Structuralism (philosophy of science)

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Structuralismα[›] (also known as scientific structuralism or as the structuralistic theory-concept[1]) is a research program in the philosophy of science, which was first developed in the 1970s by several analytic philosophers.


Structuralism asserts that all aspects of reality are best understood in terms of empirical scientific constructs of entities and their relations, rather than in terms of concrete entities in themselves.[2] For instance, the concept of matter should be interpreted not as an absolute property of nature in itself, but instead of how scientifically-grounded mathematical relations describe how the concept of matter interacts with other properties, whether that be in a broad sense such as the gravitational fields that mass-produces or more empirically as how matter interacts with sense systems of the body to produce sensations such as weight.[3] Its aim is to comprise all important aspects of an empirical theory in one formal framework. The proponents of this meta-theoretic theory are Frederick Suppe, Patrick Suppes, Joseph D. Sneed, Wolfgang Stegmüller, Carlos Ulises Moulines and Wolfgang Balzer.


Epistemic structural realism[edit]

The philosophical concept of (scientific) structuralism is related to that of epistemic structural realism (ESR).[2] ESR, a position originally and independently held by Henri Poincaré (1902),[4][5] Bertrand Russell (1927),[6] and Rudolf Carnap (1928),[7] was resurrected by John Worrall, who proposes that there is retention of structure across theory change. Worrall, for example, argued that Fresnel's equations imply that light has a structure and that Maxwell's equations, which replaced Fresnel's, do also; both characterize light as vibrations. Fresnel postulated that the vibrations were in a mechanical medium called "ether"; Maxwell postulated that the vibrations were of electric and magnetic fields. The structure in both cases is the vibrations and it was retained when Maxwell's theories replaced Fresnel's.[8] Because structure is retained, structural realism both (a) avoids 'pessimistic meta-induction'β[›] and (b) does not make the success of science seem miraculous.

Newman problem[edit]

The so-called Newman problem (also Newman's problem, Newman objection, Newman's objection) refers to the critical notice of Russell's The Analysis of Matter (1927) published by Max Newman in 1928.[9] Newman argued that the ESR claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the external world trivialises scientific knowledge. The basis of his argument is the realisation that "[a]ny collection of things can be organised so as to have structure W, provided there are the right number of them", where W is an arbitrary structure.[10]

Ontic structural realism[edit]

A variant upon epistemic structural realism, known as ontic structural realism (OSR), focuses more precisely on the relationships between things;[2] this position was originally and independently held by Hermann Weyl (1931),[11] Ernst Cassirer (1936),[12] and Arthur Eddington (1939).[13] OSR holds that things in themselves cannot be experienced or even known directly. The only indication that the thing in itself exists is how it relates to other entities in the world. One common example[3] is a perfectly symmetrical face. When this face is viewed in the mirror, the right eye is switched to the left side, left ear to the right side, etc. yet the resulting form is indistinguishable from the original face. This is because only the relationship between the parts of the face matter. The actual constituents have no meaning in themselves other than that they create when assembled into the final form.

See also[edit]



  • ^ α: Not to be confused with the distinct tradition of French (Semiotic) Structuralism.
  • ^ β: So-called 'pessimistic meta-inductions' about theoretical knowledge have the following basic form: "Proposition p is widely believed by most contemporary experts, but p is like many other hypotheses that were widely believed by experts in the past and are disbelieved by most contemporary experts. We have as much reason to expect p to befall their fate as not, therefore we should at least suspend judgement about p if not actively disbelieve it.


  1. ^ Wolfgang Balzer, C. Ulises Moulines (ed.), Structuralist Theory of Science: Focal Issues, New Results, Walter de Gruyter, 1996, p. 226.
  2. ^ a b c "Structural Realism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2009.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  3. ^ a b Kuhlmann, Meinard (August 2013). "What is Real?". Scientific American: 45. 
  4. ^ Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis. New York: Dover, 1952 [1902].
  5. ^ Poincaré's structuralism was combined with neo-Kantian views about the nature of arithmetic.
  6. ^ Bertrand Russell (1927). The Analysis of Matter, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  7. ^ Rudolf Carnap (1928). The Logical Structure of the World, Berkeley; University of California Press.
  8. ^ J. Worrall (1989). "Structural realism: The best of both worlds?" Dialectica, 43: p. 119; available online.
  9. ^ M. H. A. Newman, 1928. “Mr. Russell's causal theory of perception,” Mind, 37: 137–148.
  10. ^ Roman Frigg and Ioannis Votsis (2011), "Everything you always wanted to know about structural realism but were afraid to ask," European Journal for Philosophy of Science 1(2):227-276, esp. p. 250.
  11. ^ Hermann Weyl, 1950 [1931]. The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics (translated by H. P. Robertson). New York: Dover.
  12. ^ Ernst Cassirer, 1956 [1936]. Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  13. ^ Arthur Eddington (1939), The Philosophy of Physical Science, Cambridge University Press.


  • W. Balzer, C. U. Moulines, J. D. Sneed, An Architectonic for Science: the Structuralist Approach. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1987.
  • C. M. Dawe, "The Structure of Genetics," PhD dissertation, University of London, 1982.
  • Humphreys, P., ed. (1994). Patrick Suppes: Scientific Philosopher, Vol. 2: Philosophy of Physics, Theory Structure and Measurement, and Action Theory, Synthese Library (Springer-Verlag).
  • J. D. Sneed, The Logical Structure of Mathematical Physics. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1971 (revised edition 1979).
  • Wolfgang Stegmüller, Probleme und Resultate der Wissenschafttheorie und Analytischen Philosophie: Die Entwicklung des neuen Strukturalismus seit 1973, 1986.
  • Frederick Suppe, ed., The structure of scientific theories: symposium, 1969, Urbana, Ill.: outgrowth with a critical introduction and an afterword by Frederick Suppe, University of Illinois Press, 1977.
  • John Worrall, "Structural Realism: the Best of Both Worlds" in D. Papineau (ed.), The Philosophy of Science (Oxford 1996).

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