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Idealization and the Aims of Science

Science is the study of our world, as it is in its messy reality. Nonetheless, science requires idealization to function—if we are to attempt to understand the world, we have to find ways to reduce its complexity.

Idealization and the Aims of Science shows just how crucial idealization is to science and why it matters. Beginning with the acknowledgment of our status as limited human agents trying to make sense of an exceedingly complex world, Angela Potochnik moves on to explain how science aims to depict and make use of causal patterns—a project that makes essential use of idealization. She offers case studies from a number of branches of science to demonstrate the ubiquity of idealization, shows how causal patterns are used to develop scientific explanations, and describes how the necessarily imperfect connection between science and truth leads to researchers’ values influencing their findings. The resulting book is a tour de force, a synthesis of the study of idealization that also offers countless new insights and avenues for future exploration.

Author Information

Angela Potochnik is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati.


“Angela Potochnik’s ambitious book is an antidote to the view that the philosophy of science tries to pronounce grandly on what scientists ought to do."
— Philip Ball, New Scientist

"In sum, this is a rich, well-argued book that articulates a coherent view of science and explicates the essential role of idealization in a world of cognitively limited people."
— Notre Dame Philosophical Review

"This thought—that science makes the world’s complexity accessible to human understanding via idealization—is the central contention of Angela Potochnik’s ambitious, striking book."
— Biology & Philosophy

"In her exceptional book, Idealization and the Aims of Science, Angela Potochnik explores the nature of idealizations while accounting for why they are so ubiquitous.
The picture of science that emerges from Potochnik’s work is that of a thoroughly human endeavor. Science is a tool that helps us navigate an extremely complex world. Potochnik’s picture of science is compelling and helps to ground an appreciation of how truly impressive the success of science is."
— Science & Education

"Why do scientists deliberately maintain falsehoods in their theories and models? Given the complexity of natural phenomena, scientists must simplify and generalize to isolate details from which causal patterns may be identified. Consequently, researchers must make choices about what to study and how; in doing so, the author argues, social values become entrenched in science. Potochnikcontends that science doesn’t pursue truth directly but aims to support “human cognitive and practical ends.” Following several case studies of recent research in such diverse topics as behavioral ecology and human aggression, and—to a lesser extent—fluid dynamics, quantum physics, and climate change, the author offers a detailed exploration of how social values are linked to science. Arguing that science should be regarded as a tool to facilitate human action, Potochnik concludes that scientists should pursue research that advances both action and understanding. She defines the most valuable subjects as those of ethical concern—for example global climate change or studies involving human physiological and psychological health. Written primarily for philosophers of science, this text has practical implications for science practice. It will be of greatest benefit to advanced academics and active research scientists. Recommended."

— Choice

Audience: Professional and scholarly;