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Scientific understanding and felicitous legitimate falsehoods

  • Insa LawlerEmail author
Themes from Elgin
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. True Enough? Themes from Elgin


Science is replete with falsehoods that epistemically facilitate understanding by virtue of being the very falsehoods they are. In view of this puzzling fact, some have relaxed the truth requirement on understanding. I offer a factive view of understanding (i.e., the extraction view) that fully accommodates the puzzling fact in four steps: (i) I argue that the question how these falsehoods are related to the phenomenon to be understood and the question how they figure into the content of understanding it are independent. (ii) I argue that the falsehoods do not figure into the understanding’s content by being elements of its periphery or core. (iii) Drawing lessons from case studies, I argue that the falsehoods merely enable understanding. When working with such falsehoods, only the truths we extract from them are elements of the content of our understanding. (iv) I argue that the extraction view is compatible with the thesis that falsehoods can have an epistemic value by virtue of being the very falsehoods they are.


Scientific understanding Factivism Quasi-factivism Non-factivism Felicitous falsehoods Idealizations Idealized models 



Discussions with colleagues and advisors contributed to shaping the view that I defend in this article. I’m grateful to (in alphabetical order) Christoph Baumberger, Jochen Briesen and his students, Henk de Regt, Finnur Dellsén, Anna-Maria Asunta Eder, Catherine Elgin, Benjamin Feintzeig, Roman Frigg, Philipp Haueis, Christoph Jäger, Marie I. Kaiser, Kareem Khalifa, Federica Malfatti, Christian Nimtz, Thomas Spitzley, Michael Strevens, Emily Sullivan, Raphael van Riel, Kate Vredenburgh, and the participants of Thomas Spitzley’s and Christian Nimtz’s research groups. I also thank the audiences in Aarhus, Atlanta, Barcelona, Bochum, Bordeaux, Exeter, Ghent, Greensboro, Innsbruck, Pärnu, and Seattle, as well as three anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticisms and suggestions.


I gratefully acknowledge that part of my research for this article was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation for the project ’A Study in Explanatory Power’, by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for a research stay at the New York University (2015–2016), by the OeAD for an Ernst Mach Scholarship, and by an Emmy Noether Grant from the German Research Council (DFG), Reference No. BR 5210/1-1.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of North Carolina at GreensboroGreensboroUSA

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