5th Biennial Conference of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP) Aarhus 2015

Parallel Session 6A
Friday, 26 June 2015, 09:00–11:00 in Aud F
Session chair: Adam Toon (University of Exeter)
Organized by: Chiara Ambrosio (UCL)
Symposium: Aesthetics in Scientific Practice


Recent developments in philosophy of science have seen a progressive convergence with debates in the field of aesthetics. The aim of this symposium is to explore this convergence with a close eye to practice, and tackle some key questions that explicitly invite an investigation of the crossovers between aesthetics and epistemology. What drives scientists’ preference toward the beauty or elegance of particular theories? How do these notions relate to truth, epistemic success, accuracy and predictive power? In attempting to answer these questions we look specifically at how practitioners articulate their aesthetic commitments, and how (and whether!) aesthetic judgments inform, infuse, and ultimately provide a constitutive basis for, a range of practices in science.

We begin with a practice-oriented account of two quintessentially theoretical constructs: truth and beauty. A widespread view in philosophy of science relates the beauty of theories to their objective features, their truth, and their epistemic success. What our panel discloses, through a careful investigation of scientific practice in its historical development, is a more subtle and nuanced picture: it is often the epistemic success of theories that determines scientists’ aesthetic preference for the relation between truth and beauty.

Considered in eminently practical contexts, aesthetics can also serve as a powerful challenge – both internal and external – to the authority of science. This is another angle of the convergence between aesthetics and epistemology, and of the constitutive relation between aesthetics and science more broadly, which our symposium plans to address in close connection with practice. We explore instances in the parallel histories of science and art in which aesthetics served the critical role of disclosing novel phenomena worthy of investigation in their own right, thus contributing to challenge assumptions that scientists tended to accept unquestioningly.

An important development in the dialogue between aesthetics and philosophy of science relates to the current debate around scientific representations and the practice of modelling. It is here that philosophers of science have engaged with debates in aesthetics, and even art practice, in the most forceful way. Thus, the normative connection between aesthetics and science, investigated in the first part of our symposium with reference to the relationship between aesthetic judgments and epistemic success, is here mapped on the particular case of the construction and use of models and representations in science. What is the role played by aesthetic judgments in the recognition and evaluation of the epistemic fruitfulness and accuracy of models and representations? Would aesthetics complement epistemology in the quest for the constituents of scientific representation, and if so how? Our symposium addresses a particular aspect of the debate around scientific representation, one which, incidentally, intersects debates on truth, realism and the aims of science more broadly: the controversial status of similarity and/or resemblance in representation. While we tend to agree that resemblance does not exhaust representation by providing a single necessary and sufficient condition, our contributions offer different – but complementary – views on the role that this concept can play in science, as well as an assessment of the shortcomings and misconstructions of this notion when examined in disconnection from practice.

Why Do Scientists Find Beautiful Theories Aesthetically Attractive?
  • James W. McAllister (Institute of Philosophy, University of Leiden)


This question seems to admit an obvious answer—“Because beautiful theories naturally are aesthetically attractive!”—but things are, of course, more complicated. Some scientists and philosophers have linked the beauty of theories to their objective, epistemic and empirical merits, such as being true or being valid. Speaking more strictly, these writers have claimed that some structural and formal properties of theories, perceivable by scientists, promote, accompany or are indicators of epistemic or empirical attainments of theories. On the other hand, scientists have certain tastes as to the structural and formal properties of theories: they find theories that display some properties of these kinds aesthetically attractive, and others not. The question is, why are scientists predisposed to find aesthetically attractive the structural and formal properties of theories that are linked to epistemic and empirical attainments? In other words, why, if some aesthetic properties of theories are connected with truth, are scientists’ aesthetic tastes tuned to precisely those properties?

There are three possible strategies to explain this coincidence. First, one may posit an identity of truth, beauty, and aesthetic attraction: it is metaphysically or conceptually necessary both that beauty is linked with truth and that we find beauty aesthetically attractive. Second, one may argue that epistemic and empirical success is, at root, an aesthetic attainment: our finding theories aesthetically attractive is in some way constitutive of their having epistemic or empirical success. Third, one may argue that the epistemic or empirical success of theories is partly responsible for our finding those theories, and the structural and formal properties that they display, aesthetically attractive.

In this paper, I will assess these three strategies. I will conclude that the first meets insuperable difficulties, especially in the light of historical evidence that scientists’ aesthetic preferences change in time. The second strategy has difficulty in explaining cases in which scientists concede that a theory is empirically successful but reject it as aesthetically unattractive. I shall argue that the third strategy does most justice to evidence from the history of science.

In the final part of the paper, I shall discuss the implications of saying that the epistemic or empirical success of theories partly determines scientists’ aesthetic tastes for the link between beauty and truth, for scientists’ behaviour in theory choice, and for the nature of scientific revolutions.

Who is Afraid of Mimesis?
  • Chiara Ambrosio (Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL)


“All epistemology begins in fear”, claim Daston and Galison (2007: 372) in the final chapter of their history of objectivity. Their account shows that our relationship with objectivity coincides with the story of the scientific self, and of the epistemic virtues that communities cultivate explicitly to “discipline” their practitioners. In this paper, I aim to show that the notion of representation in philosophy of science, and in particular that of mimesis, followed a fate very similar to that of objectivity. Specifically, I claim that the somewhat tormented relationship philosophers of science have developed with mimetic accounts of representation marks just another chapter in the history of epistemic fear.

I begin by offering an alternative angle to McAllister’s claim (in this symposium) that the empirical success of theories guides scientists’ aesthetic preference for the link between beauty and truth. I explore a slightly different aspect of the relation between aesthetics and epistemology: instances in which aesthetics acts as a trigger not so much for scientific revolutions, but for (apparently minor) changes in ways of seeing. I claim that these cases contribute to the refinement of the formal properties of theories, ultimately playing a role in their empirical success. Drawing on Jacques Rancière’s (2013) view of the critical role of aesthetics as inducing a “redistribution of the sensible”, I investigate episodes in which aesthetic decisions (interestingly coming from artistic practice) productively contributed to challenge established assumptions in science.

In the second part I claim that, historically and practically, mimesis is a crucial catalyst to maintain such critical role for aesthetics. A widespread criticism of mimetic accounts of representation is that they are merely a “common sense” view, built on the assumption that representation can be exhausted simply by postulating a mirror-like, dyadic relation between a representational source and its target. But as Halliwell (2002) argued, this kind of criticism was far more nuanced even in Plato, credited as one of the earliest and most adamant critics of mimetic accounts of art (and knowledge more broadly). Following recent accounts of mimesis as a form of Peircean iconicity, I argue that important shifts in systems of representation and classification in science were possible precisely because of scientists’ flexible attitude towards resemblances between properties or states of affairs considered relevant for particular purposes. I thus suggest that it is more productive to investigate resemblances in the plural: not a single necessary and sufficient condition, but a set of criteria that can change (within constraints) on the basis of representative goals and practices.

I conclude by arguing that devaluing resemblance is a way of devaluing, among other things, the critical role of aesthetics more broadly. The wilful rejection of resemblance, well exemplified by avant-garde experiments in the visual arts, is itself based on a recognition of it as a relevant representative relation. I claim that the same holds in the case of scientific representations. Philosophical accounts that reject mimetic accounts neglect that the critical core of representative practices consists in coming to terms with such a foundational notion, either to embrace it or to depart from it: mimesis is productive precisely because it contains in itself the seed for its rejection.

Who is afraid of mimesis, then? Surely neither artists, nor scientists: their daily practices primarily consist of discovering, negotiating, challenging resemblances. The upshot may be that philosophers are far more concerned about it than needs be, and in doing so they are depriving philosophy of a construct that has a great deal to offer, conceptually and in real life.


  • Daston, L. and Galison, P. (2007) Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
  • Halliwell, S. (2002) The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
  • Rancière, J. (2013). Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic regime of Art. London and New York: Verso.
Resemblance and Its Discontents in Art and Science
  • Mauricio Suárez (Institute of Philosophy, London University & Complutense University, Madrid)


I have in the past claimed that model-building is infused with aesthetic as well as epistemic goals. In particular I believe that there is a norm of acceptance for models that involves aesthetic judgements of ‘elegance’, and that ‘elegance’ is best understood as advancing inferential expediency. Hence there is a deep constitutive or normative link between aesthetics and science. In this talk I argue that there are correspondingly formal analogies between some well-known discussions regarding the nature of representation in art and science. In particular I focus on the implications for resemblance theories of representation on which, roughly, some formal similarity of apparent features (“resemblance”) is required between a representational source and its target.

Charles Peirce (1931, Ch.3) carefully distinguished icons from symbols and indexes, and reserved the application of resemblance to the former type of iconic representations. Indeed the most perspicuous application of the resemblance theory is to the plastic and fine arts, and in particular painting. Portraits are archetypal icons, which often resemble their targets. Yet, even with respect to icons the attempt to analytically reduce representation to resemblance fails. The essential problem was characterised precisely in logical terms by Nelson Goodman (1976). On Goodman’s alternative account all representation is instead symbolic and reliant on denotation.

I first review my past argument that a consideration of representational practices, both in the sciences and the arts, invites a distinction between two questions, namely a prior question regarding the constitution of representation, and a secondary question regarding the degree to which a representation qua representation is faithful or accurate. The latter question can only be posed once the former has been addressed and answered positively. In other words, we are in practice only ever in a position to address the accuracy of a representational source, qua representation of some target, if we already accept that it is indeed a representation.

I then argue by inspecting a number or examples in art that the resemblance theory may to some extent successfully address the question of faithfulness but it is unable to address the constitutional question. This seems true also for sophisticated versions of resemblance, such as Tversky-similarity (Weisberg, 2012). By contrast, I suggest that a functional version of denotation addresses the constitutional question, but it fails to address the faithfulness question altogether. I end by suggesting that representation in both science and art is in general a hybrid notion, including both symbolic aspects related to denotative function and iconic aspects related to resemblance – yet it is exhausted by neither denotation nor resemblance.


  • Goodman, N. (1976) Languages of Art, Hackett: Indianapolis.
  • Peirce, C. (1931), Collected Papers, Volume 2: Elements of Logic, edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Weisberg, M. (2012), Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
‘Creative Similarity’ in the Understanding of Science and Art
  • Julia Sánchez Dorado (Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL)


In the past years, numerous philosophers of science have discussed the role played by similarity –between scientific models and the objects of the world they refer to– in the obtaining of fruitful scientific representations.

In this paper, I will try to defend that, against some of the strictures formulated on its value, it is epistemically advantageous to conserve the idea of similarity to explain how scientific representations advance understanding about the world. But to succeed in the attempt, it will be indispensable to develop a specific approach to similarity that goes beyond the constrained explanations of it often proposed in the field. ‘Similarity’ is a many-sided term, and accordingly diverse and usually conflicting accounts of it have been lately endorsed –namely, accounts of isomorphism, homomorphism or similarity as resemblance.

Here, I will defend a more integrating approach that takes these and other varieties of similarity as compatible in principle to each other. The key of my account will be the characterization of similarity as inseparable –but compatible with– distortion of different kinds, the two of them interlaced in the same creative practice of representing and leading to a particular goal.

To be able to reach the former proposal, the strategy of enquiry I shall develop is the establishment of a dialogue with the field of aesthetics, in which there is a much longer tradition discussing the problems of representation and similarity. Considering how in modern aesthetics questions about similarity were raised, and possible answers to them were offered, can help us look with new eyes recent debates in philosophy of science, especially when the object of analysis are scientific and artistic practices. In the present paper, I will mainly refer to debates that took place in the avant-gardes period at the beginning of the twentieth century. At first sight it can seem that allusions to similarity were radically rejected to explain the nature of artworks at that time. But quite the opposite, very interesting reflections on how to reinterpret and reconsider similarity can be found in writings on depiction and artistic practices of that period. Perhaps, artworks could not be explained exclusively in terms of “similarity of appearance” since then anymore. But far from disappearing, other kinds of similarity (perceived similarity, structural similarity, conceptual similarity) still have a presence in the theorizing of modern art.

A stimulating case study I would like to examine more in depth is Kandinsky’s theoretical-applied treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910). Here, genuine representations are characterized by the presence of singular kinds of similarity that go hand in hand with distortion and with changes of the features of the object represented. Following his argumentation and connecting it to recent discussions on scientific practices, similarity should not be understood as a set of fixed features of the objects of the representation (vehicle and target). Quite the opposite, similarity should be taken as a characteristic of the process of representing, which is first and foremost a creative practice designed to fulfil a goal in mind –epistemic, aesthetic or both.