On Understanding: Maxwell on the Methods of Illustration and Scientific Metaphor

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 32 (3):395-441 (2001)
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In this paper I examine the notion and role of metaphors and illustrations in Maxwell's works in exact science as a pathway into a broader and richer philosophical conception of a scientist and scientific practice. While some of these notions and methods are still at work in current scientific research-from economics and biology to quantum computation and quantum field theory-, here I have chosen to attest to their entrenchment and complexity in actual science by attempting to make some conceptual sense of Maxwell's own usage; this endeavour includes situating Maxwell's conceptions and applications in his own culture of Victorian science and philosophy. I trace Maxwell's notions to the formulation of the problem of understanding, or interpreting, abstract representations such as potential functions and Lagrangian equations. I articulate the solution in terms of abstract-concrete relations, where the concrete, in tune with Victorian British psychology and engineering, includes the muscular as well as the pictorial. This sets the basis for a conception of understanding in terms of unification and concrete modelling, or representation. I examine the relation of illustration to analogies and metaphors on which this account rests. Lastly, I stress and explain the importance of context-dependence, its consequences for realism-instrumentalism debates, and Maxwell's own emphasis on method



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Jordi Cat
Indiana University, Bloomington

Citations of this work

Models and Fiction.Roman Frigg - 2010 - Synthese 172 (2):251-268.
The Unity of Science.Jordi Cat - 2013 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Maxwell, Helmholtz, and the Unreasonable Effectiveness of the Method of Physical Analogy.Alisa Bokulich - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 50:28-37.

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References found in this work

Features of Similarity.Amos Tversky - 1977 - Psychological Review 84 (4):327-352.
Fictionalism.Arthur Fine - 1993 - Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18 (1):1-18.
Metaphor and Theory Change.Richard N. Boyd - 1993 - In A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.

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