Who's afraid of coordinate systems? An essay on representation of spacetime structure

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Wallace, David
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Coordinate-based approaches to physical theories remain standard in mainstream physics but are largely eschewed in foundational discussion in favour of coordinate-free differential-geometric approaches. I defend the conceptual and mathematical legitimacy of the coordinate-based approach for foundational work. In doing so, I provide an account of the Kleinian conception of geometry as a theory of invariance under symmetry groups; I argue that this conception continues to play a very substantial role in contemporary mathematical physics and indeed that supposedly ``coordinate-free'' differential geometry relies centrally on this conception of geometry. I discuss some foundational and pedagogical advantages of the coordinate-based formulation and briefly connect it to some remarks of Norton on the historical development of geometry in physics during the establishment of the general theory of relativity.