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The art of the possible in reconstructing quantum theory

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The methodology employed in reconstructing quantum theory involves defining a general mathematical framework that frames a landscape of possible theories and then positing principles that uniquely pick out quantum theory. In contrast, many traditional interpretations of quantum theory consider only quantum theory, not a larger space of possible theories. I will defend the modal methodology used in reconstruction by tracing the historical roots of Einstein’s distinction between principle and constructive theories. Einstein’s principle theories (exemplified by thermodynamics and special relativity) are often cited as inspiration for reconstructing quantum theory. The concept of a “physics of principles” emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in the context of the application of Lagrangian mechanics to electromagnetism. This case is an intriguing historical precedent for reconstructing quantum theory. I will also offer some reflections on how the application of a similar modal methodology in axiomatic QFT plays out.