Hypothesis and Convention in Poincaré’s Defense of Galilei Spacetime

In Michael Heidelberger & Gregor Schiemann (eds.), The Significance of the Hypothetical in Natural Science. De Gruyter. pp. 193-219 (2009)
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Abstract

According to the conventionalist doctrine of space elaborated by the French philosopher-scientist Henri Poincaré in the 1890s, the geometry of physical space is a matter of definition, not of fact. Poincaré’s Hertz-inspired view of the role of hypothesis in science guided his interpretation of the theory of relativity (1905), which he found to be in violation of the axiom of free mobility of invariable solids. In a quixotic effort to save the Euclidean geometry that relied on this axiom, Poincaré extended the purview of his doctrine of space to cover both space and time. The centerpiece of this new doctrine is what he called the ‘‘principle of physical relativity,’’ which holds the laws of mechanics to be covariant with respect to a certain group of transformations. For Poincaré, the invariance group of classical mechanics defined physical space and time (Galilei spacetime), but he admitted that one could also define physical space and time in virtue of the invariance group of relativistic mechanics (Minkowski spacetime). Either way, physical space and time are the result of a convention.

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Scott A. Walter
Nantes University

Citations of this work

Objectivity in Science: New Perspectives From Science and Technology Studies.Flavia Padovani, Alan Richardson & Jonathan Y. Tsou (eds.) - 2015 - Cham: Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, vol. 310. Springer.
Poincaré’s Classification of Hypotheses and Their Role in Natural Science.María de Paz - 2015 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29 (4):369-382.

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