I've just read about the distinction between instrumentalism and realism in philosophy of science, and would like to know, did instrumentalism gain popularity nowadays?

  • @JosephWeissman to be honest it's kinda yes/no question, but I'd like to see it in more details - if yes, then who supports it, in what aspects, etc, if no, then why. Feb 7, 2018 at 22:30
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    Not among scientists and not among philosophers of science. Dewey made the name popular in 1920-s, but most scientists are instinctively realist, and philosophers objected that there is a clear distinction between truth and utility. It went out of fashion after 1950-s, along with positivism and behaviorism. Interestingly, instrumentalism was popular with some economists (Foster, Friedman). In economics one can not do experiments to verify speculative details one by one, and only the overall conception can be put to a test, as it were. Hence it is likely to have only instrumental value.
    – Conifold
    Feb 8, 2018 at 0:30
  • @Conifold wait your last sentence made be think I might not understand the term probably. Isn't instrumentalism basically means that science is just an instrument used to view one aspect of the world? If so, I don't see the relation to your last sentence in economics. Plus, I don't really see why philosophers would reject it so much, it seems quite reasonable - if we're not physical realists, saying there more to the world than what science shows us is quite reasonable. Feb 8, 2018 at 10:00
  • Philosophical terms rarely mean just what etymology suggests, see instrumentalism.
    – Conifold
    Feb 8, 2018 at 21:15
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    @QuentinRuyant A distinction is often made between Jamesian and Peircean pragmatism, the difference being, among other things, that James saw it as a theory of truth while Peirce as a theory of meaning. Hence James anticipated social constructivism while Peirce remained a realist. But I always assumed that Dewey was closer to James's "truth is what works" than to Peirce. Semantic "instrumentalism" sports plenty of big names, at least according to Rorty and Brandom.
    – Conifold
    Feb 14, 2018 at 5:06

1 Answer 1


If instrumentalism is very roughly the view that scientific theories are (only) instruments for making predictions, it is not an appproach widely favoured explicitly in the philosophy of science. But it is sympathetically explored by a very respectable and mainstream philosopher of science, Elliott Sober, who also connects it loosely with the criterion of simplicity (on which he has written extensively) and verisimilitude.

Sober brings some conceptual discrimination to the discussion of instrumentalism by distinguishing between methodological, semantic and what he calls 'personal' instrumentalism.

See Elliott Sober, 'Instrumentalism Revisited', Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Vol. 31, No. 91 (Apr., 1999), pp. 3-39.


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