Journal for General Philosophy of Science

, Volume 49, Issue 4, pp 533–549 | Cite as

Theory-Containment in Controversies: Neurath and Müller on Newton, Goethe, and Underdetermination

  • Gábor Á. ZemplénEmail author


Olaf Müller’s book (More Light) develops a new case for underdetermination (prismatic equivalence), and, as he is focusing on theories of a ‘limited domain’, this assumes the containability of the theories. First, the paper argues that Müller’s theory of darkness is fundamentally Newtonian, but for Newton’s optical theory the type of theoretical structure Müller adopts is problematic. Second, the paper discusses seventeenth-century challenges to Newton (by Huygens and Lucas), changes in the proof-structure of Newton’s optical theory, and how these affect Müller’s reconstruction. Müller’s book provides empirically equivalent theories, yet the historical theories were not empirically equivalent, and the same experiments were used to extract different bodies of evidence to rebut the opponent. Third, Goethe’s multi-layered critique of Newton’s experimental proof is investigated, including his developmental account of prismatic colours, the role of experimental series in rejecting Newton’s observations, and his incorporation of the ‘limited domain’ of prismatic colours in a broader framework. Two key elements of Goethe’s method, polarity and strengthening are discussed in contrast to Müller, who only utilises polarity in his account. Finally Neurath’s attempts to come to grips with the optical controversies and the prism-experiments with ‘blurred edges’ are recalled. Müller also discusses in detail some of these experiments and heavily draws on Quine. Neurath developed Duhem’s and Poincaré’s conventionalist insights and had good reasons to be pessimistic about theory-containment. Their differences provide some additions to the history of the Duhem–Quine thesis.


Newton Goethe Optics Rational reconstruction Methodology Philosophy of experiment 



The work was supported by the MTA Lendület Science and Morals Research Group and the “Integrative Argumentation Studies” NKFI-OTKA K 109456 Grant. I appreciate the helpful comments by István Danka and two anonymous reviewers.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and History of ScienceBudapest University of Technology and Economics (BME)BudapestHungary
  2. 2.Institute of Business EconomicsEötvös Loránd UniversityBudapestHungary

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