Formal and Material Theories in Philosophy of Science: A Methodological Interpretation

  • Alan C. Love
Conference paper
Part of the The European Philosophy of Science Association Proceedings book series (EPSP, volume 1)


John Norton’s argument that all formal theories of induction fail raises substantive questions about the philosophical analysis of scientific reasoning. What are the criteria of adequacy for theories of induction, explanation, or theory structure? Is more than one adequate theory possible? Using a generalized version of Norton’s argument, I demonstrate that the competition between formal and material theories in philosophy of science results from adhering to different criteria of adequacy. This situation encourages an interpretation of “formal” and “material” as indicators of divergent criteria that accompany different philosophical methodologies. I characterize another criterion of adequacy associated with material theories, the avoidance of imported problems, and conclude that one way to reconcile conflicting criteria is to adopt a pluralist stance toward theories of scientific reasoning.


Formal Theory Successful Functioning Inductive Inference Philosophical Analysis Scientific Reasoning 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I received a variety of helpful feedback on this material from the session participants at the European Philosophy of Science Association meeting in Amsterdam (October 2009). Ingo Brigandt, Ron Giere, John Norton, Greg Novack, Ken Waters, Bill Wimsatt, and an anonymous referee provided useful criticisms and suggestions on an earlier draft of the manuscript.


  1. Brigandt, Ingo. 2010. Scientific reasoning is material inference: Combining confirmation, discovery, and explanation. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 24:31–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Fodor Jerry A. 2008. Against Darwinism. Mind & Language 23:1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2008. Explanation in evolutionary biology: Comments on Fodor. Mind & Language 23:32–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Hempel, Carl G. 1965. Aspects of scientific explanation and other essays in the philosophy of science. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  5. Hempel, Carl G. 2001 [1970]. On the “standard conception” of scientific theories. In The philosophy of Carl G. Hempel: Studies in science, explanation, and rationality, ed. James H. Fetzer, 218–236. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Kellert, Stephen H., Helen E. Longino, and C. Kenneth Waters. 2006. Introduction: The pluralist stance. In Scientific pluralism, eds. Stephen H. Kellert, Helen E. Longino, and C. Kenneth Waters, vii–xxix. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  7. Manning, Susan K., and Helene Schreier-Pandal. 1993. Errors in conjunction and disjunction. American Journal of Psychology 106:429–449.Google Scholar
  8. Norton, John D. 2003. A material theory of induction. Philosophy of Science 70:647–670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Steel, Daniel P. 2005. The facts of the matter: A discussion of Norton’s material theory of induction. Philosophy of Science 72:188–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Suppes, Patrick. 1962. Models of data. In Logic, methodology and philosophy of science: Proceedings of the 1960 International Congress, eds. Ernest Nagel, Patrick Suppes, and Alfred Tarski, 252–261. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Wilson, Mark. 2006. Wandering significance: An essay on conceptual behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Wimsatt, William C. 2007. Re-engineering philosophy for limited beings: Piecewise approximations to reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Woodward, James. 2003. Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Minnesota Center for Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations