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Reviewed by:
  • The Philosophy of Physics
  • Martin Curd
Roberto Torretti . The Philosophy of Physics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 512. Cloth, $64.95. Paper, $23.95.

This is the first volume in a new Cambridge series, "The Evolution of Modern Philosophy." It is a historical work, tracing the interaction between physics and philosophy from the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century through general relativity and quantum mechanics in the twentieth century. The emphasis is on the philosophy in physics (rather than philosophizing about physics) and, with the exceptions noted below, the focus is on scientists (scientist-philosophers in many cases) rather than philosophers outside of science. Most of the book is about the conceptual and mathematical development of the core branches of physics (mainly mechanics, but also geometry, thermodynamics, and field theory). There are seven chapters plus three supplements giving the mathematical essentials of vector analysis, lattice theory, and topology.

The hero of chapter one is Galileo who, more than anyone else prior to Newton, set physics on its modern path towards mathematization and away from Aristotle. Also discussed in chapter one are Descartes, Huyghens, and Leibniz. Chapter two is devoted to Newton (both the foundations of Newtonian mechanics and the derivation of the law of universal gravitation) and follows the development of analytical mechanics up to Lagrange and Hamilton. Chapter three, appropriately entitled "Kant," is the only chapter devoted to a philosopher. After a brief discussion of Leibniz, Berkeley, and Kant's pre-critical writings, it covers the important scientific topics in the Critique of Pure Reason (space, time, the three Analogies) but avoids the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (referring the reader to Michael Friedman's Kant and the Exact Sciences). Chapter four looks at scientific developments in three areas that proved to be important for twentieth-century physics: non-Euclidean geometry from Lobachevsky to Riemann, electromagnetic field theory (Maxwell), and thermal physics (classical thermodynamics, the kinetic theory, and statistical mechanics) from Carnot to Boltzmann. The chapter concludes, somewhat untidily, with a section on four philosophers of science (Whewell, Peirce, Mach, and Duhem), selected, we are told, because of their influence on philosophy of science in the second half of the twentieth century. (For the "two great philosopher-scientists" Helmholtz and Poincaré, the reader is referred to Torretti's earlier books, Philosophy of Geometry from Riemann to Poincaré, and Relativity and Geometry.) Chapter five covers both the special and general theory of relativity. After a masterful exposition of the special theory and its Minkowski spacetime representation, the usual topics of philosophical interest are discussed; these include the conventionality of simultaneity thesis, the twin paradox, the relativistic concept of mass, and determinism. The rather brief treatment of the general theory is, unavoidably, mathematically demanding and carries the subject through to recent inflationary cosmological models. Chapter six (also mathematically demanding at times) examines the development and structure of quantum mechanics, aptly praised as "one of the most elegant creations of the human spirit" (340). Torretti wisely ignores the complexities of quantum field theory since the philosophical problems discussed—measurement, the EPR paradox, the interpretation of the y-function—remain when quantum mechanics is made Lorentz invariant; but he urges philosophers of science to follow the lead of Michael Redhead and [End Page 602] Paul Teller in exploring its metaphysical ramifications. Of special note are the author's trenchant criticisms of attempts to solve the quantum mysteries by Bohr (complementarity), Bohm (hidden variables), Putnam (quantum logic), and Everett (the many worlds interpretation). The book concludes with the author's reflections on issues in the philosophy of science. Torretti defends the structuralist explication of physical theories (more familiarly known as the semantic conception or the model-theoretic view) that informs much of his book, arguing that it succeeds where the "received view" of logical empiricism failed while avoiding Kuhnian incommensurability—"a pseudoproblem that made philosophy of science the laughing stock of practicing physicists" (404). The chapter ends with an attack on inductive logic: "one of the blindest alleys in twentieth-century philosophy" (437).

The writing is admirably clear and the author has done a commendable job of explaining the arguments of historical scientists while presenting their theories in a clear...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 602-603
Launched on MUSE
2005-02-24
Open Access
No
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