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Understanding Scientific Understanding$
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Henk W. de Regt

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190652913

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190652913.001.0001

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Intelligibility and Metaphysics

Intelligibility and Metaphysics

Understanding Gravitation

(p.144) 5 Intelligibility and Metaphysics
Understanding Scientific Understanding

Henk W. de Regt

Oxford University Press

This chapter investigates the relation between metaphysical worldviews and scientific understanding, by means of a historical case study of theories of gravitation. It analyzes the famous debate between Isaac Newton and his contemporaries (notably Christiaan Huygens) about the alleged unintelligibility of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and the subsequent development of physicists’ views on contact action versus action at a distance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Metaphysics played an important part in these debates, and physicists’ metaphysical commitments and their views on the intelligibility of theories were intricately related. The chapter first presents a descriptive account of the historical case, and subsequently analyzes it in terms of the contextual theory of scientific understanding. This theory connects understanding and metaphysics in a way that explains the variation in intelligibility standards. The chapter concludes with some general reflections on the relation between metaphysical worldviews and scientific understanding.

Keywords:   metaphysics, gravitation, Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, intelligibility, action at a distance, contact action

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