The Methodological Problems of Theory Unification (in the context of Maxwell's fusion of optics and electrodynamics)

Philosophy of Science and Technology (Moscow) 21 (2) (2016)
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It is discerned what light can bring the recent historical reconstructions of maxwellian optics and electromagnetism unification on the following philosophical/methodological questions. I. Why should one believe that Nature is ultimately simple and that unified theories are more likely to be true? II. What does it mean to say that a theory is unified? III. Why theory unification should be an epistemic virtue? To answer the questions posed genesis and development of Maxwellian electrodynamics are elucidated. It is enunciated that the Maxwellian Revolution is a far more complicated phenomenon than it may be seen in the light of Kuhnian and Lakatosian epistemological models. Correspondingly it is maintained that maxwellian electrodynamics was elaborated in the course of the old pre-maxwellian programmes’ reconciliation: the electrodynamics of Ampére-Weber, the wave theory of Young-Fresnel and Faraday’s programme. To compare the different theoretical schemes springing from the different language games James Maxwell had constructed a peculiar neutral language. Initially it had encompassed the incompressible fluid models; eventually – the vortices ones. The three programmes’ encounter engendered the construction of the hybrid theory at first with an irregular set of theoretical schemes. However, step by step, on revealing and gradual eliminating the contradictions between the programmes involved, the hybrid set is “put into order” (Maxwell’s term). A hierarchy of theoretical schemes starting from ingenious crossbreeds (the displacement current) and up to usual hybrids is set up. After the displacement current construction the interpenetration of the pre-maxwellian programmes begins that marks the commencement of theoretical schemes of optics, electricity and magnetism real unification. Maxwell’s programme surpassed that of Ampére-Weber because it did absorb the ideas of the Ampére-Weber programme, as well as the presuppositions of the programmes of Young-Fresnel and Faraday properly co-ordinating them with each other. But the opposite statement is not true. The Ampére-Weber programme did not assimilate the propositions of the Maxwellian programme. Maxwell’s victory over his rivals became possible because the gist of Maxwell’s unification strategy was formed by Kantian epistemology looked in the light of William Whewell and such representatives of Scottish Enlightenment as Thomas Reid and Sir William Hamilton. Maxwell did put forward as basic synthetic principles the ideas that radically differed from that of Ampére-Weber approach by their open, flexible and contra-ontological, genuinly epistemological, Kantian character. For Maxwell, ether was not the ultimate building block of physical reality, from which all the charges and fields should be constructed. “Action at a distance”, “incompressible fluid”, “molecular vortices”, etc. were contrived analogies for Maxwell, capable only to direct the researcher at the “right” mathematical relations. Key words: J.C. Maxwell, unification of optics and electromagnetism, I. Kant, T. Reid, W. Hamilton

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Rinat M. Nugayev
Moscow State University


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