In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Constructive Empiricism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journal Articles
  • Selection and the Success of Science
  • Acceptance and Belief
  • The Pragmatics of Explanation
  • Empiricist Structuralism and Scientific Representation

Philosophy Constructive Empiricism
Paul Dicken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0035


Constructive empiricism is the view that (a) science aims to produce theories that are empirically adequate rather than true, where a theory is empirically adequate precisely if what it says with respect to the observable phenomena (those entities and processes that can be directly observed by the unaided human eye) is true; and (b) that to accept a theory involves no more belief than that it is empirically adequate. It is a view originally articulated—and almost exclusively defended—by Bas van Fraassen and is one of the most highly developed and influential alternatives to scientific realism in the contemporary literature. A principal innovation of the position is that, in contrast to earlier empiricist programs that attempted to distinguish between the observational and theoretical vocabulary of our scientific language, the constructive empiricist’s distinction between observable and unobservable phenomena is an empirical distinction and is consequently to be investigated by the very scientific theories to which it applies. Articulating such an epistemic policy has immediate philosophical consequences, and as such constructive empiricism is a wide-ranging philosophy of science, intimately connected to specific views regarding the logical structure of a scientific theory, the nature of explanation, and a deflationary account of physical modality and the laws of nature. It has also gradually emerged that constructive empiricism is intended as part of van Fraassen’s broader reconception of epistemology more generally and is to be articulated within the framework of his epistemic voluntarism—an ongoing project concerning our notions of rationality and inference and of the nature of empiricism. Most recently, van Fraassen has begun to recast constructive empiricism as a form of empiricist structuralism, a development emerging from his work on scientific representation.

General Overviews

An obvious starting point for material on constructive empiricism is van Fraassen’s own published work. Van Fraassen 1980 provides the first detailed articulation of constructive empiricism, as well as introducing the semantic conception of scientific theories in which it is to be developed and the pragmatic account of explanation that it requires. Van Fraassen 1989 primarily concerns an empiricist account of laws of nature, although it also extends the semantic conception of theories and begins to develop van Fraassen’s epistemic voluntarism. Van Fraassen 2002 discusses the nature of empiricism more generally and continues the development of the background epistemology that frames constructive empiricism. A particularly accessible introduction to the main themes of constructive empiricism can be found in Ladyman 2001. A brief overview of some of the principal issues between constructive empiricism and scientific realism is Monton and Mohler 2008, and a more detailed and critical discussion can be found in Psillos 1999.

  • Ladyman, James. Understanding Philosophy of Science. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Accessible introduction to some of the main themes of the scientific realism debate, and to constructive empiricism (pp. 185–194).

  • Monton, Bradley, and Chad Mohler. “Constructive Empiricism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    A brief introduction to some of the principal contrasts between constructive empiricism and scientific realism.

  • Psillos, Stathis. Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth. London: Routledge, 1999.

    In-depth and incisive discussion of many of the issues concerning constructive empiricism, although it predates some of the recent developments in van Fraassen’s understanding of empiricism and epistemology (pp. 185–227).

  • van Fraassen, Bas C. The Scientific Image. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

    Original exposition of constructive empiricism.

  • van Fraassen, Bas C. Laws and Symmetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    Further articulation of constructive empiricism, with particular emphasis on laws of nature, epistemic voluntarism, and the semantic view of theories.

  • van Fraassen, Bas C. The Empirical Stance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

    Wide-ranging discussion of the nature of empiricism and further elements of the epistemological framework of constructive empiricism.

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