Poincarae's Philosophy: From Conventionalism to Phenomenology

By Elie Zahar | Go to book overview

1
Poincaré's General Philosophy
of Science

It is well-known that Poincaré's first and most frequently cited philosophical work bears the title Science and Hypothesis (Poincaré 1902). It is therefore appropriate that we should start by giving a largely nontechnical account of Poincaré's general views about the role of theories and of empirical laws in the physical sciences.


1.1 THE CHARACTER OF PHYSICAL THEORY

For Poincaré as for Popper, it is impossible to pursue science without preconceived ideas, without provisional conjectures:

It is often said that experiments should be made without preconceived ideas. This is
impossible. Not only would it make every experiment fruitless, but even if we
wished to do so. it could not be done. Every man has his own conception of the
world, and this he cannot so easily lay aside. We must, for example, use language.
and our language is necessarily steeped in preconceived ideas, which are a thousand
times the most dangerous of all. (Poincaré 1902, p. 143)

Poincaré divides scientific hypotheses into three categories. The first consists of a number of postulates “which are quite natural and necessary. It is difficult not to suppose that the influence of very distant bodies is quite negligible, that small movements obey a linear law and that effect is a continuous function of its cause” (Poincaré 1902, p. 152). Among these assumptions—which should be the last to be given up—figure certain conventions such as the axioms of Euclidean geometry and those of rational mechanics.

The second category comprises hypotheses described as indifferent because they perform a purely psychological function. Such arc a number of metaphysical theses which assist our understanding and simplify our

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