Leo Corry. David Hilbert and the axiomatization of physics (1898–1918)

Philosophia Mathematica 16 (1):113-129 (2008)
Abstract
This book is a wonderful resource for historians and philosophers of mathematics and physics alike, not just for Hilbert's own work in physics, but also because Corry sets Hilbert in context, bringing out the people with whom Hilbert had contact, describing their work and possible links with Hilbert's work, and describing the activities going on around Hilbert. The historical thesis of this book is that Hilbert worked on a wide range of issues in physics for a period lasting more than two decades, employing and developing his axiomatic approach throughout. One conclusion that follows from this is that Hilbert's 1915–1917 work relating to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was a natural continuation of Hilbert's pre-existing interests and activities, and not a one-off foray into foreign territory. 1Of especial interest to philosophers of mathematics are two further theses. Corry stresses that for Hilbert geometry is an empirical science, and related to this argues first, that Hilbert intends the axiomatic method to be used in enhancing our understanding of the content of a given theory via relating the results of the axiomatic investigation back to the intuitive content of the axioms; and, second, that to understand Hilbert's axiomatic approach in mathematics we must pay serious attention to his work in physics.Corry also hopes to show ‘the significant and unique contribution of Hilbert to certain important developments in twentieth-century physics’ . 2 In the end, this assessment of Hilbert's contribution to physics is far from clear cut: the two cases where Hilbert goes into the details of a physical theory show him lacking feel for what is important physically with respect to that theory. Nevertheless, philosophers and historians of physics will find a great deal to interest them in the story of Hilbert's involvement in physics, and in the details …
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