Retail Realism and Wholesale Treatments of Theoretical Entities

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Hricko, Jonathon
preprint description
According to retail realism, we ought to abandon wholesale arguments, which purport to demonstrate realism or anti-realism about theoretical entities in general, and embrace retail arguments, which purport to demonstrate realism or anti-realism about specific kinds of theoretical entities. My aim is to argue that there is a further wholesale element that retail realism must avoid in order to qualify as a viable position. In order to do so, I distinguish between what I call wholesale and retail treatments of theoretical entities. Wholesale treatments individuate theoretical entities in such a way that the same entity can appear in distinct theories. In that case, realism about a given entity implies realism about that entity as it appears in a number of distinct theories. Retail treatments, on the other hand, individuate theoretical entities more finely, so that distinct theories actually involve distinct entities. In that case, realism about one entity needn't imply realism about a similar, but distinct, entity. I argue that retail realists ought to reject wholesale treatments in favor of retail treatments, and I do so by examining a case from the history of chemistry involving the hypothetical constituent of hydrochloric acid known as the muriatic radical. I argue that there are distinct muriatic radicals in distinct theories, and that we ought to be realists about some, but not others. Hence, in this case, a retail treatment is preferable to a wholesale one, and I conclude by discussing why the combination of retail realism and retail treatments constitutes an attractive position within the scientific realism debate more generally.