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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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Models and Mechanisms

Models and Mechanisms

Physical Understanding in the Nineteenth Century

(p.184) 6 Models and Mechanisms
Understanding Scientific Understanding

Henk W. de Regt

Oxford University Press

This chapter analyzes the role of mechanical modeling in nineteenth-century physics, showing how precisely mechanical models were used to enhance scientific understanding. It discusses the work and ideas of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), James Clerk Maxwell, and Ludwig Boltzmann, who advanced explicit views on the function and status of mechanical models, in particular, on their role in providing understanding. A case study of the construction of molecular models to explain the so-called specific heat anomaly highlights the role of conceptual tools in achieving understanding and shows that intelligibility is an epistemically relevant feature of mechanical models. Next, the chapter examines Boltzmann’s Bildtheorie, an interpretation of mechanical models that he developed in response to problems and criticisms of the program of mechanical explanation, and his associated pragmatic conception of understanding. The final section discusses the limitations of mechanical models and Ernst Mach’s criticism of the mechanical program.

Keywords:   mechanical models, mechanical explanation, kinetic theory, specific heat anomaly, molecular models, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann, Ernst Mach

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