Pierre Duhem

Pierre Duhem
Born Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem
(1861-06-09)9 June 1861
Paris, France
Died 14 September 1916(1916-09-14) (aged 55)
Cabrespine, France
Alma mater École Normale Supérieure (diploma, 1882)
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Continental philosophy
French historical epistemology[1]
Main interests
Physics, philosophy of science, history of science, epistemology
Notable ideas
Gibbs–Duhem equation, Duhem–Quine thesis, Confirmation holism

Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem (French: [pjɛʁ moʁis maʁi dy.ɛm]; 9 June[3] 1861 – 14 September 1916) was a French physicist, mathematician, historian and philosopher of science. He is best known for his work on chemical thermodynamics, for his philosophical writings on the indeterminacy of experimental criteria, and for his historical research into the science of the European Middle Ages. As a scientist, Duhem also contributed to hydrodynamics and to the theory of elasticity.


Duhem's views on the philosophy of science are explicated in his 1906 work The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory.[4] In this work, he opposed Newton's statement that the Principia's law of universal mutual gravitation was deduced from 'phenomena', including Kepler's second and third laws. Newton's claims in this regard had already been attacked by critical proof-analyses of the German logician Leibniz and then most famously by Immanuel Kant, following Hume's logical critique of induction. But the novelty of Duhem's work was his proposal that Newton's theory of universal mutual gravity flatly contradicted Kepler's Laws of planetary motion because the interplanetary mutual gravitational perturbations caused deviations from Keplerian orbits. Since no proposition can be validly logically deduced from any it contradicts, according to Duhem, Newton must not have logically deduced his law of gravitation directly from Kepler's Laws.[4][5][6][7]

Duhem's name is given to the under-determination or Duhem–Quine thesis, which holds that for any given set of observations there is an innumerably large number of explanations. It is, in essence, the same as Hume's critique of induction: all three variants point at the fact that empirical evidence cannot force the choice of a theory or its revision. Possible alternatives to induction are Duhem's instrumentalism and Popper's thesis that we learn from falsification.

As popular as the Duhem–Quine thesis may be in the philosophy of science, in reality Pierre Duhem and Willard Van Orman Quine stated very different theses. Pierre Duhem believed that experimental theory in physics is fundamentally different from fields like physiology and certain branches of chemistry. Also Duhem's conception of theoretical group has its limits, since not all concepts are connected to each other logically. He did not include at all a priori disciplines such as logic and mathematics within these theoretical groups in physics which can be tested experimentally. Quine, on the other hand, conceived this theoretical group as a unit of a whole human knowledge. To Quine, even mathematics and logic must be revised in light of recalcitrant experience, a thesis that Duhem never held.

A quote of Duhem on physics:

A theory of physics is not an explanation. It is a system of mathematical propositions, deduced from a small number of principles, which have for their aim to represent as simply, as completely and as exactly as possible, a group of experimental laws.[8]

Opposition to the English inductivist tradition

Duhem argues that physics is subject to certain methodological limitations that do not affect other sciences. In his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory[4] (1914), Duhem provided a devastating critique of Baconian crucial experiments. According to this critique, an experiment in physics is not simply an observation, but rather an interpretation of observations by means of a theoretical framework. Furthermore, no matter how well one constructs one's experiment, it is impossible to subject an isolated single hypothesis to an experimental test. Instead, it is a whole interlocking group of hypotheses, background assumptions, and theories that is tested. This thesis has come to be known as confirmation holism. This inevitable holism, according to Duhem, renders crucial experiments impossible. More generally, Duhem was critical of Newton's description of the method of physics as a straightforward "deduction" from facts and observations.

In the appendix to The Aim and Structure, entitled "Physics of a Believer," Duhem draws out the implications that he sees his philosophy of science as having for those who argue that there is a conflict between physics and religion. He writes, "metaphysical and religious doctrines are judgments touching on objective reality, whereas the principles of physical theory are propositions relative to certain mathematical signs stripped of all objective existence. Since they do not have any common term, these two sorts of judgments can neither contradict nor agree with each other" (p. 285). Nonetheless, Duhem argues that it is important for the theologian or "metaphysician" to have detailed knowledge of physical theory in order not to make illegitimate use of it in speculations.

History of science

Nicole Oresme, a prominent medieval scholar. Duhem came to regard the medieval scholastic tradition as the origin of modern science.

Duhem is well known for his work on the history of science,[9][10][11][12] which resulted in the ten volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus).[13] Unlike many former historians (e.g. Voltaire and Condorcet), who denigrated the Middle Ages, he endeavored to show that the Roman Catholic Church had helped foster Western science in one of its most fruitful periods. His work in this field was originally prompted by his research into the origins of statics, where he encountered the works of medieval mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon, whose sophistication surprised him. He consequently came to regard them as the founders of modern science, having in his view anticipated many of the discoveries of Galileo Galilei and later thinkers.[14] Duhem concluded that "the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud to proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools."[15]

Duhem popularized the concept of "saving the phenomena." In addition to the Copernican Revolution debate of "saving the phenomena" (Greek σῴζειν τὰ φαινόμενα, sozein ta phainomena[16])[17][18] versus offering explanations[19] that inspired Duhem was Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, regarding eccentrics and epicycles, that

Reason may be employed in two ways to establish a point: firstly, for the purpose of furnishing sufficient proof of some principle. [...] Reason is employed in another way, not as furnishing a sufficient proof of a principle, but as confirming an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results, as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established, because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them. [...][20]


Duhem is also known for his work in thermodynamics, being in part responsible for the development of what is known as the Gibbs–Duhem relation and the Duhem–Margules equation. Duhem thought that from the first principles of thermodynamics physicists should be able to derive all the other fields of physics—e.g., chemistry, mechanics, and electromagnetism.[21] Duhem, influenced by Macquorn Rankine's "Outlines of the Science of Energetics"[22] carried out this project in Traité de l'Énergétique (1911) but was unable to subject electromagnetism to thermodynamic first principles. With the physicist, philosopher and historian of science Ernst Mach, Duhem also shared a scepticism with regard to the existence of atoms.[23]



Duhem's mathematics papers from NUMDAM

Works in English translation


Articles contributed to the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia

The above bibliography is not exhaustive. See his complete primary sources and secondary sources at the Duhem entry of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


  1. Donald Broady, "The epistemological tradition in French sociology", 1996.
  2. John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach: His Work, Life, and Influence, 1972, p. 196.
  3. Jaki, Stanley L. (1987). Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, p. 3.
  4. 1 2 3 Duhem, Pierre; Philip P. Wiener (1954). La Théorie Physique: son Objet et sa Structure [The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory]. Jules Vuillemin. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-02524-7.
  5. Lakatos, Imre; Paul Feyerabend; Matteo Motterlini (1999). For and Against Method: Including Lakatos's Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence. University of Chicago Press. pp. 45–49. ISBN 978-0-226-46774-0.
  6. Lakatos, Imre; John Worrall; Gregory Currie (1980). "5: Newton's Effect on Scientific Standards". The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-28031-0.
  7. Lakatos, Imre; John Worrall; Gregory Currie (1978). "5: The Method of Analysis-Synthesis". Mathematics, Science, and Epistemology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-21769-9.
  8. Cady, Walter G. (1946). Piezoelectricity. New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill. p. 245.
  9. "Pierre Duhem, himself a distinguished physicist, initiated in heroic fashion, almost singlehandedly, the modern study of the history of medieval science by the simple but effective expedient of reading and analyzing as many medieval scientific manuscripts as possible." — Palter, Robert M. (1961). Preface to Toward Modern Science, Vol. I. New York: The Noonday Press, p. ix.
  10. Paul, Harry W. (1972). "Pierre Duhem: Science and the Historian's Craft," Journal of the History of Ideas, 33, pp. 497–512.
  11. Murdoch, John E. (1991). "Pierre Duhem and the History of Late Medieval Science and Philosophy in the Latin West," in R. Imbach & A. Maierù, eds., Gli Studi di Filosofia Medievale fra Otto e Novecento. Rome: Edizioni di Estoria e Letteratura, pp. 253–302.
  12. "By his numerous publications, Duhem made medieval science a respectable research field and placed the late Middle Ages in the mainstream of scientific development. He thus filled the hiatus that had existed between Greek and Arabic science, on the one extreme, and early modern science in the seventeenth-century Europe, on the other. For the first time, the history of science was provided with a genuine sense of continuity." — Grant, Edward (1996). The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, p. xi.
  13. Duhem, Pierre (1914). Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus).
  14. Wallace, William A. (1984). Prelude, Galileo and his Sources. The Heritage of the Collegio Romano in Galileo's Science. N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  15. Lindberg, David C.; Westman, Robert S., eds. (27 Jul 1990) [Duhem, Pierre (1905). "Preface". Les Origines de la statique 1. Paris: A. Hermman. p. iv.]. "Conceptions of the Scientific Revolution from Bacon to Butterfield". Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 0-521-34804-8.
  16. An ancient view (attributed to Plato by Simplicius of Cilicia) on hypotheses, theories and phaenomena, on what scientists, or more historically accurately (ancient) astronomers, are for, are supposed to do; see Geminus of Rhodes; James Evans; J.L. Berggren (2006). "10. Reality and Representations in Greek Astronomy: Hypotheses and Phenomena". Geminos's Introduction to the Phenomena: A Translation and Study of a Hellenistic Survey of Astronomy. Princeton University Press. pp. 49–51. Wherein "The oldest extant text in which the expression "save the phenomena" is only of the first century A.D. namely Plutarch's On the Face in the Orb of the Moon", hence see also (in Greek) Plutarch, De faciae quae in orbe lunae apparet, 923a (or in English) at the Perseus Project
  17. Cf. Duhem, Pierre (1969). To save the phenomena, an essay on the idea of physical theory from Plato to Galileo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. OCLC 681213472. (excerpt on pg. 132).
  18. Cf. Andreas Osiander's Ad lectorem introduction to Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
  19. Pierre Duhem thinks "Kepler is, unquestionably, the strongest and most illustrious representative of that tradition," i.e., the tradition of realism, that physical theories offer explanations in addition to just "saving the phenomena."
  20. Summa Theologica, I q. 32 a. 1 ad 2
  21. Roger Ariew (2007). "Pierre Duhem". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2009-11-07.
  22. Macquorn Rankine (1855). "Outlines of the Science of Energetics," The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Vol. II, pp. 120–140.
  23. See Hentschel (1988) on these and other parallels between Duhem and Mach, and on their correspondence.


  • Dijksterhuis, E.J. (1959). "The Origins of Classical Mechanics from Aristotle to Newton", in M. Clagett (ed). Critical Problems in the History of Science, pp. 163–184. University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hentschel, Klaus (1988). "Die Korrespondenz Duhem-Mach: Zur 'Modellbeladenheit' von Wissenschaftsgeschichte", Annals of Science, 73–91.
  • Lowinger, Armand (1941). The Methodology of Pierre Duhem. Columbia University Press. 
  • Martin, R. N. D. (1991). Pierre Duhem: Philosophy and History in the Work of a Believing Physicist. ISBN 978-0-8126-9160-3. 
  • Miller, Donald G. (1970). "Pierre Duhem". In Gillispie, Charles. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 3. New York: Scribner & American Council of Learned Societies. pp. 225–233. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9. 
  • Moody, Ernest A. (1951). "Galileo and Avempace: The Dynamics of the Leaning Tower Experiment". Journal of the History of Ideas. 12: 375–422. doi:10.2307/2707752. 
  • Moody, Ernest A. (1966). "Galileo and his Precursors", in C.L. Gollino, ed., Galileo Reappraised. Berkeley: University of California Press, 23–43.
  • Martin, R. N. D. (1991). Pierre Duhem: Philosophy and History in the Work of a Believing Physicist. ISBN 978-0-8126-9160-3. 
  • Needham, Paul (2008). "Pierre Duhem". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 
  • Picard, Émile (1922). "La Vie et l'Oeuvre de Pierre Duhem," in Discours et Mélanges. Paris: Gauthier-Villars.
  • Stoffel, Jean-François; Stanley L. Jaki (1996). Pierre Duhem et ses Doctorands: Bibliographie de la Littérature Primaire et Secondaire. Centre Interfacultaire d'Étude en Histoire des Sciences. p. 325. ISBN 978-2-930175-00-3. 
  • Stoffel, Jean-François; Jean Ladrière (2002). Le Phénoménalisme Problématique de Pierre Duhem. Brussels: Classe des Lettres, Académie Royale de Belgique. p. 391. ISBN 978-2-8031-0190-0. 

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