In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Idealizations in Science

  • Introduction
  • Early Works
  • Reference Work
  • Idealization in Scientific Modeling and Experimentation
  • Idealization and Mathematical Application
  • Idealization and Scientific Realism

Philosophy Idealizations in Science
Ashley Graham Kennedy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0193


Idealization, or the intentional misrepresentation of the empirical system that is being studied, is ubiquitous within the practice of science. Much of contemporary science proceeds via the use of models, and all models, including those used in biology, physics, economics, chemistry, and geology, contain idealizations. Idealizations are used by scientists for many purposes. Most often they are used to simplify scientific models for representational or explanatory uses or to make them computationally tractable. Idealizations come in different forms, including abstractions, approximations, Galilean idealizations, and fictions. Because of the widespread use of idealization across the scientific disciplines, philosophers of science have recently become interested in understanding their role in scientific practice. Of particular interest are the questions of the role of idealizations in scientific representation and explanation and of whether or not idealized models can be considered realistic.

Early Works

Nowak 1980, Cartwright 1983, McMullin 1985, Wimsatt 1987, and Giere 1988 are some of the most important early works that address the use of idealization in science.

  • Cartwright, Nancy. How the Laws of Physics Lie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198247044.001.0001

    This well-known collection of essays discusses idealization in the context of arguments for causal entity realism.

  • Giere, Ronald. Explaining Science: A Cognitive Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226292038.001.0001

    A discussion of the role of models in science, including an argument for idealized models as realistic representations of empirical systems.

  • McMullin, Ernan. “Galilean Idealization.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 16.3 (1985): 247–273.

    DOI: 10.1016/0039-3681(85)90003-2

    A canonical article that uses historical examples to explore the epistemic implications of the scientific practice of incorporating Galilean idealizations within models.

  • Nowak, Leszek. The Structure of Idealization. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1980.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-015-7651-2

    This article discusses the role of idealization in economics. Nowak argues that while idealized models do enable understanding, removing idealizations from a model and replacing them with true structures would enhance the model’s explanatory power. In other words, he argues that idealized models provide only “approximate explanations.”

  • Wimsatt, William. “False Models as Means to Truer Theories.” In Neutral Models in Biology. Edited by M. Nitecki and A. Hoffman, 23–55. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    Argues that one of the main values of false, or idealized, models is that they can be used as stepping-stones to more realistic models, which in turn can reveal truths about the empirical world.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.