Structuralism (philosophy of science)

Structuralismα[›] (also known as scientific structuralism[1] or as the structuralistic theory-concept)[2] is an active research program in the philosophy of science, which was first developed in the late 1960s and throughout 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.[3] 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.[4] Its aim is to comprise all important aspects of an empirical theory in one formal framework. The proponents of this meta-theoretic theory are Bas van Fraassen, Frederick Suppe, Patrick Suppes, Ronald Giere,[5][3] Joseph D. Sneed, Wolfgang Stegmüller, Carlos Ulises Moulines, Wolfgang Balzer, John Worrall, Elie Georges Zahar, Pablo Lorenzano, Otávio Bueno, Anjan Chakravartty, Tian Yu Cao, Steven French, and Michael Redhead.

The term "structural realism" for the variation of scientific realism motivated by structuralist arguments, was coined by American philosopher Grover Maxwell in 1968.[6] In 1998, the British structural realist philosopher James Ladyman distinguished epistemic and ontic forms of structural realism.[7][3]


Epistemic structural realism

The philosophical concept of (scientific) structuralism is related to that of epistemic structural realism (ESR).[3] ESR, a position originally and independently held by Henri Poincaré (1902),[8][9] Bertrand Russell (1927),[10] and Rudolf Carnap (1928),[11] was resurrected by John Worrall (1989), 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.[12] Because structure is retained, structural realism both (a) avoids pessimistic meta-inductionβ[›] and (b) does not make the success of science seem miraculous, i.e., it puts forward a no-miracles argument.[13]

Newman problem

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.[14] Newman argued that the ESR claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the external world trivializes scientific knowledge. The basis of his argument is the realization that "[a]ny collection of things can be organized so as to have structure W, provided there are the right number of them", where W is an arbitrary structure.[15]

Response to the Newman problem

John Worrall (2000) advocates a version of ESR augmented by the Ramsey sentence reconstruction of physical theories[16] (a Ramsey sentence aims at rendering propositions containing non-observable theoretical terms clear by substituting them with observable terms). John Worrall and Elie Georges Zahar (2001) claim that Newman's objection applies only if a distinction between observational and theoretical terms is not made.[17]

Ramsey-style epistemic structural realism is distinct from and incompatible with the original Russellian epistemic structural realism[18] (the difference between the two being that Ramsey-style ESR makes an epistemic commitment to Ramsey sentences, while Russellian ESR makes an epistemic commitment to abstract structures, that is, to (second-order) isomorphism classes of the observational structure of the world and not the (first-order) physical structure itself).[19] Ioannis Votsis (2004) claims that Russellian ESR is also impervious to the Newman objection: Newman falsely attributed the trivial claim "there exists a relation with a particular abstract structure" to ESR, while ESR makes the non-trivial claim that there is a unique physical relation that is causally linked with a unique observational relation and the two are isomorphic.[20]

Further criticism

The traditional scientific realist and notable critic of structural realism[3] Stathis Psillos (1999) remarks that "structural realism is best understood as issuing an epistemic constraint on what can be known and on what scientific theories can reveal."[21] He thinks that ESR faces a number of insurmountable objections.[22] These include among others that ESR's only epistemic commitment is uninterpreted equations which are not by themselves enough to produce predictions[23] and that the "structure versus nature" distinction that ESR appeals to cannot be sustained.[24]

Votsis (2004) replies that the structural realist "does subscribe to interpreted equations, but attempts to distinguish between interpretations that link the terms to observations from those that do not"[25] and he can appeal to the Russellian view that "nature" just means the non-isomorphically specifiable part of entities.[26]

Psillos also defends David Lewis's descriptive-causal theory of reference[27][3] (according to which the abandoned theoretical terms after a theory change are regarded as successfully referring "after all")[3][27] and claims that it can adequately deal with referential continuity in conceptual transitions, during which theoretical terms are abandoned,[28] thus rendering ESR redundant.

Votsis (2004) replies that a scientific realist needs not tie the approximate truth of a theory to referential success.[29] Notably, structural realism initially did not dictate any particular theory of reference;[30] however Votsis (2012) proposed a structuralist theory of reference according to which "scientific terms are able to refer to individual objects, i.e. in a term-by-term fashion, but that to fix this reference requires taking into account the relations these objects instantiate."[31]

Ontic structural realism

While ESR claims that only the structure of reality is knowable, ontic structural realism (OSR) goes further to claim that structure is all there is. In this view, reality has no "nature" underlying its observed structure. Rather, reality is fundamentally structural, though variants of OSR disagree on precisely which aspects of structure are primitive. OSR is strongly motivated by modern physics, particularly quantum field theory, which undermines intuitive notions of identifiable objects with intrinsic properties.[32] Some early quantum physicists held this view, including Hermann Weyl (1931),[33] Ernst Cassirer (1936),[34] and Arthur Eddington (1939).[35] Recently, OSR has been called "the most fashionable ontological framework for modern physics".[36]

Max Tegmark takes this concept even further with the mathematical universe hypothesis, which proposes that, if our universe is only a particular structure, then it is no more real than any other structure.[37][38]

Definition of structure

In mathematical logic, a mathematical structure is a standard concept. A mathematical structure is a set of abstract entities with relations between them. The natural numbers under arithmetic constitute a structure, with relations such as "is evenly divisible by" and "is greater than". Here the relation "is greater than" includes the element (3, 4), but not the element (4, 3). Points in space and the real numbers under Euclidean geometry are another structure, with relations such as "the distance between point P1 and point P2 is real number R1"; equivalently, the "distance" relation includes the element (P1, P2, R1). Other structures include the Riemann space of general relativity and the Hilbert space of quantum mechanics. The entities in a mathematical structure do not have any independent existence outside their participation in relations. Two descriptions of a structure are considered equivalent, and to be describing the same underlying structure, if there is a correspondence between the descriptions that preserves all relations.[37][39]

Many proponents of structural realism formally or informally ascribe "properties" to the abstract objects; some argue that such properties, while they can perhaps be "shoehorned" into the formalism of relations, should instead be considered distinct from relations.[40]

Proposed structures

In quantum field theory (QFT), traditional proposals for "the most basic known structures" divide into "particle interpretations" such as ascribing reality to the Fock space of particles, and "field interpretations" such as considering the quantum wavefunction to be identical to the underlying reality. Varying interpretations of quantum mechanics provide one complication; another, perhaps minor, complication is that neither fields nor particles are completely localized in standard QFT. A third, less obvious, complication is that "unitarily inequivalent representations" are endemic in QFT; for example, the same patch of spacetime can be represented by a vacuum by an inertial observer, but as a thermal heat bath by an accelerating observer that perceives Unruh radiation, raising the difficult question of whether the vacuum structure or heat bath structure is the real structure, or whether both of these inequivalent structures are separately real. Another example, which does not require the complications of curved spacetime, is that in ferromagnetism, symmetry-breaking analysis results in inequivalent Hilbert spaces. More broadly, QFT's infinite degrees of freedom lead to inequivalent representations in the general case.[36]

In general relativity, scholars often grant a "basic structure" status to the spacetime structure, sometimes via its metric.[3]

See also


  • ^ 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. ^ Alisa Bokulich, Peter Bokulich (eds.), Scientific Structuralism, Springer, 2011, p. xi.
  2. ^ Wolfgang Balzer, C. Ulises Moulines (ed.), Structuralist Theory of Science: Focal Issues, New Results, Walter de Gruyter, 1996, p. 226.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Structural Realism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 21, 2017.
  4. ^ Kuhlmann, Meinard (August 2013). "What is Real?". Scientific American: 45.
  5. ^ Alisa Bokulich, Peter Bokulich (eds.), Scientific Structuralism, Springer, p. 140 n. 52.
  6. ^ Maxwell, G. (1968), "Scientific Methodology and the Causal Theory of Perception", in: Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (eds.), Problems in the Philosophy of Science, Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
  7. ^ Ladyman, J., 1998. "What is structural realism?" Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 29: 409–424.
  8. ^ Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis. New York: Dover, 1952 [1902].
  9. ^ Poincaré's structuralism was combined with neo-Kantian views about the nature of arithmetic.
  10. ^ Bertrand Russell (1927). The Analysis of Matter, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  11. ^ Rudolf Carnap (1928). The Logical Structure of the World, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  12. ^ J. Worrall (1989). "Structural realism: The best of both worlds?" Dialectica, 43: p. 119; available online.
  13. ^ The term is due to Hilary Putnam (see Putnam, H., 1975. Mathematics, Matter and Method, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 73).
  14. ^ M. H. A. Newman, 1928. "Mr. Russell's causal theory of perception," Mind, 37: 137–148.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Worrall, J. (2000), "Miracles and Models: Saving Structural Realism?", paper given to the Annual Meeting of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, Sheffield, 2000.
  17. ^ Worrall, J. and Zahar, E. (2001), "Ramseyfication and Structural Realism", Appendix IV in E. Zahar, Poincare's Philosophy: From Conventionalism to Phenomenology, Chicago and La Salle (IL): Open Court.
  18. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, p. 122.
  19. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, pp. 43 and 122.
  20. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, p. 129.
  21. ^ Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth, Routledge, 1999, p. 142.
  22. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, pp. 68–9.
  23. ^ Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth, Routledge, 1999, p. 141.
  24. ^ Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth, Routledge, 1999, p. 148.
  25. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, pp. 73–4.
  26. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, p. 104.
  27. ^ a b Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth, Routledge, 1999, p. 279.
  28. ^ Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth, Routledge, 1999, p. 271.
  29. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, p. 148.
  30. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, p. 219.
  31. ^ Ioannis Votsis, "A Structuralist Theory of Reference", Invited talk presented at the Reference and Scientific Realism Symposium, Wuhan University, August 17 2012.
  32. ^ Ladyman, James, "Structural Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  33. ^ Hermann Weyl, 1950 [1931]. The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics (translated by H. P. Robertson). New York: Dover.
  34. ^ Ernst Cassirer, 1956 [1936]. Determinism and Indeterminism in Modern Physics, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  35. ^ Arthur Eddington (1939), The Philosophy of Physical Science, Cambridge University Press.
  36. ^ a b Kuhlmann, Meinard, "Quantum Field Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  37. ^ a b Tegmark, Max (2014). "10: Physical Reality and Mathematical Reality". Our mathematical universe : my quest for the ultimate nature of reality (First edition. ed.). ISBN 9780307744258.
  38. ^ Berthold, Oswald. "Computational universes." Berlin: Humboldt Universitat zu Berlin, Institut fur Informatik (2009).
  39. ^ Esfeld, Michael. "Ontic structural realism and the interpretation of quantum mechanics." European Journal for Philosophy of Science 3.1 (2013): 19–32.
  40. ^ Ainsworth, Peter Mark (January 2010). "What is ontic structural realism?". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. 41 (1): 50–57. doi:10.1016/j.shpsb.2009.11.001.
  41. ^ Votsis, I. (2004), The Epistemological Status of Scientific Theories: An Investigation of the Structural Realist Account, University of London, London School of Economics, PhD Thesis, p. 196.


  • 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).

External links

Constructive empiricism

In philosophy, constructive empiricism (also empiricist structuralism) is a form of empiricism.

Index of philosophy of science articles

An index list of articles about the philosophy of science.

Louis Althusser

Louis Pierre Althusser (UK: , US: ; French: [altysɛʁ]; 16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a French Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy.

Althusser was a longtime member—although sometimes a strong critic—of the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français, PCF). His arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism. These included both the influence of empiricism on Marxist theory, and humanist and reformist socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European communist parties, as well as the problem of the "cult of personality" and of ideology.

Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation and he was critical of many aspects of structuralism.

Althusser's life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980, he killed his wife, the sociologist Hélène Rytmann, by strangling her. He was declared unfit to stand trial due to insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital for three years. He did little further academic work, dying in 1990.

Pessimistic induction

In the philosophy of science, the pessimistic induction, also known as the pessimistic meta-induction, is an argument which seeks to rebut scientific realism, particularly the scientific realist's notion of epistemic optimism.

Semantic view of theories

The semantic view of theories is a position in the philosophy of science that holds that a scientific theory can be identified with a collection of models. The semantic view of theories was originally proposed by Patrick Suppes in “A Comparison of the Meaning and Uses of Models in Mathematics and the Empirical Sciences” as a reaction against the received view of theories popular among the logical positivists. Many varieties of the semantic view propose identifying theories with a class of set-theoretic models in the Tarskian sense, while others specify models in the mathematical language stipulated by the field of which the theory is a member.

Structuralism (disambiguation)

Structuralism is an approach to the human sciences that attempts to analyze a specific field as a complex system of interrelated parts.

Structuralism may also refer to:

Structuralism (architecture), movement in architecture and urban planning in the middle of the 20th century

Structuralism (biology), school of biological thought that deals with the law-like behaviour of the structure of organisms

Structuralism (international relations), studies the impact of world economic structures on the politics of countries

Structuralism (linguistics), theory that a human language is self-contained structure related to other elements which make up its existence

Structuralism (philosophy of mathematics), theory of mathematics as structure

Structuralism (philosophy of science), theory of science, reconstructing empirical theories

Structuralism (psychology), theory with the goal to describe the structure of the mind

Structuralism (sociology), also known as structural functionalism

Structural Marxism, an approach to Marxist philosophy based on structuralism

Structural anthropology, a theory of fundamental components in all cultures, stories and rituals, a so-called "deep grammar"

Structural film, an experimental film movement prominent in the US in the 1960s and which developed into the Structural/materialist films in the UK in the 1970s


Structure is an arrangement and organization of interrelated elements in a material object or system, or the object or system so organized. Material structures include man-made objects such as buildings and machines and natural objects such as biological organisms, minerals and chemicals. Abstract structures include data structures in computer science and musical form. Types of structure include a hierarchy (a cascade of one-to-many relationships), a network featuring many-to-many links, or a lattice featuring connections between components that are neighbors in space.


Śūnyatā (Sanskrit: शून्यता, translit. śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā) – pronounced in English as (shoon-ya-ta), translated most often as emptiness and sometimes voidness – is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. It is either an ontological feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.

In Theravada Buddhism, suññatā often refers to the non-self (Pāli: anattā, Sanskrit: anātman) nature of the five aggregates of experience and the six sense spheres. Suññatā is also often used to refer to a meditative state or experience.

In Mahayana, Sunyata refers to the tenet that "all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature (svabhava)," but may also refer to the Buddha-nature teachings and primordial or empty awareness, as in Dzogchen and Shentong.

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