A modest defense of manifestationalism

Synthese 192 (1):147-161 (2015)
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As the debate between realists and empiricists in the philosophy of science drags on, one point of consensus has emerged: no one wants to be a manifestationalist. The manifestationalist is a kind of radical empiricist who argues that science provides theories that aim neither at a true picture of the entire world, nor even an empirically adequate picture that captures the world in all its observable respects. For manifestationalists, science aims only at providing theories that are true to the observed aspects of reality. If the guiding idea of empiricism is that experience, and experience alone, provides us with knowledge about the world, then manifestationalism is an exceptionally strict empiricist perspective on science. Manifestationalism has primarily served within a reductio: certain empiricist views and arguments, when taken to their logical conclusion, lead to manifestationalism and so cannot be correct. The reductio works only because manifestationalism is widely agreed to be a non-starter. However, this consensus against manifestationalism is based on a single argument. We contest this assessment of manifestationalism and show that the primary argument against manifestationalism fails to hit its target. We do not intend to offer a manifesto for manifestationalism. Rather, we aim to vindicate it from a false accusation. Manifestationalism may not be the correct view of science, but the objections levied against it so far can be met.

Author Profiles

Jamin Asay
Purdue University
S. Seth Bordner
University of Alabama


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