In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Models and Theories in Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies

Philosophy Models and Theories in Science
Roman Frigg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0245


An important aspect of science is the construction of models and theories. Philosophy of science aims to elucidate this practice by asking various questions, such as: “What is a theory?” “What is a model” “How do models and theories relate to one another?” “How do models and theories relate to the world?” The so-called syntactic view of theories, which originated in the tradition of logical empiricism and logical positivism in the 1920s, construes scientific theories as axiomatized logical calculi whose nonlogical terms are interpreted in terms of observables. This view came under criticism after World War II and was eventually supplanted with the so-called semantic view of theories. According to that view, theories are sets of models, where models are construed as nonlinguistic entities that relate to reality via either a set-theoretical mapping (such as isomorphism) or similarity. A common denominator of both views is that they see models as subordinate to theories. The syntactic view sees models as alternative interpretations of a calculus, which is primarily of pedagogical interest. The semantic view sees them as being the building blocks of theories. In parallel to these schools of thought, there was always a strand of research focusing on the practice of science, on case studies and the methods in specific scientific disciplines, rather than on overarching philosophical concerns. Heterogeneous in character and orientation, what binds projects in this tradition together is the belief that large parts of science are not in the business of devising exact and all-encompassing theories but rather use a variety of different techniques and ingredients to construct models that are locally adequate. Models are now seen as the center of scientific attention and theories are relegated to the status of a tool (among others) for model construction. The beginnings of this tradition can be traced back to the 1920s; it gained prominence for the first time in the 1960s and blossomed in the last two decades of the 20th century. In more recent years, new questions have come into focus, in particular the issues of scientific representation, the use of data, and the role of computer simulation in both modeling and theorizing. This entry provides a guide to these intellectual traditions. In doing so, it sets aside a number of related issues, in particular scientific realism, explanation, confirmation, and the application of mathematics.

General Overviews

Novices to the subject can gain an overview of the different positions and problems in Frigg and Hartmann 2012.

  • Frigg, Roman, and Stephan Hartmann. “Models in Science.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

    This article-length encyclopedia entry is the most extensive overview currently available of the most important positions and problems concerning models and theories.

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