Substantivalist and Relationalist Approaches to Spacetime

In Robert Batterman (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics. Oxford University Press (2013)
  Copy   BIBTEX


Substantivalists believe that spacetime and its parts are fundamental constituents of reality. Relationalists deny this, claiming that spacetime enjoys only a derivative existence. I begin by describing how the Galilean symmetries of Newtonian physics tell against both Newton's brand of substantivalism and the most obvious relationalist alternative. I then review the obvious substantivalist response to the problem, which is to ditch substantival space for substantival spacetime. The resulting position has many affinities with what are arguably the most natural interpretations of special and general relativity. I move on to consider and reject two recent antisubstantivalist lines of thought. The interim conclusion is that the best argument for relationalism is an appeal to Ockham's razor. However, for this to be successful there must be genuine relationalist theories that share the theoretical virtues of their substantivalist rivals but without the additional ontological commitment. The bulk of the paper is therefore an investigation of various concrete relationalist proposals. I distinguish three options for the relationalist in the face of the success of Galilean invariant physics and trace how these generalise to relativistic physics. One of the options is particularly promising but, since its basic objects end up being spacetime points, this does not help the prospects of relationalism as traditionally conceived. I end with some reflections on the fate of substantivalism in the aftermath of the Hole Argument, concluding that we have as yet to be given good reasons to abandon the natural, substantivalist interpretation of current physics



    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 89,685

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library

Similar books and articles

Relationalism rehabilitated? I: Classical mechanics.Oliver Pooley & Harvey R. Brown - 2002 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 53 (2):183--204.
What price spacetime substantivalism? The hole story.John Earman & John Norton - 1987 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 38 (4):515-525.
Spacetime and Holes.Carolyn Brighouse - 1994 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1994:117 - 125.
Einstein algebras and the hole argument.Jonathan Bain - 2003 - Philosophy of Science 70 (5):1073-1085.
Rehabilitating relationalism.Gordon Belot - 1999 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 13 (1):35 – 52.
The Hole Argument.John D. Norton - 1988 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1988:56 - 64.
Points, particles, and structural realism.Oliver Pooley - 2005 - In Dean Rickles, Steven French & Juha T. Saatsi (eds.), The Structural Foundations of Quantum Gravity. Oxford University Press. pp. 83--120.


Added to PP

838 (#15,325)

6 months
56 (#67,764)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author's Profile

Oliver Pooley
Oxford University

Citations of this work

The World Just Is the Way It Is.David Builes - 2021 - The Monist 104 (1):1-27.
Physical relativity from a functionalist perspective.Eleanor Knox - 2018 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 67:118-124.
Lawful Persistence.David Builes & Trevor Teitel - 2022 - Philosophical Perspectives 36 (1):5-30.

View all 96 citations / Add more citations

References found in this work

Counterfactuals.David K. Lewis - 1973 - Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
New work for a theory of universals.David K. Lewis - 1983 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (4):343-377.
Counterfactuals.David Lewis - 1973 - Foundations of Language 13 (1):145-151.
Four Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time.Theodore Sider - 2004 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (3):642-647.

View all 129 references / Add more references