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Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365

DOI 10.1007/s10516-016-9304-4


Scientific Realism Within Perspectivism

and Perspectivism Within Scientific Realism

Evandro Agazzi1

Received: 6 August 2016 / Accepted: 13 August 2016 / Published online: 31 August 2016
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Abstract Perspectivism is often understood as a conception according to which

subjective conditions inevitably affect our knowledge and, therefore, we are never
confronted with reality and facts but only with interpretations. Hence, subjectivism
and anti-realism are usually associated with perspectivism. The thesis of this paper
is that, especially in the case of the sciences, perspectivism can be better understood
as an appreciation of the cognitive attitude that consists in considering reality only
from a certain point of view, in a way that can avoid subjectivism. Whereas the
way of conceiving a notion is strictly subjective, the way of using it is open to
intersubjective agreement, based on the practice of operations whose nature is
neither mental nor linguistic. Therefore, intersubjectivity (that is a weak sense of
objectivity) is possible within perspectivism. Perspectivism can also help under-
stand the notion of scientific objects in a referential sense: they are those things
that become objects of a certain science by being investigated from the point of
view of that science. They are clipped out of things (and constitute the domain of
objects or the regional ontology of that particular science) by means of stan-
dardized operations which turn out to be the same as those granting intersubjec-
tivity. Therefore this strong sense of objectivity, which is clearly realist, coincides
with the weak one. The notion of truth appears fully legitimate in the case of the
sciences, being clearly defined for the regional ontology of each one of them and,
since this truth can be extended in an analogical sense to the theories elaborated in
each science, it follows that are real also the unobservable entities postulated by
those theories.

& Evandro Agazzi
Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Panamerican University, Mexico City, Mexico

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Keywords Weak objectivity  Strong objectivity  Intersubjectivity  Operational

criteria of truth  Operational criteria of reference  Perspectivism  Scientific realism

1 Introduction

Perspectivism cannot be qualified as a philosophical school in a proper sense but rather

as a kind of intellectual attitude whose presence can be found transversally in several
recent philosophical trends. This is why it is considered sometimes as an updated form of
subjectivism, sometimes as a particular version of hermeneutics or, more generally, as
the expression of the awareness that our knowledge is inexorably dependent on a closed
context, be it linguistic, cultural or social. The most immediate consequences of
perspectivism concern epistemology, and could be summarized as the negation of
objectivity, that is, of an intrinsic value of knowledge, independent of the particular
context and conditionings within which this knowledge is acquired. Since, however, a
necessary requirement of knowledge is truth, it follows that also truth is not considered
absolute, but always context-dependent, and this amounts to advocating relativism as an
entailment of perspectivism. Finally, truth is normally considered as the property of a
discourse that faithfully describes reality, in the minimal sense of faithfully describing
facts. Therefore, an (arbitrary) jump from epistemology to ontology is often made and
expresses itself in statements such as there are no facts but only interpretations, or in
the claim that facts are only constructions whose features depend on linguistic,
cultural and social conditions in which, in particular, several non-cognitive factors play a
significant role. In this sense, anti-realism is often associated with perspectivism.
It lies outside the interest of the present paper to outline the origins of
perspectivism in the works of Nietzsche, who created this term and widely
developed this approach in his philosophy.1 In particular, we are not interested in
considering the special axiological interpretation of perspectivism that Nietzsche
maintains, making knowledge dependent on primordial drives emanating from
the Will to Power (a thesis that, under different forms, has been also followed by
certain scholars), nor shall we hint at the discussions regarding some paradoxes of
perspectivism, the first of which is that even perspedtivism ison the one handa
particular philosophical thesis (i.e. a perspective) whichon the other handis
affirmed as a true claim. The same Nietzsche was involved in this paradox because,
though advocating the plurality of perspectives, maintained at the same time that
they are not all of an equal value and, in fact, tried to reject most of the traditional
ethical and metaphysical views in order to show that his own was the correct one.
We can overlook these issues because we want to focus only on the cognitive
meaning of perspectivism, that is, on the awareness that there are many possible
conceptual schemes, or perspectives, in which judgments of truth can be made. We
The term Perspektivismus explicitly occurs in the aphorism 481 of the Will to Power: In so far as the
word knowledge has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable [emphasis in original]
otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.Perspectivism. It is our needs that
interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has
its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm. (Nietzsche et al. 1964,
p. 267).

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will not apply, however, this approach to the domain of values, but only to that of
facts. In this domain, perspectivism is often equated with the claim that there are no
objective facts, nor any knowledge of a thing-in-itself. This is precisely the claim
that we want to critically evaluate, and we shall propose a conception of
perspectivism (a perspective on perspectivism!) in which the fundamental
precondition of Nietzsches doctrine is overcome, that is, subjectivism. This is
bound (in Nietzsche as well as in many other authors) with the consideration of the
cognitive activity of any single individual whose life is made up of a great number
of biological, psychic, historical, cultural and social factors which almost inevitably
and automatically determine his own perspective and interpretation of reality and
cannot be shared by any other individual. This situation inevitably entails
solipsism, and many efforts for overcoming it in order to give a foundation to
intersubjectivity have been spent, for example, by phenomenologists or, following a
different approach, by philosophers such as Ortega y Gasset. The proposal we shall
advance in this paper is that intersubjectivity cannot be overcome by attaining a
superior all-encompassing perspective, but by means of a doing, i.e. by resorting
to a shared domain of operations. Thanks to these tools, not only intersubjective
agreement can be attained, but also a suitably defined access to the objects of
knowledge, and this makes possible to recover a legitimate application of the notion
of truth and renders to knowledge its realist purport. We have not the pretention or
ambition to propose a more perfect form of perspectivism as such, but we want to
show how a particular form of perspectivism, duly linked with an operational factor,
can offer a foundation for granting objectivity, truth, and capability to attain reality
to scientific knowledge, that is, precisely those characteristics that are so often
considered incompatible with perspectivism.
To sum up in a couple of statements the core of the arguments that we are going
to present in detail, we could say: (1) Giving for granted that our knowledge is
constituted by perspectives and interpretations, we cannot overlook a fundamental
constituent of the very meaning of these concepts: that a perspective always is on
something, and an interpretation always is of something. Without this referential
complement, perspectives and interpretations would be floating in a vacuum. (2)
This referential gap cannot be filled in simply by the vague admission that there
exists something outside perspectives and interpretations that, however, does not
affect their correctness. Indeed, if this were the case, whatever could be said within
an interpretation, whereas they can be submitted to critical evaluation even without
necessarily comparing them with different perspectives or interpretations. We are
aware that these statements are still rather bold, and this is why we need a deeper
analysis in order to defend them.

2 A Metaphor for Perspectivism

In order to strip the notion of perspective of any subjectivist flavor we can imagine
the situation of a tower built on the summit of a peak dominating a broad landscape,
and at the top of the tower there is a room with four windows pointing respectively

352 Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365

to the North, the South, the East and the West. It is perfectly in keeping with
common sense and ordinary language to say that the view provided by any windows
is a particular perspective on the landscape and at the same time is different from
whatever other perspective: no one encompasses the whole landscape, but all of
them are sound (or correct, or faithful, or adequate) since they are open to what is
real (in our case, to the landscape). If, for instance, the portion of landscape
accessible from the Northern windows contains only a lake, and that accessible from
the Southern windows contains only a forest, it would be false to say that one cannot
see a lake, or that one can see a village from the Northern windows, and even that
one can see a forest from that windows, despite that the forest actually belongs to
the landscape, but is accessible only from the Southern window.
We have not spoken of any observer yet, who would be looking at the
landscape from the tower, but it is again in keeping with common sense and
ordinary language to say that any normal observer (i.e. any person endowed with a
normal capability of seeing) should see the lake, the forest and in general all the
things belonging to the landscape when looking from the respective windows. We
could even say, in order to avoid mentioning human subjects, that these portions of
landscape could be faithfully recorded by means of a camera.
Let us now imagine that what can be seen from the Eastern windows is a distant
small town, and what can be appreciated from our position is just a set of
buildings, but we cannot determine what kind of buildings they are. We need to
approach our object and, for example, we can do this by resorting to binoculars.
This obviously amounts to opening a new perspective within the already chosen
perspective, and tacitly presupposes that we have enough reasons for considering
reliable the perspective open by the instrument. Now, however, issues of
interpretation can easily arise. Let us imagine that a party of internationally mixed
tourists is looking from that window and that a certain oval building appears in the
town: most people may consider it a football field, but a cultivated observer may
recognize in it an ancient Roman stadium. Similarly, other buildings might be
recognized as catholic churches, orthodox Christian churches, mosques, syna-
gogues, Buddhist pagodas, Hindu temples, according to the circumstance that the
observer belongs to a certain religious tradition or is sufficiently acquainted with
its architectural styles. Also in this case we have to do with a perspective, but it is
clear that no refined or sophisticated material instruments could help us to determine
this perspective but only a reference to a cultural context could be suitable for this.
Yet, also this fact would not entail subjectivity since such contexts are still not
We need not go on with our metaphor: it has been sufficient to indicate how
perspectives are not essentially subjective, how they can be embedded in other
perspectives, and how they still keep a referential dimension that is a ground for
their critical evaluation and, at the same time, remain within a realist view of
knowledge. Certain open problems should be discussed if one remains at this very
general level of analysis but can be overcome when one restricts the attention to
scientific knowledge, and this is precisely what we are going to do in the present

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3 Knowledge and Science

Along the whole of Western philosophy the concept of science has been equated
with the most perfect form of knowledge, in the sense that it is a knowledge
endowed with truth and certainty. Actually, Parmenides had distinguished truth
from opinion (considering opinions as intrinsically wrong and illusory), but Plato,
admitting that one can have true opinions, distinguished between opinion (doxa) and
science (episteme), defining science as true opinion supported by a discourse
giving its reasons. This characterization is still present in contemporary philosophy
when knowledge is defined as true belief supported by a justification. The
classical distinction (that lasted from Plato and Aristotle until modernity) regarded
the content of a cognitive activity, of an act of knowledge, that could be a mere
opinion or a justified truth (science). The contemporary distinction, on the contrary,
regards the subjective cognitive status, that in which one simply, believes that and
that in which one knows that; therefore, from the point of view of the content,
knowledge is equated with the traditional science, whereas opinion is not considered
as knowledge proper. These elementary remarks show that truth has been constantly
considered a necessary condition for knowledge taken in a full sense and, moreover,
truth itself has always been conceived in its ordinary and classical sense as an
adequacy (or accordance or correspondence) of the content of knowledge with the
structure of reality (how things really are). This general framework was broken by
modern epistemology in the seventeenth century, when philosophers tacitly
presupposed that what we know are our representations and not reality, so that
we are not certain that they correspond to reality. The epistemological problem
became in such a way an epistemic problem, paradigmatically expressed in the
philosophy of Descartes: we must find some starting point which resists to any
possible doubt. Only in such a way we can break the closed circle of subjectivity. It
is well known that neither the rationalist nor the empiricist philosophers were able
to offer a satisfactory solution to this ill-posed problem, but in the meanwhile
modern natural science had proved able to provide a rich harvest of knowledge
regarding the physical world, a knowledge endowed with truth, certainty,
mathematical rigor and intersubjective agreement, not restricted to a closed
community of specialists, but open in principle to whoever would acquire the
necessary competence for testing the content of such a knowledge. This is the
historical reason for which modern natural science quickly became the paradigm of
science understood in its classical sense, as is explicitly recognized in Kants
Preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason. This absolute
confidence in the new model of science was strongly reinforced by the positivistic
philosophy of the nineteenth century and was at the same time the cultural reason
for the deep crisis that science suffered at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Already at the end of the nineteenth century Newtonian mechanics, despite its
wonderful developments and the skill of its specialists, had not been able to offer
satisfactory models for understanding and explaining the properties of thermody-
namic phenomena and of the electromagnetic field, but in the first decades of the
twentieth century much more serious and devastating blows (concerning general

354 Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365

principles no less than fundamental concepts of the classical physics) came from
quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and the general interpretation of that crisis
was that classical physics had been found false. This severe judgment, however, did
not regard a special theory of limited scope, but a very broad world picture,
covering a great variety of domains, having received numberless experimental
confirmations and allowed for predictions and technological applications of all sorts.
In other words, it was science that seemed to have lost its fundamental virtue of
being the most reliable warrant of truth. Indeed, the most general attitude of the
scientists at that time was not that of believing to have attained, finally, the true
description of the world after having overcome the errors of classical mechanics,
but rather the idea that science cannot have the pretention of attaining such a true
description, and this amounted to giving up that realist conception of science that
had prevailed during the whole history of Western civilization. This is an obvious
remark, but it is wise not to underestimate it: we shall see in the sequel that the best
way for attributing to science a realist purport is to consider it primarily as a search
for truth and to recognize that it is able to attain truth (though not always with
certainty, which is a different requirement).
A historical paradox can be noted: one might expect that such a deep crisis
should produce as effect a period of stagnation and discomfort in the natural
sciences, but what happened was the opposite: the first decades of the twentieth
century were one of the most glorious periods in the history of science,
characterized by exceptional creativity, proposal of original ideas, active research
of experimental and theoretical nature. In short, scientists continued to consider
themselves engaged in knowledge and capable to acquire new knowledge, despite
several conceptual and logical difficulties they had to live with. How can we
interpret this fact?
A possible answer could be that scientists were becoming aware that they were
inaugurating the study of a new field of physical reality (the field that was later
called the micro-world), a study for which new concepts, principles and methods
were needed. This idea (that corresponds more or less, in our metaphor, to changing
the window from which the landscape is observed) surfaces sometimes in the
literature, but could not offer much clarification because the core of the issue was
reduced to a change in the order of magnitude of the physical parameters, and it was
not explained why and how this change could modify their intrinsic nature. In order
to make usable this idea, the new field had to be conceived not as a field of things,
but of new objects. This difference between things and objects, however, is of a
technical nature and was not developed for a long while in a way suitable for
overcoming those difficulties (it will be presented as a specific contribution in the
present paper). Therefore, any physical theory was considered to regard physical
things in themselves and, for this reason, should not be falsified in any sector of
physical reality.

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4 The Reactions to the Crisis

The very mention of things in themselves and objects immediately calls to

mind Kants theory of knowledge, according to which humans are unable to know
things in themselves, but only objects, and objects are the result of the
application of the transcendental forms of the intellect (categories) tp the scattered
domain of sense impressions (phenomena). In such a way, universality and necessity
were granted to knowledge thanks to the presupposed uniqueness of the forms of
human reason. In fact Neo-Kantian philosophers soon proposed an interpretation of
the new scientific theories that was not only in keeping with Kants doctrine, but
was even considered a solid confirmation of it. Ernst Cassirer was certainly the most
prominent representative of such a trend,2 according to which the objectivity of
scientific knowledge was made dependent on an a priori transcendental structure of
the human mind. The same Cassirer, however, later abandoned this rigid form of
transcendentalism, and developed a philosophy of the symbolic forms in which
language, the cultural conditionings of the human mind and their historical
evolution are seriously investigated and taken into consideration, so that his major
contribution is usually considered to belong to the philosophy of culture.3 All
these were certainly very important philosophical achievments, that help us to better
understand what we could call the salient features of a collective mind but are still
insufficient to understand that typical feature of intersubjetivity that characterizes
the sciences in a genuine transcultural sense. Moreover, the empirical and
experimental dimension of the natural sciences is too poorly accounted for in this
transcendentalist approach.
This second point, in particular, is vigorously stressed in a work by Hans
Reichenbach on Relativity Theory4 to which a cursory allusion is made precisely in
Cassirers work of 1921. Reichenbachs position is strongly influenced by the
radical empiricism that was characterizing at that time both the Berlin and the
Vienna Circles of New-Positivism, and is thematically addressed against the notion
of an a priori knowledge. From this point of view we must say that it correctly
expressed the referential aim of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless the question
remains open whether the presupposition of radical empiricism was posing
insuperable obstacles to the constitution of scientific intersubjectivity,5 and even
whether it was, in the last analysis, an obstacle for the satisfaction of the referential

This cross-fertilization between Kantianism and modern science is clearly advocated in Cassirer (1910),
and is deepened in Cassirer (1921). In this second work Cassirer engages himself in a detailed and
technically very competent analysis of the General Theory of Relativity (recently published at that time)
andthrough a skillful reference to Kants texts of different periods of his thoughttries to show how a
suitable elaboration of the transcendental forms of human reason, when applied to the knowledge of the
spatio-temporal structure of the physical world, can produce that geometrization of the physical universe
which is the core of General Relativity.
For these further developments are particularly significant Cassirer (Cassirer 19231929) and (1944).
Reichenbach (1920).
In fact this problem was central to Carnaps efforts for really getting rid of the methodological
solipsism that he had adopted in Carnap (1928) and reappeared with new force in the dispute on
protocols he had with Schlick and Neurat [see Carnap (1932)].

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aim of science. The sense of this second question can be easily expressed as follows:
in the new physical theories it was spoken (just to mention the most obvious
examples) of photons, quanta of action, electrons, to which physical magnitudes
were assigned experimentally (simply think of Millikans determination of the
charge of the electron obtained in 1909), and different models of the internal
structure of the atom were proposed and discussed. All this went much further than
the pure record of nude items of observation, and the spontaneous question was
whether this amounted to a knowledge of the real physical world (a knowledge
that had been the aim of natural science during all its history). An affirmative
answer to this question characterizes a realist conception of science, whereas a
negative answer is a fundamental feature of anti-realist conceptions.
Unfortunately a clear-cut division on this issue is difficult to trace and the same
Kant had declared himself, in a famous statement of the Critique of Pure Reason, at
the same time an empirical realist and a transcendental idealist, but had to
devote several complicated pages of the first edition of his Critique in order to
disentangle this paradox,6 that was due to the fact that he considered the
impressions of the external senses a sufficient warrant for affirming the
(inferred) pure and simple existence of the things of the external world, whose
representation in the mind, however, are pure appearances or phenomena. These
phenomena, once structured and organized by the categories of the intellect,
constitute the objects of our knowledge which, however, has no warrant of being a
representation of the things of the external world and whose validity relies only on
the universality and necessity of the transcendental conditions that can overcome the
intrinsic subjectivity of the phenomena. Therefore, also for Kant objectivity is
equated with intersubjectivity, and is the maximum attainable status of scientific
knowledge, whose phenomenal level cannot be transcended.
A conception similar to that of Kant was rather common among the professional
scientists at the beginning of the twentieth century, and is clearly expressed in a
paper by Max Planck7 where he sharply distinguishes the inaccessible real world
from the world of sense perceptions and sees the task of science as that of
constructing a physical world-picture which should depict an objective relation-
ship between these two worlds.8 Also in this case, however, the central problem
appeared that of overcoming the privacy of the sense perceptions and defending
their capability of establishing a significant contact with the real external world,
especially because, whereas Kant could believe in a pure receptivity of the senses
that did not intervene in the presentation of phenomena, such a conception was no
longer tenable after the results of the Gestalt psychology of the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century.

C f. the Critique of the fourth paralogism of Transcendental Psychology in Critique of Pure Reason,
A 345 ff. The correct interpretation of this Kantian doctrine (that has not been resumed in the second
edition of the Critique) has been the object of learned disputes in the Kantian literature.
Cf. Positivismus und reale Aussenwelt in Planck (1933, pp. 208232).
These conceptions are expressed in a less detailed way at the beginning of a more accessible paper:
The Scientists Picture of the Physical Universe, which is available in English in Planck (1932).

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5 Intersubjectivity

5.1 General Considerations

The meaning of a concept is usually better clarified if we can indicate its opposite,
and in the case of primitive concepts (i.e. of those for which no definition is
possible) this is the only available strategy. Coming now to the concept objective,
if we ask what its meaning is in the ordinary language, we certainly would answer
that it is the opposite of subjective and, since subjective is easily understood as
meaning dependent on the subject, a first conclusion is at hand: objective
means independent of the subject. This conclusion is still vague, as it is not said
to what kind of entities the property of being objective or subjective applies, since it
is usually spoken, for instance, of an objective (or subjective) person, judgment,
report, description. It is not difficult, however, to recognize that in these examples
an implicit reference is made to the content of these discourses andthough they
are all singular and often produced by one single person - it is meant that their
value is independent of the person (or persons) who have produced such a
discourse. But now we must clarify in what consists the said independence and one
could say that the content of the discourse is not biased by the private
idiosyncrasies, prejudices, inclinations, interpretations of the subject or subjects
involved, such that whatever subject ought to accept that discourse.
In this way we may think to have obtained a rather satisfactory clarification of the
notion of intersubjectivity and, therefore, also the clarification of a first meaning of
objectivity, that is, the meaning directly descending from the fact that, in ordinary
language, objective is the opposite of subjective. What is rather unsatisfactory,
however, is that no reference to an object appears in this characterization of
objectivity, despite the fact that the linguistic root of this term is precisely object
and this would push us to say, for instance, that objective is a description of what
is inherent in the object. We will call strong the objectivity understood in this
second sense, and weak the objectivity understood as intersubjectivity. For reasons
that have been outlined in the discussion of the crisis of modern science, the hope
to credit science with strong objectivity was abandoned at the beginning of the
twentieth century, and objectivity was understood according to different forms of
intersubjectivity. Now, however, we must consider a serious difficulty that one
meets in the understanding of intersubjectivity.
Let us call notion, for brevity, whatever content of an act of cognition, be it a
sensation, a perception, a feeling, an imagination, a concept. In this general sense
are notions, for example, red, bottle, pain, Pegasus, number, good, beautiful, and so
on. Since one necessarily knows in this general sense only in the first person, that
is, individually, the content of ones cognitive acts is strictly private and one does
not see how it could be shared by other subjects, or even compared with analogous
notions they are supposed to have. In other words, I cannot perceive other peoples
perceptions, feel their feelings, imagine their imaginations, think their thoughts, and
this is the situation of solipsism that so many philosophers have advocated and is a
usual ground for skepticism. This situation, in addition, seems to make impossible

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intersubjectivity (understood in the specific cognitive sense that we are considering

here). Against this alleged impossibility stands, however, a fact of life, that
humans are able to communicate, that they understand each other, that they use a
great deal of notions without equivocation, so that it is correct to say that they give
the same meaning to these notions. Therefore, the real issue is not to investigate
whether intersubjectivity is possible (since its occurring is something evident) but to
investigate how it is possible and, from what we have just seen, it is clear that the
condition for this possibility is not that of sharing the individual contents of
knowledge. The solution comes from the awareness that it is not the way of
conceiving a notion, but the way of using it that can give an acceptable sense to the
idea that we share the same notion. Intersubjectivity, in such a way, consists in an
agreement in the use of the notion, that can be ascertained with sufficient certainty
and independently of the possible not explorable differences in the subjective way
of conceiving the notion.
A couple of examples will clarify this discourse. Let us imagine that I am not
sure that a certain person has the same notion of red as I have. In order to check this
I can invite her to make some operations, such as selecting a red pencil from a
bundle of colored pencils, press a red button, stop at a red light, and so on. If I
ascertain that in all these circumstances the person has done precisely what I would
have done, I can conclude (after a reasonable number of checks) that we have the
same notion of red, without the need (nor the possibility) of comparing our
internal way of perceiving this color. Let us now consider an abstract example,
that of the mathematical notion of logarithm. In order to check whether or not his
pupil has understood this notion, a school teacher will not content himself with a
correct repetition of the verbal definition of this notion, but will invite the pupil to
operate with this notion in a series of exercises in which the different aspects of this
notion are implied. If the pupil correctly does the exercises the teacher will conclude
that he has grasped the notion of logarithm, despite the fact that the pupil cannot
obviously conceive this notion with the richness of details that his teacher should
These examples are useful also because they show that resorting to language
alone cannot really solve the problem of intersubjectivity (if we pretend this to
consist in a sharing of our cognitive states), since language itself is a tool by means
of which we use the notions. As such it certainly contributes to a certain shaping of
them, but cannot replace the role of some more fundamental non-linguistic

5.2 Intersubjectivity in the Sciences

A first impression might be that intersubjectivity is a good means for getting rid of
perspectivism, since this concept is often understood as the claim that whatever
knowledge is strictly dependent on the point of view of the subject having this
knowledge. Nevertheless it is very common in ordinary language to speak of point
of view according to a neutral sense, that is, in order to refer to a particular
approach within which a certain reality, problem, question, issue may be
considered: one can consider an issue, e.g., from the point of view of law, of profit,

Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365 359

of morality, of social impact, and this would not imply accepting ideas or judgments
of any particular person, but only analyzing the issue by means of the conceptual
tools of a certain discipline. This, in particular, is the sense in which we normally
say that every science considers reality from its own specific point of view. That this
point of view is far from opening the door to subjectivism is proved by the fact that
the discourse of the genuine sciences is understood across political and cultural
borders, and this happens because every mature science avails itself of an ideally
standardized language, in which a reduced set of predicates have a clearly defined
technical meaning which precisely expresses the point of view of the science in
question. So, for example, we say that reality (or even a single thing) is considered
from the point of view of mechanics, if it is spoken of by using the predicates
mass, position in space, time duration, force. That it is considered from
the point of view of biology if it is spoken of by means of predicates such as life,
metabolism. That it is considered from the point of view of economics if it
spoken of by means of predicates such as price, market, demand and supply.
The professionals of a certain science are those persons who have acquired the
necessary competence for understanding and using this disciplinary language and
therefore can intersubjectively communicate among themselves by using it (though
using also some of the ordinary languages as a subsidy for communication). The
advantage of the disciplinary language for a science is not only that of endowing it with a
public discourse but also that of offering us a good opportunity for checking the
soundness of the conception of intersubjectivity advanced in this paper. Limiting our
discussion to the empirical sciences, we can note that among the predicates of their
disciplinary language there are quite few that we can call basic, both in the sense that
they more closely express the point of view of that science, but especially because they
are such that sentences containing only these predicates can be recognized as
immediately true (or immediately false) within that science thanks to the adoption of
certain standardized operations that are linked with these predicates and are an essential
part of the competence required for entering the disciplinary discourse of the science in
question. For example, the statement the mass of this thing is x kge belongs to the
disciplinary language of mechanics and can be tested and found immediately true or
false by the standard operational procedure of using a scale. A similar discourse can be
repeated about other disciplines that have attained the mature status of a science.
Our reflections seem very close to the empiricist view of science, and our
immediately true statements sound very much like the protocols of the logical-
empiricist dispute. Certain affinities certainly exist, and we have no difficulty in
calling protocols our immediately true statements, but the differences are not less
important. The most salient is that logical empiricists, and the whole of analytic
philosophy of science, have constantly spoken of observations (also when trying to
establish a link between the scientific language and its intended referents), but
observations are inexorably private and subjective, whereas we speak of operations
and these, as we have stressed, belong to praxis and thanks to this they can break the
circle of subjectivity. Nevertheless, our position cannot be identified with
operationalism, such as it was advocated especially by Bridgman, and was also
in a certain sense a kind of starting point of Einsteins Relativity Theory. In both
cases the prescription to keep faithful to effective measurement operations was a

360 Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365

warning against a presumption of general validity of concepts and, therefore, was an

expression of strict empiricism.9
In conclusion, perspectivism adequately characterizes scientific knowledge, since
this is distinct from ordinary knowledge by the fact of intentionally investigating
reality only from a specific point of view and not in general. It is perfectly compatible
with weak objectivity because, in the sciences, the specific perspective is always linked
with specific standardized operations that allow for intersubjective agreement.10

6 The Referentiality of Scientific Knowledge11

In ordinary discourse we find not only the assertion that any science considers
reality from its own point of view but also the assertion that every science
investigates not reality in general but only its own proper obiects. This second
claim is interesting because it explicitly contains the term object but especially
because it has a clear referential sense: it reflects the idea that knowledge always is
knowledge of something and scientific knowledge essentially consists in reducing
this general scope of knowledge to a much more restricted and delimited field, the
field of the specific objects of the single disciplines. In other words, whereas
intersubjectivity focuses on the epistemological aspect of knowledge, this hint at
reference focuses on the ontological aspect of knowledge. Is this only an
unconscious heritage of the old realist conception of science that has survived
in common sense the crisis of which we have already spoken? It would be too
hasty to affirm this, all depends on how we conceive objects and we have seen, for
example, that there is a Kantian sense of this concept that could perhaps play this
referential role, but also different meanings of this concept could perhaps play this
role. Therefore, this issue requires a closer scrutiny.
A spontaneous interpretation of the assertion that every science only studies its
own objects is that a given science selects, within the enormous display of existing
things, a much more limited subdomain of things and decides to study them:
zoology is only concerned with animals, botany with plants, astronomy with
celestial bodies, mineralogy with stones, numismatics with coins, jurisprudence
with laws, and so on. This view roughly corresponds, in our metaphor, to the idea
that each science only studies what can be seen from a particular window, ignoring

In fact Bridgman strongly defended a subjectivist view of science: In the last analysis science is only
my private science, art is my private art, religion my private religion, etc. The fact that in deciding what
will be my private science I find it profitable to consider only those aspects of my direct experience in
which my fellow beings act in a particular way, cannot obscure the essential fact that it is mine and
naught else. Public Science is a particular kind of science of private individuals. (Bridgman 1936,
pp. 1314).
Let us note that, despite continuously speaking of observations and observables, analytic
philosophers of science and also working scientist actually refer not to the spontaneous approach to the
world through the unaided sense organs, but to the last segment of complex operational procedures that
(especially in the most advanced sciences) entail the trained use of sophisticated instruments and the
skillful reading of their results.
The arguments presented in the following parts of this paper are developed in detail especially
in chapters 4 and 5 of Agazzi (2014).

Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365 361

all the rest of the landscape that is left to other sciences. Even so, however, this
interpretation of the specialized interest of the single sciences is not satisfactory
because it overlooks that (in our metaphor) looking from a given window was
equated with adopting a certain point of view, and not with seeing what was by
chance accessible from that window. Leaving aside the metaphor, animals, plants,
stars, coins are not just things but already things identifiable thanks to certain
properties they have, properties that may be so elementary as to be easily
recognized at the level of ordinary knowledge and denoted by words of ordinary
language but which in any case characterize a particular point of view under which
things are considered. These remarks are sufficient for bypassing this first idea
regarding the specialized nature of scientific disciplines which, by the way, would
be inapplicable to more general and fundamental sciences like physics, chemistry,
biology, economics, psychology. In addition, it can be absorbed in the following
general conception of scientific objects understood as proper referents of the single
sciences: objects of a certain science are all things that can be known from the point
of view of the said science, and this means that all the basic predicates of this
science apply to these things. A more intuitive way of expressing this conception is
to say that every science clips out of the wide world of things those to which its
particular point of view applies. Each one of these clippings constitutes at the
same time the domain of reference and the domain of discourse of the science in
question. An immediate corollary is that no single thing can be considered as the
object of a particular science but that each thing can be the object of several
sciences, depending on the different points of view under which it can be
considered. An easy example will clarify this claim.
Let us consider a watch that I hold in my hand and which as such can be
considered a thing of ordinary experience that we find in the world. This thing
can become an object of mechanics if, for instance, I ask some questions regarding
its mass, the laws governing the motion of its internal gears; but it can also become
an object of chemistry if I ask questions regarding the composition of the alloy of
which its body is made, or the degree of purity of the rubies inside it; it can become
the object of economics if I inquire about its price on the watch market; it can
become a historical object if I ask the question whether or not this watch once
belonged to Napoleon, or something of this kind. Therefore, one sees that whatever
thing can be the object of whatever science, depending on the fact that it can be
considered from the point of view of that science.
A few sentences may be sufficient for connecting the notion of clipping with
the discourse we have already made in this paper. Every science realizes its clipping
by using in its language a limited number of specific technical predicates that it
employs for speaking about things. These predicates are intended to correspond to
certain attributes (that is, properties, relations and functions) that are present in
things (though not necessarily all in whatever thing). So the use of predicates such
as those of mass, length, duration and force determines the clipping (and
hence the objects) of mechanics; the use of predicates such as those of
metabolism, generation, etc. determines the objects of biology; whereas if
we use predicates such as price, market value, supply and demand we are
constructing the objects of economics.

362 Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365

The mention of attributes understood not in their more common grammatical

sense (i.e.,as parts of a language) but in their technical ontological sense of
properties, relations and functions residing in things patently discloses the
ontological sense of the referential aspect of the concept of scientific object. This
ontological sense is realist, that is, not simply linguistic or mental because, as we
have already seen, the operations by means of which the protocol sentences of a
science are tested are not linguistic nor mental, but practical: they consist in doing
something, not in speaking or conceiving of something. In order to see that the
objects of a science are not created by the science itself (as certain anti-realists
maintain) is sufficient to consider such an elementary thing as a toot-ache: it is
certainly real (as can be testified by anyone who has experienced it), but it cannot
become the object of mechanics, because it has no mass.
The decisive role of operations becomes apparent if we consider that the same
operational procedures are those that allow for the constitution of the objects, and at
the same time are the condition for the intersubjective knowledge of these objects.
This convergence of two different lines of thought amounts to the convergence of
weak objectivity with strong objectivity in the case of the sciences. The analysis of
intersubjectivity has ended up with the operational testing of the protocol sentences,
and in this sense has brought about the place of realism within perspectivism; the
awareness that scientific objects are real but at the same time determined by
specialized points of view has shown the role of perspectivism within realism.

7 The Reality of the Unobservable

The man in the street is likely to consider crazy a person who does not accept that
are real the stones, plants, mountains, animals, chairs, tables that we can observe
around us thanks to our unaided sense organs. Certain anti-realist philosophers
(whose most typical representative is bas van Fraassen12) want to keep this
common-sensical attitude also in the case of science and limit their claim to denying
that we have to admit the reality of the unobservable entities introduced in scientific
theories (one can even accept a scientific theory without being obliged to believe
that the unobservable entities it introduces exist). We do not want to enter the
discussion of the subtleties implicit in this mixing of ontological, epistemological
and epistemic categories, and shall only make a preliminary remark: in practically
every circumstance, in order to understand and explain what we see, we look for
something that we do not see. This is not a strange attitude of humans, but
precisely the manifestation of their being endowed with reason, that is, with a
capability of extending their knowledge beyond what is given in sense perceptions.
Of course, in this cognitive efforts errors are possible, and have often occurred, but
it is also undeniable that the tremendous and admirable amount of knowledge
acquired by humans thanks to this cognitive use of reason (including the correction
of their errors) could not exist without this practice, and science has been one of the
most prominent examples of this fact. We can call theoretical knowledge that

Cf. van Fraassen (1980).

Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365 363

acquired by going beyond the empirical knowledge, but there is no reason or

argument that would oblige us to attribute only to the empirical the capability of
attaining reality. One might submit, on this point, that theoretical knowledge is
never endowed with certainty, which is on the contrary the privilege of sensory
knowledge. Little knowledge of the history of philosophy refutes this claim and it
would be sufficient to mention Descartes in order to see that doubt can affect
sensory knowledge even more strongly than intellectual knowledge.
Focusing on this point, however, would distract our attention from the core of the
issue: if we have sufficient reasons for believing that what a theory says is true, for
the same reasons we must admit that the entities of which it speaks exist. This
general methodological rule holds also for any talk regarding observable entities: if
we read in a printed report that there is a fountain at a certain place, and have
sufficient reasons for believing that the report is reliable, that is, true, for the same
reasons we must admit that the fountain exits at that place. In both cases the implicit
ground of the argument is the notion of truth, with its bidirectional aspect: if a
certain fact exists, then the statement describing it is true; if a statement is true, then
the fact that it describes exists.
In our conception we have maintained that the protocols are immediately true and
the operations are at the same time criteria of reference and criteria of truth for
them, but the protocols are empirical statements. What about theories? Can they
be considered true or false? For a few decadeswithin the analytic philosophy of
science descending from logical empiricismthey have been considered linguistic
constructions for which it makes sense to say that they are true or false, and their
task was considered that of offering explanations of empirical data according to the
well-known nomological-deductive model. For reasons that we cannot recall here,
that view of theories was dismissed, and preference goes today to a perspectivist
conception (which we share) according to which a theory is a global view, or
representation, or model of the domain of objects of a certain science. As such, it
cannot be said to be true or false in exactly the same sense as a statement. A theory,
however, in order to be intersubjectively shared, understood and tested, must be
formulated in explicit sentences and its testing consists in deducing from its most
problematic statements certain protocol sentences. If these are true, the theory is
confirmed, if these are false, the theory is in need of revision. With these precisions
we can say that a confirmed theory is true in an analogical sense and, therefore, that
the referents of its statements are real especially because (in the majority of the
cases occurring in the physical sciences) the experimental statement that has offered
the confirmation is not just a logical consequence of the theoretical sentences of
the theory, but is proposed as a causal consequence of the laws explicitly stated in
the theory in which the theoretical entities explicitly occurs. To put it shortly: if
we recognize that the effects of a causal chain are real, we must admit that also the
causes are real: the combination of the nature of truth and the nature of causality
justify the admission of the reality of the unobservable.

364 Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365

8 Regional Ontologies

A spontaneous objection comes to mind regarding our thesis that the truth of a
statement implies the reality of its intended referents, and a counter-example could
be the following: Hector is a Trojan warrior in the Iliad is a true statement, but
nobody could infer from its truth that Hector really existed. In order to clarify this
issue we must revisit a thesis already formulated by Aristotle, that of the analogical
meaning of being or existence. Aristotle fundamentally distinguished existence in
itself (which is proper of the substances) from existence in something else (which
is the existence of the accidents). Therefore, we cannot say, for example, that
colors do not exist, because they are not perceivable in themselves, as separate
entities, but only in some substance, that is, as properties of certain independently
existing bodies. We now propose to distinguish between different kinds of existence
that concern, in particular, also substances. In the case of our Hector, we shall say
that he exists as a literary figure, or that he has a literary existence, in the case of
Pegasus we would say that it has a mythological existence, in the case of an
electron that it has a physical existence, in the case of Napoleon that it has a
historical existence, in the case of the logarithm that it has a mathematical
existence. In order to qualify this distinction of different kinds of existence, we
borrow the Husserlian terminology ontological regions that has a certain
resemblance with the view we are presenting here. The fundamental motivation
for giving back to the notion of reality and existence the amplitude they deserve was
that it seems absurd to admit that we can pronounce true statements about non
existing things (if I have seen a black horse in a dream, it is true that I saw a black
horse and false that I saw a white horse, and this amounts to admitting that the
dreamed horse really had this property, despite not being a physical horse
endowed with physical existence).
We are aware that long discussions have been done in the history of traditional
and contemporary philosophy to distinguish what exists only in a certain sense and
what really exists. Sometimes the study of the first issue was called ontology and
that of the second metaphysics, but according to another distinction ontology is
defined as the catalogue of what exists and metaphysics as the definition of what is
what exists. Without underestimating such studies, we believe that our approach
based on the notion of truth is particularly viable. Indeed, the operational criteria of
truth that we have presented are at the same time criteria of reference in the sense of
determining the domain of objects of a given science, and this is precisely the
regional ontology it is expected to explore and to which belong also the
unobservable entities postulated by its theories. Therefore, the electron, though
not being observable, belongs to the ontology of physical entities and not to that of
mathematical entities, mental entities, imaginary entities, because the operations
performed in order to test the theories where it is postulated are physical operations.
(though much mathematics, conceptualization and imagination might have been
used to construct its theory). For similar reasons Pegasus, that is described as a
winged horse, belongs to the ontology of mythological entities, and not to that of
zoology nor of material entities existing in space and time, because the operations

Axiomathes (2016) 26:349365 365

suitable for knowing what its properties and history were must be those of the
historical and literary inquiry.
The usefulness of this approach is that it underscores distinctions without
entailing separations because, as we have already noted, one single thing (be it a
physical entity, a situation, a process, a problem, a decision) can be considered from
different points of view or perspectives, but these must coherently combine in a
certain unity, like the respective regional ontologies are joint in the unity of the
thing. This is the specific job and challenge of the interdisciplinary work that must
avoid the dangers of reductionism (that would give to one perspective the right to be
the discourse on the whole) as well as the dangers of the scattered imperialism of
specialism, that would make impossible the unification of the different perspectives.

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