, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 227-276
Date: 04 May 2011

Everything you always wanted to know about structural realism but were afraid to ask

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Abstract

A structuralist perspective is one that sees the investigation of the structural features of a domain of interest as the primary goal of enquiry. This vision has shaped research programmes in fields as diverse as linguistics, literary criticism, aesthetics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and various branches of philosophy. The focus of this paper is structuralism in the philosophy of science, and in particular those movements that have endeavoured to articulate a structural version of scientific realism, now commonly referred to as structural realism (SR). The paper provides a critical survey of the debates raging over structural realism: it provides explicit statements of the different positions as well as the arguments put forward to support them, clarifies how the different positions relate to one another, draws attention to hitherto neglected arguments, and evaluates criticisms launched against different strands of SR. Attention to the history of the field is paid in as far as this is essential to understanding the contemporary scene, but documenting the long and intricate development of SR is beyond the scope of this paper. We begin by introducing the set theoretic conception of structure on which many of the positions that we are concerned with rely (Section 2). In Section 3 we introduce the two main strands of epistemic structural realism, discuss the central objections levelled against them, most notably Newman’s objection, and present the Ramsey sentence formulation. Section 4 is dedicated to a discussion of ontic structural realism. In Section 5 we offer some concluding remarks.