Mary Hesse

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Mary B. Hesse

Mary Hesse.jpg
Mary Brenda Hesse

15 October 1924
Died2 October 2016 (aged 91)
EducationImperial College, University College London
OccupationPhilosopher of Science
EmployerUniversity of London, University of Cambridge

Mary Brenda Hesse FBA (15 October 1924 – 2 October 2016) was an English philosopher of science, latterly a professor in the subject at the University of Cambridge.[1]


Mary Hesse was born in Reigate, Surrey, to Ethelbert (Bertie) Thomas Hesse and Brenda Hesse (née Pelling).[2]

From 1949, she studied at Imperial College London, where she received a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1945, followed by a PhD in electron microscopy in 1948.[2] She earned a master's degree in 1949 from University College London.[2] Hesse lectured on mathematics at Royal Holloway College from 1947 to 1951, and at the University of Leeds from 1951 to 1955.[3] From 1955 to 1959 she taught philosophy and history of science at the University of London (the subject of her 1949 UCL master's degree).[2][3] In 1960 she was appointed to a lectureship in the same subject at the University of Cambridge, and in 1968 to a readership.[3] Hesse was a Fellow of Wolfson College from its beginning in 1965, and served as its Vice-President from 1976 to 1980.[4] From 1975 until her early retirement in 1985, she remained at Cambridge as Professor of Philosophy of Science.[3][2]

Hesse was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971, as president of the Philosophy of Science Association in 1979, and awarded a Cambridge honorary ScD in 2002.[3][5]


Hesse's work has focused on the philosophical interpretation of logic and scientific methods, as well as to the principles of the natural and social sciences. She suggested a scientific methodology based on an analogical modelling approach. She distinguishes those models in formal and material, as well as positive, negative and neutral analog properties.

Models and Analogies in Science[edit]

Her publication Models and Analogies in Science is a widely cited and accessible introduction to the topic. Hesse argues, contra Duhem, that models and analogies are integral to understanding scientific practice in general and scientific advancement in particular, especially how the domain of a scientific theory is extended and how theories generate genuinely novel predictions. Examples of such models include the famous billiard ball model of the dynamical theory of gases and models of light based on analogies to sound and water waves.

Hesse thought that, in order help us understand a new system or phenomenon, we will often create an analogical model that compares this new system or phenomenon with a more familiar system or phenomenon. In her book, Hesse makes a distinction between three types of analogues in scientific models:

  • Positive analogies,
  • Negative analogies, and
  • Neutral analogies.

Positive analogies are those features which are known or thought to be shared by both systems, negative analogies are those features which are known or thought to be present in one system but absent in the other, and neutral analogies are those features whose status as positive or negative analogies is uncertain at present.

Neutral analogies are by far the most interesting of the three types of analogies, for they suggest ways to test the limits of our models, guiding the way for scientific advancement. In the late 19th century, for example, the idea that light-waves have a physical medium called the luminiferous ether would have been best thought of as a neutral analogy with water and sound waves. Eventually, due to a null result in the Michelson–Morley and Trouton–Noble experiments, as well as other similar experiments, this analogy came to be accepted as a negative analogy - we now accept that light has no physical medium, unlike sound and water waves. The discovery of this negative analogy led to further advances, including the unification of electromagnetic theory with optics, and the eventual creation of new and more informative models of light.



Essay collections:

Academic papers/book chapters, a selection:

(Full Annotated Bibliography by Matteo Collodel).[7]


  1. ^ Hallberg, Margareta (2017-06-01). "Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science: Mary Hesse (1924–2016)". Journal for General Philosophy of Science. 48 (2): 161–171. doi:10.1007/s10838-017-9364-1. ISSN 1572-8587.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Mary Hesse". The Times. 2016-12-31. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Professor Mary Hesse (1924–2016) | HPS". Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  4. ^ "Professor Mary Hesse | Wolfson College Cambridge". 2016-03-06. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  5. ^ "Mary Brenda Hesse". The Gifford Lectures. 2014-08-18. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  6. ^ "The Construction of Reality". The Gifford Lectures. 2014-08-18. Retrieved 2019-09-16.
  7. ^ Collodel, Matteo. "Website in Honour of Mary Hesse". Website in Honour of Mary Hesse. Retrieved 2019-09-16.

External links[edit]