Idealization (British English: idealisation) is the process by which scientific models assume facts about the phenomenon being modeled that are certainly false. Often these assumptions are used to make models easier to understand or solve. Many times idealizations do not harm the predictive accuracy of the model for one reason or another. Most debates surrounding the usefulness of a particular model often are about the appropriateness of different idealizations.

Early Use

Galileo utilized the concept of idealization in order to formulate the law of free fall. Galileo, in his study of bodies in motion, set up experiments that assumed frictionless surfaces and spheres of perfect roundness, see [; UC Davis Philosphy Lecture Notes, Prof. Rob Cummin.] The crudity of ordinary objects has the potential to obscure their mathematical essence, and idealization is used to combat this tendency.

The most well known example of idealization in Galileo’s experiments is in his analysis of why motion exists. Galileo predicted that if a perfectly round and smooth ball were rolled along a perfectly smooth horizontal plane, there would be nothing to stop the ball. This hypothesis is predicated on the assumption that there is no air resistance./

Other Examples of Idealization

Another example of the use of idealization in physics is in Boyle’s Gas Law:"Given any x and any y, if all the molecules in y are perfectly elastic and spherical, possess equal masses and volumes, have negligible size, and exert no forces on one another except during collisions, then if x is a gas and y is a given mass of x which is trapped in a vessel of variable size and the temperature of y is kept constant, then any decrease of the volume of y increases the pressure of y proportionally, and vice versa."

In physics, people will often solve for Newtonian systems without friction. While, we know that friction is present in actual systems, solving the model without friction can provide insights to the behavior of actual systems where the force of friction is negligible.Another discipline, geometry, arises by the process of idealization because it, at its core, is a universe of ideal entities, forms and figures. Perfect circles, spheres, straight lines and angles are the essential elements of this discipline, all which would be near impossible without idealization.

Just as the method of idealization has been utilized in the study of physics and mathematics, Charles Darwin introduced the method of idealization to biology. This assisted, in no small part, Darwin’s theory of evolution achieving scientific maturity. It has also been argued by the "Poznań School" (in Poland) that Karl Marx utilized idealization in the social sciences (see the works written by Leszek Nowak) [About the Poznań School, see F. Coniglione, "Realtà ed astrazione. Scuola polacca ed epistemologia post-positivista", Catania:CUECM 1990] . Similarly, in economic models individuals are assumed to be maximally rational choice rational [B. Hamminga, N.B. De Marchi (Eds.), "Idealization VI: Idealization in Economics", Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Vol. 38, Rodopi:Atlanta-Amsterdam 1994] . This assumption, although known to be violated by actual humans, can often lead to insights about the behavior of human populations.

In psychology, idealization refers to a defence mechanism in which a person who perceives another to be better (or have more desirable attributes) than would actually be supported by the evidence. This sometimes occurs in child custody conflicts. The child of a single parent frequently may imagine ("idealize") the (ideal) absent parent to have those characteristics of a perfect parent. However, the child may find imagination is favorable to reality. Upon meeting that parent, the child may be happy for a while, but disappointed later when learning that the parent does not actually nurture, support and protect as the former caretaker parent had.

Notwithstanding the success achieved by the aforementioned scientific discliplines, the introduction of the method of idealization is in no way an indicator of whether another science will reach maturity. Furthermore, no algorithm exists that can show how the introduction of idealization with effect a discipline in which it has not before been applied.

Limits on Use

While idealization fits nicely into the analysis utilized by certain scientific disciplines, it has been traditionally rejected by others. For instance, the extension of the use of idealization into the study of mental phenomena has been firmly rejected. Husserl, who was aware of, and recognized, the importance of idealization, refused to extend its use into his studies of consciousness. Husserl opposed the application of idealization to the study of objects belonging to the domain of the mind, because according to he believed that mental phenomena do not lend themselves to idealization. That is, idealization does not reveal the essential essence of mental phenomena.

Although Galileo’s idealization method is considered one of the essential elements of modern non-Aristotelian science, it is nonetheless the source of continued controversy in the literature of the philosophy of science. Nancy Cartwright suggested that Galilean idealization presupposes tendencies or capacities in nature and that this allows for extrapolation beyond what is the ideal case.

It follows that Galileo’s idealization method does not assist in the description of the behavior of individuals or objects in the real world. The laws created by using idealization – gas laws, Newton's laws of motion, etc. – describe only the behavior of ideal bodies. Their behavior is only predicable when a considerable number of factors have been eliminated or assumed.


Further reading

*Mansoor Niaz, "The Role of Idealization in Science and Its Implications for Science Education, Journal of Science Education and Technology", Vol. 8, No. 2, 1999, pp. 145-150.
*Andrzej Klawiter, "Why Did Husserl Not Become the Galileo of the Science of Consciousness?", in F. Coniglione, R. Poli and R. Rollinger, (Eds.), "Idealization XI: Historical Studies on Abstraction", Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Vol. 82, Rodopi:Atlanta-Amsterdam 2004, pp. 253-271.
*William F, Barr, "A Pragmatic Analysis of Idealization in Physics", Philosophy of Science, Vol. 41, No. 1, pg 48, Mar. 1974.
*Leszek Nowak, "The Structure of Idealization. Towards a Systematic Interpretation of the Marxian Idea of Science", Dordrecht:Reidel 1980
*Francesco Coniglione, "Between Abstraction and Idealization: Scientific Practice and Philosophical Awareness", in F. Coniglione, R. Poli and R. Rollinger (Eds.), "Idealization XI: Historical Studies on Abstraction", Atlanta-Amsterdam:Rodopi 2004, pp. 59-110.
*Nancy Cartwright, "How the laws of physics lie", Clarendon Press:Oxford 1983
* Craig Dilworth, "The Metaphysics of Science: An Account of Modern Science in Terms of Principles, Laws and Theories", Springer:Dordrecht 2007 (2a ed.)

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  • Idealization — I*de al*i*za tion, n. 1. The act or process of idealizing. [1913 Webster] 2. (Fine Arts) The representation of natural objects, scenes, etc., in such a way as to show their most important characteristics; the study of the ideal. [1913 Webster] 3 …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • idealization — (n.) 1796; see IDEALIZE (Cf. idealize) + ATION (Cf. ation) …   Etymology dictionary

  • idealization — (Amer.) i·de·al·i·za·tion || aɪ‚dɪəlÉ™ zeɪʃn / laɪ z n. process of making something ideal; viewing of someone or something as ideal, romanticizing (also idealisation) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • idealization — idealize (also idealise) ► VERB ▪ regard or represent as perfect or better than in reality. DERIVATIVES idealization noun …   English terms dictionary

  • idealization — noun 1. a portrayal of something as ideal (Freq. 1) the idealization of rural life was very misleading • Syn: ↑idealisation, ↑glorification • Derivationally related forms: ↑glorify (for: ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • idealization — noun see idealize …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • idealization — /uy dee euh leuh zay sheuhn/, n. 1. the act or process of idealizing something. 2. Psychoanal. a mental mechanism, operating consciously or unconsciously, in which one person overestimates an admired attribute of another. [1790 1800; IDEALIZE +… …   Universalium

  • idealization — noun a) The act or process of idealizing. b) The representation of natural objects, scenes, etc., in such a way as to show their most important characteristics; the study of the ideal …   Wiktionary

  • idealization — ide·al·iza·tion (i de″əl ĭ zaґshən) a conscious or unconscious mental mechanism in which the individual overestimates an admired aspect or attribute of another person …   Medical dictionary

  • idealization — Synonyms and related words: Prospero, airiness, appearance, autism, autistic thinking, delusiveness, dematerialization, dereism, dereistic thinking, disembodiment, dreamery, etherealization, fallaciousness, false appearance, false light, false… …   Moby Thesaurus

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