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Reconstructing Scientific Theory Change by Means of Frames

Part of the Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy book series (SLAP,volume 94)


This paper has two aims. The first is to show the usefulness and intuitiveness of frame theory in reconstructing scientific classification systems. The second is to employ such reconstructions in order to make headway in the scientific realism debate and, more specifically, in the question concerning scientific theory change. Two case studies are utilised with the second aim in mind. The first concerns the transition from the phlogiston theory to the oxygen theory of combustion, while the second concerns the transition from the caloric theory to the kinetic theory of heat. Frame-theoretic reconstructions of these theories reveal substantial structural continuities across theory change. This outcome supports a structural realist view of science, according to which successful scientific theories reveal only structural features of the unobservable world.


  • Frames
  • Scientific classification system
  • Structural realism
  • Theory change

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  1. 1.

    Following van Fraassen (1980), unobservables are understood as those objects, phenomena or events that we can only detect with instruments, i.e. never with our unaided senses.

  2. 2.

    Realists often disagree on where to place the cut-off point concerning how much success a theory needs in order to entail true or partially true claims about the unobservable world. One popular criterion is the ability to make novel predictions, though even here there is considerable controversy – see Worrall (2002).

  3. 3.

    For the notion of survival or correspondence in a limit form see Redhead (2001).

  4. 4.

    For a comprehensive critical survey of the literature on structural realism see Frigg and Votsis (2011).

  5. 5.

    See also Ladyman (2011) for another structural realist account of the phlogiston-oxygen theory transition.

  6. 6.

    The material in this section (including all the figures) is a reformulated version of material found in Votsis and Schurz (2012). For more details please consult that publication.

  7. 7.

    Frames higher up the hierarchy for both the caloric and the kinetic theory can be found in Votsis and Schurz (2012). These include the general frames for “heat as caloric” and “heat as kinetic energy”.

  8. 8.

    Of course if structural realism is correct then we should only believe in the structural form of the mechanism posited by the kinetic theory.


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This paper contains material from talks presented at the CTF 2007 and CTF 2009 conferences in Düsseldorf as well as from Votsis and Schurz (2012). We would like to thank the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) for funding our project B6 (part of the interdisciplinary research unit FOR 600 ‘Functional Concepts and Frames’) as it made it possible for us to write this paper. We would also like to thank two anonymous referees for their useful feedback.

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Correspondence to Gerhard Schurz .

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Schurz, G., Votsis, I. (2014). Reconstructing Scientific Theory Change by Means of Frames. In: Gamerschlag, T., Gerland, D., Osswald, R., Petersen, W. (eds) Frames and Concept Types. Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy, vol 94. Springer, Cham.

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