, Volume 187, Issue 2, pp 731–752

“Platonic” thought experiments: how on earth?

Open Access


Brown (The laboratory of the mind. Thought experiments in the natural science, 1991a, 1991b; Contemporary debates in philosophy of science, 2004; Thought experiments, 2008) argues that thought experiments (TE) in science cannot be arguments and cannot even be represented by arguments. He rest his case on examples of TEs which proceed through a contradiction to reach a positive resolution (Brown calls such TEs “platonic”). This, supposedly, makes it impossible to represent them as arguments for logical reasons: there is no logic that can adequately model such phenomena. (Brown further argues that this being the case, “platonic” TEs provide us with irreducible insight into the abstract realm of laws of nature). I argue against this approach by describing how “platonic” TEs can be modeled within the logical framework of adaptive proofs for prioritized consequence operations. To show how this mundane apparatus works, I use it to reconstruct one of the key examples used by Brown, Galileo’s TE involving falling bodies.


Thought experiments Platonism Prioritized consequence Entrenchment Non-defeated consequence Adaptive logics Platonic thought experiments Galileo Aristotle 


  1. Batens D. (1995) Blocks. The clue to dynamic aspects of logic. Logique & Analyse 150–152: 285–328Google Scholar
  2. Batens D. (2004) The need for adaptative logics in epistemology. In: Rahman S., Symons J., Gabbay D., Bendegem J. (eds) Logic, epistemology, and the unity of science. Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp 459–485CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Batens D. (2007) A universal logic approach to adaptive logics. Logica Universalis 1: 221–242CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Benferhat S., Dubois D., Prade H. (1997) Some syntactic approaches to the handling of inconsistent knowledge bases: A comparative study, Part 1: The flat case. Studia Logica 58(1): 17–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Benferhat S., Dubois D., Prade H. (1998) Some syntactic approaches to the handling of inconsistent knowledge bases: A comparative study, Part 2: The prioritized case. In: Orlowska E. (ed.) Logic at work (Vol. 24). Physica-Verlag, Heidelberg, pp 473–511Google Scholar
  6. Brown J. (1991a) The laboratory of the mind. Thought experiments in the natural science. Routledge, London, UKGoogle Scholar
  7. Brown J. (1991b) Thought experiments: A Platonic account. In: Horowitz T., Massey G. (eds) Thought experiments in science and philosophy. Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, Rowman & Littlefield, Pittsburgh, PAGoogle Scholar
  8. Brown, J. (2004). Why thought experiments transcend experience. In Contemporary debates in philosophy of science (pp. 23–43). Malden, USA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  9. Brown J. R. (2008) Thought experiments. In: Zalta E. N. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab., Stanford University, Stanford, CAGoogle Scholar
  10. Galileo, G. (1638). Dialogues concerning two new sciences (H. Crew & A. de Salvio, Trans., 1914). New York: Dover Publications.Google Scholar
  11. Gendler T. (1998) Galileo and the indispensability of scientific thought experiment. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 49: 397–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gendler T. (2004) Thought experiments rethought—And reperceived. Philosophy of Science 71: 1152–1163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gendler T. (2007) Philosophical thought experiments, intuitions, and cognitive equilibrium. Midwest Studies in Philosophy of Science 31: 68–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Herbert, S. (2008). Satisficing. In S. Durlauf & L. Blume (Eds.), The new Palgrave dictionary of economics (pp. 243–245). Londres: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  15. Kuhn, T. (1977). A function for thought experiments. In The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change (pp. 240–265). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  16. Mach E. (1897) Über Gedankenexperimente. Zeitschrift für den physikalischen und chemischen Unterricht 10: 1–5Google Scholar
  17. Norton J. (1996) Are thought experiments just what you thought?. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26: 333–366Google Scholar
  18. Norton J. (2004a) On thought experiments: Is there more to the argument?. Philosophy of Science 71: 1139–1151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Norton J. (2004b) Why thought experiments do not transcend empiricism. In: Hitchcock C. (ed.) Contemporary debates in the philosophy of science. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, pp 44–66Google Scholar
  20. Schrenk M. (2004) Galileo vs. Aristotle on free falling bodies. Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 7: 1–11Google Scholar
  21. Verhoeven L. (2003) Proof theories for some prioritized consequence relations. Logique et Analyse 183–184: 325–344Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Sociology and JournalismGdansk UniversityGdanskPoland
  2. 2.Centre for Logic and PhilosophyGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

Personalised recommendations