Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Jaki on Duhem

Silence and Awe!
[from a sign which hung in ancient Chinese courtrooms]

Let us pause today and think of our two Masters, who lead us to the One Master.

Today the time is ripe for broad exposure to a central aspect of Duhem's thought, and the English translation of this book will admirably serve that purpose. The message in its widest perspective is cultural. It was not, however, spelled out by Duhem in one of those popular essays on culture and science which as a rule are more productive of profit than of true enlightenment. Duhem's all-important message is embodied in highly learned publications on the history and philosophy of science which analyze with consummate mastery the early and recent phases of scientific conceptual development — not that Duhem considered himself either a historian of science, though he was undoubtedly one of the greatest, nor a philosopher, though his was a philosophical acumen of rare penetration and finesse.


Rightly or wrongly Duhem was a thorn in the side of many. The best aspects of his character were also the ones that made him enemies. His brilliance, combined with utter honesty, selfless dedication, and crusading verve, earned him not only the unreserved admiration of his students (they found in him "a teacher who cared") but also the resentment of many of his peers. Needless to say, his strongly conservative political views and his deep Catholic convictions could bring him no favor in the liberal and anticlerical atmosphere of the Third Republic. His readiness to uphold right causes set him on more than one occasion at loggerheads even with friends. An especially sacred cause in his eyes was the purity of scientific truth, which he saw threatened by the fallacies and contradictions of mechanism. In fact he rated the search for a mechanical explanation of the universe "the most dangerous stumbling block for theoretical physics." However much truth the statement contained, its sweep could only alienate most of those who like Jean-Baptiste Perrin considered the early triumphs of atomic physics a vindication of Descartes' mechanistic interpretation of nature.

To be fully aware in the 1880s of the breadth and width of the mechanistic fallacy in physics required unusual talents and independence of opinion. After all, by then the identification of the intelligible with the mechanical had been a fundamental article of the scientific creed for more than two hundred years. True, before Duhem, Lagrange powerfully steered the science of mechanics away from the shallows of mechanistic imagery. Ampère's work in electricity also showed to good advantage the purely formalistic aspects of mathematical physics. As early as 1855, Rankine, a pioneer in thermodynamics, spoke of a science of energetics, designed to achieve a thorough demechanization of physical theory. By the time Duhem received his doctorate in 1888, Mach had been pursuing for almost two decades his unrelenting critical analysis of the conceptual development of classical mechanics.

All of these were, however, partial efforts. Only Duhem had the courage, stamina, and talent to undertake on a broad front a radical recasting of theoretical physics. The true measure of his efforts can best be seen in that impressive Notice which he submitted to the French Academy prior to his election as one of its first six nonresident members. This was in 1913, only three years before his death at the untimely age of fifty-five. The Notice of 130 printed pages consists of two parts. The first is a list of his publications running over thirty pages, striking evidence of his gigantic output. If the publications of his last three years are added, the total constitutes some thirty books and nearly four hundred articles. For anyone interested in a fully authentic account of Duhem's thought, the second part of the Notice is a priceless gem. There, in over a hundred pages, Duhem offers an analysis and summary of his aims, motivations, and accomplishments in theoretical physics and in studies related to the philosophy and history of science.

[from Jaki's introduction to Duhem's To Save the Phenomena, translated from the French by Edmund Doland and Chaninah Maschler]

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