Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 149–169 | Cite as

Explaining Models: Theoretical and Phenomenological Models and Their Role for the First Explanation of the Hydrogen Spectrum

  • Torsten WilholtEmail author


Traditional nomological accounts of scientific explanation have assumed that a good scientific explanation consists in the derivation of the explanandum’s description from theory (plus antecedent conditions). But in more recent philosophy of science the adequacy of this approach has been challenged, because the relation between theory and phenomena in actual scientific practice turns out to be more intricate. This critique is here examined for an explanatory paradigm that was groundbreaking for 20th century physics and chemistry (and their interrelation): Bohr’s first model of the atom and its explanatory relevance for the spectrum of hydrogen. First, the model itself is analysed with respect to the principles and assumptions that enter into its premises. Thereafter, the origin of the model’s explanandum is investigated. It can be shown that the explained “phenomenon” is itself the product of a host of modelling accomplishments that stem from an experimental tradition related to 19th century chemistry, viz. spectroscopy. The relation between theory and phenomenon is thus mediated in a twofold way: by (Bohr’s) theoretical model and a phenomenological model from spectroscopy. In the final section of the paper an account is outlined that nevertheless permits us to acknowledge this important physico-chemical achievement as a case of (nomological) explanation.


Hydrogen Theoretical Model 19th Century Final Section Century Chemistry 
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© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany

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