Abstraction and Analogy in Philosophy of Science

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Santa Cruz
http://www.rgwinther.com/rgw@ucsc.edu • Book under contract with University of Chicago Press



Maps and theories guide intelligent action, yet they are invariably abstracted and idealized representations. The annotated human genome sequence, a cancer gene network, and the universal tree of life are literal, biological maps. More generally, theories in science (e.g., Newtonian mechanics or evolutionary theory) and the humanities (e.g., Marxism or Feminism) can be fruitfully understood as maps of nature and of society. Similarly to cartographic maps, theories are partial, purposive, plural, and power-laden (CartoPower). No single map projection (e.g., Mercator), and no one theory (e.g., selfish gene theory), can fully capture the distinct world it represents. Humanists and scientists have deployed the map analogy, which is most succinctly stated thus: a theory is a map of the world.

Contemporary humanists engage the map analogy to great effect in investigating the perils and promises of mapping methodologies—of theorizing—in, e.g., history (John Lewis Gaddis’ The Landscape of History has the telling subtitle How Historians Map the Past), economics (Alan Greenspan’s semi-apologetic autobiography The Map and the Territory appeals to economic models as maps), literary theory and Post-structuralism (Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation kicks off with Borges’ well-known fable of the pitiless destruction of the one-to-one scale map of an imagined empire), and religious studies (Jonathan Z. Smith’s Map is not Territory implores us not to conflate descriptions and livings of religious experience).

Interestingly, the rich map-making and map use practices (and sophisticated reflections thereupon) found in cartography and GIS (Geographic Information Science) have not been carefully explored by humanists via the map analogy. Despite the analogy’s ubiquity, we have excluded the cartographer and her craft. The full potential of the map analogy thus remains unrealized. When Maps Become the World. Abstraction and Analogy in Philosophy of Science, currently under contract with University of Chicago Press, is the first work to systematically investigate the sources, uses, and consequences of the map analogy. My book shows how maps serve to caution us against universalizing and ontologizing our abstractions (e.g., maps, models, and theories). To be fair, while maps lie (Mark Monmonier), they also tell some truth (Alan MacEachren), especially when many maps are carefully and critically integrated, to the extent possible. In particular, if we pay attention to actual map-making and map use, the map analogy can be extended in novel ways to design and build tools for promoting an epistemically generative pluralism, thereby avoiding conflating theory and world.

Figure 1. The abstraction-concretization account here depicted diagnoses specific, material practices of abstracting and concretizing, as implemented by purposive agents and communities. This figure is from When Maps Become the World. N.b., The “World” is depicted with movie freeze-frames of the 1977 “Power of Ten”™ video.

Map Wars?

Every map projection—indeed, every representation—remains true to certain features of the world while distorting others. Because angles on his map corresponded to ocean and land bearings, Gerardus Mercator’s projection from his 1569 world map was useful for navigation and became a powerful technology (and emblem) of European voyages of discovery. Valuable Mercator projection maps were easily rolled up and kept under lock and key in the captain’s quarters. Famously challenged in the 1970s by the German cartographer Arno Peters, the colonialist Mercator projection was taken to task for its geometric disposition to inevitably enlarge countries further from the equator, thereby emphasizing rich countries while diminishing countries with developing economies. For instance, Mexico has 4 times Sweden’s area, yet the Mercator projection invites the reification that they are roughly equal in size. Peters’ own equal-area projection, itself a traditional cartographic projection, can be further complemented and challenged with upside-down world maps, or world maps with the Pacific rather than Europe (with its Prime Meridian) at the center, or can even be replaced by the equinational projection rendering every country as a square of the same size, to further resist Eurocentric CartoPower. The Peters projection too received criticism when the dean of American cartography, Arthur Robinson (himself the designer of a compromise projection, adopted by the National Geographic Society for a decade), inveighed in 1985 that its land masses seemed “somewhat reminiscent of wet, ragged, long winter underwear hung out to dry on the Arctic Circle.” (See Mark Monmonier’s Rhumb Lines and Map Wars.) Aesthetic reflections were added to, and traded off, socio-political and ethical ones. Analogously to partial maps, theories can be used and abused—the question is when, how, why, by whom, and for what. More generally, ethical and aesthetic considerations, in addition to epistemological and metaphysical ones, are required to understand map projections, and scientific and humanistic abstractions.

The Uses of Pluralism

An implicit assumption of some philosophical analyses of science is that theories are transparent, value- and power-neutral, and (borrowing from Richard Rorty) mirror-like. This introduces the danger of conflating theory and world, of confusing trees with their reflection in a lake. When Maps Become the World complements and challenges standard philosophical frameworks on scientific progress by detailing when and how researchers, and the public, take scientific models beyond proper domains of inquiry (e.g., selfish gene theory is exported to cases of cultural evolution) or apply them inappropriately even within the correct domain (e.g., selfish gene theory is applied to cases of multi-level selection). Understanding theories as maps permits us to simultaneously explore the generative and the “viciously abstractionist” (William James’ term) aspects of modeling. My book therefore extends the map analogy to articulate critical and analytical tools for identifying and integrating a variety of theoretical perspectives, and thereby rein in the universalizing excesses of hegemonic theories such as rational choice theory and the computational theory of mind. As Helen Longino and Karl Popper, among others, teach us, science benefits greatly from—even requires—critique, dialogue, and pluralism. The map analogy helps us understand why this is so.

Relevant author work:
2015. “The Structure of Scientific Theories,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2015. Forthcoming. “Mapping Kinds in GIS and Cartography,” in Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (C. Kendig, ed.), Pickering & Chatto, London.

2014. “World Navels,” Cartouche of the Canadian Cartographic Association 89: 15-21.

2014. “James and Dewey on Abstraction,” The Pluralist 9 (2):1-28.

2014. “Determinism and Total Explanation in the Biological and Behavioral Sciences,” Encyclopedia of Life Sciences.

2012. “Interweaving Categories: Styles, Paradigms, and Models,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A 43: 628-639.

2011. “Part-Whole Science,” Synthese 178: 397-427.

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