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Structural realism versus standard scientific realism: the case of phlogiston and dephlogisticated air

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to revisit the phlogiston theory to see what can be learned from it about the relationship between scientific realism, approximate truth and successful reference. It is argued that phlogiston theory did to some extent correctly describe the causal or nomological structure of the world, and that some of its central terms can be regarded as referring. However, it is concluded that the issue of whether or not theoretical terms successfully refer is not the key to formulating the appropriate form of scientific realism in response to arguments from theory change, and that the case of phlogiston theory is shown to be readily accommodated by ontic structural realism.

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Correspondence to James Ladyman.

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This paper is based on a talk with the same title given at the Theoretical Frameworks and Empirical Underdetermination workshop at the University of Düsseldorf on 10–12th April 2008. I am extremely grateful to Gerhard Schurz and Ioannis Votsis for organizing the event and inviting me, and to the participants for their comments. I am also heavily indebted to Andrew Pyle for generously sharing his extensive knowledge about the history and philosophy of phlogiston chemistry, and also to my student Bon Hyuk Koo for discussion of the place of phlogiston in the scientific realism debate.

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Ladyman, J. Structural realism versus standard scientific realism: the case of phlogiston and dephlogisticated air. Synthese 180, 87–101 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-009-9607-8

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Keywords

  • Structural realism
  • Phlogiston
  • Scientific realism