Human Arenas

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Modalities of Abduction: a Philosophy of Science-Based Investigation of Abduction

  • Jeppe Olsen
  • Alexander Gjerding
Arena of Epistemology


In this article, we investigate the notion of abduction, as it relates to and can be applied in scientific research. We investigate abduction through philosophy of science and the purpose is to survey some of the way abduction can be used in scientific research to the same extent as in- and deduction can be used. First, we perform a walkthrough of an illustrative sample of literature, which suggests that abduction is an ambiguously used concept, and that abduction is often defined much narrower than in- or deduction. We then proceed to give an outline of the most vital treatments of abduction in modern times, and we try to define various modalities of abduction, both as an autonomous research strategy and inference type, but also in relation and contrast to in- and deduction. The article ends with some perspectives on philosophy of science in relation to abduction, and some suggestions for applications of abduction in the different sciences.


Abduction philosophy of science Peirce Umberto Eco Bateson Critical Realism Magnani 


The most progressive steps in the history of science are not made with the eye, but through thought: It is when thought denies, what the eyes sees, so that they can view something new, that science is moved” (Jensen 2013, p. 48—our translation).

A common definition of abduction is the process of generating hypothesis (Magnani 2014, 2015a). This, however, begs more questions, than it provides clarity: for example, is abduction successible to logical scrutiny or analysis via philosophy of science? Or is it a mere instinctual and non-sensible process, akin to Karl Popper’s (2013) view on the context of discovery?

Furthermore, abduction is often referred to as inference to the best explanation (IBE hereafter), but given that it is a hypothesis-generating process, how can it have anything to do with inferential argumentation? What normative judgment (qua best explanation) can occur via hypothesis? And contrariwise, if merely hypothetical, is abduction not then deemed to result in nothing more than possibly tentative postulates?

It is our goal in this article to outline a coherent conceptual basis for abduction through some simple philosophy of science and clear terminological distinctions, characterizing abduction in such a way that it becomes more applicable in the concrete practice of scientific research.

The Relevance of Definitional Work Regarding the Notion of Abduction

Scientific research programs do not vanish upon encounters with empirical matters that fundamentally challenges their hypothetical-deductive schemes (Kuhn and Hacking 2012), and neither do they simply retreat to a platonic cave, until new empirical evidence resurrects them (Lakatos and Musgrave 1970). So as a matter of logical implication, some process beyond the hypothetico-deductive procedure must be afforded for science to survive falsifying anomalies, to develop new hypothesis, and engage in a flexible practice (Queiroz et al. 2008). Various attempts have been made to insert the process of abduction into those blind spots where science thoroughly moves and changes the conceptions of the world. However, abduction is in no manner nearly as terminologically well-defined and/or (explicitly) applied as induction, deduction, or hypothetico-deductive approaches (Blaikie 2010; Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983).

To exemplify this, we provide a sample of diverging definitions of abduction from the literature below.

Terminological Differences Between Appropriations of Abduction

Our interests in the definitional criterions regarding abduction is prompted by our stumbling upon some quite narrow and seemingly arbitrary attribution of abduction to certain qualitative research programs (Brinkmann 2014) or even specifically a postmodern research strategy (Blaikie 2010). However, such specific attribution of induction or deduction to certain disciplines or paradigms is unknown to us, so why treat abduction in such a manner? As already mentioned, one often hear abduction explained as IBE. This is a strikingly unsaturated definition of a research strategy, and in so far as Peirce is the mainspring of modern versions of abduction, it also seems blatantly wrong (Campos 2011).

As Parker (2017) comments on the state of abduction “Despite the extensive research in logic, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, semiotics, and philosophy of science, there is no sure proof that we have better or deeper understanding of abduction than its modern founder, Charles S. Peirce.”(p. 41). Therefore, the notion of abduction- in terms of basic philosophy of science- should be supplied with more stringently defined criterions, enabling its educational teaching and applicability in scientific research.

The Analytic Context of Abduction

A search for “Abduction” and “philosophy in science” in the database Scopus yielded 67 results.1 The articles varied from research in evaluations of medicinal clinical practices (Chiffi and Zanotti 2017), to highly specific language-philosophy areas (Cowley 2017). This already indicates the highly dispersed usage of the term due to the multidisciplinary employment of the term.

The literature sampled consists 11 articles about general philosophical questions, 18 were specifically about abduction in the work of Peirce, 8 were about linguistics, and 8 were about general philosophy of science—3 of these were especially about critical realism. The rest were scattered between various disciplines, ranging from AI to law and social analysis.

Some of the articles stress that abduction is a general thought operation that can and should be naturalized (Magnani 2006, 2015a), thus insisting that abduction is an eco-cognitive phenomenon (Magnani 2015). This implicates placing abduction, as a process very closely tied to elementary aspects of sense perception (Park 2015). In contrast, some view abduction as a formal type of inference. Often, abduction is then outlined as a more tentative and less “complete” inference type than induction or deduction (Bradfield 2016, p. 293). Other authors cling to the IBE doctrine, but tries to modulate it, such that it is merely an argument for “justifying pursuit of an hypothesis”; thus, Nyrup (2015) writes about such a formal view, that it “[...] sidesteps the issue of why better explanations should be more likely to be true[ ... and ]abduction [is] develop[ed] as a formal decision-theoretic model. This account provides a straightforward connection between explanatoriness and justification for pursuit.” (p. 749).

In such a manner, Nyrup is oriented towards the processual character of abductive research, but at the same time Nyrup logically formalizes it (not to mention the very subtle philosophical positioning between disavowal of a truth notion and a collapse of the analytic and normative properties of science). Hence, Nyrup, despite being supportive of the legitimacy of abduction as a singular inference type, emphasizes that abduction is mainly relevant for scientific research if it is followed up by induction (Nyrup 2015, p. 750).

This is in line with a third tendency, which views abduction as only one element of a research process (see fx Margolis 2007; van Benthem 2007) where the quality of abduction is mainly judged as in proportion to the actual corroborations of the hypothesis generated (Arrighi and Ferrario 2008).

Empirically and applied approaches to abduction tend to emphasize abductions role in theory building. For example, Decoteau (2017) links abduction to the philosophy of science called critical realism and argues that abduction contributes to research “by using surprising empirical findings to generate new theory.” (p. 58). Furthermore, this approach views abduction as an aspect of a re-conceptualizing approach to scientific explanations, which is a less narrow approach to abduction than the two other approaches mentioned above.

Critical realism also posits a more evaluative usage of re-conceptualization, such that re-conceptualization is also used to approve existing theories, even if these theories are not currently falsified or otherwise endangered/empirically challenged (Danermark et al. 2002).

As should be clear from the above, various, un-similar understandings of abduction exist.

Broadly speaking, it seems that abduction is understood either as a hypothesis-generating process or as a means to evaluate and/or justify assertions (Illustration 1).
Illustration 1

Basic tendencies from a sample of the literature

Furthermore and to summarize, at least four different tendencies were at play in this literature on abduction: (1) treating abduction as a general thought operation, (2 as a formal mode of inference, (3) as only part of a research process, where deduction and induction must be included to provide scientific grounds for abduction, and (4) an urge and attempts to treat abduction as an approach to scientific investigation in its own right.

A Very Brief Outline of the Historical Context of the Concept of Abduction

The American chemist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce is usually credited as the inventor of abduction. This has at least two reasons: (1) Peirce systematizes aspects of Aristotles work containing the earliest deliminations of the concept abduction. Peirce however develops this work of Aristotles with such inventiveness that the modern concept of abduction must be attributed to Peirce. (2) Peirce adds defining contrasts between this systematized version of abduction and other types of scientific reasoning.

Thus, Peirce initially developed the term through a specific reading of Aristotle’s term, apagoge, as it appears in his prior analytics (part 11.25 according to Alejandros-Flórez 2014). There is—however—good arguments to be made that Peirce misread Aristotle. But furthermore, there is also good arguments that Aristotle in posterior analytics (350 b.c.e./1960) (especially where the term anchinoia (“sagacity,” “cunning,” or “shrewdness”) appears) actually does provide the elements that Peirce builds his concept of abduction from (Alejandro Flórez 2014). However, Aristotle’s own conception of these elements is extremely rudimentary and not gathered in a concept unifying all the elements. We have been quite bothered not to have discovered any work of the scholastical readings of Aristotle, to be of relevance to the development of the term. This is probably only due to our faint acquaintance with such scholaricum. Yet it does seem that Peirce is the first to systematically conceptualize abduction (Anderson 1986).

The main elements that Peirce take from Aristotle have to do with a type of inference that is non-substantial, and so relates to intuition, creativity, and guessing2: apagoge had to do with the first sentence of a syllogism, prior to its verification or falsification, while anchinoia relates to the cognitive process of anchoring such unsaturated inferences in other empirical matters or conceptual structures. It is beyond the scope of this article to delimit the history of abduction more thoroughly.

The Notion of Abduction in the Works of Charles Sanders Peirce

Some of the confusion surrounding the notion of abduction must be attributed to Peirce’s own work (Paavola 2005; Liszka 1996). In Peirce’s work, abduction is both (and sometimes simultaneously) invoked as a thought operation, a type of inference, and as an element of a research strategy. Thus, Peirce both associates abduction with basic sensuous perception and with the generation of conceptual elements.

Furthermore, on the one hand, Peirce (1997) develops abduction in contrast to deduction and induction, and also in relation to empirical research. On the other hand, he claims that the three types of inference only work constructively if they are conjoined (Peirce EP2: 226–241). Towards the end of his writings, Peirce focuses on the aspect, but not by directly eliminating the other views (Paavola 2005). Hence, we will argue throughout that abduction can function as a research strategy on its own—or at least as the central/main mover of the inquiry—and not only as an element sub-ordinate to de- and induction.

The Analytical Context of Peirce’s Developments of the Abduction Concept

As is well known, Peirce was one of the founding fathers of the philosophical orientation called pragmatism. This school of thought asserted, as a basic principle, that the thought operations embedded in the practical structuration of the everyday world also provides the basis of scientific investigations (Peirce 1878). Abduction was for Peirce a prime concept in such regards, which is probably why the concepts are so ambiguously characterized, viewed from a non-pragmatist perspective, where inferential and instinctual thoughts are often dichotomized. All thinking, according to Peirce, occurs through signs (Peirce 1878). It is beyond the scope of this article to characterize Peirce’s sign theory, but suffice it to mention that sign processes include the synthesis, the identification of similarities, and the emergence of patterns in thought, which is equally the ground of everyday and scientific thinking. This continuity is neatly summarized by Peirce thus: “Abductive inference shades into perceptual judgment, without any sharp line of demarcation between them” (Peirce CP: 304). Despite its proximity to everyday thought patterns, abductions can be tested and modified by systematically applying hypothesis on some amount of pre-existing models, theories, or phenomena (Stjernfelt 2007, p. 89–117). However, it has caused some confusion that Peirce seemingly conflates instinctual and cognitive processes (Paavola 2005). But it seems more reasonable to understand abduction in accordance with the premises of Peirce’s philosophical commitments, than to force a logo-centric scheme upon the concept. By thus respecting the background assumptions of Peirce’s work one is granted a still to this day enlightening perspective, which transcends the rigid dichotomy of reason versus feeling.

Peircean Abduction in Three-Folds

Peirce’s concept of abduction has three different aspects: in one conception, abduction is rendered a partial element of a more encompassing research process, whether this has to do with a theoretical or empirical subject matter. Secondly, abduction is treated as a thought operation, that is, (according to Pierce) a fundamental aspect of all perception and thinking. Furthermore, a thought operation is—as mentioned—inherently sign processes according to Peirce (Liszka, 1996, p. 21; CP 2.418). In this perspective, it would be more correct to write percept-thought than perception and thinking, which also underlines that any discussion of whether abduction occurs sub-pre- or consciously is beside the point. Thirdly, Peirce defines abduction as a type of inference, characterized as an abstract space of experiential thought, where figurations and representations of explanatory models can be explored (Peirce 1997). This last aspect of abduction is quite interesting with regard to a foundational problem in the philosophy of science: What constitutes a new theory?

In connection to this, Peirce claims that new knowledge occurs as a duality of potentiality and possibilities (di Ricera 2013, p. 97). Potentials have to do with those aspects of a new theory, which was already fertile in the soil of the pre-existing theoretical landscape, whereas possibilities have to do with the radical facets of a new theory—those rupturing anomalies which Kuhn (2012) coins revolutionary.

These aspects of Peirce’s work on abduction are extremely pregnant in regard to the history and philosophy of science, but are sadly one of the less explicated areas of Peirce’s work (Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983).3

Peirce’s Abduction as a Mode of Inference

As a mode of inference, Peirce credited abduction with especially high status: he characterizes it as the inferential logic of categorization and the basis underlying all other types of inference (Peirce 1997). This should be understood in the light of the continuum between thought operations, modes of logical inference, and methodological aspects of research that Peirce metaphysically committed his system to (as outlined in the previous section). But Peirce also described abduction more formally. Hence, Peirce outlined abduction as an autonomous type of inferential argument, with the following structure:

The surprising fact, C, is observed

Yet if A were true

C would be a matter of course

Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true

(Peirce EP2:231).

From this, it is clear that abduction is not an inference of necessity (like deduction, see Table 1) but a presumptive and hypothesis-generating inference. We are well aware that this is still a quite vague characterization. Luckily, Peirce has also developed abduction sufficiently so, as to be contrastable with deduction and induction, which provides a bit more clarity (via contrast).
Table 1

Overview of the differences between the three classical modes of inference




All beans from that bag are new

These beans are from that bag

All beans from that bag are new

These beans are new

These beans are new

These beans are from that bag

These beans are from that bag

All beans from that bag are new

These beans are new

Already in the work of Aristotle, abduction is differentiated from deduction (compare the rightmost and leftmost columns of Table 1). Deductions proceed from premises, through rules, to necessary conclusions, while abductions proceed from premises, through similarities between properties of cases, to tentative stipulations (Peirce 1997; Alejandros-Flórez 2014). However, ideological circumstances surrounding the historical development of academia have lead to the logistic construal that only the decontextualized necessity of deduction can be perceived as owning truth value (Gadamer 2013, p. 3–27).

More specifically, John Stuart Mill’s a system of logic (1843) played a significant role in fostering the view that any inference which is not a deduction must be an induction (Magnani 2004). This vacuous perspective on inferences has sealed of context from knowledge assertions (Magnanini 2015) and has made abduction seem like a simple logical fallacy, i.e., an erroneous token of deduction (Hui et al. 2008).

This is not how Peirce conceived of it: all inferences are susceptible to ultimate fallibility, and abduction is no different from any other type of inference in such regards (Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983). But the reason that Peirce claimed abduction to be the primary mode of inference is because of its open-ended character (Valsiner 2000b).

As the generator of hypotheses, abduction is contextually embedded in the very unfolding of the research process, and as such it is the only inference enabling the researcher to dynamically perceive analogies across knowledge domains (Peirce 1997).4

Thus, abduction is differentiated from deduction by inferring similarities and patterns in an open-ended and therefore not rule-based manner (Magnani 2009). This quality of abduction is related to its proximal relation with primary thought operations, that is, the almost instinctual hypothesis—generation of everyday cognition. So just as with induction, abduction takes the form of predictions (see Table 1). However, with induction, the predictions are made from cases, and then proceed to the inference of a rule, whereas with abduction, the predictions are made from similarities of predicates, and then one infers towards a novel categorization of the subjects (Peirce CP: 5.172; Hui et al. 2008).

Thus, neither abduction nor induction achieves the degree of necessity, occurring with deduction. However, both induction and deduction can be gradually strengthened (CP 2.774).

Induction seeks support by adding different cases to the same general rule. Abduction seeks support by discovering similarities between cases (Bertilsson 2004).

With induction, inferential strengthening occurs by addition of cases, which are in accordance with a general rule. However, from a rationalist point of view, this adds no strength at all, as Popper has ardently emphasized. In contrast to induction, abduction proceeds through accumulation of predicates, and this strengthens the hypothesis about membership of such predicates to certain categories. In Bateson’s (1979, p. 143) conceptualization, discovering an increasing degree of similarity between two subjects makes us more confident that the subjects share properties and are exemplars of a common type. According to Peirce, predicting subjects towards a common type adds depth to the category, while adding categories adds width to knowledge (Peirce 1997; Liszka 1996). Either way (depth or width), the minimal character of the abductive mode of inference is a co-categorization of elements, based on similarity (Stjernfelt 2007, p. 49–89).

After this brief overview of abduction in the work of Peirce, we can conclude that the IBE does not seem to be very important aspect in this fundamental work on abduction and as a research strategy abduction is distinguished from induction and deduction by the analogical discovery of similar cases (Illustration 2).
Illustration 2

Peirce’s specification of abduction as hypothesis generating via similarity

Applicability of Peirce’s Notion of Abduction

In this section, we outline some distinctions regarding Peirce’s notion of abduction. The distinctions should be readily applicable to comparative and constructive theoretical studies.

The philosophical treatment of abduction in Peirce’s work minimally distills two different theoretical abductive processes, pertinent to scientific research. One is creative abduction, which is about generating new hypothesis and/or selecting amongst them, and the other is the IBE version, which also evaluates hypothesis (Ramoni et al. 1992; Liszka 1996). Both of these can be illustrated through diagnostic reasoning process, for example, in medical sciences.

The identification of a previously unknown disease or transmission route (like the classical examples of Ignaz Semmelweis or John Snow) exemplifies the creative abduction, which as such depends and influences the totality of the scientific field. In contrast to this, when a medical examiner infers a diagnosis, from an already established set of explanations apropos the manifest symptoms, then it is a selective process.

These processes can be directly transposed into models of detective-like theoretical studies, for example, searching for patterns in Peirce’s works, so as to delimit previously unfound and useful distinctions, or selectively choosing to mention already discovered distinctions. However, these facets can also be applied in various spiral methodological approaches to social and psychological phenomena, where the focus is to continually oscillate between intuition, empirical matters, and theory-building/concept-revising (Valsiner 2000a).

Thoroughly Processual Research: the Microgenetic Appropriation of Abduction

This last mentioned approach is called a microgenetic research strategy (Diriwächter and Valsiner 2006) and is not only a conceptual use of abduction, but also an application of abduction upon methods. Hence, the microgenetic approach to abduction suggests that methods should be altered or developed in accordance with the continuous generation of hypothesis vis-a-vis studies of the phenomena (Diriwächter and Valsiner 2006). This sort of research strategy goes beyond the most well-established view on Peirce’s final perspective on abduction, but in principle it does not violate any of the philosophical underpinnings of Peirce’s notion of abduction (knowledge as continually fallible, abduction as hypothesis generating, etc.). We therefore argue that the microgenetic approaches be viewed as a legitimate and genuine application of Peircean abduction.

Abduction as Theory-Building

When abduction is viewed as a theoretical process, one can distinguish between model-based and sentential-based abduction (Peirce 1931; Liszka 1996; Ramoni et al. 1992). The sentential-based version ties in with the selective process outlined above, and rest on the epistemic state of the researcher (Boutilier and Becher 1995). This depends on the status of the disciplinary matrix of the paradigm (Kuhn and Hacking 2012), and it is the most formalizable aspect of abduction. The sentential-based abduction has to do with consistency of knowledge and is revised through changing convictions of the researcher; as such, both the constitutive background and the inevitable fallibility of selective abduction are creative abductions (Magnani 2004, p. 225).

Hence, the selective abduction requires other inferences in order for the hypothetical explanations to obtain scientific sufficiency. That is, the abduction here takes the form of an initially qualified guess vis-a-vis some anomaly or otherwise surprising happenstance, which must be processed deductively, to explore the implications to be predicted from the guess, and these implications must then be sought-tested in relation to available data (see the end of this section).

However, it must be emphasized that Peirce’s work allows for conceptions of the research process that renders abduction more autonomous than merely having it provide material for deduction (Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983).

Besides basic conceptual research and the microgenetic approach mentioned above, one more such autonomous conception of abduction is model-based abduction (see references to Magnani’s work). This has been conceptualized by research areas in Peirce’s work that prioritizes the experimentation upon representations occurring in the scientific reasoning process (see fx Nersessian 1999). Magnani (2004, p. 228) lists analogical reasoning, visual inspections of models, and creation of thought experiments as typical examples of abductions based on theoretical models. These are modes of research, where the creative aspect of abduction is at the forefront, and it can be applied to comparative studies, the development of diagrams, or the development of thought experiments, which can emphasize new or pertinent aspects of some scientific theory or empirical phenomena (Gendler 2000).

The important thing to take note of is that the creative abduction can function as an autonomous research methodology whereby developments, comparative syntheses, or further constructions of theories can be performed. Of course, this autonomy of abduction can also simply be used to stretch the hypothesis-generating reflections pertaining to the research program, which we will provide examples of in the forthcoming section on abduction in critical realism. In general, the sections to come will provide examples of renovations performed on the notion of abductions since Peirce, and the examples are situated variably regarding the selection/creative aspect of abduction.

The distinctions drawn in this section are highly influenced by the Peirce readings of Lorenzo Magnani. Magnani’s is a very forceful reading in terms of installing some analytical distinctions in Peirce’s notion of abduction. However, subject and object are some places misleadingly held at too much of a distance in Magnani’s reading, when it comes to certain aspects of creative abduction (our interpretation, based on Valsiner 2000b). This is so, since the model and manipulative abductive tools seem equally applicable to both purely theoretical but also and empirically or data generativity-based theory-building (our interpretation of Tweney 1998).

We have therefore included a section on Gregory Bateson’s conception of abduction later on in the article, since it bridges the interior relationship of subject-object, implied by some of Magnani’s (2009) eco-cognitive perspectives, and reciprocally, Magnani’s notion (1999) of manipulative abduction helps to philosophically clarify aspects of Bateson’s methodology.

Before getting ahead of ourselves—and even though we believe Peirce’s concept of abduction to have more autonomous properties than he himself eventually did—we now summarize Peirce’s perspective on the role of abduction (in overview format) vis-a-vis a research process also including de- and induction:
  1. (1)

    Abduction—The researcher (or a society hereof) is struck by surprising theoretical aspects or empirical matters, which catalyzes the resurrection of “new” ideas and hypothesis about the research area.

  2. (2)

    Deductionsuch ideational and/or hypothetical content must then be analyzed in such a manner, as to provide propositions about what must by necessity follow if the ideas and hypotheses are true.

  3. (3)

    InductionOne should then proceed to empirically investigate whether or not 1 and 2 accords with, or nuances, actual empirical matters.


From this, we can understand the tendency to cluster abduction around induction and deduction (see the “The Analytical Context of Peirce’s Developments of the Abduction Concept” section).

Now, we can add the mature package version of Peirce abduction and qualified versions of creative (the microgenetic methodology) and manipulative (Magnani’s eco-cognitive perspective) abduction to our surveying graph (Illustration 3).
Illustration 3

Further specification of the hypothesis-generating function of abduction. We will return to all of these below

Post-Peircean Conceptualizations of Abduction

Various theoretical re-workings have been performed on the notion of abduction since Peirce’s work. In the following, we outline some of those post-Peircean conceptions which are most potent in regard to developing some distinctions rendering abduction research applicable.

Umberto Eco’s Structural Semiotic Typology of Abduction

Umberto Eco’s treatment of abduction is relevant due to a host of reasons. For one, he has had quite an impact on modern day semiotics (a scholarly area highly influenced by Peirce), but more pertinent for our purposes, Eco has proposed a delimitation of three sorts, or rather degrees of abduction. Eco understands abduction as a process where an empirical manifestation is related to some kind of explanatory rule or ideal/model scheme, which provides meaning to the phenomena (Eco 1986).

Overcoded abduction occurs when the interpretation of some phenomena happens automatically and instantaneously. Such a spontaneous interpretation process occurs due to our sociocultural background and is a tacit aspect of the totality of our embeddedness in the external world: this basic interpretation is the hermeneutical disposition necessary for any empirical phenomena to become meaningful at all (Eco 1986; Danermark 2012).

Undercoded abduction, in contrast, is when a phenomenon appears disambiguous, because a multiplicity of alternative explanations or descriptions is hermeneutically accessible: this is where the selective process becomes applicable (Eco 1986). Thirdly, creative abduction occurs when a new interpretive scheme or theory is created, so as to account for some phenomena. Examples of creative abduction are the interpretation of poetry, solving riddles, redefining concepts, or when entire worldviews or scientific paradigms are challenged (Eco 1986; Kuhn and Hacking 2012). This trifold distinction is vital for the evaluation of any theory constructed through abduction.

Hence, Eco’s conception contributes to the creative and selection-driven types of abduction (Illustration 4).
Illustration 4

Plotting Eco’s contribution, yet only preliminary, as we will return to Eco’s contribution in the final discussion of the article

Critical Realism: Abduction and Retroduction

Critical realism (CR hereafter) is an orientation in philosophy of sciences, mainly constructed by the philosopher Roy Bhaskar and the sociologist Margaret Archer (Danermark 2012). The reason why we include this school in our article is that CR has developed conceptions of abduction that can help rendering overcoded abductions more creative, and thus especially help theory-building in regard to research programs which are stuck or lack explanatory power.

CR is a school of thought with a well-developed terminological base: in a minimal sense, it can be claimed that CR endorses a depth ontology, consisting of three metaphysical stratifications: the empirical which is the part of the world accessible for sensuous experience, the actual that humans can only partially experience (yet it is still where the totality of events reside), and the real which is the realm of generative mechanisms causing the events (Bhaskar 2008, p. 44). As such, science must reason through and beyond the empirical to explain events (Collier 1994), which is the foundation of CR’s critique of positivism. This stratification, also, provides the ground for Bhaskar’s endorsement of multicausality. The stratification enables the view that certain generative mechanisms are temporarily unrealized, due to the fact that the actual is a much larger domain than the empirical, and thus a multitude of real mechanisms can cause the structure of empirical events (Steinmetz 1998).

Thus, inferring the possible generative mechanisms structuring an event requires hypothesis to be generated, and it has therefore been suggested that abduction is what best characterizes the context of discovery in Bhaskar’s system (Bhaskar and Hartwig 2016; Bertilsson 2004). Another way to put it is that it is always possible to posit alternative explanations in regard to some phenomena—which possibly underlies the IBE view on abduction (Rees and Gatenby 2014).

CR emphasizes that science should not be demarcated in regard to certain methods, but to the systematic application of a host of complementary inferences. Inferences should be understood broadly (somewhat like Peirce intended) as thought operations or reasoning styles.

CR defines abduction as a process where an empirical phenomena or event is re-contextualized, usually by a transport of the phenomena from one set of concepts into another. Danemark et al. (2002) posits that abduction (as re-contextualization) should be distinguished from retroduction, such that abduction opens up new ideas vis-a-vis the studied phenomena, and retroduction infers the causal processes constituting alternative general mechanisms explaining the phenomena. The crux of retroduction is to imagine a model of a generative mechanism, which insofar as it exists would explain the re-contextualized phenomena5(Bhaskar 2008).

Hence, in connection with the abductive re-contextualization, retroduction allows for an inference towards the “trans-phenomenal” elements, structures, and mechanisms (Collier 1994) producing the phenomena humans can empirically experience, but which in themselves are “hidden” from our sensuous perceptions (Bhaskar 2008). In other words, retroduction is a thought process guided by the question, what must be true given this empirical happenstance (Bhaskar and Hartwig 2016, p. 13).

It has been suggested (Decotuau 2017)—and in a Peircean perspective rightfully so—that a process of abstraction (Peirce’s prescinding) must take place between abduction/re-contextualization and retroduction: “Retroduction differs from abstraction because in abstraction, the task is to determine which structures are impinging on the event in question and describe their internal properties” (Decoteau 2017, p. 64). As such, the procedure of analyzing what are the most primary elements of a phenomenon must be performed, so as to adequately enable the retroduction.

However, simply rendering abduction a hypothesis generator by distancing thoughts from an already well-established theoretical scheme is a bit limited. As we outlined in the section on Peirce, abduction can be defined as similarity detection in Peirce’s work, and even the function that abduction plays in CR must rest on the assumption that the researcher generates hypothesis by the identification of something similar across contexts: No retroduction can pull the researcher back from simply tripping into transcendence. Some kind of semiotic mediation of similars must occur between concepts and empirical matters (Valsiner 2000b).

There exist various procedural combinations of inference type in CR research programs (for example, REIC, DREIC, or AART) (Decoteau 2017). But abduction/re-contextualization and retroduction are the common denominators of them all, and in practice the two terms are the backbone of any CR research program (hence, the concepts overlap quite a bit). Thus, according to CR, abduction is a necessary preliminary—and a partial aspect of—retroduction, which functions as a precision and necessary addition to abduction (so as to assure testability).

The IBE conception of abduction can be related to CR’s focus on testability, but as CR is oriented towards deciding amongst theories in relation to empirical testing, and not common sense or juridical interpretations, we argue that CR elaborate the selective aspect of abduction rather than IBE (see Illustration 5 below).
Illustration 5

Plotting the contributions of CR

CR research programs, especially as they function in sociology, thus seem to converge with the late Peirce, by perceiving abduction as a partial element of a research process. The strength of CR’s conception of abduction is that it alludes to abstractions and other inferences that can help to re-conceptualize research areas monopolized by one or few theoretical perspectives, thus narrowing the researcher’s mind with overcoded abductions.

As such, CR’s application of abduction has to do with systematization of the subjective capacity to infer from over- to undercoded and towards creative abduction. Usually, the undercoded and creative abduction enters via estrangement or anomalies (as was also outlined by Peirce).

It is the experience of uncertainty and mystification that destabilizes the credibility of existing theories, which provides the fuel for constructing new theories: an abductive approach to science therefore demands the cultivation of critical reflection upon what is usually taken for granted and what seems most natural (Peirce 1997; Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983)—as such, it has great affinity to the methodology of defamiliarization (ostranenie) developed by the Russian formalists (Erlich 1973).

In summary, by bringing ontology back into focus and supplying the notion re-contextualization, and the widening notion of retroduction, CR provides means to make abductions creative again and thus we can add specifications to our surveying graph (under both creative and selective abduction).

Gregory Bateson’s Double-Description Methodology

Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist, who developed an extremely unrecognized version of abduction, highly pertinent for the life sciences (Hoffmeyer 2008). Especially the Peircean abduction aspects of continuity between environmentally embedded thought operation and sensing are explored in Bateson’s work (1979).

Bateson emphasized the property of similarity detection, inherent to abductive processes, and stipulated that such similarity detection has to do with situations where two or more information sources coincide, to enable the emergence of a new type of information, different from either of the two previous sources (Bateson 1979, p. 21). This is the backbone of a methodology that Bateson calls double-description. Bateson’s idea is that such processes already occur in sensory integration processes, such as depth perception via binocular vision or the auditory superposition of sound frequencies (Bateson 1979, p. 70–74).

The integrated gestalts of various sensuous stimuli are a primary pattern creation, formed via the detection of similarities between stimuli: an act of categorical perception (Stjernfelt 2007, p. 111). Bateson uses such features of sense perception, as a metaphor for the information that emerges from coupling of different information sources (sense modalities).

In this primary form, Bateson, we assume, must be suggesting that the detection of similarities across different stimuli patterns, occurring in mono sense modalities, is tied to amodal properties, like intensity, extension, and duration (Marks 1978). When Bateson then proceeds to explain how a pattern recognized in one sense modality can be used to infer a pattern pertinent to another (Bateson 1979, p. 79), we assume that he is indicating a cross-modal pattern identification, whereby properties of one sense modality are transposed onto another (Bremner et al. 2012).6

This would tie in with an assertion that higher order double-description is grounded in two parallel existing abductive part-processes.

However, according to Bateson, the double-description provides the basis for abduction, and this is a problematic statement for a mind inclined towards Peirce’s notion of abduction. As Hui et al. (2008) observe, Bateson seems to focus on certain types of Peirce’s abduction-based reasoning, namely those that enables the creation of systemic relations of higher order categorizations (e.g., analytic systems describing a multitude of entities, properties and/or relations). As defined in the “Peirce’s Abduction as a Mode of Inference” section, the Peircean perspective would rather claim that abduction is the basis for double-descriptions, enabling such descriptions to ascent towards increasingly higher order hierarchically structured analytical narratives (Hui et al. 2008, p. 83).

Such a perspective on Bateson’s reading of Peirce can fruitfully supply Magnani’s reading of Peirce (see next section). This is so, because Bateson’s methodology grounds the hypothesis generation, as discoveries of similarities, from the bottom-up, that is, from sense similarities to picturesque (abstract) similarities. As such, the methodology stays true to the Peircean definition of abduction as a vital inference type and gives explanatory power to the naturalization of abduction program.

On a different note, Bateson’s metaphor based on sense perception is quite misleading regarding this leveled abductive process, formulating sense experiences in higher order (cognitive) descriptions. This is because the perceptual integration (via similarity detection) relies heavily on instantaneous spatio-temporal proximity, while the basis for the higher order abductions is merely that the target patterns, which these higher order similarity detections occur across, can be brought simultaneously to mind (Hui et al. 2008). And this could happen during a longitudinal inference process (Ohlsson and Lehtinen 1997).

As such, Magnani’s distinctions between theoretical and manipulative are helpful for Bateson here. Magnani: “The interplay between manipulative and theoretical abduction consists of a superimposition of internal and external, where the elements of the external structures gain new meanings and relationships to one another…”(Magnani 2004, p. 233). Thus, the detection of similarity guiding a construction of scientific theory can be a longitudinal process, relying on multiple internal and external modes of thought (e.g., models, empirical outcomes, thought experiments). This can in principle account for a top-down perspective on the ecologically embedded research mind: that is, generalized and hierarchically synthesized similarities can be stored in the environment, for example, in a sketched diagram or collegial debates about thought experiments. These can then become objects for further similarity and pattern detection through sense perception and manipulation, in the same way that empirical matters can be arranged to express causal laws, which in CR is coined transfactual phenomena (Bhaskar 2008).

In evaluating Bateson’s theory, it can be posited that the abstraction process, based on ascending, which is vital to Bateson’s double-description, is most sensibly characterized as only partially abductive, since Bateson also applies the theory of logical classes, which has to do with the formation of general rules via identification of differences across cases, that is, an inductive aspect.

Bateson’s theory, however, provides a ground for the eco-cognitive philosophy of science paradigm, which in turn provides some ceilings to the methodology of double-description. Such eclecticism could provide a framework for abduction equally applicable for the social, as for the life sciences.

In passing, one can relate the tendency to place abduction in proximity to the senses—which we identified in the “The Analytic Context of Abduction” section—to Bateson’s work, since it actually presents a biological theory about how a thought procedure (hypothesis generation) is grounded in a sensuous base.

We can thus add Bateson’s double-description to the creative abduction (Illustration 6).
Illustration 6

Bateson’s contribution

Magnani’s Manipulative Abduction

Lorenzo Magnani’s recent work (2009–2015) on the notion of manipulative abduction is especially helpful when characterizing the action-based construction of scientific models (e.g., Bateson’s double-descriptive ascend). Besides, Magnani is, like Bateson, fully oriented towards a naturalization of scientific cognition, and as such his conception nuances aspects of abduction in such regards (Park 2017). As mentioned previously, Magnani was a key figure in reviving a duality in Peirce’s notion of abduction: a selective/diagnostic aspect and a creative (model- and manipulation-based) aspect (Magnani 2009). Furthermore, Magnani’s notion of manipulative abduction elaborates how the creativity of creative abduction operates.

Manipulative abduction is a term describing the action-based acquisition of information (Magnani 2004). Magnani thus underscores the environmentally based mode of cognition, which acts as the empirical background of abduction. Magnani’s notion of manipulative abduction is a radicalized version of the model-based abduction, emphasizing the “extra-theoretical” manipulations on externalized objects embedding the research process and the various action patterns that emerge as new thoughts-through-doing (Magnani 2004). Crucially, this is not the immediate and sensuous reality of induction (what, as we saw, in critical realism only reaches the empirical) but the semiotically mediated reality (what in critical realism is termed the real). This mediation enables the cognate of higher order patterns, as, e.g., those Bateson emphasized through his double-description methodology.

More concretely, manipulative abduction includes what Magnani terms epistemic mediators, which are practices such as drawing flowcharts to simplify a reasoning process, but also the intersubjective exploration of diagrams, models, or other representations. This last point is quite interesting, since it provides a realistic position apropos scientific models (Magnani 2012) via a praxis argument (which is slightly different from the depth ontological argument from critical realism). This is interesting, since such praxis arguments have historically been associated with claiming relativity of scientific models (Wolff 1983).

Magnani thus introduces a new sub-type of abduction, on level with selective and creative (Illustration 7).
Illustration 7

Contribution of Magnani

From a philosophy of science point of view, Magnanis’ notion of manipulative abduction is valuable beyond the specific paradigms it discussed within, since it underscores how creative abductive processes often underlie selective ones. This contrasts with a tendency to focus on the opposite relation in a lot of Peircean scholarship (Magnani 2004; Park 2015). This tendency easily makes abduction superfluous relatively to deduction (Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983). Furthermore, the notion of manipulative abduction provides a focus towards some of the environmentally and intersubjective-based aspects of scientific reasoning, which supports the interobjectivity position regarding philosophy of science (Davis and Sumara 2005).

From a research application point of view, Magnani’s manipulative abduction can be used to conceptualize some of the circular methodological projects of qualitative research, in the human (Timmermans and Tavory 2012), social (Bhaskar 2008; Bhaskar and Hartwig 2016), and natural sciences (Queiroz et al. 2008). Often, such projects aim at an exploratory theory-building, where concepts are constructed, revised, or corroborated, in circular processes between empirical and theoretical matters (like the previously mentioned microgenetic studies (Valsiner and Pizarosso 1983; Valsiner 2000a)). For such exploratory research, the eco-cognitive approach to abduction is arguably more relevant than the procedural schemes of critical realism, which seems more relevant for explanation-based research programs (de Vaus 2001; Danermark et al. 2002; Decoteau 2017).

In the final sections of this article, we will summarize some of the key characteristics of abduction in regard to applicability for scientific research, and simultaneously we will place the selected aspects of abduction into some basic philosophy of science perspectives.

Abduction and Knowledge

In the two following sections, we outline some basic philosophy of science premises for the inclusion of abductive reasoning in research. After this, we summarize the modalities of abduction as outlined in the above sections and finally provide some perspectives exemplifying the applicability of abduction to a selected set of research areas.

Abduction and Epistemic Progress

Relations between entities—whether causal, structural, or functional—are never directly observable, but are always something inferred theoretically (Lévi-Strauss 1968; Bachelard 1934). Researchers are never confronted by pure data, but only with certain specifications and selections of the data—able to pass through our language—and thus become empirical (Køppe 2015). This means that the initial definitions which sciences use, and which often exist in conventional forms, radically delimit the possibility for the scientific exploration of reality (Sayer 1992). Due to the fact that abduction precisely includes theoretical suggestions regarding empirical relations and causes, the classical antinomy of representations is pertinent: that is, to what degree are abductive hypotheses nothing but the projection of the sciences own concepts upon the world?

The abovementioned school of thought, critical realism, states that any scientific enterprise must assume an objectively existing world, even though no epistemic process is able to transcend the contextual contingencies which have enabled its very existence (Bhaskar 2008). Theory does not determine observations, but theories negotiate the conceptualization of observations, so that even if we are not able to transcend our narrow confines of any given language system, we can still apply our rational powers of judgment to discriminate more or less adequate conceptions of reality (Bhaskar and Hartwig 2016). Even though the overcoded abduction can make our knowledge seem totally conceptually determined, the undercoded and creative abduction points towards capabilities to select and/or develop new perspectives on the world.

This fits nicely with Peirce’s commitment to fallibilism, the position that any proposition only counts as a piece of knowledge, to the degree that it can be shown not to be the case; hence, it is a strong metaphysical version of what has come to be known as Karl Popper’s (2013) criterion of falsification.

The question of epistemic progress has been especially manifested in debates on interpretation in modern hermeneutics (Eco 1994; Gadamer 2013, p. 172–362): if the basis of scientific interpretation is a circular relation between data and researcher, can there even exist accumulations of knowledge in the scientific practice?

In an extremely interesting treatment of the topic, Feil and Olteanu (2018) apply an only partially released Peirce work on historical research, to debate the question of scientific interpretation of data. Their argument is to elaborate to provide a full account of here, but the gist is that Peirce philosophically developed a group of methodological assumptions enabling the assertion that the “actual object of inquiry can be explored by means of abduction” (Feil and Olteanu 2018, p. 218—original italicize) because (and not in spite) of the historical character of the data:

This entails a continuity between experimental inquiry and reflection on data thus acquired and therefore between synthetic propositions that are derived a priori and those that are derived a posteriori (Feil and Olteanu 2018, p. 218).

Hence, where CR provides a moderation of present day undermining of the objectivity of scientific interpretations, it seems that Peirce already operated with an extreme realism, which included some of the tropes often used to support relativism (historicity, language, textuality, etc.) to affirm scientific progress.

Abduction and Ontology

As by now established, abduction is a mode of reasoning applicable across and between all sciences. Especially for sciences situated at disciplinary crossroads, like psychology, abductive reasoning seems extremely pertinent (Proctor and Capaldi 2008).

Due to the character of hypothesis emergence and non-positivistic version of logic, abduction seems best philosophically supported by the adoption of a non-reductive ontology: whether this be in form of pragmatics-continuism, objective-idealism, the depth ontology of critical realism or materialistic-emergence theory, is not absolutely essential; the crucial feature of the ontology is only that it be compatible with research assuming potential or virtual states of knowledge: the Rational meaning of every proposition lies in the future (Peirce paraphrased from Buchler 2012, p. 87–91).

In relation to this and the abovementioned discursive relativization of science, Peirce’s pragmatism provides a concrete constructive criterion for any hypothesis to counterbalance the negative definition of knowledge that is fallibilism. Peirce claims that a hypothesis must have direct impact on some real-life actions, in philosophy of science terms; abduction must give rise to new experiments or approaches to research. Otherwise, one is merely reifying something already established in the scientific community, and this criterion ties in with Peirce’s process ontology (Margolis 2007). This lets us pinpoint a restriction on the use of abduction in scientific practice. An important aspect of scientific practice is reproduction of results, and since abduction ties in with an ontology of constant change, it does not seem as a necessary, let alone, useful capability to generate new hypothesis in regard to merely reproducing a specific research set-up: the hypothetico-deductive method should suffice in regard to reproduction, and abduction does not seem necessary for such an employment as reproduction.7

Summary: Modalities of Abduction

In the following diagram, we depict the modalities of abduction outlined throughout the article (Illustration 8).
Illustration 8

A summarizing diagram, depicting the modalities of abduction outlined in the article. (In the box immediately below selective, A, D, and I stand for abduction, deduction, and induction respectively)

It is a central point that abduction can be defined as an inference type on par with deduction and induction, and therefore it can be applied as a research strategy to the same extent as induction and deduction (see Table 1): abduction is definable as a third type of inference, having to do with identifying analogies across empirical and theoretical domains, whereas deduction and induction has to do with drawing inferences from and to rules (respectively).

However, we have come to understand that the IBE definition of abduction is basically too thin to warrant any real applicability for emerging research programs. Therefore, we depict it as prior to any genuinely fruitful conceptual branching of abduction.

The conceptual branching of abduction must be inferred through some very fundamental and simple properties, which sets abduction aside from induction and deduction. As we have outlined, a Peircean understanding of abduction as hypothesis generation and similarity detection can provide just such a basis.

From this basis, the post-Peircean specifications of abduction can be subordinated; however, only in an incomplete manner, that is, viewed from the basis of hypothesis generation, both manipulative and selective approaches come in contact with some creative aspects, but for the sake of conceptual clarity, we have prioritized less horizontally the connection between abductive subordinates, and instead treated difference in degrees as difference in kind.

The three-part continuum of Eco’s undercoded, overcoded, and creative abduction can thus be imagined as an axes going into and out of the 2-dimensional diagram above, such that undercoded and overcoded are extremes and creative abduction is the origo of such an axis (rather than just aspects of selective abduction as in Illustration 4).

Prospective: the Relevance of Abduction in the Development of the Sciences

It seems that the frameworks of CR are heavily under-applied, since it has profound advantages in terms of the application of abduction regarding research situations where the structure-agency problem is the focal point of a phenomenon (Rees and Gatenby 2014).

Pragmatists and interactionist research programs could probably obtain explanatory power through eclectic collaborations with aspects of CR, in regard to empirical research areas involving historical and structure-agency relations (Steinmetz 1998; Yeung 1997), which in turn could benefit from a focus on micro-social-dependent nuances in relation to structural mechanisms (Lichterman and Reed 2012).

However, in terms of the theoretical aspects of the philosophy of science, pragmatism, in its Peircean accounts, can inform CR about the semiotic status of its fundamental notions, such as transitive and intransitive knowledge dimensions (Timmerman and Tavorry 2012). This can help clarify what type of metaphysics CR is, through diagrammatic analysis of its explanatory narratives, models, and schemes (Stjernfelt 2007, p. 23–89).

This sort of analysis can also contribute to the increasing interest in diagrammatic depictions of multicausal statistical techniques in the social sciences (Ramall 2016). In such areas, the possibilities of the theories of manipulative abduction (Magnani 1999, 2015) can clarify the interpretation processes of such (often cryptic) modeling (Tweeny 1998).

Thus, regarding the social sciences, we postulate that the Peircean scholarly work on abductive processes in the future will provide the greatest contributions in the philosophy of science part of various research areas. The methodological implications of abductions, on the other hand, seem extremely pertinent for the sociocultural approaches of developmental psychology (Valsiner 2000a). CR seems more applicable to the procedural empirical projects, with well-defined research objects (Decoteau 2017).

In the natural sciences, the use of selective and/or diagnostic abduction could readily be recognized and rendered more explicit. Furthermore, a concrete research area seems opened, in terms of determining the position on the evolutionary ladder of the emergent ability of epistemic creativity, defined as manipulative abduction: An empirical research area for abductive double-descriptions in biology as such is opened (Vitti-Rodrigues and Emmeche 2017). The results hereof could potentially inspire cross-disciplinary collaborations comparing the social scientific use of abduction with the abilities of other species (Dunbar et al. 2010).


  1. 1.

    We have not conducted a systematic review; we have only investigated a test sample of the recent literature (for systematic reviews, see Simet 2013; Fausto and Valentina 2017).

  2. 2.

    Which has striking similarities to Lévi-Strauss’ (1968) notion of the craftsman’s as a tinkerer—making systems of classifications in direct association with the use of materials in the immediate environment. According to Lévi-Strauss, this is a forerunner and vital part of scientific thought.

  3. 3.

    However, these aspects have to a high degree provided the potentials for post-Peircean work on abduction, especially in the form it takes in critical realism (Bhaskar and Hartwig 2016) which we shall return to below.

  4. 4.

    As should be clear by now, understanding abduction as an aspect of what Popper termed, the context of justification (2013), that is, the logical grounds supporting a scientific finding is misleading (Fann 1970; Mcauliffe 2015): Speculative as it may seem in modern philosophy of science, Peirce’s notion of abduction is situated much closer to what Popper (2013) called the context of discovery, that is, the very process of scientific ideation (Mcauliffe 2015).

  5. 5.

    Where abduction connotes “to lead astray/away”—that is, an underdetermined and tentative movement of thought—retroduction connotes “to consciously lead back”—that is, a more intended and goal-oriented movement of thought (Chiasson 2005).

  6. 6.

    The developmental and semiotic mechanisms underlying the double-description methodology could fruitfully be explored, by eclectically connecting it with the research in multisensory development (Bremner et al. 2012) and cognitive semantics (Lakoff and Johnson 1999). However, the conclusions of such studies would probably require descriptions beyond science, since the interminglings of experience and thought in Bateson’s double-description are what Bhaskar (2008, Bhaskar and Hartwig 2016) terms transcendentals, concepts beyond any empirical investigative procedure.

  7. 7.

    However, abduction can contribute to forming new hypothesis about a topic in relation to whether or not its investigated aspect is reproducible.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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