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Pierre Duhem

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Pierre Duhem
Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem

(1861-06-09)9 June 1861
Paris, France
Died14 September 1916(1916-09-14) (aged 55)
Cabrespine, France
EducationÉcole Normale Supérieure (diploma, 1882)
Era19th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolContinental philosophy
French historical epistemology[1]
ThesisÉtude historique sur la théorie de l'aimantation par influence (1888)
Main interests
Thermodynamics, philosophy of science, history of science
Notable ideas
Clausius–Duhem inequality
Gibbs–Duhem equation
Duhem–Margules equation
Duhem–Quine thesis
Confirmation holism
Thermodynamic potential

Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem (French: [pjɛʁ mɔʁis maʁi dy.ɛm, moʁ-] ; 9 June[4] 1861 – 14 September 1916) was a French theoretical physicist who worked on thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, and the theory of elasticity. Duhem was also a historian of science, noted for his work on the European Middle Ages, which is regarded as having created the field of the history of medieval science.[5] As a philosopher of science, he is remembered principally for his views on the indeterminacy of experimental criteria (see Duhem–Quine thesis).

Early life and education[edit]

Duhem completed a Ph.D. in 1888 at Université Paul Sabatier titled Étude historique sur la théorie de l'aimantation par influence.[6]

Theoretical physics[edit]

Among scientists, Duhem is best known today for his work on chemical thermodynamics, and in particular for the Gibbs–Duhem and Duhem–Margules equations. His approach was strongly influenced by the early works of Josiah Willard Gibbs, which Duhem effectively explained and promoted among French scientists. In continuum mechanics, he is also remembered for his contribution to what is now called the Clausius–Duhem inequality.

Duhem was convinced that all physical phenomena, including mechanics, electromagnetism, and chemistry, could be derived from the principles of thermodynamics.[7] Influenced by Macquorn Rankine's "Outlines of the Science of Energetics",[8] Duhem carried out this intellectual project in his Traité de l'Énergétique (1911), but was ultimately unable to reduce electromagnetic phenomena to thermodynamic first principles.

With Ernst Mach, Duhem shared a skepticism about the reality and usefulness of the concept of atoms.[9] He therefore did not follow the statistical mechanics of Maxwell, Boltzmann, and Gibbs, who explained the laws of thermodynamics in terms of the statistical properties of mechanical systems composed of many atoms.

Duhem was an opponent of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.[10][11] In 1914, Duhem commented that Einstein's relativity theory "has turned physics into a real chaos where logic loses its way and common-sense runs away frightened".[12] In his 1915 book La Science Allemande, he argued strongly against relativity.[11] Duhem stated that the theory of relativity "overthrow[s] all the doctrines in which one has spoken of space, of time, of movement, all the theories of mechanics and of physics".[13]

History of science[edit]

Nicole Oresme, a prominent medieval scholar. Duhem came to regard the medieval scholastic tradition as the origin of modern science.

Duhem is well known for his work on the history of science,[14][15][16][17] which resulted in the ten volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus).[18] Unlike many former historians (e.g. Voltaire and Condorcet), who denigrated the Middle Ages, he endeavored to show that the Roman Catholic Church had helped foster Western science in one of its most fruitful periods. His work in this field was originally prompted by his research into the origins of statics, where he encountered the works of medieval mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon, whose sophistication surprised him. He consequently came to regard them as the founders of modern science, having in his view anticipated many of the discoveries of Galileo Galilei and later thinkers.[19] Duhem concluded that "the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud to proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools."[20]

Duhem popularized the concept of "saving the phenomena." In addition to the Copernican Revolution debate of "saving the phenomena" (Greek σῴζειν τὰ φαινόμενα, sozein ta phainomena[21])[22][23] versus offering explanations[24] that inspired Duhem was Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, regarding eccentrics and epicycles, that

Reason may be employed in two ways to establish a point: firstly, for the purpose of furnishing sufficient proof of some principle. [...] Reason is employed in another way, not as furnishing a sufficient proof of a principle, but as confirming an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results, as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established, because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them. [...][25]

Philosophy of science[edit]

A theory of physics is not an explanation. It is a system of mathematical propositions, deduced from a small number of principles, which have for their aim to represent as simply, as completely and as exactly as possible, a group of experimental laws.[26][27]

Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory, vol 13, p. 19

In philosophy of science, Duhem is best known for arguing that hypotheses are not straightforwardly refuted by experiment and that there are no crucial experiments in science. Duhem’s formulation of his thesis is that “if the predicted phenomenon is not produced, not only is the questioned proposition put into doubt, but also the whole theoretical scaffolding used by the physicist”.[28] Duhem's views on the philosophy of science are explained in his 1906 work The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory.[29] In this work, he opposed Newton's statement that the Principia's law of universal mutual gravitation was deduced from 'phenomena', including Kepler's second and third laws. Newton's claims in this regard had already been attacked by critical proof-analyses of the German logician Leibniz and then most famously by Immanuel Kant, following Hume's logical critique of induction. But the novelty of Duhem's work was his proposal that Newton's theory of universal mutual gravity flatly contradicted Kepler's Laws of planetary motion because the interplanetary mutual gravitational perturbations caused deviations from Keplerian orbits. Since no contingent proposition can be validly logically deduced from any it contradicts, according to Duhem, Newton must not have logically deduced his law of gravitation directly from Kepler's Laws.[29][30][31][32]

Opposition to the English inductivist tradition[edit]

Duhem argues that physics is subject to certain methodological limitations that do not affect other sciences. In his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory[29] (1906), Duhem critiqued the Baconian notion of "crucial experiments". According to this critique, an experiment in physics is not simply an observation, but rather an interpretation of observations by means of a theoretical framework. Furthermore, no matter how well one constructs one's experiment, it is impossible to subject an isolated single hypothesis to an experimental test. Instead, it is a whole interlocking group of hypotheses, background assumptions, and theories that is tested. This thesis has come to be known as confirmation holism. This inevitable holism, according to Duhem, renders crucial experiments impossible. More generally, Duhem was critical of Newton's description of the method of physics as a straightforward "deduction" from facts and observations.

Duhem's philosophy of science and faith[edit]

In the appendix to The Aim and Structure, entitled "Physics of a Believer," Duhem draws out the implications that he sees his philosophy of science as having for those who argue that there is a conflict between physics and religion. He writes, "metaphysical and religious doctrines are judgments touching on objective reality, whereas the principles of physical theory are propositions relative to certain mathematical signs stripped of all objective existence. Since they do not have any common term, these two sorts of judgments can neither contradict nor agree with each other" (p. 285). Nonetheless, Duhem argues that it is important for the theologian or metaphysician to have detailed knowledge of physical theory in order not to make illegitimate use of it in speculations. Duhem's philosophy of science was criticized by one of his contemporaries, Abel Rey, in part because of what Rey perceived as influence on the part of Duhem's Catholic faith.[33] Although Duhem was indeed a believer, a sincere and fervent Catholic, he was eager to point out that his works in physics and chemistry should be considered on their own merits, independent of his religion. They were not examples of "Catholic science," nor even colored by his Catholic faith.[34][35]




Duhem's mathematics papers from NUMDAM

Works in English translation[edit]

  • Duhem, Pierre (1903). Thermodynamics and Chemistry. A Non-mathematical Treatise for Chemists and Students of Chemistry (1st ed.). New York; London: J. Wiley & Sons; Chapman & Hall. OCLC 3383130. Retrieved 2011-08-31.
  • Duhem, Pierre (1991b) [Originally published 1906]. The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Translated by Wiener, Philip P. (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. Excerpts: excerpt 1, & excerpt 2 "Heavenly bodies: Theory, physics and philosophy"
  • "Physical Theory and Experiment," in Herbert Feigl & May Brodbeck (ed.), Readings in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1953, pp. 235–252.
  • Duhem, Pierre (1969). To Save the Phenomena, an Essay on the Idea of Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 681213472. (excerpt)
  • Duhem, Pierre (1985). Medieval Cosmology: Theories of Infinity, Place, Time, Void, and the Plurality of Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-16922-4. OCLC 712044683. (excerpt: "The 12th century birth of the notion of mass which advised modern mechanics ... and void and movement in the void")
  • Duhem, Pierre (1988). The Physicist as Artist: The Landscapes of Pierre Duhem. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. ISBN 0707305349
  • Duhem, Pierre (1990). "Logical Examination of Physical Theory," Synthese, Vol. 83, No. 2, pp. 183–188.
  • Duhem, Pierre (1990). "Research on the History of Physical Theories," Synthese, Vol. 83, No. 2, pp. 189–200.
  • Duhem, Pierre (1991). German Science. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court. ISBN 0812691245
  • Duhem, Pierre (1991c). The Origins of Statics The Sources of Physical Theory. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 123. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. doi:10.1007/978-94-011-3730-0. ISBN 9789401137300.
  • Duhem, Pierre (1996). Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co. ISBN 978-0-87220-308-2. OCLC 33968944.
  • Duhem, Pierre (2011). Commentary on the Principles of Thermodynamics by Pierre Duhem. Dordrecht; New York: Springer. ISBN 978-94-007-0311-7. OCLC 733543752. Archived from the original on 2013-02-03.
  • Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie (2015). The Electric Theories of J. Clerk Maxwell. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science. Vol. 314. Alan Aversa (trans.). Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-18515-6. ISBN 978-3-319-18515-6. Retrieved 2015-07-08.
  • Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie (2018-06-29). Galileo's Precursors: Translation of Studies on Leonardo da Vinci (vol. 3). Alan Aversa (trans.). doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.23235.71201/1. Retrieved 2019-07-03.
  • Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie (2018-09-09). Ampère's Force Law: A Modern Introduction. Alan Aversa (trans.). doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.31100.03206/1. Retrieved 2019-07-03. (EPUB)


Articles contributed to the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia

The above bibliography is not exhaustive. See his complete primary sources and secondary sources at the Duhem entry of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Donald Broady, "The epistemological tradition in French sociology", 1996.
  2. ^ Yemima Ben-Menahem, Conventionalism: From Poincare to Quine, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 39.
  3. ^ John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach: His Work, Life, and Influence, 1972, p. 196.
  4. ^ Jaki, Stanley L. (1987). Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, p. 3.
  5. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Pierre Duhem
  6. ^ Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie (1888). Étude historique sur la théorie de l'aimantation par influence (Thesis) (in French). OCLC 34976080.
  7. ^ Roger Ariew (2007). "Pierre Duhem". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2009-11-07.
  8. ^ Macquorn Rankine (1855). "Outlines of the Science of Energetics," The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. II, pp. 120–140.
  9. ^ See Hentschel (1988) on these and other parallels between Duhem and Mach, and on their correspondence.
  10. ^ McMullin, Ernan (1990). "Comment: Duhem's Middle Way". Synthese. 83 (3): 421–430. doi:10.1007/BF00413426. S2CID 46980317.
  11. ^ a b Gillies, Donald. Philosophy of Science in the Twentieth Century, 1993.
  12. ^ Lakatos, Imre. (2001). The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Volume 1. Cambridge University Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-521-28031-1
  13. ^ Lowinger, Armand. (1967). The Methodology of Pierre Duhem. AMS Press. p. 25. ISBN 9780404040581
  14. ^ "Pierre Duhem, himself a distinguished physicist, initiated in heroic fashion, almost singlehandedly, the modern study of the history of medieval science by the simple but effective expedient of reading and analyzing as many medieval scientific manuscripts as possible." — Palter, Robert M. (1961). Preface to Toward Modern Science, Vol. I. New York: The Noonday Press, p. ix.
  15. ^ Paul, Harry W. (1972). "Pierre Duhem: Science and the Historian's Craft," Journal of the History of Ideas, 33, pp. 497–512.
  16. ^ Murdoch, John E. (1991). "Pierre Duhem and the History of Late Medieval Science and Philosophy in the Latin West," in R. Imbach & A. Maierù, eds., Gli Studi di Filosofia Medievale fra Otto e Novecento. Rome: Edizioni di Estoria e Letteratura, pp. 253–302.
  17. ^ "By his numerous publications, Duhem made medieval science a respectable research field and placed the late Middle Ages in the mainstream of scientific development. He thus filled the hiatus that had existed between Greek and Arabic science, on the one extreme, and early modern science in the seventeenth-century Europe, on the other. For the first time, the history of science was provided with a genuine sense of continuity." — Grant, Edward (1996). The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, p. xi.
  18. ^ Duhem, Pierre (1914). Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus). Paris, A. Hermann.
  19. ^ Wallace, William A. (1984). Prelude, Galileo and his Sources. The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo's Science. N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  20. ^ Lindberg, David C.; Westman, Robert S., eds. (27 Jul 1990) [Duhem, Pierre (1905). "Preface". Les Origines de la statique 1. Paris: A. Hermman. p. iv.]. "Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Butterfield". Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-521-34804-1.
  21. ^ An ancient view (attributed to Plato by Simplicius of Cilicia) on hypotheses, theories and phaenomena, on what scientists, or more historically accurately (ancient) astronomers, are for, are supposed to do; see Geminus of Rhodes; James Evans; J.L. Berggren (2006). "10. Reality and Representations in Greek Astronomy: Hypotheses and Phenomena". Geminos's Introduction to the Phenomena: A Translation and Study of a Hellenistic Survey of Astronomy. Princeton University Press. pp. 49–51. ISBN 9780691123394. Wherein "The oldest extant text in which the expression "save the phenomena" is only of the first century A.D. namely Plutarch's On the Face in the Orb of the Moon", hence see also (in Greek) Plutarch, De faciae quae in orbe lunae apparet, 923a (or in English) at the Perseus Project
  22. ^ Cf. Duhem, Pierre (1969). To save the phenomena, an essay on the idea of physical theory from Plato to Galileo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 681213472. (excerpt on pg. 132).
  23. ^ Cf. Andreas Osiander's Ad lectorem introduction to Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
  24. ^ Pierre Duhem thinks "Kepler is, unquestionably, the strongest and most illustrious representative of that tradition," i.e., the tradition of realism, that physical theories offer explanations in addition to just "saving the phenomena."
  25. ^ Summa Theologica, I q. 32 a. 1 ad 2
  26. ^ Duhem, Pierre Maurice Marie (1991). The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (9932 ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691025247.
  27. ^ Cady, Walter G. (1946). Piezoelectricity. New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill. p. 245.
  28. ^ Massey 2011, Sec. 1.
  29. ^ a b c Duhem, Pierre (1954). La Théorie Physique: son Objet et sa Structure [The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory]. Philip P. Wiener (Foreword) Jules Vuillemin (Introduction). Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-02524-7.
  30. ^ Lakatos, Imre; Paul Feyerabend; Matteo Motterlini (1999). For and Against Method: Including Lakatos's Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence. University of Chicago Press. pp. 45–49. ISBN 978-0-226-46774-0.
  31. ^ Lakatos, Imre; John Worrall; Gregory Currie (1980). "5: Newton's Effect on Scientific Standards". The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-28031-0.
  32. ^ Lakatos, Imre; John Worrall; Gregory Currie (1978). "5: The Method of Analysis-Synthesis". Mathematics, Science, and Epistemology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-21769-9.
  33. ^ Page 2018, p. 5.
  34. ^ Kragh 2008.
  35. ^ Duhem 1991b: "Whatever I have said of the method by which physics proceeds, or of the nature and scope that we must attribute to the theories it constructs, does not in any way prejudice either the metaphysical doctrines or the religious beliefs of anyone who accepts my words. The believer and the nonbeliever may both work in common accord for the progress of physical science such as I have tried to define it. [...] In itself and by its essence, any principle of theoretical physics has no part to play in metaphysical or theological discussions."


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]