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Summary Article: Duhem, Pierre from Philosophy of Science A-Z

French scientist and philosopher of science. In The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), he set the agenda for most subsequent philosophy of science. He tried to offer an account of physics which made it autonomous, that is, free of metaphysics. He took metaphysics to be any attempt to offer explanation by postulation – that is, explanation in terms of unobservable entities and mechanisms. Characterisitcally, he took the atomic theory to be such a metaphysical theory. He tried to advance an account of scientific method which restricted it to the following: experiments (or observations), mathematics and logic. Duhem took theories to be mathematical tools for the organisation and classifications of phenomena. He thought theories cannot be appraised as true or false, but rather as empirically adequate or inadequate. Hence, he has been taken to be an advocate of instrumentalism. Yet, he also perceived that the ability of some theories to yield novel predictions cannot be explained by viewing theories instrumentally. He advanced the view that theories aim to offer natural classifications of phenomena. He also took as a fundamental postulate of physical theory that it should unify all phenomena under a single system of hypotheses. Duhem is also famous for his view that there cannot be crucial experiments in science and that physical theories are tested holistically. He argued that different national characteristics lead to different approaches to science. He favoured French science, which he thought was deep and narrow, over British science, which he took to be broad and shallow. He was particularly hostile to the Maxwellian tradition of building models to explain phenomena. He criticised German science for being too geometrical and praised French science for using the analytical style of mathematics.

See Duhem–Quine thesis; Novel prediction

Further reading
  • Duhem, Pierre (1906), The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, trans. P. Wiener, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.
  • © Stathis Psillos, 2007

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