Symbol Systems as Collective Representational Resources: Mary Hesse, Nelson Goodman, and the Problem of Scientific Representation

Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4 (6):52-61 (2015)
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This short paper grew out of an observation—made in the course of a larger research project—of a surprising convergence between, on the one hand, certain themes in the work of Mary Hesse and Nelson Goodman in the 1950/60s and, on the other hand, recent work on the representational resources of science, in particular regarding model-based representation. The convergence between these more recent accounts of representation in science and the earlier proposals by Hesse and Goodman consists in the recognition that, in order to secure successful representation in science, collective representational resources must be available. Such resources may take the form of (amongst others) mathematical formalisms, diagrammatic methods, notational rules, or—in the case of material models—conventions regarding the use and manipulation of the constituent parts. More often than not, an abstract characterization of such resources tells only half the story, as they are constituted equally by the pattern of (practical and theoretical) activities—such as instances of manipulation or inference—of the researchers who deploy them. In other words, representational resources need to be sustained by a social practice; this is what renders them collective representational resources in the first place.

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Axel Gelfert
Technische Universität Berlin


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