Physics and Philosophy Meet: the Strange Case of Poincaré

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Stein, Howard
preprint description
Poincaré is a pre-eminent figure: as one of the greatest of mathematicians; as a contributor of prime importance to the development of physical theory at a time when physics was undergoing a profound transformation; and as a philosopher. However, I think that Poincaré, with all this virtue, made a serious philosophical mistake. In Poincaré’s own work, this error seems to me to have kept him from several fundamental discoveries in physics. The hypothesis that Poincaré would have made these discoveries if he had not been misled by a philosophical error is not one that lends itself to conclusive assessment; but what I wish to do is to lay out the main circumstances of the case so as to make clear, at least, that the issue of philosophic principle involved, and the questions of fundamental physics under discussion, are of considerable mutual relevance.