The Electric Theories of J. Clerk Maxwell

A Historical and Critical Study

  • Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem

Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 314)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-xv
  2. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
    Pages 1-9
  3. The Electrostatics of Maxwell

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 11-11
    2. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 35-42
    3. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 43-63
    4. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 65-78
  4. The Electrodynamics of Maxwell

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 79-79
    2. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 81-99
    3. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 101-140
    4. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 141-169
    5. Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
      Pages 171-173
  5. Back Matter
    Pages 175-185

About this book


In this volume Pierre Duhem first gives an overview of 19th century electricity and magnetism. Next, he applies his keen historical, philosophical, and physical intuition to critiquing Maxwell’s theories, especially his electromagnetic theory of light and the ad hoc introduction of displacement current, which he considers too much a product of the “esprit de géométrie” than the “esprit de finesse,” as Pascal calls it.

In this book, Duhem is guided by the principle that a theory that offers contradictions, even if the theory is posed by a genius, needs to be analysed and discussed until a clear distinction can be made between the propositions likely to be logically demonstrated and statements that offend logic and which must be transformed or rejected.

Furthermore, Duhem felt, in criticizing such a theory one must guard against narrowness of mind and petty corrections which would make one forget the merit of the inventor; and, more importantly, one must guard against the blind superstition which, for admiration of the author, would hide the serious defects of the work. He is not so great a genius that he surpasses the laws of reason.

Pierre Duhem (1861-1916), chairman of theoretical physics at Bordeaux in 1984-1916, is well-known for his works in the history and philosophy of science.


Displacement Current Electromagnetic Theory of Light Helmholtz-Duhem Theory History of 19th Century Electrodynamics History of 19th Century Electromagnetism Speed of Light

Authors and affiliations

  • Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
    • 1
  1. 1.(deceased), CabrespineFrance

Bibliographic information