Which branch of philosophy is the authority and thus has the capacity to define what IS theory in science? I have linked to the definition of Theory by Simon Blackburn in Oxford Dictionary of Phillosophy. Some answers have pointed out to Phillosophy of Science or Gnosiology but I am not really sure of what they are and their difference from Epistemology. I always thought of Epistemology as the Science about Science. The scientific study of science itself. The metascience. Studying and defining what science is and how to do the so called "science". I thought Gnosiology was the Common Term in Greek for Epistemology. So all 3 of them meant the same thing. And now I am confused.


My question was about a Concept and Knowledge in general. So I want to stress that a concept exists and is. Nonetheless I think Ontology should not refer to Concepts but only Physical Entities. Ideas are. Ideas exist. But noone has seen them or heard them. They just run on our minds. When noone else thinks, they cease to be and exist.

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    It seems not; see Simon Blackburn : "is an English academic philosopher known for his work in metaethics, where he defends quasi-realism, and in the philosophy of Language". Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 13:36
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I can indeed read. I read the wikipedia article before. But which branch of Philosophy has the capacity to define Theory? The lexicographers should probably be academics in that branch. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 14:09
  • Are you asking "what is a theory" ? See e.g. The Structure of Scientific Theories. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 14:29
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Theory as I use it is what Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defined it to be. I.e In science, a way of looking at a field that is intended to have explanatory and predictive implications... So what I asked is whose capacity is it to define it. Who can say what exactly theory is? My guess: Epistemology and Epistemologists? Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 14:36
  • You can search into The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology as well as into Handbook of Epistemology. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 15:18

2 Answers 2


To my mind the answer is 'yes, but no'. Theories lie upon ontological and epistemological systems, but if you take Kuhn's notion of a paradigm seriously, those are not determined by philosophical ontology and epistemology, they are accepted by consensus (consciously or otherwise) to facilitate comparability between theories during the process of normal science. That means they take the form of theories themselves, even if those are often deeply suppressed assumptions. And they can be displaced by revolutionary science. But they need to be replace with an equally rigid structure before forward progress can really resume.

Ontology is responsible for determining what kinds of referents are allowed within a theory, and epistemology is responsible for limiting what kinds of relationships are worth being theorized about. Ideas beyond 'understanding' in whatever sense is current are not subjects of inquiry. Pursuing them would be pointless. A theory is any assertion within those boundaries. (Presuming riskless, unfalsifiable theories are still theories, just 'unscientific' ones.)

For example, one epistemological question that comes up occasionally: Does a theory involving unmediated action at a distance actually provide an understanding? Or is it too magical? Then do we need another understanding to explain such laws? If you hold onto that idea too hard, you can't tolerate the contributions of Newton or Bell. But it was a principle of Aristotelian physics, and relinquishing it bothered Newton deeply. Later it bothered Einstein. Only a revolutionary theory could dispense with it, so Newton dismissed his doubts. And a later revolution also gave it back. Now we have it again, in the form of the particles that underlie a field, and in the form of the curvature of space. If you can't embed your theory into those mechanisms, which both involve a sort of contact, it is not part of modern physics.

But that specific ontology and epistemology are simplified forms admitted by the science itself and enshrined in its operative paradigm. For instance, in physics, we have now decided everything must be communicated by a particle, that is our new ontology. (Particles are what exist. If we can't find the particle that delivers an effect directly, we need a different understanding in terms of other particles or their interactions.)

This kind of ontology is not comparable to philosophical ontology. It is purposely circumscribed to beautify the paradigm. It is also limited enough to threaten the theories built on it, if they pass certain bounds. If it allowed the whole scope of philosophical ontology, it could not be falsifiable, and should not be an attribute of a theory. (So not a part of the paradigm, which is a very general and vague, yet still scientific, theory.)

Likewise, each scientific paradigm delineates a specific, limited epistemology. There is a theory of causation implicitly or explicitly built into the underlying structure on which normal science proceeds. And the options for varying it are limited at another level by the choices of basic principles made by the science.

In the 17th century, you needed a contact-driven mechanism (even if that somehow involved God, with 'final cause' as a form of contact.) But we have changed the bases for our physics twice since then, and rearranged our notion of cause to fit quantum indeterminacy. Now, there can't be a cause that creates no observable correlation, for instance, or it is not a knowable cause. We cannot have a scientific understanding of the sequence of events. If a cause creates no correlations, it is beyond our expressive capacity, and cannot be understood by our process. So it is outside our limited, chosen, epistemology. Quantum theories with hidden processes that require the correlations be unobservable are dismissed. They cross outside the notion of cause we are using, creating spurious entities. (In addition they could not possibly be testable, at least at the necessary level of detail.)

But in the more general realm of philosophical epistemology, or even real life, we can reasonably imagine a cause that has its effect in so chaotic an environment that no correlation might be observed. We cannot determine 'butterfly effects' where tiny contributions overwhelm our capacity to see the cause of an effect. But we are fairly certain this is a thing that happens. The math makes it too likely. It just doesn't actually explain anything in a way that constitutes 'understanding'.

(Apologies for the length.)



Signore Allegranza has largely addressed the question of whether Blackburn is an epistemologist with his link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Blackburn. As for the relationship between science, theory, and epistemology, an oversimplification would be as follows: If epistemology is the practice of deciding which beliefs are true, then science might be considered a type of epistemology which relies heavily on theory.


What constitutes a scientific theory is a question for philosophers of science, although epistemology and science both tackle the question of 'what is true'. In Blackwell's Companion to the Philosophy of Science, the notion of theory plays prominently in science with entries such as 'Observation and Theory', 'Pragmatic Factors in Theory Acceptance', 'Theories', and 'Theory Identity' for instance. Close to the idea of scientific theory is that of model theory which is a mathematical construct in the realm of mathematical logic. On page 515, Ronald N. Giere says that "Some decades ago, Fred Suppe... remarked that 'it is only a slight exaggeration to claim that a philosophy of science is little more than an analysis of theories...'".

Now, what is the relationship between science and epistemology? That to a large extent depends on the philosopher. At least since the logical positivists, science has encroached heavily on epistemology, with some philosophers outright rejecting traditional metaphysics and adopting the scientific method (despite it's demarcation problem) as a the sole means to proof. Willard V.O. Quine is famous for his views on naturalized epistemology. To wit:

Naturalized epistemology, coined by W. V. O. Quine, is a collection of philosophic views concerned with the theory of knowledge that emphasize the role of natural scientific methods. This shared emphasis on scientific methods of studying knowledge shifts focus to the empirical processes of knowledge acquisition and away from many traditional philosophical questions.

That is to say, Quine believed science has essentially replaced the role of epistemology in determining truth. This is not beyond controversy, however. One critic of that proposal, Jaegwon Kim, believes there are normative dimensions to epistemology that don't reduce to matters of science, particularly in a postivistic light.


(Blackwell Companions to Philosophy) A Companion to Epistemology
(Blackwell Companions to Philosophy) A Companion to the Philosophy of Science
Audi's Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge

  • I am not a native speaker. But unless Cambridge's ESOL is a bad exam I am proficient with the language per se. Communication is not a question of Language alone. It is like hammering a nail. It certainly makes it easier to hammer a nail if you have a hammer but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. It should be of no consequence whether or not I am a native speaker. Native speakers actually have no advantage over non-native speakers. Native speakers are more idiomatic, Non-native speakers tend to be verbose. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 19:36
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    The edits altered the meaning of my question. I wanted to know to "whom" I can turn for a definition of Theory in Science. "Who" is the Authority. That person I am looking for is a branch of Phillosophy. I am not really sure I understand what is Phillosophy of Science. What is the difference of Epistemology and Phillosophy of Science? Shouldn't Epistemology be the Meta-science. A study of what is Science and how to do this thing called "Science", the Scientific method in general? Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 19:45
  • I interpreted the question which was written in my native language to the best of my abilities, and I likely erred. Thank you for the clarification.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 20:04
  • You already had one vote for closure against your question. I was just trying to ensure that it isn't voted closed. Συγνώμη!
    – J D
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 20:10
  • Thank you very much for trying to help me. Please do not apologise I know fully well that I have a problem expressing myself. Be it in Greek, Portuguese(my 2 maternal languages) English, Italian, Spanish or French. The problem is mine and it is the same in all 6 languages. I can understand very subtle nuances but fail to express myself. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 21:03

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