How and How Not to Be Whiggish About 'Phlogiston'

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Hricko, Jonathon
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conference paper description
Understanding the semantics of theoretical terms from past science involves determining what, if anything, they referred to. Some ways of assigning referents to such terms are Whiggish, in the sense that they introduce anachronisms that distort the past, while others are not. My aim in this paper is to develop a non-Whiggish semantic theory, one that avoids Whiggish reference assignments. In order to do so, I make use of the example of 'phlogiston.' I argue that it would be Whiggish to maintain that 'phlogiston' sometimes referred to free electrons, but not Whiggish to maintain that it sometimes referred to hydrogen. And I argue that we can avoid Whiggish reference assignments by focusing on the operations that scientists perform. On the theory I defend, theoretical terms refer by means of the operations scientists use to identity their putative referents.