, Volume 196, Issue 3, pp 833–861 | Cite as

Systematicity theory meets Socratic scientific realism: the systematic quest for truth

  • Timothy D. LyonsEmail author
Article Type S.I.: Systematicity - The Nature of Science


Systematicity theory—developed and articulated by Paul Hoyningen-Huene—and scientific realism constitute separate encompassing and empirical accounts of the nature of science. Standard scientific realism asserts the axiological thesis that science seeks truth and the epistemological thesis that we can justifiably believe our successful theories at least approximate that aim. By contrast, questions pertaining to truth are left “outside” systematicity theory’s “intended scope” (21); the scientific realism debate is “simply not” its “focus” (173). However, given the continued centrality of that debate in the general philosophy of science literature, and given that scientific realists also endeavor to provide an encompassing empirical account of science, I suggest that these two contemporary accounts have much to offer one another. Overlap for launching a discussion of their relations can be found in Nicholas Rescher’s work. Following through on a hint from Rescher, I embrace a non-epistemic, purely axiological scientific realism—what I have called, Socratic scientific realism. And, bracketing the realist’s epistemological thesis, I put forward the axiological tenet of scientific realism as a needed supplement to systematicity theory. There are two broad components to doing this. First, I seek to make clear that axiological realism and systematicity theory accord with one another. Toward that end, after addressing Hoyningen-Huene’s concerns about axiological analysis, I articulate a refined axiological realist meta-hypothesis: it is, in short, that the end toward which scientific inquiry is directed is an increase in a specific subclass of true claims. I then identify a key feature of scientific inquiry, not generally flagged explicitly, that I take to stand as shared terrain for the two empirical meta-hypotheses. And I argue that this feature can be informatively accounted for by my axiological meta-hypothesis. The second broad component goes beyond mere compatibility between the two positions: I argue that, in want of a systematic account of science, we are prompted to find an end toward which scientific inquiry is directed that is deeper than what systematicity theory offers. Specifically, I argue that my refined axiological realist meta-hypothesis is required to both explain and justify key dimensions of systematicity in science. To the quick question, what is it that the scientific enterprise is systematically doing? My quick answer is that it is systematically seeking to increase a particular subclass of true claims.


Scientific realism Systematicity theory Theories of scientific inquiry Aims of science Axiological scientific realism Scientific method Theory choice Explanatory virtues Socratic scientific realism 



Research for this paper was supported by the AHRC (Grant No. AH/L011646/1), UK, Grant: Contemporary Scientific Realism and the History of Science. I thank three anonymous referees along with Hasok Chang, Bschir Karim, and Simon Lohse for their very helpful feedback. Thanks also to Joe Breidenstein. This paper is dedicated to my friend and former graduate student Adam Hayden, his wife, Whitney, and their children.


  1. Aristotle. (1984). In J. Barnes (Ed.), Complete works of Aristotle (Vol. 1). Revised Oxford translation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Börner, K. (2010). Atlas of science: Visualizing what we know. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Daeschler, E., Shubin, N., & Jenkins, F. (2006). A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan. Nature, 440, 757–763.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Earman, J., & Glymour, C. (1980). Relativity and eclipses: The British eclipse expeditions of 1919 and their predecessors. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 11, 49–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Einstein, A. (1915). Explanation of the perihelion motion of Mercury from the general theory of relativity. In The collected papers of Albert Einstein, Doc. 24. Volume 6: The Berlin years: Writings, 1914–1917 (pp. 112–116). (English translation supplement, translation by Brian Doyle)Google Scholar
  6. Hempel, C. (1966). The philosophy of natural science. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  7. Herschel, J. (1849). Outlines of astronomy, 1869 (10th ed.). London: P. F. Collier and Son.Google Scholar
  8. Hoare, M. (2005). The quest for the true figure of the earth: Ideas and expeditions in four centuries of geodesy, science, technology and culture, 1700–1945. Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  9. Hoyningen-Huene, P. (2014). Systematicity: The nature of science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Kuhn, T. (1977). Objectivity, value judgment, and theory choice. In T.S. Kuhn (Ed.), The essential tension (pp. 320–39). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  11. Lipton, P. (2004). Inference to the best explanation. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Lucretius. (1916). On the nature of things (Vol. 5) (W. E. Leonard Trans.). New York: EP Dutton and Co.Google Scholar
  13. Lyons, T. D. (2002). Scientific realism and the pessimistic meta-modus tollens. In S. Clarke & T. D. Lyons (Eds.), Recent themes in the philosophy of science: Scientific realism and commonsense (pp. 63–90). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lyons, T. D. (2003). Explaining the success of a scientific theory. Philosophy of Science, 70(5), 891–901.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lyons, T. D. (2005). Toward a purely axiological scientific realism. Erkenntnis, 63(2), 167–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lyons, T. D. (2006). Scientific realism and the stratagema de divide et impera. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 57(3), 537–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lyons, T. D. (2009). Non-competitor conditions in the scientific realism debate. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 23(1), 65–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lyons, T. D. (2011). The problem of deep competitors and the pursuit of unknowable truths. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 42(2), 317–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lyons, T. D. (2014). The historically informed modus ponens against scientific realism: Articulation, critique, and restoration. International Studies in Philosophy of Science, 27(4), 369–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lyons, T. D. (2015). Scientific realism. In P. Humphries (Ed.), Oxford handbook of philosophy of science. New York: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199368815.013.30.Google Scholar
  21. Lyons, T. D. (2016a). Selectivity, historical testability, and the non-epistemic tenets of scientific realism. Synthese,. doi: 10.1007/s11229-016-1103-3.Google Scholar
  22. Lyons, T. D. (2016b). Structural realism versus deployment realism: A comparative evaluation. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 59, 95–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Main, R. (1860). Address delivered by the president on presenting the gold medal of the society Professor Hansen. In Monthly notices of the royal astronomical society, volumes 19–21; volumes 1858–1861 (Vol. XX, no. 4).Google Scholar
  24. McMullin, E. (1996). Epistemic virtue and theory appraisal. In I. Douven & L. Horsten (Eds.), Realism in the sciences: Proceedings of the Ernan McMullin symposium, Leuven, 1995 (pp. 13–34). Leuven: Leuven University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Okasha, S. (2011). Theory choice and social choice: Kuhn versus Arrow. Mind, 120(477), 83–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Peirce, Charles S. (1958). Collected papers (Vol. 5). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Rescher, N. (1982). Empirical inquiry. London: Athlone Press.Google Scholar
  28. Schwarzschild, K. (1916a). On the gravitational field of a point-mass, according to Einstein’s theory (Larissa Borissova and Dmitri Rabounski (2008) Trans.). The Abraham Zelmanov Journal: The Journal for General Relativity, Gravitation and Cosmology, 1, 10–19.Google Scholar
  29. Schwarzschild, K. (1916b). On the gravitational field of a sphere of incompressible liquid, according to Einstein’s theory (Larissa Borissova and Dmitri Rabounski (2008) Trans.). The Abraham Zelmanov Journal: The Journal for General Relativity, Gravitation and Cosmology, 1, 20–32.Google Scholar
  30. Semmelweis, I. (1860). Etiology, concept and prophylaxis of childbed fever (K.C. Carter Trans.). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.Google Scholar
  31. Shubin, N., Daeschler, E., & Jenkins, F. (2006). The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb. Nature, 440, 764–771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Shubin, N., Daeschler, E., & Jenkins, F. (2014). Pelvic girdle and fin of Tiktaalik roseae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 893–899.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Thagard, P. (1978). The best explanation: Criteria for theory choice. Journal of Philosophy, 75, 76–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Tulodziecki, D. (2013). Shattering the myth of Semmelweis. Philosophy of Science, 80, 1065–1075.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Vickers, P. (2013). A confrontation of convergent realism. Philosophy of Science, 80, 189–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Wheelwright, P. (Ed.). (1966). The presocratics. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  37. Wilson, C. (2003). Astronomy and cosmology. In R. Porter (Ed.), The Cambridge history of science: Eighteenth-century science Vol. 4. (pp. 328–353). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana University–Purdue University IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations