A Model‐Theoretic Account of Representation

Philosophy of Science 70 (5):1472-1483 (2003)
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Recent discussions of the nature of representation in science have tended to import pre-established decompositions from analyses of representation in the arts, language, cognition and so forth. Which of these analyses one favours will depend on how one conceives of theories in the first place. If one thinks of them in terms of an axiomatised set of logico-linguistic statements, then one might be naturally drawn to accounts of linguistic representation in which notions of denotation, for example, feature prominently. If, on the other hand, one conceives of theories in non-linguistic terms, as in the model-theoretic approach, then one might look to analyses of representation in the arts where notions of resemblance tend to be brought to the fore. Thus van Fraassen, for example, has imported such an analysis into his discussion of representation in science and argued that an appropriate account of resemblance can be given in terms of the set-theoretic relation of isomorphism. This has been strongly criticised by Suarez, who argues that just as isomorphism cannot capture representation in art, so it is inappropriate in the scientific context as well. Similarly Hughes draws on Goodman`s rejection of resemblance in art in favour of denotation and, rather confusingly perhaps, favours the latter whilst also maintaining the model-theoretic view of theories. In this paper, I shall examine the debate in terms of four claims: 1. Isomorphism is not sufficient for representation; 2. Isomorphism is not necessary for representation; 3. Models represent but theories do not; 4. Models denote and do not resemble. Each of these claims will be questioned and I will conclude by suggesting that, through appropriate modifications, a form of isomorphism can serve to underpin representation in both the arts and science.



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Steven French
University of Leeds

Citations of this work

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The New Fiction View of Models.Fiora Salis - 2021 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 72 (3):717-742.
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References found in this work

Languages of Art.Nelson Goodman - 1970 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 3 (1):62-63.
Models and representation.Richard Hughes - 1997 - Philosophy of Science 64 (4):336.
Reinflating the semantic approach.Steven French & James Ladyman - 1999 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 13 (2):103 – 121.

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