Scientific Perspectivism
by Ronald N. Giere
University of Chicago Press, 2006
Cloth: 978-0-226-29212-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-29213-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-29214-4
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226292144.001.0001


Many people assume that the claims of scientists are objective truths. But historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science have long argued that scientific claims reflect the particular historical, cultural, and social context in which those claims were made. The nature of scientific knowledge is not absolute because it is influenced by the practice and perspective of human agents. Scientific Perspectivism argues that the acts of observing and theorizing are both perspectival, and this nature makes scientific knowledge contingent, as Thomas Kuhn theorized forty years ago.

Using the example of color vision in humans to illustrate how his theory of “perspectivism” works, Ronald N. Giere argues that colors do not actually exist in objects; rather, color is the result of an interaction between aspects of the world and the human visual system. Giere extends this argument into a general interpretation of human perception and, more controversially, to scientific observation, conjecturing that the output of scientific instruments is perspectival. Furthermore, complex scientific principles—such as Maxwell’s equations describing the behavior of both the electric and magnetic fields—make no claims about the world, but models based on those principles can be used to make claims about specific aspects of the world.

Offering a solution to the most contentious debate in the philosophy of science over the past thirty years, Scientific Perspectivism will be of interest to anyone involved in the study of science.


Ronald N. Giere is professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, a former Director of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and a past president of the Philosophy of Science Association. He is the author or editor of many books, including, most recently, Science without Laws, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“Does science deliver the unvarnished truth, or is it some kind of social construct? Giere resolves this opposition, deciding in favor of both sides by exposing the conflict as an artifact of a problematic assumption that both sides—and most of us—are making. Just one of many insights! A must read for anyone with any interest in understanding science.”
— Paul Teller, University of California, Davis

“Ronald Giere’s new book has placed perspective center stage, contributing to innovations that are changing philosophy of science today as radically as the historical turn of a half century ago. There is no view from nowhere, the sciences do not provide it, and science is not the realization of a metaphysical dream but a historically and naturally conditioned rational empirical inquiry. Giere offers the view that not only measurement results but also the representation of phenomena in theories and models are perspectival, and supports it with challenging, provocative arguments.”
— Bas C. van Fraassen, Princeton University

Scientific Perspectivism is an interesting and important book, well written and well conceived by an innovative thinker whose views are widely discussed in the philosophy of science. Giere has long been arguing in conference papers, lectures, and publications for a position he calls ‘perspectivism,’ situated between realism and social constructivism. This detailed development of the view is most welcome.”
— Nancy Cartwright, London School of Economics

“Ronald Giere uses the techniques of scientists to ask philosophical questions about science. He argues that science can be a human construct and still portray the world objectively, just as color vision is a human construct that detects objective features of the physical world. Scientific Perspectivism builds on Ronald Giere’s earlier ideas—from Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach and Science without Laws—to yield an accessible and creative account of the nature of scientific theories.  It is of broad interest to those in science studies as well as philosophy of science.”
— Miriam Solomon, Temple University

"Clear and engaging."
— Peter Lipton, Science

"A wonderful volume: insightful, compact, and readable."
— Evan Selinger, Quarterly Review of Biology


List of Illustrations


What Is the Problem?

Objective Realism





Basic Color Science

Color Subjectivism

Color Objectivism

Comparative Color Vision

Color Perspectivism

The Philosophy of Color

A Final Question


Astronomy in Color

Deep Space from the Perspective of the Hubble Telescope

The Milky Way in Gamma Ray Perspectives

Conclusions within Perspectives

Imaging the Brain

Instrumental Perspectives



Laws of Nature



Truth within a Perspective

Perspectives and Paradigms

Scientific Kinds

Perspectival Realism

The Contingency Thesis Revisited

Distributed Cognition

Scientific Observationas Distributed Cognition

Models as Parts of Distributed Cognitive Systems

Computation in Scientific Distributed Cognitive Systems

Agency in Scientific Distributed Cognitive Systems

Why Distributed Cognition?

Distributed Cognition and Perspectival Knowledge