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Thought experiments

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q106-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

Thought experiments are strange: they have the power to present surprising results and can profoundly change the way we view the world, all without requiring us to examine the world in the way that ordinary scientific experiments do. Philosophers who view all hypothetical reasoning as a form of thought experimentation regard the method as being as old as philosophy itself. Others maintain that truly informative thought experiments are found only in mathematics and the natural sciences. These emerged in the seventeenth century when the new experimental science of Bacon, Boyle, Galileo, Newton and others forced a distinction between the passive observation of Aristotelian mental narratives and the active interventions of real-world experiment. The new science gave rise to a philosophical puzzle: how can mere thought be so informative about the world? Rationalists argue that thought experiments are exercises in which thought apprehends laws of nature and mathematical truths directly. Empiricists argue that thought experiments are not exercises of ‘mere thought’ because they actually rely upon hidden empirical information – otherwise they would not count as experiments at all. More recently it has been argued that thought experiments are not mysterious because they are constructed arguments that are embedded in the world so as to combine logical and conceptual analysis with relevant features of the world.

Citing this article:
Gooding, David C.. Thought experiments, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q106-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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