Structure-preserving Representations, Constitution and the Relative A priori

Synthese 198 (Supplement 21):1-24 (2021)
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The aim of this paper is to show that a comprehensive account of the role of representations in science should reconsider some neglected theses of the classical philosophy of science proposed in the first decades of the 20th century. More precisely, it is argued that the accounts of Helmholtz and Hertz may be taken as prototypes of representational accounts in which structure preservation plays an essential role. Following Reichenbach, structure-preserving representations provide a useful device for formulating an up-to-date version of a (relativized) Kantian a priori. An essential feature of modern scientific representations is their mathematical character. That is, representations can be conceived as (partially) structure-preserving maps or functions. This observation suggests an interesting but neglected perspective on the history and philosophy of this concept, namely, that structure-preserving representations are closely related to a priori elements of scientific knowledge. Reichenbach’s early theory of a relativized constitutive but non-apodictic a priori component of scientific knowledge provides a further elaboration of Kantian aspects of scientific representation. To cope with the dynamic aspects of the evolution of scientific knowledge, Cassirer proposed a re-interpretation of the concept of representation that conceived of a particular representation as only one phase in a continuous process determined by pragmatic considerations. Pragmatic aspects of representations are further elaborated in the classical account of C.I. Lewis and the more modern of Hasok Chang.

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Thomas Mormann
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München (PhD)


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