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General relativity, philosophical responses to

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q060-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 10, 2020, from

Article Summary

Much of the early philosophical attention given Einstein’s theory of gravitation was not uncontaminated by a grim post-war atmosphere conducive to public diversions, hysteria and national chauvinism. Most was ill-informed regarding the mathematical and physical content of the theory. Even amongst the scientifically literate, there was disagreement as to the theory’s philosophical implications. In part, this lack of clarity is due to Einstein. In an endeavour to eliminate references to ‘absolute space’ as the earlier special (or, as it was then known, restricted) theory of relativity (STR) had eliminated reference to ‘absolute time’, Einstein had motivated his theory of gravitation as arising from an epistemologically mandated generalization of the relativity principle of STR, which governed only inertial motions, and he misleadingly baptized it a theory of ‘general relativity’, wherein all motions are regarded as relative to other bodies. This the theory does not show. Also, some incautiously expressed remarks on the formal requirement of general covariance were seized upon as evidence for antithetical epistemological and ontological attitudes. Amidst such confusions, it is not at all surprising that inherently antagonistic philosophical outlooks claimed vindication or confirmation by the general theory of relativity (GTR). In turn, the perceived failure of both Machian positivism and Neo-Kantianism to accommodate the revolutionary theory spurred the development of a new ‘scientific philosophy’, logical positivism. The subsequent course of philosophy of science in the twentieth century was indelibly marked by this development. Yet it would turn out that Einstein himself refused to be a cooperative exemplar for any of the major philosophical schools, positivism, Kantianism, or, to its embarrassment, logical positivism.

Citing this article:
Ryckman, T.A.. General relativity, philosophical responses to, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q060-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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