Pluralism and the Hypothetical in Heinrich Hertz’s Philosophy of Science

In Michael Heidelberger & Gregor Schiemann (eds.), The Significance of the Hypothetical in the Natural Sciences. de Gruyter (2009)
In this paper I argue against readings of Hertz that overly assimilate him into the thought of late 20th century anti-realists and pluralists. Firstly, as is well-known, various images of the same objects are possible according to Hertz. However, I will argue that this envisaged pluralism concerns the situation before all the evidence is considered i. e. before we can decide whether the images are correct and appropriate. Hertz believes in final and decisive battles of the kind he participated in while doing experiments in electrodynamics. Secondly, I will argue that the concept of representation is still quite appropriately applied to important aspects of images, namely when it comes to fundamental physical equations. In this context Hertz explicitly allows that “characteristics of our image, which claim to represent observable relations of things, do really and correctly correspond to them” (Hertz [1894] 1956, 9). A final consideration is Hertz’s consistent appeal to the concept of the hypothesis. I will argue that his use of the concept does not indicate that he contributed to an increasing hypothetization of science, if this trend is understood in a strong sense, i. e. as the belief that the correctness of scientific theories cannot be established for principled reasons. As mentioned, when it comes to experimental evidence Hertz believes in decisive battles.
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