Annali di Matematica Pura ed Applicata

, Volume 57, Issue 1, pp 257–282 | Cite as

The special theory of relativity as a case study of the importance of the philosophy of science for the history of science

  • Adolf Grünbaum


1. The philosophical justification of Einstein's conception of distant simultaneity as conventional depends on two cardinal physical assumptions which are stated. Awareness of these two assumptions poses the following historical problem: On what grounds didEinstein feel entitled to make them in 1905? In an endeavor to answer this question, the contribution of experimental results to Einstein's postulational achievement in the Special Theory of Relativity («RT») is examined. As a consequence, the author rejects (i)M. Polanyi's recent citation of the history of RT as evidence against an empiricist account of scientific knowledge, and (ii)G. Holton's assessment of the relevance of knowledge of the history of RT to the philosophical mastery of its logical foundations.

2. An analysis of theKennedy-Thorndike experiment is used to provide a refutation of the widespread belief that the aether-theoreticLorentz-Fitzgerald contraction hypothesis was ad hoc in the logical sense. A distinction is drawn between a logical and a psychological sense in which an auxiliary hypothesis can be ad hoc.

3.E. T. Whittaker's disparaging estimate ofEinstein's contributions to RT vis -à -vis those ofLorentz andPoincare is shown to rest on fundamental philosophical misunderstandings ofEinstein's conception of theLorentz transformations.Holton's maxim for the study of the history of RT is then tested in the light of his evaluation ofWhittaker's belittlement ofEinstein's role.


Scientific Knowledge Special Theory Logical Foundation Widespread Belief Physical Assumption 
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    An account of the reason for the qualificationin vacuo can be found inI. E. Tamm, “Radiation of Particles with Speeds Greater than that of Light”American Scientist 47 169 (1959), and “General Characteristics ofVavilov-Cherenkov Radiation”,Science 131, 206 (1960).Google Scholar
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    Specifically, Einstein emphasizes in §2 that if theone-way velocity of light is also to have the numerical valuec, then «time interval is to be taken in the sense of the definition [of simultaneity] in §1». For details on the logical relations relevant here, cf.A. Grünbaum, «Logical and Philosophical Foundations of the Special Theory of Relativity», in: A. Danto and S. Morgenbesser (editors)Philosophy of Science, New York, 1960, pp. 401–416. Hereafter this essay will be cited under the abbreviation «LFR».Google Scholar
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    Precisely this error was committed recently in a paper byH. Dingle inThe British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 10, 1959, pp. 228–229.Dingle does adduce historical evidence which establishes the biographical fact that, in the case ofLorentz, the contraction hypothesis waspsychologically ad hoc.Google Scholar
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    For my earlier discussion of this issue, containing also a detailed rebuttal ofH. Dingle's views, seeA. Grünbaum,The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 10 (1959), pp. 48–50; vol. 11 (1960), pp. 143–145; vol. 12 (August, 1961), pp. 153–156.Google Scholar
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    C. Møller,The Theory of Relativity, Oxford, 1952, p. 29. For a discussion of theimportant differences between thepre-relativistic and the relativistic conceptions of the status of any contraction disclosed by the extra-terrestrial experiment suggested here byMøller, cf.H. Reichenbach,The Philosophy of Space and Time, New York, 1958. § 31, andA. Grünbaum, «LFR», pp. 419–420.Google Scholar
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    Holton,op. cit., p. 636.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 633.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 630–631.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed statement of my criticisms of these earlier attempts, seeA. Grünbaum «Complementarity in Quantum Physics and its Philosophical Generalization»,The Journal of Philosophy 54, 1957, pp. 713–727.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed statement of my criticisms of these earlier attempts, seeA. Grünbaum «Complementarity in Quantum Physics and its Philosophical Generalization»,The Journal of Philosophy 54, 1957, p. 632.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., For a detailed statement of my criticisms of these earlier attempts, see p. 636.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Nicola Zanichelli Editore 1962

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adolf Grünbaum
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PittsburghU.S.A.

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