How Hume and Mach helped Einstein find special relativity

In Michael Friedman, Mary Domski & Michael Dickson (eds.), Discourse on a New Method: Reinvigorating the Marriage of History and Philosophy of Science. Open Court. pp. 359--86 (2004)
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Abstract

In recounting his discovery of special relativity, Einstein recalled a debt to the philosophical writings of Hume and Mach. I review the path Einstein took to special relativity and urge that, at a critical juncture, he was aided decisively not by any specific doctrine of space and time, but by a general account of concepts that Einstein found in Hume and Mach’s writings. That account required that concepts, used to represent the physical, must be properly grounded in experience. In so far as they extended beyond that grounding, they were fictional and to be abjured (Mach) or at best tolerated (Hume). Einstein drew a different moral. These fictional concepts revealed an arbitrariness in our physical theorizing and may still be introduced through freely chosen definitions, as long as these definitions do not commit us to false presumptions. After years of failed efforts to conform electrodynamics to the principle of relativity and with his frustration mounting, Einstein applied this account to the concept of simultaneity. The resulting definition of simultaneity provided the reconceptualization that solved the problem in electrodynamics and led directly to the special theory of relativity.

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John D. Norton
University of Pittsburgh

Citations of this work

Presentist History for Pluralist Science.Hasok Chang - 2021 - Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 52 (1):97-114.
A Formal Apology for Metaphysics.Samuel Baron - 2018 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 5.
Empiricism and Relationism Intertwined: Hume and Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.Matias Slavov - 2016 - Theoria: Revista de Teoría, Historia y Fundamentos de la Ciencia 31 (2):247-263.

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References found in this work

A Treatise of Human Nature.David Hume & A. D. Lindsay - 1958 - Philosophical Quarterly 8 (33):379-380.
An enquiry concerning human understanding.David Hume - 1955 - In Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology. Oxford University Press. pp. 112.

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