Abstraction and Generalization in the Logic of Science: Cases from Nineteenth-Century Scientific Practice
Abstraction and generalization are two processes of reasoning that have a special role in the construction of scientific theories and models. They have been important parts of the scientific method ever since the nineteenth century. A philosophical and historical analysis of scientific practices shows how abstraction and generalization found their way into the theory of the logic of science of the nineteenth-century philosopher Charles S. Peirce. Our case studies include the scientific practices of Francis Galton and John Herschel, who introduced composite photographs and graphical methods, respectively, as technologies of generalization and thereby influenced Peirce’s logic of abstraction. Herschel’s account of generalization is further supported by William Whewell, who was very influential on Peirce. By connecting Herschel’s scientific technology of abstraction to Peirce’s logical technology of abstraction—namely, diagrams—we highlight the role of judgments in scientific observation by hypostatic abstractions. We also relate Herschel’s discovery-driven logic of science and Peirce’s open-ended diagrammatic logic to the use of models in science. Ultimately, Peirce’s theory of abstraction is a case of showing how logic applies to reality.