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What is theory? How should it be defined?

Among the major tasks of scientonomy is to explain transitions from one accepted theory to the next. Thus, it is crucial to have a well-defined notion of theory.

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Hakob Barseghyan in 2015. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. Theory (Sebastien-2016) is currently accepted by Scientonomy community as the best available definition of the term. Theory (Sebastien-2016) states "A set of propositions."


In modern times philosophers have held a variety of views about how best to express the structure and content of scientific theories.1

Syntactic View

The syntactical view holds that the structure of a scientific theory can be captured by an axiomatized system of sentences. It is expressed in a metamathematical language that included predicate logic, set theory, and model theory.1 In 1928 Rudolf Carnap published his The Logical Structure of the World, which put forward this view, which was central to logical empiricism.2 Hans Reichenbach, Otto Neurath, Carl Hempel, and Herbert Feigl were also major contributors. The logical empiricist answer to the question of the structure of scientific theories was a family of related ideas rather than a single approach.3 The view was so widely accepted in the early twentieth century that it is sometimes referred to as the received view.4

Semantic View

The semantic view holds that the structure of a scientific theory can be expressed as a set of mathematical models, as models were defined by Alfred Tarski. It rejects the metamathematical language of the syntactic view.41 Some important models in science include the bag model of quark confinement, the hard ball model of a gas, the Bohr model of the atom, the Gauss chain model of a polymer, the Lorentz model of the atmosphere, and the double helix model of DNA.5 Major proponents of the semantic view include John Von Neumann, who wrote on the subject in the thirties, Fredrick Suppe, and Bas Van Fraassen.1 The semantic view emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s and became the dominant view in subsequent decades. John Ladyman used it in his formulation of structural realism in physics. The semantic view has played a major role in the philosophy of biology and psychology in recent decades.4

Pragmatic View

The pragmatic view rejects a purely formal characterization of scientific theories entirely, and supposes that a theory necessarily consists of sentences, models, problems, standards, skills, practices, including such things as analogies, metaphors, and natural kinds, with its full characterization necessarily including elements that cannot be formalized.31 Proponents of the pragmatic view include Nancy Cartwright, Ian Hacking, Philip Kitcher, and Helen Longino.


The original definition of theory was proposed by Barseghyan in 2015. It defined a theory as any set of propositions that attempt to describe something.6 As such, this definition excluded normative propositions. In early 2017, it was replaced by the definition suggested by Sebastien in 2016.

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this question (it includes all the instances when the question was accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by a community):
CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy1 January 2016Yes

All Theories

The following theories have attempted to answer this question:
TheoryFormulationFormulated In
Theory (Barseghyan-2015)A set of propositions that attempt to describe something.2015
Theory (Sebastien-2016)A set of propositions.2016
If a definition of this term is missing, please click here to add it.

Accepted Theories

The following theories have been accepted as answers to this question:
CommunityTheoryAccepted FromAccepted Until
ScientonomyTheory (Barseghyan-2015)1 January 201615 February 2017
ScientonomyTheory (Sebastien-2016)15 February 2017

Suggested Modifications

Here is a list of modifications concerning this topic:
ModificationCommunityDate SuggestedSummaryVerdictVerdict RationaleDate Assessed
Sciento-2016-0002Scientonomy3 September 2016Accept a new taxonomy for theory, normative theory, descriptive theory to reintroduce normative propositions (such as those of ethics or methodology) to the scientific mosaic.Not AcceptedSince this modification consisted of two interrelated but essentially distinct suggestions - one definitional and one ontological - it was decided by the community to divide it into two modifications so that the gist of the proposed suggestions is properly articulated. In particular, it was agreed that there are two modifications in "the heart of this single modification - one ontological, the other definitional".c1 It was also agreed that the current formulation "is exclusively definitional, and does not give the community an opportunity to appreciate (and, well, accept) the ontological changes that come along with it".c2 Consequently, it was decided to divide this modification into two modifications - one definitional and one ontological.c323 January 2017
Sciento-2017-0001Scientonomy23 January 2017Accept new definitions for theory, normative theory, and descriptive theory. Also, modify the definition of methodology to reflect these changes.AcceptedThe community agreed that this is "an important addition to theoretical scientonomy".c1 It was agreed that since "the paradox of normative propositions has been solved, a revised set of definitions was needed".c2 It was emphasized that if we're going to have any sort of conversation on the status of normative propositions in the mosaic, "then we need to start from a definition".c315 February 2017

Current View

In Scientonomy community, the accepted definition of the term is Theory (Sebastien-2016). It is defined as: "A set of propositions."

Theory (Sebastien-2016).png

Unlike Barseghyan's original definition of theory, this definition is deliberately neutral with respect to the descriptive/prescriptive divide. Thus, it allows for the existence of both descriptive and normative theories. Read More

Related Topics

It has the following sub-topic(s):

This topic is also related to the following topic(s):


  1. a b c d e  Winther, Rasmus. (2016) The Structure of Scientific Theories. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from
  2. ^  Andersen, Hanne and Hepburn, Brian. (2015) Scientific Method. In Zalta (Ed.) (2016). Retrieved from
  3. a b  Mormann, Thomas. (2008) Idealization in Cassirer's Philosophy of Mathematics. Philosophia Mathematica 16 (2), 151-181.
  4. a b c  Halvorson, Hans. (2012) What Scientific Theories Could not be. Philosophy of Science 79 (2), 183-206.
  5. ^  Frigg, Roman. (2006) Scientific Representation and the Semantic View of Theories. Theoria 55, 49-65.
  6. ^  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.