Suppes, Patrick (1922–)

views updated


Patrick Suppes is an American philosopher and scientist. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Suppes was educated at Tulsa Central High School and pursued undergraduate studies at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, with particular emphasis on physics and meteorology. He graduated from Chicago in 1943, then spent 1944 to 1946 in the United States Army Air Force. During graduate studies in philosophy at Columbia University in the years 1947 through 1950 Suppes studied with Ernest Nagel, combining courses in philosophy with further work in physics and mathematics. Somewhat surprisingly in the light of his later research in psychology, he did not study that subject at either the undergraduate or the graduate level.

Suppes received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1950. His entire academic career has been spent at Stanford University, where he began as an assistant professor of philosophy in 1950. He subsequently held concurrent positions in the departments of psychology, statistics, and education, and from 1959 until his retirement directed the Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences at Stanford, a research center he co-founded with the economist Kenneth Arrow. He has been a pioneer in computer-assisted education and in 1967, with the psychologist Richard Atkinson, founded a successful company, Computer Curriculum Corporation. He has received numerous honors during his career, culminating with the award of the National Medal of Science in 1990. Suppes retired from Stanford in 1992, but he has continued an active research program, including work on robotics and experimental work on the neural bases of language processing.


Suppes's work is unusual in its combination of significant scientific research with rigorous philosophical analysis, in its scope, and in its constructive orientation. It spans philosophy, psychology, probability and statistics, education, and computer science. The focus here is on his contributions to the philosophy of science, although his positions in that area are always deeply rooted in his scientific work. Throughout his career, Suppes has emphasized the pluralistic and complex nature of actual, rather than idealized, scientific methods. For example, as early as 1962 he argued that there was a hierarchy of models between data and theory, anticipating in certain ways the later philosophical literature emphasizing the importance of scientific models. Many of Suppes's principal philosophical contributions have been in the area of formal methods, both as a way of injecting precision into philosophical questions and as an effective set of tools for producing answers to those questions.

At the heart of his philosophical work lies the semantic account of theories, of which Suppesbuilding on joint work with J. C. C. McKinsey and employing Alfred Tarski's work on formal modelswas the primary developer. The semantic account, which is the chief rival to the syntactic account of theories, also served as the foundation for the later structuralist approach to theories. In Suppes's version of the semantic account, a theory is identified with a class of set-theoretical structuresmodels in the sense of mathematical logic. Thus, rather than a theory being a set of sentences or propositions represented in first order logicthe identification made by the logical empiricists and their successors, particularly Quinea theory in Suppes's sense abstracts from a particular linguistic representation and focuses instead on what makes that theory true, using the full apparatus of set theory. Thus, Newton's, Hamilton's, and Lagrange's versions of classical mechanics are simply different linguistic representations of the same underlying semantic theory. This powerful foundational apparatus allows for an easy representation of the kind of mathematics needed for scientific theoriesin contrast to first order logic, which is an apparatus that is too weak to capture large parts of standard mathematics. The apparatus employed in the semantic approach is especially useful in such areas as measurement theory, a subject to which Suppes has made contributions of permanent value. The semantic approach also leads naturally to a focus on axiomatized theories because this allows the content of the theories to be fully captured in an explicit, and often recursive, set of constraints. This emphasis on formal methods follows naturally from Suppes's view that there are only practical, rather than theoretical, differences between representations of mathematical theories and representations of scientific theories.

A key concept in Suppes's work is that of a representation theorem. A representation theorem for a set of models M asserts that there exists a subset R of M such that for any model m in M there is a model r in R that is isomorphic to m. Such representation theorems play a central role in measurement theory when R is a class of numerical measurement structures and M is the class of empirical models upon which measurement procedures are to be placed. Philosophically, the emphasis on identity up to isomorphism (or, more generally, homomorphism) entails that the abstract structure of systems is captured, rather than any intrinsic features that are unique to the system.

Suppes's other important contributions include his monograph on probabilistic causality that, together with Reichenbach's earlier treatment, began this distinctive and widely discussed approach to causation; his pioneering work on the identification of aural and visual language recognition using electroencephalographic brain data; his work exploring variant probability spaces in quantum theory; an exploration of Bayesian inference; and the role of invariances in classical and relativistic physics. As the culmination of developing a number of stochastic models of learning, Suppes proved in 1969 that any finite automaton could be represented by a stimulus-response learning model, a result of importance to controversies about the nature of language learning. Together with the work on theory structure and measurement theory, these form an impressive and permanent set of contributions to the philosophy of science.

Suppes's publications are demanding but always lucid; they invariably repay careful study. Inevitably, they only partially convey his considerable influence as a teacher and professional colleague, an influence grounded in equal parts of rigor, style, humor, and clarity. A comprehensive and detailed presentation of his mature views is given in Representation and Invariance of Scientific Structures (2002).

See also Causation: Philosphy of Science; FirstOrder Logic; Mathematics, Foundations of; Semantics; Structuralism, Mathematical.


works by suppes

"Models of Data." In Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science: Proceedings of the 1960 International Congress. Edited by E. Nagel, P. Suppes, and A. Tarski, 252261. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.

"Stimulus-Response Theory of Finite Automata." Journal of Mathematical Psychology 6 (1969): 327355.

A Probabilistic Theory of Causality. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1970.

Foundations of Measurement. vols. 13. With D. H. Krantz, R. D. Luce, and A. Tversky. New York: Academic Press, 1971, 1989, 1990.

Stanford Faculty Web Pages. A complete bibliography of Patrick Suppes's publications through 2000. Available from

Representation and Invariance of Scientific Structures. Stanford: CSLI Publications, 2002.

works about suppes

Bogdan, R., ed. Patrick Suppes. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1979. Contains a personal and intellectual autobiography up to 1978.

Humphreys, P., ed. Patrick Suppes: Scientific Philosopher. Vols. 13. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1994. Contains articles on most aspects of Suppes's research and his replies to each article.

Paul Humphreys (2005)

About this article

Suppes, Patrick (1922–)

Updated About content Print Article