In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Structural Realism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • History of Science
  • Ontic Structural Realism
  • Epistemic Structural Realism
  • Ramsey Sentences
  • The Newman Problem
  • Structural Realism, Structural Empiricism, and Scientific Representation
  • Quantum Field Theory
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Spacetime Physics
  • Criticisms
  • The Notion of an Object
  • The Special Sciences

Philosophy Structural Realism
James Ladyman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0154


There is a long-standing dispute about whether those parts of scientific theories that seem to describe an unobservable realm of objects and properties that cause the phenomena that are observed and measured in experiments should be taken to be straightforward, literally true descriptions, as realists would have it, or whether they should be reinterpreted or treated with skepticism, as different forms of anti-realism suggest. Structural realism was reintroduced into philosophy of science by John Worrall’s article (Worrall 1989, cited under Introductory Works) in which he proposed it as a position that could take account of the strongest arguments for both realism and anti-realism. The former is the no-miracles argument, and the latter are various arguments from radical theory change in the history of science, often known collectively as the pessimistic meta-induction, most associated with the work of Larry Laudan. Laudan argued against scientific realism, citing a long list of theories he claimed could not be regarded as approximately true, despite their empirical success. According to him, theoretical terms such as “ether” and “caloric” do not refer to anything in the world, despite being central in empirically strong theories. Realists had sought to use a causal theory of reference to argue that such terms do refer after all. But Worrall argued that this is not plausible and that realists should conclude instead that our best scientific theories describe the structure of the world but not its nature. What exactly he meant by that remains the subject of intense debate. Ladyman introduced a distinction between two ways of reading it, namely an epistemological one and a metaphysical or ontic one, and there are now two distinct traditions in the literature about structural realism, discussing the epistemic and ontic version, respectively. The debate about structural realism is made more complex by the fact that Worrall claims that his position is really that advocated by Henri Poincaré and that he also suggested a connection with the Ramsey-sentence approach to capturing the cognitive content of theoretical terms. Poincaré was a neo-Kantian, and the Ramsey-sentence approach is associated with the work on scientific representation by logical empiricists such as Carnap. Meanwhile, Ladyman introduced issues about identity and individuality in contemporary physics into the discussion.

Introductory Works

Laudan 1981 is a classical source of the so-called no-miracles argument against scientific realism. Hardin and Rosenberg 1982 is a reply to Laudan 1981, deploying a causal theory of reference to argue that the author Laudan was wrong to regard certain examples of abandoned theoretical terms as nonreferring by the lights of our best scientific theories. Psillos 1999 modifies the account and offers the author’s own account of scientific realism against theory change. Psillos 1999 is criticized in Stanford 2003a and Stanford 2003b. Worrall 1989 argues that standard scientific realism must indeed be abandoned and replaced by structural realism. Ladyman 1998 seeks to clarify what structural realism is, while Redhead 1995 also defends structural realism in the context of a commentary on various issues in the philosophy of physics.

  • Hardin, Clyde L., and Alexander Rosenberg. “In Defense of Convergent Realism.” Philosophy of Science 49.4 (1982): 604–615.

    DOI: 10.1086/289080

    The authors argue that theoretical terms that have been abandoned by our best current science can be interpreted as referring to whatever we now regard as playing the relevant causal role. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ladyman, James. “What is Structural Realism?” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A 29.3 (1998): 409–424.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0039-3681(98)80129-5

    This article introduces the distinction between epistemic and ontic structural realism, argues against the former, especially the version that uses Ramsey sentences, and advocates the latter on the basis of considerations deriving from the hole argument in general relativity and the status of particles in quantum physics. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Laudan, Larry. “A Confutation of Convergent Realism.” Philosophy of Science 481 (1981): 19–49.

    DOI: 10.1086/288975

    This is a very extensively discussed critique of scientific realism that features a long list of theories that were allegedly empirically successful and yet are also nonreferring and not approximately true. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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

    This is a comprehensive account of the recent history of scientific realism and anti-realism and the relevant arguments. The author develops a strategy for responding to arguments from theory change that tackles the problematic cases of the ether theory of light and the caloric theory of heat in detail.

  • Redhead, Michael. From Physics to Metaphysics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511622847

    In this book the author defends a version of structural realism in light of careful consideration of contemporary physics.

  • Stanford, P. Kyle. “No Refuge for Realism: Selective Confirmation and the History of Science.” In Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2002 Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association: Part I: Contributed Papers. Edited by Sandra D. Mitchell. Philosophy of Science 70.5 (2003a): 913–925.

    DOI: 10.1086/377377

    This article challenges the strategy for defending realism developed by Philip Kitcher and also employed by Stathis Psillos, which is based on isolating those parts of theories that are responsible for their empirical success. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Stanford, P. Kyle. “Pyrrhic Victories for Scientific Realism.” Journal of Philosophy 100.11 (2003b): 553–572.

    This is a critique of Psillos’s aforementioned case studies and the conclusions he draws about them. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Worrall, John. “Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds?” Dialectica 43.1–2 (1989): 99–124.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1746-8361.1989.tb00933.x

    This article reviews the arguments for and against scientific realism, criticizing Hardin and Rosenberg’s response to Laudan 1981 and proposing structural realism as “the best of both worlds.” Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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