The Nature of Physical Theory: A Study in Theory of Knowledge

By Victor F. Lenzen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
THE MECHANICAL CONCEPTION OF NATURE

1. INTRODUCTION

THE mechanical conception of nature was an attempt at a unitary representation of the physical order.

A physical theory is the representation in concepts of selected characters and processes of the physical order. In dynamics we have a set of physical quantities which serve for the general description of the motion of bodies and the conditions of changes of motion. In electrodynamics we represent electrical and magnetic properties of bodies and correlated phenomena. In thermodynamics we have a very general description of the physical order in which thermal properties and phenomena are the principal objects of interest. In setting forth these systems of physical theory I have sought to retain the phenomenological point of view as much as possible. Now one seeks a unitary representation of the physical order; one endeavors to interpret the concepts of one theory in terms of the concepts of a fundamental theory. From the inductive point of view this is the explanation of a concept, for example, of heat; from the deductive point of view interpretation is definition.

The first, most sustained, and most detailed attempt at a unitary system of physics was the mechanical conception of nature. I distinguish between the mechanical conception of nature and materialism. Materialism is the extension of mechanical concepts to all characters of reality.

According to the mechanical conception of nature the fundamental physical phenomenon is that of a body in motion. The primary physical character of a body is represented by its mass. The acceleration of bodies is attributed to the action

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