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Scottish Philosophy and British Physics, 1740-1870: A Study in the Foundations of the Victorian Scientific Style

Scottish Philosophy and British Physics, 1740-1870: A Study in the Foundations of the Victorian Scientific Style

Copyright Date: 1975
Pages: 356
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  • Book Info
    Scottish Philosophy and British Physics, 1740-1870: A Study in the Foundations of the Victorian Scientific Style
    Book Description:

    Historians of science have long been intrigued by the impact of disparate cultural styles on the science of a given country and time period. Richard Olson's book is a case study in the interaction between philosophy and science as well as an examination of a particular scientific movement.

    The author investigates the methodological arguments of the Common Sense philosophers Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Brown, and William Hamilton and the possible transmission of their ideas to scientists from John Playfair to James Clerk Maxwell.

    His findings point out the need for modifications to the Duhem-Poincaré interpretation of British scientific style and the reassessment of the extent of Kantian influence on British physics.

    Originally published in 1975.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7249-7
    Subjects: Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    Since the publication of Pierre Duhem’sLa Theorie Physique: Son Objet, Sa Structurein 1906, historians and philosophers of science have been intrigued by the impact of disparate cultural styles on the study of the exact sciences during the nineteenth century. Duhem claimed that throughout the century Continental scientists emphasized analytic mathematical techniques and abstract, extremely general theories, whereas British scientists were more inclined toward geometrical—or at least pictorial—imagery and techniques, and that they were more willing to use models and analogies with limited ranges of applicability.¹ The present study was motivated by Duhem’s contentions and by the...

  5. Part I: The Growth of a Common Sense Philosophy of Science

    • CHAPTER 1 The Integration of Moral Philosophy and Natural Philosophy in Scottish Academia
      (pp. 11-25)

      During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries an intense interaction grew between natural and moral philosophy within the institutional framework of the Scottish universities. Scottish scholars, like those of other countries, sought to extend the triumphs of the methods of natural science into morality, theology, and social and aesthetic concerns. David Hume’s great classic,A Treatise of Human Nature: An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects(1739) symbolized this scholarly attempt.¹ And as a schoolboy, Henry Brougham, later Lord Chancellor of England, attested to the scholars’ success in convincing students that mental and social phenomena...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Origins of Common Sense Philosophical Concern with the Nature of Science: Bacon and Newton Revisited in the Light of Hume
      (pp. 26-54)

      In the last chapter I passed over the discussion of a “scientific” element within Scottish moral philosophy in order to emphasize the basically humane nature of all Scottish academic thought and to demonstrate the extent to which moral philosophy formed the core of university education. To understand how the Scottish moral philosophers developed ideas which were specifically applied to the natural sciences, however, we must return to consider their interest in scientific method and scientific concept formation. For it was out of the reworking of notions initially imbibed from the scientists themselves that the Scottish philosophers—especially the Common Sense...

    • CHAPTER 3 Common Sense Concerns with the Nature of Mathematics
      (pp. 55-93)

      Mathematical concepts and systems provided touchstones for several very important aspects of Common Sense Philosophy; and although there were major disagreements among Common Sense philosophers regarding the basic foundations of mathematical knowledge, all, with the possible exception of Hamilton, agreed on four fundamental propositions: (1) that mathematics provided one of the best historical models of how a system of knowledge should be organized to insure the greatest possible certainty; (2) that mathematical systems offered a convincing precedent for the very notion of common-sense principles—i.e., principles at once unquestionable and unprovable; (3) that the formation of mathematical concepts provided a...

    • CHAPTER 4 A Change in Mood: Dugald Stewart, Thomas Brown, and the Acceptance of Hypothetical and Analogical Methods in Science
      (pp. 94-124)

      Although Common Sense philosophers differed in their interpretations of the nature of mathematics, there was no steady temporal growth within their philosophy of mathematics. When we turn to analyze Common Sense attitudes toward the proper methods of natural science, however, we find not only differences but also development.

      Certainly, many of the central canons of scientific method articulated by Reid were openly and enthusiastically embraced by second-and third-generation Common Sense philosophers. Both Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown,¹ for example, continued to laud the inductive method of Bacon and of Newton.² Both followed Reid in adopting the Humian definition of causation...

    • CHAPTER 5 Thomas Brown and William Hamilton: The Relativity of Scientific Knowledge and the Triumph of Simplicity and Analogy
      (pp. 125-154)

      One of the most complete and concise treatments of scientific method to come from the Common Sense School appears in the first part of Thomas Brown’sLectures on the Philosophy of the Mind,written during 1808 and 1809.¹

      Brown spent most of his literary and scholarly effort throughout his life in writing poetry, but his abilities and interests ranged widely. He trained at Edinburgh University in medicine and was for a short time a practicing physician in partnership with James Gregory. As a student he was a member of the “Academy of Physics” with Henry Brougham, Jeffery Horner, and George...

  6. Part II: The Influence of Common Sense Ideas on the Exact Sciences in Britain

    • CHAPTER 6 Common Sense Reflections in the Natural Philosophy of John Robison and John Playfair
      (pp. 157-168)

      There is no doubt that Scottish natural philosophers were strongly influenced by metaphysical and epistemological considerations throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. But for many cases during the period between 1770 and 1815, it is difficult to determine whether natural philosophers were adopting ideas initially presented by their colleagues in moral philosophy or whether moral philosophers like Reid, Stewart, and Brown were merely formalizing and systematizing methodological rules and epistemological doctrines already implicit in the work of the natural philosophers.¹ The problem of sorting out the order in which methodological ideas developed is particularly difficult because the natural...

    • CHAPTER 7 Common Sense Elements in Scientific Reviews: 1790–1840
      (pp. 169-193)

      It is often difficult to infer much about the Scottish scientists’ general philosophical attitudes from their technical papers, even though unstated assumptions may have played an important role in guiding their work. This is so because in the early nineteenth century, as today, the metaphysical and methodological presuppositions which underlay scientific work were usually implicit rather than overtly expressed in the research reports written by scientists. In their critical assessments of colleagues' work, however, the Scots were frequently more explicit about epistemological and methodological issues, so it makes sense to seek evidence for a Common Sense element within the exact...

    • CHAPTER 8 John Leslie and Henry Brougham: Model Common Sense Scientists of the First Generation
      (pp. 194-224)

      The basic aim of this book is to present and to establish the probability of a hypothesis regarding the development of the exact sciences—i.e., that many of the important characteristics of the exact sciences in Scotland, and subsequently throughout Britain, can be accounted for by the fact that Scottish scientists adopted a particular set of methodological and epistemological attitudes which were clearly articulated by a group of moral philosophers collectively known as the Common Sense School. So far, it has been established that a Common Sense philosophy of science, changing over time but distinguishable from contemporary alternatives, did exist,...

    • CHAPTER 9 Common Sense Concerns Once Removed: James D. Forbes and John James Waterston
      (pp. 225-251)

      The emphasis laid by the Edinburgh Moral Philosophers, Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown, on aspects of scientific methodology was not continued by John Wilson, who turned the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh into a chair of rhetoric and belles letters for the period between 1820 and 1850.¹ Thus, between 1820 and 1836, when William Hamilton assumed the chair of metaphysics and logic, students of natural philosophy at Edinburgh were not systematically exposed to the philosophy and methodology of science, and they showed a less self-conscious attitude toward the epistemological and metaphysical foundations of their scientific work than did those...

    • CHAPTER 10 Sir John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy and the Common Sense Tradition
      (pp. 252-270)

      It is fairly clear that until the third decade of the nineteenth century, Common Sense considerations had a direct impact upon scientific activity almost exclusively in connection with scientists educated in or working at the University of Edinburgh.¹ But in 1830 John F. W. Herschel, the Cambridge-trained son of Sir William Herschel, published hisPreliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy;this work made the basic tenets of Common Sense methodology available to a much wider segment of the scientific community.

      To my knowledge, thePreliminary Discourse,which has been frequently characterized as “the first attempt by an eminent...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Methodological Writings of William John Macquorn Rankine
      (pp. 271-286)

      It is not surprising that the greatest of Scottish physicists—in terms of lasting international reputation were trained under James D. Forbes, the man who began to professionalize scientific training at Edinburgh. But it is somewhat ironic to find that two of these men, William John Macquorn Rankine (1820–1872) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879), were among the most consciously philosophical or “metaphysical” products of the long Edinburgh tradition. The strong interaction between the methodological concerns of Scottish moral philosophy and the scientific work done by natural philosophers thus had its most outstanding flowering precisely at the time when...

    • CHAPTER 12 Culmination of the Tradition: Metaphysics and Method in the Works of James Clerk Maxwell
      (pp. 287-322)

      Not only was James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) among the most brilliant and original scientists of the nineteenth century; he was also more consciously and continuously aware of the metaphysical and methodological bases of scientific work than were any of his contemporaries. In both its extent and its degree of sophistication, his knowledge of the philosophy and psychology of science was awesome, and his philosophical training seems to have played a key role in determining the strategies which made his work so fruitful.

      After a youth spent largely on his father’s estate in Aberdeenshire, interrupted by six years of term-time...

    (pp. 323-336)

    When Pierre Duhem characterized nineteenth-century scientific styles inLa Theorie Physique: Son Objet, Sa Structure,he isolated at least seven dominant traits which distinguished British physics from the work done in France. He observed that (1) mechanical models employing pulleys, cams, gears, ball bearings, etc., filled the pages of Victorian works in theoretical physics;¹ that (2) some British physicists asserted that producing a model to immitate natural phenomena was equivalent to having a complete understanding of the phenomena;² that (3) the models used were frequently chosen without apparent metaphysical concern or justification;³ and that (4) these models were not even...

  8. INDEX
    (pp. 337-349)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 350-350)