte der Physik und das wissenschaftliche Weltbild gezogen hat. Heisenbergs Vorstellungswelt durchzieht durch ein Spannungsverhältnis, das heute noch das Denken vieler Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler bewegt. Er ist um ein umfassendes Verständnis der Naturprozesse bemüht, zugleich aber von der Berechenbarkeit und Beherrschbarkeit von Phänomenen auch (...)
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Varieties of Scientific Realism
  1. Desacuerdos profundos sobre ontología científica.Bruno Borge, Sasha D'Onofrio & Ignacio Madroñal - 2022 - Cuadernos de Filosofía 1 (40):139-156.
    Los desacuerdos acerca de la ontología científica han sido frecuentemente reconstruidos como el resultado de una disputa entre stances epistémicas rivales. En el presente trabajo, (i) caracterizamos algunos de estos desacuerdos como desacuerdos profundos. Además, (ii) mostramos que los desacuerdos profundos sobre ontología científica pueden surgir no solo de la adopción de diferentes stances epistémicas, sino entre posiciones que se encuadran dentro de una misma stance. El desarrollo de ese punto nos permite, a su vez, establecer una distinción entre tipos (...)
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  2. Explanatory Elucidation and Scientific Realism.Alberto Cordero - 2012 - Epistemologia 1:59-70.
    Explanatory elucidation occurs when a theory has one or more of its assumptions explained by another independently successful theory. Because explanatory elucidation springs from independently supported theories, it improves the credibility of the assumptions it casts light on, hence its relevance for realists. But cases can be pointed to where explanatory elucidation has badly failed to identify truthful components. One way to address this challenge is by trying to find additional epistemic support for seemingly meritorious theory-parts. Resource in this regard, (...)
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  3. The tenets of hermeneutical realism.Dimitri Ginev - 2012 - Epistemologia 2:264-280.
    This article explores and attempts to resolve some issues that arise when at stake is the need to harmonize philosophical hermeneutics with a kind of realist philosophy of science. The author takes issue with established position in the realism-antirealism controversy. Interventionism is criticized for a residual Cartesian dualism. Cognitive relativism is debated by developing a concept of situated transcendence in the constitution of objects of inquiry. Non-behaviorist arguments against scheme-content dualism are advanced that appeal to context- sensitive theory of meaning. (...)
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  4. Vérité partielle et réalisme scientifique: une approche bungéenne.Jean-Pierre Marquis - 2020 - Mεtascience: Discours Général Scientifique 1:293-314.
    Le réalisme scientifique occupe une place centrale dans le système philosophique de Mario Bunge. Au cœur de cette thèse, on trouve l’affirmation selon laquelle nous pouvons connaître le monde partiellement. Il s’ensuit que les théories scientifiques ne sont pas totalement vraies ou totalement fausses, mais plutôt partiellement vraies et partiellement fausses. Ces énoncés sur la connaissance scientifique, à première vue plausible pour quiconque est familier avec la pratique scientifique, demandent néanmoins à être clarifiés, précisés et, ultimement, à être inclus dans (...)
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  5. Scientific virtues.Doren A. Recker - unknown
    Chapter I describes diachronic realism and shows why it is a version of what is called 'metaphysical realism'. Consequently, I argue that recent claims that 'metaphysical realism' is incoherent are unfounded. Chapter II argues that certain anti-realist positions involve an insufficient treatment of 'meaning' and 'reference' for theoretical terms. I review much of the current work on theories of reference and show that these incommensurability positions are bankrupt given either of the two most promising theories of reference. Chapter III argues (...)
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  6. Réalisme scientifique.Pierre-Yves Rochefort - 2016 - L'Encyclopédie Philosophique.
    L’attitude réaliste constitue de prime abord la posture du sens commun vis-à-vis de la science. Elle consiste à attribuer à la science l’objectif de décrire littéralement la réalité tout en lui reconnaissant la capacité, en vertu de ses méthodes, d’atteindre ce but. Si le réalisme scientifique apparait comme représentant le sens commun, il a dû, au courant du siècle dernier, s’ériger en véritable posture philosophique argumentée devant l’influence grandissante des différentes formes d’antiréalismes. Dans la mesure où la posture qu’un philosophe (...)
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  7. Hidden Realism.Mutsuo M. Yanase - 1983 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 6 (3):129-138.
  8. Hidden Realism.Mutsuo M. Yanase - 1980 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 5 (5):225-244.
  9. Man in Scientific Age.Satyendra Nath Bose - 1964 - Annals of the Japan Association for Philosophy of Science 2 (4):232-236.
  10. Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries Molecular Reality. A Perspective on the Scientific Work of Jean Perrin. By Mary Jo Nye. New York: Elsevier, and London: Macdonald, 1972. Pp. xii + 201. £5. [REVIEW]S. B. Sinclair - 1974 - British Journal for the History of Science 7 (3):300-301.
  11. The Scientific Voice. Scott L. Montgomery.Carolyn R. Miller - 1996 - Isis 87 (4):707-708.
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  12. Role-Player Realism.Paul Teller - 2016
    In practice theoretical terms are open-ended in not being attached to anything completely specific. This raises a problem for scientific realism: If there is no one completely specific kind of thing that might be in the extension of “atom”, what is it to claim that atoms exist? A realist’s solution is to say that in theoretical contexts of mature atom-theories there are things that play the role of atoms as characterized in that theory-context. The paper closes with a laundry list (...)
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  13. Philosophy and Scientific Realism.J. J. C. Smart - 1963 - New York,: Routledge.
  14. Abiogenesis as a theoretical challenge: chance and directionality through the lens of scientific realism.Loris Serafino - unknown
    In this paper I intend to reflect on the intellectual rationale underlying the origin of life scientific research efforts by reconsidering some of its conceptual premises and difficulties.
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  15. Evandro Agazzi on scientific objectivity: Evandro Agazzi: Scientific objectivity and its contexts. Berlin: Springer, 2014, XVII+482p, €138 HB.Michel Ghins - 2015 - Metascience 25 (1):151-157.
  16. Defending realism: Reflections on Karl Rogers’ *Metaphysics of Experimental Physics.John Spencer - 2007 - Journal of Critical Realism 6 (1):126-147.
    The main goal of this paper is to argue against Karl Rogers's attacks on realism in physics. Rogers argues that electrons do not exist independently of the relevant socio-technological process, but I show that such an assumption would make our best scientific theories incomprehensible. While the paper supports Rogers's attempts to refute positivism, it demonstrates that his own position is positivistic, and it corrects his overemphasis on the roles of technology and the experimenter. Rogers assumes that the founders of modern (...)
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  17. Bayesianism v. scientific realism.P. Milne - 2003 - Analysis 63 (4):281-288.
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  18. Underdetermination and Realism.Michael Devitt - 2002 - Philosophical Issues 12 (1):26-50.
  19. Metaphysics of Axiological Realism.Dariusz Łukasiewicz - 2008 - Philosophia Scientiae 12:57-74.
    L’article présente les propositions principales de la métaphysique du réalisme axiologique de Tadeusz Czeżowski, l’un des représentants éminents de l’École de Lvov-Varsovie. La thèse soutenue par Czeżowski est que les valeurs ne sont pas des propriétés de n’importe quel genre, mais qu’elles constituent des notions transcendentales au sens de Duns Scot (et pas au sens de Thomas d’Aquin). Une des conséquences de cette position est que le réalisme de Czeżowski a la forme d’un non-naturalisme. La position prise par Czeżowski n’est (...)
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  20. Realism and the Aim of Science: From the Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.Iii Bartley (ed.) - 1985 - Routledge.
    _Realism and the Aim of Science_ is one of the three volumes of Karl Popper’s _Postscript_ to the Logic of scientific Discovery. The _Postscript_ is the culmination of Popper’s work in the philosophy of physics and a new famous attack on subjectivist approaches to philosophy of science. _Realism and the Aim of Science_ is the first volume of the _Postcript_. Popper here formulates and explains his non-justificationist theory of knowledge: science aims at true explanatory theories, yet it can never prove, (...)
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  21. Goal-dependence in ontology.David Danks - 2015 - Synthese 192 (11):3601-3616.
    Our best sciences are frequently held to be one way, perhaps the optimal way, to learn about the world’s higher-level ontology and structure. I first argue that which scientific theory is “best” depends in part on our goals or purposes. As a result, it is theoretically possible to have two scientific theories of the same domain, where each theory is best for some goal, but where the two theories posit incompatible ontologies. That is, it is possible for us to have (...)
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  22. Science and Necessity.John Bigelow & Robert Pargetter - 1990 - New York: Cambridge University Press. Edited by Robert Pargetter.
    This book espouses a theory of scientific realism in which due weight is given to mathematics and logic. The authors argue that mathematics can be understood realistically if it is seen to be the study of universals, of properties and relations, of patterns and structures, the kinds of things which can be in several places at once. Taking this kind of scientific platonism as their point of departure, they show how the theory of universals can account for probability, laws of (...)
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  23. Knowledge and Reference in Empirical Science.Jody Azzouni - 2000 - London: Routledge.
    Knowledge and Reference in Empirical Science is a fascinating study of the bounds between science and language: in what sense, and of what, does science provide knowledge? Is science an instrument only distantly related to what's real? Can the language of science be used to adequately describe the truth? In this book, Jody Azzouni investigates the technology of science - the actual forging and exploiting of causal links, between ourselves and what we endeavor to know and understand. Here can be (...)
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  24. On Scientific Realism and Naturalism.Alberto Cordero - 2015 - Journal of Philosophical Research 40 (Supplement):31-43.
    This paper looks at the current realism/antirealism debate in philosophy of science as a dispute between two objectivist interpretations of modern empirical success: Scientific realism and scientific antirealism. The paper traces the debate to a split in responses to the historicist relativism that gained force in the 1960s; it concentrates on the discussions that led to selectivism, a promising realist strategy that focuses on theory-parts rather than whole theories. The paper examines the merits and difficulties of selectivism and argues for (...)
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  25. Retail Realism and Wholesale Treatments of Theoretical Entities.Jonathon Hricko - manuscript
    According to retail realism, we ought to abandon wholesale arguments, which purport to demonstrate realism or anti-realism about theoretical entities in general, and embrace retail arguments, which purport to demonstrate realism or anti-realism about specific kinds of theoretical entities. My aim is to argue that there is a further wholesale element that retail realism must avoid in order to qualify as a viable position. In order to do so, I distinguish between what I call wholesale and retail treatments of theoretical (...)
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  26. Science and Reality.Jan Faye - 2006 - In H. B. Andersen, F. V. Christiansen, K. F. Jørgensen & Vincent Hendriccks (eds.), The Way Through Science and Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Stig Andur Pedersen. College Publications. pp. 137-170.
    Scientific realism is the view that the aim of science is to produce true or approximately true theories about nature. It is a view which not only is shared by many philosophers but also by scientists themselves. Regarding Kuhn’s rejection of scientific progress, Steven Weinberg once declared: “All this is wormwood to scientists like myself, who think the task of science is to bring us closer and closer to objective truth.” But such a realist view on scientific theories is not (...)
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  27. Tian Yu Cao. From Current Algebra to Quantum Chromodynamics: A Case for Structural Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. x+308. $85.00. [REVIEW]Christian Wüthrich - 2014 - Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 4 (2):368-371.
  28. Building Ontologies with Basic Formal Ontology.Robert Arp, Barry Smith & Andrew D. Spear - 2015 - Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    In the era of “big data,” science is increasingly information driven, and the potential for computers to store, manage, and integrate massive amounts of data has given rise to such new disciplinary fields as biomedical informatics. Applied ontology offers a strategy for the organization of scientific information in computer-tractable form, drawing on concepts not only from computer and information science but also from linguistics, logic, and philosophy. This book provides an introduction to the field of applied ontology that is of (...)
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  29. Ways of knowing: realism, non‐realism, nominalism and a typology revisited with a counter perspective for nursing science.Bernard M. Garrett & Roger L. Cutting - 2015 - Nursing Inquiry 22 (2):95-105.
    In this paper, we reconsider the context of Barbara Carper'salternative ways of knowing,a prominent discourse in modern nursing theory in North America. We explore this relative to the concepts ofrealism, non‐realismandnominalism, and investigate the philosophical divisions behind the original typology, particularly in relationship to modern scientific enquiry. We examine forms of knowledge relative to realist and nominalist positions and make an argument ad absurdum against relativistic interpretations of knowledge using the example of Borge's Chinese Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. We propose (...)
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  30. Realism and the Aim of Science: From the Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.Iii Bartley (ed.) - 1985 - Routledge.
    _Realism and the Aim of Science_ is one of the three volumes of Karl Popper’s _Postscript_ to the Logic of scientific Discovery. The _Postscript_ is the culmination of Popper’s work in the philosophy of physics and a new famous attack on subjectivist approaches to philosophy of science. _Realism and the Aim of Science_ is the first volume of the _Postcript_. Popper here formulates and explains his non-justificationist theory of knowledge: science aims at true explanatory theories, yet it can never prove, (...)
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  31. Super Realism.Edward Lucie-Smith - 1979
  32. Realism.Damian Grant - 2019 - Routledge.
    First published in 1970, this book provides an introduction to literary realism. After considering what realism is and its philosophical roots, it goes on to examine the emergence of the idea of realism in nineteenth-century France and its gradual spread across the wider republic of letters. This work will be of interest to those studying nineteenth-century European literature.
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  33. Reification and the Development of Realism in Late Minnesang.Newton A. Perrin - 1982
  34. Form and Realism in Six Novels of Anthony Trollope.Joan Mandel Cohen - 1976 - Hague : Mouton.
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  35. The Development of Realism in the Fiction of Tsubouchi Shōyō.Marleigh Grayer Ryan - 1975
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  36. Eça de Queirós and European Realism.Alexander Coleman - 1980 - New York: New York University Press.
  37. Constructive Realism: Aspects of a New Epistemological Movement.Friedrich Wallner - 1994 - Purdue University Press.
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  38. What is Structural Exegesis?Daniel Patte - 2015 - Wipf and Stock Publishers.
    Structural exegesis is a major recent development in biblical studies and is related to simultaneous currents in other fields of academic study. Here, at last, is an introduction to structuralism and structuralist methods that does not presuppose advance knowledge of linguistics or anthropology. Traditional exegetical methods follow a historical paradigm; structuralism follows a linguistic paradigm. Thus, these two approaches involve significantly different attitudes toward the biblical text. Through clear analytic explanations illustrated by application to specific texts, Daniel Patte shows how (...)
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  39. Realism: Structure & Illusion : Towards a Definition of Representational Art.David Nasby, Macdonald Stewart Art Centre & Burlington Cultural Centre - 1981 - Guelph, Ont. : Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.
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  40. Reality Plain Or Fancy?: Some Reflections on Galdós' Concept of Realism.Geoffrey Ribbans - 1986
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  41. Disease and Diagnosis: Value-Dependent Realism.William E. Stempsey - 2000 - Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers.
    The germs of the ideas in this book became implanted in me during my experience as a resident in clinical pathology at Boston University Medical Center. At the time, I had inklings that the test results churned out by our laboratories were more than scientific facts. As a philosophically unsophisticated young physician, however, I had no language or framework to analyze what I saw as a deep philosophical problem, a problem largely unrecognized by most physicians. The test results provided by (...)
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  42. Vicente Blasco Ibanez, Exponent of Realism.James O. Swain - 1932
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  43. New Realism From the Museum of Ruined Intentions.Gimpel Fils - 1987
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  44. Philosophy as Higher Enlightenment: Paradigms Toward a New Worldview from the Perspective of Dialectical Realism.Ash Gobar - 1994 - Peter Lang Incorporated, International Academic Publishers.
    This work is a study in integrative thinking: it contributes some paradigms toward a new worldview from the perspective of dialectical realism. Its central idea is that philosophical thinking leads to a -higher enlightenment-: illuminating the foundations of our beliefs as well as the horizon of our praxis. Hence the disparate interests of philosophical inquiry - its theoretical interest and its existential interest - find a dialectical integration here. The role of philosophy as a cultural healer is then articulated as (...)
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