Idealization and abstraction: refining the distinction

Arnon Levy*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Idealization and abstraction are central concepts in the philosophy of science and in science itself. My goal in this paper is suggest an account of these concepts, building on and refining an existing view due to Jones (in: Jones MR, Cartwright N (eds) Idealization XII: correcting the model. Idealization and abstraction in the sciences, vol 86. Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp 173–217, 2005) and Godfrey-Smith (in: Barberousse A, Morange M, Pradeu T (eds) Mapping the future of biology: evolving concepts and theories. Springer, Berlin, 2009). On this line of thought, abstraction—which I call, for reasons to be explained, abstractness—involves the omission of detail, whereas idealization consists in a deliberate mismatch between a description (or a model) and the world. I will suggest that while the core idea underlying these authors’ view is correct, they make several assumptions and stipulations that are best avoided. For one thing, they tie abstractness too close to truth. For another, they do not allow sufficient room to the difference between idealization and error. Taking these points into account leads to a refined account of the distinction, in which abstractness is seen in terms of relative richness of detail, and idealization is seen as closely connected with the knowledge and intentions of idealizers. I lay out these accounts in turn, and then discuss the relationship between the two concepts, and several other upshots of the present way of construing the distinction.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)5855-5872
Number of pages18
StatePublished - Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, Springer Nature B.V.


  • Abstraction
  • Deliberate misrepresentation
  • Idealization
  • Omission


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