XML 052159104Xc49.xml CU979-Baldwin March 18, 2003 20:41

Scientific explanation 613

went out of existence, only to be replaced by the substance ‘oxygen’. Science,

according to the positivists, simply had no need to become involved with such

illusory entities.

What behoved science was to stick to its ‘positive’ (hence the name) contributions:

the well-verified laws which tended to remain constant even through

a drastic revolution, such as Lavoisier’s. Moreover, according to the positivists,

laws satisfied the most important goal of science, its utilitarian promise to provide

prevision, prediction, of the future course of events. Although elimination

of cause-explanation would leave unattained humankind’s desire for intellectual

satisfaction – the goal of science according to Meyerson, Bachelard, et al. –

law-explanation and its attendant prediction was a safe and eminently satisfiable


Underlying the safety of law-explanation and prediction was a thoroughgoing

empiricism, a commitment to exclude from science all notions, concepts, and

words which could not, one way or another, be tied to entities apparent to

the senses. Thus, following Hume, in order for a term to have any meaning at

all, it must be tied to some observable entity. For example, ‘pressure of a gas’

could be tied to the felt elasticity of a balloon, or, perhaps, the visible reading

of a manometer. But since ‘an atom’ provided no such empirically observable

concomitant, the term had no meaning at all; hence the concept, and its verbal

expression, must be discarded from science. The ultimate sought-for goal was the

reformulation of all scientific theories in meaningful terms, terms with direct ties

to empirical observation. This would be accompanied by the elimination of all

meaningless terms, that is, all those terms such as ‘atom’, ‘energy’, and ‘absolute

space and time’, which referred to entities hidden or otherwise unavailable to

empirical observation.

Two French thinkers added significant elements to the positivist tradition.

These are the physicists Henri Poincaré(1854–1912) and Pierre Duhem (1861–

1916). For both men the only acceptable theory is one which is strictly mathematical;

this because, as Poincare notes, the sole end of theory ‘is to co-ordinate

the physical laws which experience makes known to us, but which, without

the help of mathematics, we could not even state’ (Poincaré 1889: 1). Duhem,

Meyerson remarks, ‘affirms in the same way that the mathematical theory is

not an explanation, but a system of mathematical propositions; it classifies laws’

(Meyerson 1962: 52). Duhem was a genuinely talented historian of physics; he

knew full well that ‘several of the geniuses to whom we owe modern physics

have constructed their theories in the hope of giving an explanation of natural

phenomena’ (Duhem 1906: 46). Yet, as Meyerson remarks, Duhem’s ‘own ideas

are diametrically opposed to this manner of thinking’ (Meyerson 1908 [1930]:

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