Pierre Duhem

Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem (10 June 186114 September 1916) was a French physicist, mathematician and philosopher of science, best known for his writings on the indeterminacy of experimental criteria and on scientific development in the Middle Ages. Duhem also made major contributions to the science of his day, particularly in the fields of hydrodynamics, elasticity, and thermodynamics.


Notice sur les Titres et Travaux scientifiques de Pierre Duhem rédigée par lui-même lors de sa candidature à l'Académie des sciences (mai 1913)

  • « La Logique peut être patiente, car elle est éternelle. »
    ("Logic can be patient because it is eternal.")
    ibid. p. 150

The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906)

Online version
  • The first question we should face is: What is the aim of a physical theory? To this question diverse answers have been made, but all of them may be reduced to two main principles:
    "A physical theory," certain logicians have replied, "has for its object the explanation of a group of laws experimentally established."
    "A physical theory," other thinkers have said, "is an abstract system whose aim is to summarize and classify logically a group of experimental laws without claiming to explain these laws...
    Now these two questions — Does there exist a material reality distinct from sensible appearances? and What is the nature of reality? — do not have their source in experimental method, which is acquainted only with sensible appearances and can discover nothing beyond them. The resolution of these questions transcends the methods used by physics; it is the object of metaphysics.
    Therefore, if the aim of physical theories is to explain experimental laws, theoretical physics is not an autonomous science; it is subordinate to metaphysics...
    Now, to make physical theories depend on metaphysics is surely not the way to let them enjoy the privilege of universal consent.
    • Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem, translated by Philip P. Wiener (1991). The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Princeton University Press. p. 10. ISBN 069102524X. 
  • [U]n symbole n'est, à proprement parler, ni vrai, ni faux; il est plus ou moins bien choisi pour signifier la réalité qu'il représente, il la figure d'une manière plus ou moins précise, plus ou moins détaillée...
    • Now, a symbol is not, properly speaking, either true or false; it is, rather, something more or less well selected to stand for the reality it represents, and pictures that reality in a more or less precise, or a more or less detailed manner.
    • Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem, translated by Philip P. Wiener (1991). The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Princeton University Press. p. 168. ISBN 069102524X. 
  • A physical theory reputed to be satisfactory by the sectarians of one metaphysical school will be rejected by the partisans of another school.
  • Agreement with experiment is the sole criteria of truth for a physical theory.
  • The one who contributed most to break down the barrier between physical method and metaphysical method, and to confound their domains, so clearly distinguished in the Aristotelian philosophy, was surely Descartes.
  • Every time people cite a principle of theoretical physics in support of a metaphysical doctrine or physical dogma, they commit a mistake, for they attribute to this principle a meaning not its own, an import not belonging to it.
  • There you have, then, a theoretical physics which is neither the theory of a believer nor that of a nonbeliever, but merely and simply a theory of a physicist; admirably suited to classify the laws studied by the experimenter, it is incapable of opposing any assertion whatever of metaphysics or of religious dogma, and is equally incapable of lending effective support to any such assertion.

"Letter to Fr. Bulliot, on Science and Religion" (1911)

"The teaching that claims to establish the irreducible antagonism between the scientific mind and the Christian mind is the most colossal, boldest lie that has ever attempted to dupe the human race."

See also

Philosophy of science
ConceptsAnalysisA priori and a posterioriCausalityDemarcation problemFactInductive reasoningInquiryNatureObjectivityObservationParadigmProblem of inductionScientific methodScientific revolutionScientific theory
Related topicsAlchemyEpistemologyHistory of scienceLogicMetaphysicsPseudoscienceRelationship between religion and scienceSociology of scientific knowledge
Philosophers of science PlatoAristotleStoicism
AverroesAvicennaRoger BaconWilliam of Ockham
Francis BaconThomas HobbesRené DescartesGalileo GalileiPierre GassendiIsaac NewtonDavid Hume
Immanuel KantFriedrich SchellingWilliam WhewellAuguste ComteJohn Stuart MillHerbert SpencerWilhelm WundtCharles Sanders PeirceHenri PoincaréPierre DuhemRudolf SteinerKarl Pearson
Alfred North WhiteheadBertrand RussellAlbert EinsteinOtto NeurathC. D. BroadMichael PolanyiHans ReichenbachRudolf CarnapKarl PopperW. V. O. QuineThomas KuhnImre LakatosPaul FeyerabendJürgen HabermasIan HackingBas van FraassenLarry LaudanDaniel Dennett
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