In philosophy of science thinkers sometimes speak of certain theoretical concepts "carving nature at its joints" (I think this might have been used prominently by Hilary Putnam but I can't remember now). Yet, in general modern philosophy tends to focuses much more heavily on analyzing the truth conditions of propositions rather than the well-fittedness of concepts to reality.

Even beyond philosophy we don't have a simple widely agreed on term for the status of a concept which means, "success with respect to carving up reality". The closest we seem to have is a certain special usage of the term "natural". As in, "that seems like a natural definition for molecular weight" or "the natural unit of biology is the cell" or in math when they speak of something being a "natural way to conceive of a mathematical object". This usage of 'natural' has little to do with the ecological or physicalist sense of nature (the mathematical example demonstrates how such "naturality" applies even to non-ecological and non-physical domains of inquiry).

Why isn't there a simple logical term for conceptual reality-fitting-success which is closely analogous to "truth" but which is of the logical type that it applies to concepts rather than propositions? Is this just a historical anomaly in the development of logic because Frege enshrined the proposition as the basic unit of logical meaning?

I would like to know if there is a reality success term for concepts, and if so where/how it has been discussed by philosophers.

  • 1
    There is no logical term for successful reality-fitting because logic has little to do with reality-fitting. It is a device for making valid inferences, related to reality or not. "Truth" there is a mere technicality that extends expressive means (by the T-schema), not correspondence to reality. But there is a philosophical term for concepts that "carve nature at the joints" (for those who believe in such) - natural kinds.
    – Conifold
    Aug 15 at 8:46
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    In FOL the 'reality at the joints' could be said to be the ontically committed members of the domain of universe, well, you may further inquire you really want a conceptual metric to quantify the reality of the said conceptualized members which is nothing but a (meta/external) judgement type which ultimately based on your Kantian schemata of judgement, and perhaps more importantly, its transcendental reflection, not an easy task for a lot of non-trivial things, unlike some simple and instantaneously recognizable shapes of rabbits, faces, and letters... Aug 16 at 0:32
  • Look into categories Aristotle, Kant. Also ontology in CS. And meta
    – Rushi
    Aug 18 at 5:33
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    @Conifold When you say that philosophers defer to science that should not stop them from trying to understand what it is that scientists are doing when they develop concepts that are fitted to reality. That seems to me to be shirking responsibility for developing a philosophical theory of how empirical science works. If we do that, we are essentially treating scientists as modern magicians and trusting the black box process with no theory behind it.
    – Avi C
    Aug 20 at 12:42
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    That's a great quote from Peirce. I suppose my issue is that a lot is being packed into your use of the word "successful" in reference to the various special sciences. We say that each of them independently has been successful, but in saying that, aren't we appealing to a general epistemological notion of success that each of them has independently met?
    – Avi C
    Aug 24 at 13:07

2 Answers 2


The most widely used term for fitting thought to reality is simply called philosophy. For all of the scraping and arguing over what philosophy is, one theme continually found among philosophers is the notion that their philosophy is the best description of reality. However, we can drill down into something a little more technical and find alternative terminology. For instance, Korzybski referred to the relationship between thought and reality the map-territory relation. You may hear someone accuse someone else of mistaking the map for the territory, which is the charge that one's introspection can be confused by failing to separate one's thoughts from physical reality. From WP:

Mistaking the map for the territory is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone confuses the semantics of a term with what it represents.

We all start with from naive realism when modeling the world, and then use tools like introspection, experiment, and language to model the world. Some, like Searle go on to defend a direct realism and claim belief in representations is a misstep in metaphysics. Most philosophers are comfortable with a representational theory of mind or consciousness (SEP). Such philosophers can be split up broadly among realist and anti-realist camps. I myself have moved from realism to nominalism to conceptualism as I have continued my readings.

After one begins to become familiar with some philosophical ideas, one quickly realizes that the contention among philosophers themselves over what philosophy reveals some interesting intellectual contours about philosophy. These metaphilosophical arguments often boil down to metaphysical differences. In fact, all people in their model of the world are liable to resolve their differences in negotiating reality by, as Quine would put it, semantic ascent. From WP:

[W]hen two people with completely different ideas of whether or not there are such entities as miles, are discussing miles as the objects themselves this discussion will be fruitless. It is in these instances that we see what Quine calls semantic ascent,6: 249–254  the shift from the material mode of language to the formal one. In the formal mode of language we are at a different level. Rather than talking about miles as objects we are talking about what this word 'mile' even means, what it refers to and if it even refers at all. In the formal mode, people with different conceptual schemes might be able to have a reasonable discussion because they are talking about something their conceptual schemes have in common: language.

For your question, it should be noted that there is language that is very much dedicated to the idea that reality and language might have an optimal fit. It's called the correspondence theory of truth. From WP:

In metaphysics and philosophy of language, the correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world... Correspondence theories claim that true beliefs and true statements correspond to the actual state of affairs. This type of theory attempts to posit a relationship between thoughts or statements on one hand, and things or facts on the other.

You ask:

Why isn't there a simple logical term for conceptual reality-fitting-success which is closely analogous to "truth" but which is of the logical type that it applies to concepts rather than propositions? Is this just a historical anomaly in the development of logic because Frege enshrined the proposition as the basic unit of logical meaning?

So, I'm going to answer the question coming from Robinson's work Definitions. Whether or not concepts match reality is known as the accuracy of real definition. A real definition, unlike a lexical one which mere describes usage, purports to be language that describes a concept that corresponds to reality. Thus, philosophers in their debate over whether or not concepts are good debate over conceptual definitions. To me personally, this is done best neither by realists nor nominalists, but by conceptualists.

In science, that means that the best models of reality are somewhere between realist and instrumentalist readings. Thus, if a claim about a category of the world, say of types of energy, is in dispute because it is underdetermined by empirical evidence, then the adequacy of theory to carve reality up into categories is a function of pragmatic factors. This implies that theories are not true or false, but are adequate to a degree. Newtonian gravitation, for example, is not true or false, but it is more adequate than Aristotelian physics but inadequate compared to relativistic physics, particularly if one is building a GPS system in space. Adequacy in scientific theory is like satisfiability in mathematics; it's a generalization of the notion of truth.

  • This link seems to broken: "Whether or not concepts match reality is known as the accuracy of real definition."
    – Avi C
    Aug 24 at 13:02
  • Thanks, this is the best effort yet to answer this question. I feel that you took the time to really try to understand what I was asking and give a relevant answer.
    – Avi C
    Aug 24 at 13:04
  • Revised and amended. If you want to start up a chat session in chat.stackexchange to discuss clarifications, you're encouraged. Your question is inline with my philosophical interests.
    – J D
    Aug 24 at 15:00
  • I would love to chat more about this. I don't really know how to use stack exchange as a chat program. If you can start a chat with me that would be great.
    – Avi C
    Aug 24 at 15:10

The concept you are working with is the inference to fundamental reality that we make when we infer realism to our models and theories. And yes, we do that in non-science fields like logic, math, and the arts, as well as in science. The general principle is called "Indirect realism".

A key question for indirect realism is: is one speculated "truth" about our world better than another, when a "view from nowhere" TRUTH is not available to us to do this evaluation against?

There is a good discussion of this problem, although with a science focus rather than your more general "what are the joints of all of reality" question, the SEP article on "Truthlikeness" notes, that the leader in the 20th century in working on this problem was Karl Popper, and he proposed a metric for "Truthlikeness" and applied the term "Verisimilitude" to this metric. Here are two other refences that provide a less in depth summary:

Scientific progress as increasing verisimilitude, Niiniluoto. Journal article

Verisimilitude. Wikipedia entry

As the references note, Popper's analytic metric of Verisimilitude was logically invalid, and the three analytic solutions pursued in the decades since have all so far proven to face similar problems. We have a strong intuition that science, math, logic, the arts, etc. are progressive programs, that yield greater and greater verisimilitude -- but so far the efforts to spell this out in a closed form have failed.

One possible way out, which these references do not elaborate on, is to treat verisimilitude as a pragmatic rather than logical enterprise, and subject it to the pragmatic metric for truth (greater utility) rather than a logical one. I have not found a reference that does this, but offer the SEP article on pragmatic truth as a starting point for your further investigation, should you make one.

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth. SEP entry

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