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Du Châtelet on the Need for Mathematics in Physics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


There is a tension in Emilie Du Châtelet’s thought on mathematics. The objects of mathematics are ideal or fictional entities; nevertheless, mathematics is presented as indispensable for an account of the physical world. After outlining Du Châtelet’s position, and showing how she departs from Christian Wolff’s pessimism about Newtonian mathematical physics, I show that the tension in her position is only apparent. Du Châtelet has a worked-out defense of the explanatory and epistemic need for mathematical objects, consistent with their metaphysical nonfundamentality. I conclude by sketching how Du Châtelet’s conception of mathematical indispensability differs interestingly from many contemporary approaches.

Physical and Mathematical Sciences
Philosophy of Science , Volume 88 , Issue 5 , December 2021 , pp. 1137 - 1148
Copyright 2021 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.

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I am grateful to Katherine Brading, Corey Dyck, Ashton Green, Qiu Lin, Andrea Reichenberger, Marius Stan, Paul Tran-Hoang, and audience members at the 2020 Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association for helpful discussions. I would like to especially thank Monica Solomon for outstanding written comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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