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Physics and History

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Abstract:

Most physicists, from Aristotle to the present day, see their discipline as essentially a-historical and teach it as a collection of timeless truths held hostage in a few equations. Collingwood argued that this is mistaken: physics pre-supposes history and historical methods. Initially he argued that this must be true because physics, and indeed all natural science, works from facts in the form of records either of their own work or of that of others, and facts are the business of history. But later he came to think that the kinds of facts and so records generated by physicists were completely different from those available to historians. The facts recorded and dealt with by physicists could be reproduced at will both by experiment and observation while the historians' facts were from records that were either found or inferred. After abandoning his initial view of the relation between physics and history Collingwood then moved to the view that physics, and indeed all natural science, lived by what it took for granted absolutely. But absolute presuppositions are not facts because not in the category of the true or false, though that X is absolutely presupposed in a particular scientific activity or theory is a fact. Such presuppositions could only be detected and characterized by historical methods. Thus he had two different views as to how physics was intimately related to and dependent upon history and historical methods.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Calgary and Linacre College, Oxford

Publication date: January 1, 2008

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