Foundations of Science

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 73–93 | Cite as

A Philosophical Critique of the Distinction of Representational and Pragmatic Measurements on the Example of the Periodic System of Chemical Elements

  • Ave MetsEmail author


Measurement theory in (Hand in The world through quantification. Oxford University Press, 2004; Suppes and Zinnes in Basic measurement theory. Psychology Series, 1962) is concerned with the assignment of number to objects of phenomena. Representational aspect of measurement is the extent to which the assigned numbers and arithmetics truthfully represent the underlying objects and their relations, and is characteristic to natural sciences; pragmatic aspect is the extent to which the assigned numbers serve purposes other than representing the underlying phenomena, and is characteristic to social sciences (Hand in The world through quantification. Oxford University Press, 2004). Here I criticise this distinction of representational and pragmatic measurements on the basis of the earlier history of the periodic system of chemical elements, viewed in terms of a practice based philosophy of science by Rein Vihalemm. I argue that the periodic system, although a natural scientific system interpretable as a measurement system, has considerable, in Hand’s terms pragmatic, aspects in it. Those aspects include: tampering with the material measurement results for the theoretical ideal of systematicity; adopting metaphysical assumptions that cannot be experimentally proven, like individuality of elements and atomicity; theoretical construction of the abstract entity—element—as the reference of the measurement system amenable to mathematically elegant ordering. Contrary to Suppes and Zinnes (Basic measurement theory. Psychology Series, 1962) I also argue for the dependence of the assigned numerical system on the material-procedural base of the measurement.


Measurement theory Representational measurment Pragmatic measurement Periodic table of chemical elements Practical realism 



I would like to extend my gratitude to the referees of this article for their thorough and extensive reviews which provided valuable input to the revision process, to Ain Rada for advice on important aspects of chemical theory, to my supervisor Rein Vihalemm for his ideas and for encouraging me to engage in the philosophy of chemistry, and to my colleagues at the University of Tartu. This article was supported by the Estonian Research Council grants IUT20-5 and ETF7946, Estonian Ministry of Education and Research grant SF0180110s08, University of Tartu grants PFLFI15915 and PHVFI16941, and the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies).


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TartuTartuEstonia

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