Instrumental realism — a few key points

Continuing my reading of Ihde (1991), I’m getting to the meat of his argument where he compares and constrasts his instrumental realist position with two contemporaries: Heelan (1989), whom Ihde points out is a double doctorate in physics and philosophy and so might be especially capable of philosophizing about physics praxis, and Hacking (1983), who is from my perspective the most famous of the three.

Ihde argues that he, Hacking, and Heelan are all more or less instrumental realists, but that Ihde and Heelan draw more from the phenomenological tradition, which emphasizes embodied perception and action, whereas Hacking is more in the Anglo-American ‘analytic’ tradition of starting from analysis of language. Ihde’s broader argument in the book is one of convergence: he uses the fact that many different schools of thought have arrived at similar conclusions to support the idea that those conclusions are true. That makes perfect sense to me.

Broadly speaking, instrumental realism is a position that unites philosophy of science with philosophy of technology to argue that:

  • That science is able to grasp, understand, theorize the real
  • That this reality is based on embodied perception and praxis. Or, in the more analytic framing, on observation and experiment.
  • That scientific perception and praxis is able to go “beyond” normal, every-day perception and praxis because of its use of scientific instruments, of which the microscope is a canonical example.
  • This position counters many simple relativistic threats to scientific objectivity and integrity, but does so by placing emphasis on scientific tooling. Science advances, mainly, by means of the technologies and infrastructures that it employs.
  • This position is explicitly embodied and materialist, counter to many claims that scientific realism depends on its being disembodied or transcendental.

This is all very promising though there are nuances to work out. Ihde’s study of his contemporaries is telling.

Ihde paints Heelan as a compelling thinker on this topic, though a bit blinkered by his emphasis on physics as the true or first science. Heelean’s view of scientific perception is that it is always both perception and measurement. Being what Ihde calls a “Euro-American” (which I think is quite funny), Ihde can describe him as therefore saying that scientific observation is both a matter of perception-praxis and a matter of hermeneutics–by which I mean the studying of a text in community with others or, to use the more Foucauldean term, “discourse”. Measurement, somewhat implicitly here is a kind of standardized way of “reading”. Ihde makes a big deal out of the subtle differences between “seeing” and “reading”.

To the extent that “discourse”, “hermeneutics”, “reading”, etc. imply a weakness of the scientific standpoint, they weigh against the ‘realism’ of instrumental realism. However, the term measurement is telling in that the difference between, say, different units of measurement of length, mass, time, etc. does not challenge the veracity of the claim “there are 24 hours in a day” because translating between different units is trivial.

Ihde characterizes Hacking as a fellow traveler, converging on instrumental realism when he breaks from his own analytic tradition to point out that experiment is one of the most important features of science, and that experiment depends on and is advanced by instrumentation. Ihde writes that Hacking is quite concerned about “(a) how an instrument is made, particularly with respect to theory-driven design, and (b) the physical processes entailed in the “how” or conditions of use.” Which makes perfect sense to me–that’s exactly what you’d want to scrutinize if you’d taking the ‘realism’ in instrumental realism seriously.

Ihde’s positions here, as the positions of his contemporaries, seem perfectly reasonable to me. I’m quite happy to adopt this view; it corresponds to conclusions I’ve reached in my own reading and practice and it’s nice to have a solid reference and term for it.

The questions that come up next are how instrumental realism applies to today’s controversies about science and technology. Just a handful of notes here:

  • I work quite a bit with scientific sofware. It’s quite clear to me that scientific software development is a major field of scientific instrumentation today. Scientists “see” and “do” via computers and software controls. This has made “data science” a core aspect of 21st century science in general, as it’s the part of science that is closest to the instrumentation. This confirms my long-held view that scientific software communities are the groups to study if you’re trying to understand sociology of science today.
  • On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly clear in scientific practice that you can’t do software-driven science without the Internet and digital services, and these are now controlled by an oligopoly of digital services conglomerates. The hardware infrastructure–data centers, caching services, telecom broadly speaking, cloud computing hubs–goes far beyond the scientific libraries. Scientific instrumentation depends critically now on mass corporate IT.
  • These issues are compounded by how Internet infrastructure–now privately owned and controlled for all intents and purposes–is also the instrument of so much social science research. Don’t get me started on social media platforms as research tools. For me, the best resource on this is Tufekci, 2014.
  • The most hot-button, politically charged critique in the philosophy of science space is that science and/or data science and/or AI as it is currently constituted is biased because of who is represented in these research communities. The position being contested is the idea that AI/data science/computational social science etc. is objective because it is designed in a way that aligns with mathematical theory.
    • I would be very interested to read something connecting postcolonial, critical race, and feminist AI/data science practices to instrumental realism directly. I think these groups ought to be able to speak to each other easily, since the instrumental realists from the start are interested in the situated embodiment of the observer.
    • On the other hand, I think it would be difficult for the critical scholars to find fault in the “hard core” of data science/computing/AI technologies/instruments because, truly, they are designed according to mathematical theory that is totally general. This is what I think people mean when they say AI is objective because it’s “just math”. AI/data science praxis makes you sensitive to what aspects of the tooling are part of the core (libraries of algorithms, based on vetted mathematical theorems) and what are more incidental (training data sets, for example, or particular parameterizations of the general algorithms). If critical scholars focused on these parts of the scientific “stack”, and didn’t make sweeping comments that sound like they implicate the “core”, which we have every reason to believe is quite solid, they would probably get less resistance.
    • On the other hand, if science is both a matter of perception-praxis and hermeneutics, then maybe the representational concerns are best left on the hermeneutic side of the equation.


Hacking, I. (1983). Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science.

Heelan, P. A. (1989). Space-perception and the philosophy of science. Univ of California Press.

Ihde, D. (1991). Instrumental realism: The interface between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology (Vol. 626). Indiana University Press.

Tufekci, Z. (2014, May). Big questions for social media big data: Representativeness, validity and other methodological pitfalls. In Eighth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.