Science & Education

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 1–23 | Cite as

Thought Experiments: Determining Their Meaning

  • Igal GaliliEmail author


This paper considers thought experiment as a special scientific tool that mediates between theory and experiment by mental simulation. To clarify the meaning of thought experiment, as required in teaching science, we followed the relevant episodes throughout the history of science paying attention to the epistemological status of the performed activity. A definition of thought experiment is suggested and its meaning is analyzed using two-dimensional conceptual variation. This method allows one to represent thought experiment in comparison with the congenerous conceptual constructs also defined. A similar approach is used to classify the uses of thought experiments, mainly for the purpose of science curriculum.


Real Experiment Real Object Thought Experiment Scientific Revolution Quantum Description 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Aristotle (C4 BC/1952a) On the heavens, in the works of Aristotle. Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books, Chicago, Bk. II, Chap. 14, 297a, 297bGoogle Scholar
  2. Aristotle (C4 BC/1952b) Physics, in the Works of Aristotle. Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books, Chicago, Bk. IV, Chap. 8, 215aGoogle Scholar
  3. Arnold VI (1990) Huygens and Barrow, Newton and Hooke. Birkhauser Verlag, BaselGoogle Scholar
  4. Arthur R (1999) On thought experiments as a priori science. Int Stud Philos Sci 13(3):215–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berkeley M (1721/1965) De Motu. In: Armstrong DM (ed) Berkeley’s philosophical writings. Macmillan, New York, pp 251–273Google Scholar
  6. Bloom B, Englehart M, Furst E, Hill W, Krathwohl D (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals. Handbook I: cognitive domain. Longmans Green, TorontoGoogle Scholar
  7. Bohr N (1949/1959) Discussion with Einstein on epistemological problems in atomic physics. In: Schilpp PA (ed) Albert Einstein: philosopher-scientist. Harper, New York, pp 201–241Google Scholar
  8. Born M (1924/1965) Einstein’s theory of relativity. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  9. Born M (1944) Experiment and theory in physics. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  10. Bridgman PW (1936) The nature of physical theory. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Brown J (1991) The laboratory of the mind. Thought experiments in the natural sciences. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  12. Brown J (2002) Thought experiments. In: Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford UniversityGoogle Scholar
  13. Brown JR (2004) Peeking into Plato’s Heaven, Philos Sci 71:1126–1138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Buridan J (1357/1959) Questions on the eight books of the physics of Aristotle. In Clagett M (ed) The science of mechanics in the middle ages. The University of Wisconsin Press, MadissonGoogle Scholar
  15. Calvi I (1956) Military engineering and arms. In: Leonardo da Vinci. Reynal, New York, pp 275–305Google Scholar
  16. Camp C, Clement J (1994) Preconceptions in mechanics. Kendal/Hunt, DubuqueGoogle Scholar
  17. Clagett M (1959) The science of mechanics in the middle ages. The University of Wisconsin Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  18. Clement J (1983) A conceptual model discussed by Galileo and used intuitively by physics students. In: Gentner D, Stevens AL (eds) Mental models. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, pp 325–340Google Scholar
  19. Cohen IB (1993) A sense of history in science. Sci & Educ 2(3):251–277 [1950, Am J Phys 18:343–359]Google Scholar
  20. Cohen MR, Drabkin IE (1966) A source book of greek science. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  21. Copy IM (1972) Introduction to logic. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Crombey AC (1959) Medieval and early modern science. Doubleday, Garden CityGoogle Scholar
  23. Cushing J (1994) Quantum mechanics: historical contingency and the Copenhagen hegemony. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  24. Cushing J (1998) Philosophical concepts in physics. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  25. d’Arbo A (1927/1950) The evolution of scientific thought: from Newton to Einstein. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  26. Diamond J (1999) Guns, germs and steel. Norton, New York, pp 424–425Google Scholar
  27. Dijksterhius EJ (1986) The mechanization of the world picture, Pythagoras to Newton. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 269–270Google Scholar
  28. Draper JW (1890) History of the conflict between religion and science. Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner, LondonGoogle Scholar
  29. Dugas R (1986) A history of mechanics. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Einstein A (1905/1952a) On the electrodynamics of moving bodies. In: The principle of relativity, a collection of originals papers on the special and general theory of relativity. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Einstein A (1905/1952b) Does the inertia of a body depend upon its energy-content?’ In: The principle of relativity, a collection of originals papers on the special and general theory of relativity. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  32. Einstein A (1949/1979) Autobiographical notes. In: Schilpp PA (ed) Albert Einstein: philosopher-scientist. Harper, New York, pp 3–95Google Scholar
  33. Einstein A, Infeld L (1938) The evolution of physics. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  34. Einstein A, Podolsky B, Rosen N (1935) Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete? Phys Rev 47:777–780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Feather N (1959) Mass, length and time. Watson &Viney, AylesburyGoogle Scholar
  36. Feynman R, Leighton R, Sands M (1965) The Feyman lectures on physics. Addison Wesley, ReadingGoogle Scholar
  37. Galilei G (1613/1957) Letters on sunspots. In Drake S (ed) Discoveries and opinions of Galileo. Doubleday, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  38. Galilei G (1632/1967) Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems – Ptolemaic and Copernican [Dialogo]. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  39. Galilei G (1638/1914) Dialogue concerning two new sciences [Discorsi]. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  40. Galili I (2001) Weight versus gravitational force: historical and educational perspectives. Int J Sci Educ 23(10):1073–1093Google Scholar
  41. Galili I, Kaplan D (1997) Students’ operation with the concept of weight. Sci Educ 80(4):457–487Google Scholar
  42. Galili I, Lehavi Y (2006) Definitions of physical concepts: a study of physics teachers’ knowledge and views. Int J Sci Educ 28(5):521–541CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Gendler TS (2004) Thought experiments rethought – and reperceived. Philos Sci 71:1152–1163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Giere RN (1984) Understanding scientific reasoning. Holt, Rinehart, &Winston, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  45. Giere RN (1999) Science without laws. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  46. Gilbert J, Reiner M. (2000) Thought experiments in science education: potential and current realization. Int J Sci Educ 22(3):265–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Gliozzi M (1962) Storia della fisica. II volume della Storia della Scienza. UTET, TorinoGoogle Scholar
  48. Grant E (1977) Physical science in the middle ages. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  49. Harrison ER (1981) Cosmology. The science of the universe. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  50. Hecht E (1996) Physics. Brooks/Cole, Pacific GroveGoogle Scholar
  51. Helm H, Gilbert J. (1985) Thought experiments and physics education – Part 1. Phys Educ 20:124–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Helm H, Gilbert J, Watts DM (1985) Thought experiments and physics education – Part 2. Phys Educ 20:211–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Hobson A (2003) Physics. Concepts and connections. Pearson, Upper Saddle RiverGoogle Scholar
  54. King P (1991) Mediaeval thought-experiments: the metamethodology of mediaeval science. In: Massey G, Horowitz T (eds) Thought-experiments in science and philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield, pp 43–64Google Scholar
  55. Koyré A (1943) Galileo and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Philos Rev 52(4):333–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Koyré A (1968) Metaphysics and measurement. Chapman & Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  57. Kuhn T (1977) A function of thought experiments. In: Kuhn T (ed) The essential tension selected studies in scientific tradition and change. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 240–265Google Scholar
  58. Lakatos I (1976) Proofs and refutations. The logic of mathematical discovery. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  59. Lakatos I (1978) Mathematics, science and epistemology. Philosophical papers 2. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  60. Lattery M (2001) Thought experiments in physics education: a simple and practical example. Sci Educ 10(5):485–492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Leibniz GW (1902/1968) Discourse on metaphysics. Open Court, La Salle, pp 29–32Google Scholar
  62. Losee J (1993) A historical introduction to the philosophy of science. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  63. Lucretius (1910) On the nature of things. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  64. Mach E (1883/1989) The science of mechanics: a critical and historical account of its development. The Open Court, La SalleGoogle Scholar
  65. Mach E (1896/1976) On thought experiment in E. Mach. In: Knowledge and error. Reidel, Dordrecht, pp 134–147Google Scholar
  66. Marton F, Tsui ABM (2004) Classroom discourse and the space learning. Mahwah, NJGoogle Scholar
  67. Mason SF (1962) A history of the sciences. Collier Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  68. Matthews M (1994) Thought experiments. In: Matthews M, Science teaching: the role of history and philosophy of science. Routledge, New York, pp 99–105Google Scholar
  69. McAllister J (1996) The evidential significance of thought experiments in science. Stud Hist Philos Sci 27(2):233–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Mill JS (1892) A system of logic ratiocinative and inductive. A connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  71. Miller A (1986) Imagery in scientific thought. The MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  72. Moody EA (1994) Galileo and Avempace: dynamics of the leaning tower experiment. In: Wiener PP, Noland AN (eds) Roots of scientific thought. A cultural perspective. Basic Books Publishers, New York, pp 176–206Google Scholar
  73. Moss JD (1993) Novelties in the heavens. Rhetoric and science in the Copernican controversy. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  74. Murdoch JE, Sylla ED (1978) The science of motion. In: Lindberg DC (ed) Science in the middle ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 206–264Google Scholar
  75. Nersessian N (1993) In the theoretician’s laboratory: thought experimenting as mental modeling. In: Hull D, Forbes M, Okruhlik K (eds) PSA 1992, vol 2. Philosophy of Science Association, East LansingGoogle Scholar
  76. Newton I (1687/1999) Mathematical principles of natural philosophy. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  77. Newton I (1728/1997) A treatise of the system of the world. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  78. Norton J (1991) Thought experiments in Einstein’s work. In: Horowitz T, Massey GJ (eds) Thought experiments in science and philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield, SavageGoogle Scholar
  79. Norton J (2004a) Einstein’s investigations of Galilean covariant electrodynamics prior to 1905. Arch Hist Exact Sci 59:45–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Norton J (2004b) Why thought experiments do not transcend empiricism. In: Hitchcock C (ed) Contemporary debates in the philosophy of science. Blackwell, London, pp 44–66Google Scholar
  81. Norton JD (2004c) On thought experiments: is there more to the argument? Philos Sci 71:1139–1151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Ohanian HC (1989) Physics. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  83. Park D (1988) The How and Why. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  84. Pedersen O, Pihl M (1974) Early physics and astronomy. McDonald & Janes, LondonGoogle Scholar
  85. Peierls R. (1980) Model-making in physics. Contemp Phys 21:3–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Penrose R (1997) The large the small and the human mind. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  87. Piaget J (1970) The science of education and the psychology of the child. Grossman, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  88. Popper K (1934/1968) On the use and misuse of imaginary experiments, especially in quantum theory. In Popper K (ed) The logic of scientific discovery. Harper & Row, New York, pp 442–456Google Scholar
  89. Ptolemy C (1952) The Almagest. Encyclopedia Britannica, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  90. Randall JH (1957) The place of Leonardo Da Vinci in the emergence of modern science. In: Wiener PP, Noland A (eds) Roots of scientific thought. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  91. Reichenbach H (1927/1958) The philosophy of space and time. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  92. Reiner M, Burko L. (2003) On the limitations of thought experiments in physics and the consequences for physics education. Sci & Educ 12:365–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Reiner M, M Gilbert J (2000) Epistemological resources for thought experimentation in science education. Int J Sci Educ 22(5):489–506CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Russo L (2004) The forgotten revolution: how science was born in 300 B.C. and why it had to be reborn. Springer, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  95. Schecker H, Niedderer H (1996) Contrastive teaching: a strategy to promote qualitative conceptual understanding of science. In: Treagust D, Duit R, Fraser B (eds) Improving teaching and learning in science and mathematics. Teacher College Press, New York, pp 141–151Google Scholar
  96. Schneer CJ (1960) The evolution of physical science. Grove Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  97. Shamos MH (1959) Great experiments in physics. Firsthand accounts from Galileo to Einstein. Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  98. Shapin S (1996) The scientific revolution. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  99. Sorensen R (1992) Thought experiments. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  100. Stinner A (1990) Philosophy, thought experiments and large context problems in the secondary Physics course. Int J Sci Educ 12(3):244–257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Stinner A (2005) Thought experiments to teach the ideas of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In: Paper presented in the eighth international history, philosophy and science teaching conference, University of Leeds, Book of Abstracts, p 89Google Scholar
  102. Taylor EF, Wheeler JA (1997) Spacetime physics. Freeman, New York, pp 125–126Google Scholar
  103. Tseitlin M, Galili I (2005) Teaching physics in looking for itself: from a physics-discipline to a physics-culture. Sci & Educ 14(3–5):235–261CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Westfall RS (1977) The construction of modern science. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science Teaching CenterThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael

Personalised recommendations