Instrumentalism in Science

  • William Harvey Austin
Part of the Library of Philosophy and Religion book series


When Copernicus’ posthumous magnum opus, the De Revolu­tionibus orbium coelestium, appeared in 1543, it bore an unsigned preface asserting that its novel hypothesis of a moving earth and stationary sun was not physically true but only a computational convenience.

For the astronomer’s job consists of the following: To gather together the history of the celestial movements [i.e. the observable apparent movements of the planets] by means of painstakingly and skillfully made observations, and then — since he cannot by any line of reasoning reach the true causes of these movements — to think up or construct whatever hypotheses he pleases such that, on their assumption, the self-same movements, past and future both, can be calculated by means of the principles of geometry.... It is not necessary that these hypotheses be true. They need not even be likely. This one thing suffices, that the calculations to which they lead agree with the results of observation.


Physical Theory Natural Classification Vienna Circle Underlying Reality Metaphysical System 
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  1. 1.
    Pierre Duhem, To Save the Phenomena (University of Chicago Press, 1969; first published in French, 1908), pp. 68f.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For two rather different accounts see Jerome J. Langford, Galileo, Science, and the Church ( Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971 )Google Scholar
  3. Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (University of Chicago Press, 1955).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (New York: Atheneum Press, 1962; first published in French, 1914).Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Stanley L. Jaki, `Introductory Essay’ in To Save the Phenomena, p. xiv. Cf. Jaki, The Relevance of Physics (University of Chicago Press, 1966 ), pp. 550f.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    L. Susan Stebbing, Philosophy and the Physicists (London: Methuen, 1937 ). For an exposition and critique of common-sense instrumentalism, together with extensive referencesGoogle Scholar
  7. see Paul K. Feyerabend, `Problems of Microphysics’, in R.G. Colodny, (ed)., Frontiers of Science and Philosophy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962 ).Google Scholar

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© William Harvey Austin 1976

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  • William Harvey Austin

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