New Water in Old Buckets: Hypothetical and Counterfactual Reasoning in Mach’s Economy of Science

  • Lydia PattonEmail author
Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY, volume 22)


Ernst Mach’s defense of relativist theories of motion in Die Mechanik involves a well-known criticism of Newton’s theory appealing to absolute space, and of Newton’s “bucket” experiment. Sympathetic readers (Norton 1995) and critics (Stein 1967, 1977) agree that there’s a tension in Mach’s view: he allows for some constructed scientific concepts, but not others, and some kinds of reasoning about unobserved phenomena, but not others. Following Banks (2003), I argue that this tension can be interpreted as a constructive one, springing from Mach’s approach to scientific reasoning. Mach’s “economy of science” allows for a principled distinction to be made between natural and artificial hypothetical reasoning, and Mach defends a division of labor between the sciences in a 1903 paper for The Monist, “Space and Geometry from the Point of View of Physical Inquiry”. That division supports counterfactual reasoning in Mach’s system, something that’s long been denied is possible for him.



I owe a debt to Friedrich Stadler and to the Institute Vienna Circle for inviting me to contribute a talk to the wonderful Ernst Mach centenary conference, held in June 2016, and to contribute a paper for the volume here. At the conference, I received illuminating questions from Erik Banks, Don Howard, Elisabeth Nemeth, Thomas Uebel, and others, which were instrumental in subsequent improvements to the paper. Since then, I gave this paper as the annual Joint Lecture of the Departments of Philosophy and of HPS at Indiana University. Comments from Amit Hagar, Jordi Cat, Jutta Schickore, Kirk Ludwig, Gary Ebbs, Kate Abramson, Mark Kaplan, and Adam Leite gave a new impetus to the project and helped me to find a unifying thread, or so I hope. Sean Morris issued a kind invitation to present the paper at Metropolitan State University, at which Sergio Gallegos, Elizabeth Goodnick, Vijay Mascarenhas, Daniel Krasner, and of course Sean Morris himself pushed the narrative of the paper in novel directions and identified threads of that narrative I hadn’t considered. I am grateful to all of those who participated in discussion and analysis of the paper, and regret only that I haven’t made better use of their excellent suggestions.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Virginia TechBlacksburgUSA

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