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Edward MacKinnon*


The LANGUAGE of Classical Physics

ABSTRACT. the objectivity of physics has been called into question by social theorists, Kuhnian relativists, and by anomalous aspects of quantum mechanics.  Here we focus on one neglected background issue, the categorical structure of the language of classical physics. The first half is an historical overview of the formation of the language of classical physics (LCP), beginning with Aristotle's Categories and the novel idea of the quantity of a quality introduced by medieval Aristotelians. Descartes and Newton attempted to put the new mechanics on an ontological foundation of atomism.  Euler was the pivotal figure in basing mechanics on a macroscopic concept of matter. The second scientific revolution, led by Laplace, took mechanics as foundational and attempted to fit the Baconian sciences into a framework of atomistic mechanism. This protracted effort had the unintended effect of supplying an informal unification of physics in a mixture of ordinary language and mechanistic terms. The second half treats LCP as a linguistic parasite that can attach itself to any language and effect mutations in the host without changing its essential form. This puts LCP in the context of a language of discourse and suggests that philosophers should  concentrate more on the dialog between experimenters and theoreticians and less on analyses of theories. This orientation supplies a basis for treating objectivity.

* emackinnon@aol.com


Science in general and physics in particular has traditionally been the paradigm case of objectivity, rationality, and progress. In the recent ‘science wars’ this evaluation has been severely challenged by revolutionary philosophers of science, the social construction of scientific knowledge, and the role accorded physics in post-modern deconstructionism. It is misleading to label either of these conflicting views by a common name, suggesting shared positions. However, for introductory purposes I will adapt Pickering’s terminology and speak of two idioms: representation and performative.1 By a gross oversimplification we may indicate the extreme forms of the representational and performative idioms in appraising some characteristics of science: objectivity: conformity

1 The distinction is from Pickering, 1995, chap. 6. The 'science wars' have produced notoriously inflated claims by both social constructionists and their critics. For balanced presentation of both positions see Barnes et al (1996) and Hacking (1999). Pera, 1994, aptly illustrates the switch from methodology to rhetoric as a constitutive feature of scientific discourse.

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