Theoretical fertility McMullin-style

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A theory’s fertility is one of the standard theoretical virtues. But how is it to be construed? In current philosophical discourse, particularly in the realism debate, theoretical fertility is usually understood in terms of novel success: a theory is fertile if it manages to make successful novel predictions. Another, more permissible, notion of fertility can be found in the work of Ernan McMullin. This kind of fertility, McMullin claims, gives us just as strong (or even stronger) grounds for realism. My paper critically assesses McMullin’s notion of fertility and its realist rationale. It concludes that McMullin’s preferred example, namely the fertile development of the Bohr-Sommerfeld model of the atom, does not support McMullin’s argument for realism. Although the implications for the realism debate are as of yet unclear, the case study offers some important methodological lessons.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal for Philosophy of Science
Pages (from-to)151-173
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Bohr-Sommerfeld model
  • Idealization
  • Novel success
  • Positive heuristics
  • Realism
  • Theoretical fertility
  • Theoretical virtue


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