In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scientific Representation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Edited Collections
  • The Syntactic and Semantic Views
  • Modeling and Idealization
  • Analytical Inquiries into Scientific Representation
  • Practical Inquiries into Scientific Representation
  • Mental Representation and Cognitive Science

Philosophy Scientific Representation
Mauricio Suárez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0219


Scientific representation is a booming field nowadays within the philosophy of science, with many papers published regularly on the topic every year, and several yearly conferences and workshops held on related topics. Historically, the topic originates in two different strands in 20th-century philosophy of science. One strand begins in the 1950s, with philosophical interest in the nature of scientific theories. As the received or “syntactic” view gave way to a “semantic” or “structural” conception, representation progressively gained the center stage. Yet, there is another, older, strand that links representation to fin de siècle modeling debates, particularly in the emerging Bildtheorie of Boltzmann and Hertz, and to the ensuing discussion among philosophers thereafter. Both strands feed into present-day philosophical work on scientific representation. There are a number of different orthogonal questions that philosophers ask regarding representation. One set of questions concerns the nature of the representational relation between theories or models, on the one hand, and the real-world systems they purportedly represent. Such questions lie at the more metaphysical and abstract end of the spectrum—and they are often addressed with the abstract tools of the analytical metaphysician. They constitute what we may refer to as the “analytical inquiry” into representation. On the other hand there are questions regarding the use that scientists put some representations to in practice—these are questions that are best addressed by means of some of the favorite tools of the philosopher of science, including descriptive analysis, illustration by means of case studies, induction, exemplification, inference from practice, etc., and are best referred to as the “practical inquiry” into representation. The notion of representation invoked in such inquiries may be “deflationary” or “substantive”—depending on whether it construes representation as a primitive notion, or as susceptible to further reduction or analysis in terms of something else.

General Overviews

Discussion of representation among scientists—physicists in particular—and philosophers alike goes back to the 19th century. Yet, explicit and articulate reflections on representation within philosophy of science are much more recent and arguably emerge only about the end of the 20th century. Already a historical document, Hughes 1997 started the interest of many of us on the topic. A number of more recent book-length treatments such as Pincock 2012 and Winsberg 2010 provide general overviews from different angles and philosophical persuasions—thus bearing witness to the extraordinary fertility of the topic within recent years. There are as of today very few state-of-the-art papers such as Suárez 2010, but fortunately many of the more recent book-length contributions start off by setting some of the required background—see Boniolo 2007 and Van Fraassen 2008. The selections in this section attend mainly to accessibility as an introduction or overview.

  • Boniolo, Giovanni. On Scientific Representations: From Kant to a New Philosophy of Science. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    A historical introduction to the topic, emphasizing its sources in semantics and epistemology from Kant onward. It then discusses the nature of theories and models, thought experiments, and fictions and possible world semantics. The historical ambition is impressive, but the book is rather brief—so, inevitably, much detail is missing. Yet, the tone is light, and the level is appropriate for the uninitiated.

  • Hughes, R. I. G. “Models and Representation.” Philosophy of Science 64S (1997): S325–S336.

    This paper inspired many subsequent contributions to the topic. A major, towering achievement by a contemporary philosopher, it not only put scientific representation on the table, it also managed to provide (within scarcely ten pages) both the backbone of one of the most fertile deflationary approaches and the outlines of criticisms against substantive notions of representation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Pincock, Christopher. Mathematics and Scientific Representation. Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199757107.001.0001

    A well-argued and well-thought-through discussion of representation by means of mathematical structures. It discusses some of the major alternatives fairly and concisely and provides a view of its own, which tries out the unfashionable route to build a substantive theory of representation as structural matching.

  • Suárez, Mauricio. “Scientific Representation.” Philosophy Compass 5.1 (2010): 91–101.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00261.x

    One of the few state-of-the-art papers available on the topic. It introduces some of the distinctions employed in this article—such as analytical versus practical inquiries, and substantive versus deflationary conceptions—and can serve as a helpful complement to the current document. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Van Fraassen, Bas C. Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199278220.001.0001

    By now already a classic oeuvre, by one of the most accomplished philosophers of science of our generation, and a pioneer on the topic. Van Fraassen’s life work traces a significant route from a concern chiefly with the structure of theories toward more-pragmatic issues regarding the use of models in scientific practice, which culminates in this major work.

  • Winsberg, Eric B. Science in the Age of Computer Simulation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226902050.001.0001

    This is a concise and readable account of simulation, idealization, and fiction in scientific representation. It raises many significant issues in the area and provides a roughly instrumentalist answer to several key questions concerning the use of idealizations and fictions in representation.

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