Classical Mechanics Is Lagrangian; It Is Not Hamiltonian

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 65 (2):269-321 (2014)
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Abstract

One can (for the most part) formulate a model of a classical system in either the Lagrangian or the Hamiltonian framework. Though it is often thought that those two formulations are equivalent in all important ways, this is not true: the underlying geometrical structures one uses to formulate each theory are not isomorphic. This raises the question of whether one of the two is a more natural framework for the representation of classical systems. In the event, the answer is yes: I state and sketch proofs of two technical results—inspired by simple physical arguments about the generic properties of classical systems—to the effect that, in a precise sense, classical systems evince exactly the geometric structure Lagrangian mechanics provides for the representation of systems, and none provided by Hamiltonian. The argument not only clarifies the conceptual structure of the two systems of mechanics, but also their relations to each other and their respective mechanisms for representing physical systems. It also shows why naïvely structural approaches to the representational content of physical theories cannot work. [Lagrange] grasped that he had gained a method of stating dynamical truths in a way, which is perfectly indifferent to the particular methods of measurement employed in fixing the positions of the various parts of the system. Accordingly, he went on to deduce equations of motion, which are equally applicable whatever quantitative measurements have been made, provided that they are adequate to fix positions. The beauty and almost divine simplicity of these equations is such that these formulae are worthy to rank with those mysterious symbols which in ancient times were held directly to indicate the Supreme Reason at the base of all things. (Whitehead [1948], p. 63)1. Introduction2.Classical Systems3. The Possible Interactions of a Classical System and the Structure of Its Space of States4. Classical Systems Are Lagrangian5. Classical Systems Are Not Hamiltonian6. How Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Mechanics Represent Classical Systems7. The Conceptual Structure of Classical Mechanics

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Erik Curiel
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München

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