, Volume 130, Issue 1, pp 69-90

Holism, Underdetermination, And The Dynamics Of Empirical Theories

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The goal of this article is to show that the structuralist approachprovides a powerful framework for the analysis of certain holistic phenomena in empirical theories.We focus on two aspects of holism. The first refers to the involvement of comprehensive complexes of hypothesesin the theoretical treatment of systems regarded in isolation. By contrast, the second refers to thecorrelation between the theoretical descriptions of different systems. It is demonstrated how these two aspectscan be analysed by making use of the structuralist notion of theory-nets, and how they are reflected by a refinedversion of the Ramsey sentence. Furthermore, it is argued that there exists a tight correlation between theoccurrence of these two holistic phenomena, a specific form of underdetermination of terms which occur in thefundamental principles of an empirical theory, and the shaping of the theory's protective belt. After having dealtwith these questions in abstracto, the relevance of these considerations for a better understanding of the dynamicsof empirical theories is demonstrated in a concrete case study. It refers to the role holistic phenomenaplayed in the investigation of the anomalous advance of Mercury's perihelion and in the various attempts to eliminate this anomaly.