A pragmatic approach to the ontology of models

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What are scientific models? Philosophers of science have been trying to answer this question during the last three decades by putting forward a number of different proposals. Some say that models are best understood as abstract Platonic objects or fictional entities akin to Sherlock Holmes, while others focus on their mathematical nature and see them as set theoretical structures. Although each account has its own strengths in offering various insights on the nature of models, several objections have been raised against these views which still remain unanswered, making the debate on the ontology of models seem unresolvable. The primary aim of this paper is to show that a large part of these difficulties stems from an inappropriate reading of the main question on the ontology of models as a purely metaphysical question. Building on Carnap, it is argued that the question of the ontology of scientific models is either (i) an internal theoretical question within an already accepted linguistic framework or (ii) an external practical question regarding the choice of the most appropriate form of language in order to describe and explain the practice of scientific modelling. The main implication of this view is that the question of the ontology of models becomes a means of probing other related questions regarding the overall practice of scientific modelling, such as questions on the capacity of models to provide knowledge and the relation of models with background theories.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6645-6664
Number of pages20
Issue number3-4
Early online date26 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 26 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I am greatly appreciative to Samir Okasha, James Ladyman, Steven French, Adam Toon, Demetris Portides and especially Karim Thébault for their valuable feedback on previous versions of this work. Many thanks also to the postgraduate community in Bristol for their comments during a ‘Work in Progress’ talk, as well as to audiences in Exeter, Durham and Toronto. I am also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier version of the paper. This research was supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Ph.D. Studentship, awarded through the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Models
  • Ontology
  • Carnap
  • Pragmatism
  • Linguistic frameworks
  • internal/external questions


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