How exactly do structural realism and scientific formalism differ? Are they compatible, or is this another rehashing of, say, the rationalism vs. idealism debate?

I know Galileo, Kepler, et al. were structural realists, whereas Bellarmine, Osiander, et al. were scientific formalists, the latter thinking science merely "saves the appearances" rather than uncovers nature's underlying reality.

But what does this really mean?

2 Answers 2


Perhaps you must "unzip" a little bit your question, because it is very wide in scope.

You are alluding at least at three different and very interesting issues :

  • historical interpretation of scientific theories and controversies

  • current philosophy of science debates

  • historical (meta-)interpretation of the interpretation of history of science by a distinguished scientist, historian and philosopher of science like Pierre Duhem.

Here are some personal comments:

(1) the preface by Osiander to Copernicus' book, that is a typical example of the motto "saving the appearences" must be read in context; I think that it was more a way of avoiding troubles with "traditionalists" (i.e.peripatetics and theologians - see the quotation form Osiander's letters in Edward Rosen (editor), Three Copernican Treatises (3rd ed - 1971), page 23) regarding Copernicus' theory of the moving earth, than a real "philosophical" position.

(2) having said that, it is quite certain that Copernicus was a "realist" : he believed in the moving earth. Scientific realism means - in a few words - the "philosphical" assumption that our current scientific laws and theories are faithful descriptions of the world's facts and structure, i.e. of the reality "out there".

Newton's law of gravitation describes the behaviour of moving bodies under the action of a central force called gravitation that "pull them" according to a definite proportion... full stop.

According to this philosophical position, quanta are "out there": Higgs' boson is "out there", and all the stuff of "strage things" invented by physicist are "out there" (also strings ? ...)

An interesting argument of a distinguished contemporary philosopher, Ian Hacking, in his book Representing and Intervening, can be synthetized as follows : the strange "actors" of the subatomic world are difficult to imagine, but we may "interact" with them (with complex macìhines like the Large Hadron Collider of CERN, ...); so, if we can "push and pull" them, they must exists.

(3) but at the same time, scientific theories has changed during time: Lavoisier phlogiston has disappeared; what about aether of pre-einsteinian physiscs ? So it seems more reasonable to think that our scientifc theories are "useful models" that we can use profitably to calculate and manipulate facts, independently of their real ability to grasp the reality "out there". They are used more to "save the appearences", i.e. to calculate with a reasonable precision how the planets will move, more than trying to "discover" the hidden mechanism of their motions.

(iv) Pierre Duhem, end of XIX century, made a wonderful work in rediscovering the traces of medieval (pre-galilean) science and, at the same time, was driven by his contribution to the transformation of physiscs in his epoch, to "re-evaluate" an anti-realistic interpretation of science.

  • Why would you think Osiander was adopting the "saves the appearances" view to avoid trouble with the Church? He was a distinguished protestant theologian in his own right, so it seems implausible that he was either covertly an atheist (who had to cover it up) or was afraid of religious authorities (he was the religious authority).
    – user5172
    May 23, 2014 at 12:24
  • @shane - you are right; I'll modify it. May 23, 2014 at 12:39

As the question is posed, the answer is that they do not. Structural Realism, e.g. in the SEP article you've linked to, is a new position in philosophy of science from the 1980s. “Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, Russell, and Husserl” therefore have nothing to say about it, much less about how it differs from scientific formalism. I don't think formalism and realism are even obviously opposed.

I mean this with respect, and just as illustration: your question currently has the form of "What do Plato and Aristotle have to say about the difference between the Constitutional Democracy and the 21st century international banking system?" Answer: nothing.

I realize this is not the answer you're looking for, but since it's the answer to the question you asked, you might think about whether you want to ask as different question?

UPDATE: Okay, so you've revised the question to take out the historical philosophers, which is a good start. Now can you cite at least one philosopher or philosophical publication you'd count as “scientific formalist”? Or, can you describe what philosophical position you're referring to when you use that term? The linked Wikipedia article is not helpful in this respect, in that it neither names names nor mentions a specific philosophical position. It's not clear what position you're talking about.

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    The OP refernce to Wiki can be questioned, but Wiki in turn refer to the SEP entry (a much more reliable source for philosophy) for Constructive Empiricism taht is "the version of scientific anti-realism promulgated by Bas van Fraassen in his famous book The Scientific Image (1980)". Being an anti-realist position, it can be usefully compared against Structural Realism. Feb 22, 2014 at 11:54
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    Yes, of course there is a debate between constructive empiricism and scientific realism in recent philosophy of science. But you're suggesting that in the question “scientific formalism” just means “constructive empiricism”? Why should an empiricist be a formalist, or vice versa? Feb 22, 2014 at 15:07

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