The Composition of Forces

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 68 (3):805-846 (2017)
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This paper defends a realist account of the composition of Newtonian forces, dubbed ‘residualism’. According to residualism, the resultant force acting on a body is identical to the component forces acting on it that do not prevent each other from bringing about its acceleration. Several reasons to favor residualism over alternative accounts of the composition of forces are advanced. (i) Residualism reconciles realism about component forces with realism about resultant forces while avoiding any threat of causal overdetermination. (ii) Residualism provides a systematic semantics for the term ‘force’ within Newtonian mechanics. (iii) Residualism allows us to precisely apportion the causal responsibility of each component force in the ensuing acceleration. (iv) Residualism handles special cases such as null forces, single forces, and antagonistic forces in a natural way. (v) Residualism provides a neat picture of the causal powers of forces: each force essentially has two causal powers⎯the power to bring about accelerations (sometimes together with other co-directionnal forces) and the power to prevent other forces from doing so⎯exactly one of which is manifested at a time. (vi) Residualism avoids commitment to unobservable effects of forces: forces cause either stresses (tensile or compressive) or accelerations.

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Olivier Massin
Université de Neuchâtel


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